What can I say? A year has passed, and I’m nostalgic for school. This was my final grad school paper, the first one a professor said I should revise and submit for publication. Validate me, oh tiny audience! Oh, and another one of my papers actually did get published. You can read it here.
The Horrible, the Miserable, and the Difficult: Julie Klausner’s Difficult People and Contemporary Jewish Humor
I know—a Jew in comedy. How will I ever defy the odds and make it?
—Billy Epstein (“Devil’s Three-Way” 00:04:04-7)
Julie and Billy, two angry native New Yorkers, rush through crowded streets of Manhattan on their way to see a matinee of Annie on Broadway, spitting barbs at clueless tourists along the way. When they arrive, they are horrified to discover that the role of Annie will be played by an understudy. As Julie tells the young girl sitting in front of her, “An understudy is like a fancy word for ‘disappointment’” (“Library Water” 00:03:09). Just prior to this, Difficult People’s lead character, Julie Kessler, makes a crack about beloved president, FDR, also a character in the musical, letting millions of Jews die in the Holocaust (00:00:58). The shocking darkness of this statement, spoken in the doorway of a theatre, sets the tone for the entire series—every moment is suffocated with bitterness, mockery, and cultural references and somehow, it’s hilarious.
Few opening sequences more succinctly encapsulate the essence of a television show like the “Library Water” pilot episode of Difficult People; from the very first moments, the series positions itself as witty, critical, a little cruel, pop-culture obsessed, and very Jewish. Difficult People, created by comedian and writer, Julie Klausner, enjoyed a brief run of twenty-eight episodes on the streaming platform, Hulu, from 2015 to 2017. For stars Klausner and Billy Eichner, the series was the culmination of over a decade of striving for success in show business, something that the series’ main characters, Julie Kessler and Billy Epstein, do to diminishing returns. Their efforts to become famous, doomed at every turn, mirror a century of their Jewish predecessors’ striving to achieve stardom and assimilate themselves into mainstream culture through performance—from Jakie Rabinowitz becoming Jack Robin to Robert Zimmerman adopting the stage name Bob Dylan, Jews have used the entertainment industry as a conduit for their talent and stories to shine. And shine they have—particularly in the comedy and broadcast television arenas. But that rise to stardom has often come with a price tag—forsaking meaningful media representations of Jewish culture in order to appeal more broadly to mass audiences.
In the current political landscape, one eerily similar to the one depicted in anti-Semitic, turn-of-the-century satirical cartoons, one of the most resounding conservative, Fox News-esque dog whistles is that Jews control the media (would that it were so). Setting aside the founding of Hollywood and the creation of all the cool superheroes, the idea that Jews possess total control of popular culture and are subliminally encouraging goyim to, one supposes, forsake their beloved Savior, is patently absurd, at least to any person whose ability to think critically outweighs his bigotry. Jewish humor texts handle this pre-/mis-conception playfully, at once acknowledging the disproportionate presence of Jews in media—as Wisse writes, “Estimates of the proportion of Jewish professionals in U.S. comedy sometimes [run] as high as 80 percent” (No Joke 12)—and the lingering presence of anti-Semitism in the industry and beyond. The epigraph to this essay is a line spoken by character Billy at an audition for a movie role, and it’s one of the many ways that Difficult People and other Jewish-created series grapple with the imbalance in the industry and the troubling inability of many television shows to “get it right” when depicting Jews and the Jewish experience.
David Zurawik’s book, The Jews of Prime Time, provides an overview and exploration of prime time Jewish television series beginning in 1949 and extending to the early 2000s. The central question of the text is whether television portrayals of Jews can ever accurately reflect the Jewish experience. Zurawik interrogates the preponderance of Jewish producers and writers deeming certain piece of Jewish media “too Jewish” for television, a phenomenon he refers to as “surplus visibility,” or the disdain of minority groups to be exposed via media representation (6). Difficult People responds to this problematic trend in television by exalting all things Jewish (even as it mocks them). Nothing is “too Jewish” for Difficult People, unless Julie and Billy themselves deem it so (Rucchel’s frequent visits to Israel or wearing yarmulkes outside of shul, for instance). Julie and Billy are proudly Jewish, if keenly aware of Judaism’s flaws. Difficult People can exist because visibly, unabashedly Jewish predecessors like Barbra Streisand and Lenny Bruce had long before challenged the whitewashing in show business.
Sarah Blacher Cohen attributes the revival of Jewish ethnic pride in the entertainment industry in the 1950s and ‘60s with the foundation of the state of Israel and “a profound grief for the loss of their fellow Jews in the Holocaust” (8). Difficult People as discussed, certainly takes up this mantle. At one point in the series, Julie exclaims, “Nobody’s more Jewish than I am, Arthur! I mean, culturally” (“Unplugged” 00:05:32-5). The quotation, meant to be about her entrée into the Jewish media elite, could also stand as a second tagline to the series (the tagline of Difficult People is “All the Rage,” a double-entendre about the show’s cultural savviness, relevance, and the main characters’ anger at and disenchantment with the state of things). Central to Difficult People is the idea that Julie and Billy are not just difficult—they are different from everyone else. Their biting wit and cultural heritage set them apart from the world outside of show business, a world they see, rightfully so, as one where Jews can excel and be recognized for their trademark dark humor. For Julie and Billy, humor heals, even as they experience the consequences of their often cruel, targeted jokes (they get kicked off of the set of Watch What Happens Live for their tweets mocking host Andy Cohen and guest Chelsea Handler, two fellow Jews in media, in the episode “Pledge Week”).
Comedian Lenny Bruce, one of the most famous figures in discussions of Jewish stand-up comedy, had a particular obsession with differentiating between Jews and gentiles—his famous “Jewish or goyish?” monologue would be recreated in the 2017 Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The in-joke is that everything hip and “with it” is Jewish, even if it truly isn’t (jazz musicians Count Basie and Ray Charles, for instance). To be designated “Jewish” is to be of intellectual and cultural merit; to be deemed “goyish” is a slight (he refers to trailer parks as “so goyish Jews won’t go near them” [Hoberman 222]). The superiority of Jewish intellect has its roots in media as far back as the days of radio serials and remains a hallmark of contemporary Jewish comedy. Woody Allen would play this concept for a laugh in Annie Hall (Annie, a Wisconsin-born WASP who fails to match Coney Island’s own Alvy Singer intellectually, actually progresses in analysis, where Alvy’s neuroses keep him paying a psychiatrist for fifteen years); Difficult People paints Jewish intellect as an invaluable virtue. For instance, when Billy finally lands an agent, one who isn’t Jewish, his friends and show business contacts see this as a massive indictment (“The Courage of a Soldier”).
Billy and Julie’s preoccupation with success in show business, and that preoccupation’s connection to their cultural Judaism, gives Difficult People its life. In season one’s Yom Kippur episode of Difficult People, “The Courage of a Soldier,” Billy interrupts a tense family meal by shouting,
I just don’t understand when everything got so…Jewish! It’s fine, it’s just not who we were as kids. I mean, we didn’t even fast when we were kids. (00:10:00-07)
When his brother Garry reminds him that Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, Billy replies:
You know what the holiest day of the year is for me? The Golden Globes. I don’t care about the blessings. I care about the SAG Awards, and no one cares about those. Show business, Garry. That’s what I care about. (00:10:13-29)
His niece Tal, deadpan, replies, “That’s the most Jewish thing I’ve ever heard” (00:10:30). This outburst, and Tal’s earnest comment, exposes what, for Billy at least, is an unbreakable link between cultural Judaism and the entertainment industry.
Having situated Difficult People in a long lineage of Jewish contributions to show business and humor, this exploration merits a discussion of what exactly Jewish comedy is and how it appears in contemporary entertainment. Jeremy Dauber’s book, Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, takes on the task of defining Jewish humor, something critics have long struggled to exactly capture. His two primary criteria are that “Jewish humor has to be produced by Jews” (xii, emphasis in original) and that it “must have something to do with either contemporary Jewish living or historical Jewish existence” (xiii, emphasis in original). Difficult People certainly meets these two conditions, but it also contends with almost all of the “seven major conceptual rubrics” (xiv) that Dauber provides as a means of evaluating Jewish humor, from the Talmud and the Torah to Rickles and Reiner. For the purposes of this discussion, four of Dauber’s rubrics will be particularly relevant, namely that “Jewish comedy is a response to persecution and anti-Semitism,” it is “a satirical gaze at Jewish social and communal norms,” it is “bookish, witty, intellectual allusive play,” and it is “vulgar, raunchy, and body-obsessed” (xiv, emphasis in original). These threads, as well as representations of Jewish stereotypes (the schlemiel, schlimazel, and the overbearing mother) and the Jewish penchant for self-deprecating humor and liberal politics run throughout Difficult People like connective tissue. Difficult People not only gleefully participates in these tropes—its inclusivity of those that are other, even amid vitriolic streams of insults, makes a larger point. Sure, Jewish comedy must indeed be witty, dark, controversial, vulgar, and a whole slew of other adjectives that have long been used to describe it. But it must also serve the higher purpose of lovingly (or, tough-lovingly) elevating both Jewish culture and that of other marginalized communities.
“Medium-talent, Jewish bitch!” Freudian self-deprecation and switcheroo anti-Semitism
In season two opener, “Unplugged” (which guest stars the iconic Sandra Bernhard and culminates in Julie being blackballed from working in television by the Jewish media elite), Arthur walks in on Julie fixing her hair in the mirror. “Medium-talent, Jewish bitch!” she yells at her reflection. Arthur Tack, her WASP boyfriend, replies, “Stop yelling at yourself in the mirror, it confuses the dogs” (00:04:21-25). Julie clarifies that she was not talking to herself (rather, she is jealous of the success of a peer) but Arthur’s confusion makes sense; throughout the series, Julie (and her mother, Marilyn—more on that later) takes cheap shots at herself—her body (“Ever since I gained my Freshman 1,500” [“Passover Bump” 00:00:47-9]), her floundering career (“I’m tired of watching everyone around me ascend to stardom as I atrophy and wither” [“Unplugged” 00:04:44]), and her codependent relationship with her mother (she joins AA to learn coping skills for her “addiction” to her mother in “Code Change”). For Julie, there is no greater target than Julie, which widens the already vast chasm between her self-loathing and her over-inflated self-confidence in her performance ability. Self-deprecating humor, often ironic, as it springs from the mouths of successful performers, is part and parcel of Jewish humor at large. As Sarah Blacher Cohen recalls, Freud claims, “self-mockery was the most distinguishing feature of Jewish humor” (4). Several instances of self-loathing in the series are so extreme as to appear anti-Semitic—another issue with which Difficult People must contend.
Apart from the Nazi paraphernalia uncovered at the end of “Unplugged,” the season two episode “Italian Piñata” has the most explicit moments of anti-Semitism and Jewish self-loathing. Julie and Billy venture to New Jersey to escape the throngs of newly out young people on Coming Out Day, celebrated annually on the anniversary of the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. While at the bar, they are mistaken by fellow patrons for Italians, an ethnic group commonly associated with the area. Billy goes along with it to get a date with a hot guy; Julie goes along with it because the Italian girls appreciate her vulgar sense of humor and connect with her in a way other women never had. When her New Jersey Italian friends ask the newly-dubbed “Giuliana” to exercise her trademark wit and tell them a funny story, she responds, “Uh, I could tell you a funny story about my food and weight issues” (00:15:15). When they stare back at her with disgusted bewilderment (the implication being that Italians have far healthier relationships to food), she replies, “I mean, um, where’s my fuckin’ head? My Jewish neighbor’s food and weight issues” (00:15:21-24). The women all begin to laugh hysterically at her (masked) insecurities, one shouting out, “Those fuckin’ Jews!” (00:15:30). Julie pauses briefly to consider the anti-Semitic outburst, but continues with her story. The women eat it up—one demands, “Tell us more stories about your dumb Jewish neighbor!” (00:15:48). Although this moment, on its face, is deeply offensive (and unfortunately, from the experience of this writer, eerily authentic), it bears noting that the three actors playing the Italian women are Jewish themselves—the scene is an identity-swapping farce straight out of Shakespeare. Difficult People tackles the borderline anti-Semitic self-deprecation in Jewish comedy head-on, calling attention to the absurdity of the trope by putting the insults and epithets in the mouths of Jews-playing-Italians. Without context, the statements are shocking, but given the context of the actors’ Jewish heritage, the scene winks at the audience as if to say, “We can get away with saying this, but you can’t.”
High shul dropouts: secular Judaism, difficult Israel, troublemaking dybbuks
Difficult People indeed “gets away with” a lot of racy and inappropriate material. Though Difficult People aligns itself as a Jewish text in its opening sequence, it is not long before the main characters complicate the show’s identity. Shortly into the first episode, “Library Water,” Billy and Julie have the following exchange:
BILLY. What’s more of a turn-off—veganism or Judaica?
JULIE. Oh, I don’t know. Judaica.
BILLY. Yes! Yes. If I was going out with a guy and there was a big clay mezuzah hanging outside his place, I’d be like, “Is a circumcised experience worth it?”
JULIE. Is that anti-Semitic of us or is that not possible because we’re Jewish?
BILLY. Oh, it’s possible. (00:07:36-56)
The series, which so loudly and proudly proclaims itself as Jewish, has the liberty of making critical (or, as they put it in the above scene, “anti-Semitic”) jabs at the aspects of Judaism and Jewish culture that they find problematic or inconsistent with 21st century values. Though neither Billy nor Julie identifies as atheist (the season 1 episode “Premium Membership” makes this very clear), neither attends synagogue or observes Jewish holidays out of anything other than a sense of obligation and guilt. Only a few scenes in the series take place inside a synagogue, one of which opens with the line, “I swear to God, if I go to synagogue and I don’t make a show business connection, I’m gonna fucking kill myself with a chain saw” (“Unplugged” 00:07:33-37). Billy and Julie credit their dark senses of humor and intellect, which are essential components of who they are, to their Jewish background while poking fun at the religion’s fetish for suffering. The following exchange, which, ironically, takes place inside a Christian church, sums up the show’s overall “take” on religion:
BILLY. Wait, what’s the opposite of endorphins?
JULIE. Judaism. (“Code Change” 00:00:17-20)
Rucchel Epstein, the show’s most observant Jew and Billy’s sister-in-law, is hardly a poster-girl for the religious: When a Christian couple moves into her very Jewish neighborhood, she yells from her porch, “Hey, you Christmas celebrators! Stop creepy crawling and get out of our neighborhood!” (“Code Change” 00:05:51-6) When Billy apologizes to the neighbors and asserts, “Jews, we’re the same as you!” Rucchel fires back, “No. We’ve suffered a lot more” (00:05:59-00:06:03). It’s not only Rucchel that feels compelled to belabor the historical suffering of the Jewish people. During the scene that introduces Marilyn Kessler, Julie’s mother, Marilyn pesters Julie, “Did you get that article I sent you about Palestine? Because I’m about to resend it” (“Library Water” 00:07:25). In season two, Marilyn creates a video will (with the help of Tina Fey), to ensure that none of her money or belongings accidentally get donated to a pro-Palestinian charity (“Unplugged”). Difficult People, a half-hour Hulu comedy, hardly has the resources to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the show acknowledges multiple times that this complex issue affects and is part of daily Jewish-American life. Though the show’s engagement with the touchy subject of Israel is tongue-in-cheek—“[My brother’s] wife went to Israel [for Christmas] because of course she did” (“Difficult Christmas” 00:00:40-1)—the show fulfills its responsibility to, to paraphrase Dauber, reflect contemporary and historical Jewish life (xiii).
Perhaps the most absurdist portrayal of the Jewish difference is the episode “Code Change” in which Billy’s brother Garry, played by Fred Armisen, volunteers for the Israeli army (which summarily rejects him before he makes it past the Tel Aviv airport) and then hides in his own basement for a month to avoid the shame of failure. Rucchel, Garry’s wife, disturbed by the noises she hears coming from the basement, initially suspects her new gentile neighbors of anti-Semitic harassment before determining that there is a dybbuk in her home. Because her husband is “in Israel,” Rucchel enlists Billy to help with her problem insisting that he “back me up while I scream at those goyim until they go back to Marblehead. They could have guns! Or Polo mallets” (00:05:37-44). Rucchel’s suspicion regarding her new neighbors, “the first gentiles ever to live on Feldshuh Lane” (00:05:25) is silly, but the fact that “Code Change” was written and filmed following the election of Donald Trump, a time that saw a dramatic increase in hate crimes against Jews perpetrated by members of the president-elect’s racist, anti-Semitic base of supporters, to some degree justifies Rucchel’s concern. In this way, Difficult People calls attention to the crisis of anti-Semitic hate crimes, a serious and, in the wake of the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, deadly problem facing American Jews without sacrificing the show’s comedic spirit. In order to get Rucchel to stop screaming at the goyim, Billy inspects the basement, discovers Garry, and, in a gesture to protect his brother’s pride, convinces Rucchel that she has a Yiddish demon living downstairs. Billy and Rucchel plan an exorcism for the day Garry is set to return from Israel—unfortunately, the “creepy-crawling” gentiles choose this moment to meet their new neighbors, as Rucchel is shouting in Yiddish in a circle of Jewish men they’d conned into helping with the exorcism by catfishing them on the Jewish dating app “J-Swipe” (00:20:05). Billy repeats his “Jews, we’re the same as you” sentiment, but the scene heavily implies that Jews, in fact, are not the same as gentiles, and that the two groups’ experiences are incomparable. Obviously, the episode mocks Rucchel for her superstitions, but it participates in the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” trope found in the resolutions of many Jewish comedies, like forbear Curb Your Enthusiasm.
“Schlemiel, schlimazel”: Good Garry, Bad Larrys
The defeatist portrayal of Jewish characters on television is hardly a new phenomenon, but has shifted significantly over the last several decades. As Hoberman wittily indicates in Entertaining America, during the 1960s film boom, “roughly between…Barbra Streisand’s appearances in Funny Girl and The Way We Were” (220), representations of Jews on film skyrocketed, and with them, depictions of the schlemiel character, the anti-hero and everyman to whom everyone could relate (223). Hoberman continues, “If the schlemiel was a new American everyman, so the Jewish condition was understood to be universal” (223). The schlemiel archetype has roots far beyond the explosion of Jewish representation in 1960s film; as Ruth Wisse writes about the historical schlemiel character, “the fool may be the only morally sane man” (“The Schlemiel” 4), and that notion certainly comes to bear with Difficult People’s recurring character Garry, Billy’s brother, who exemplifies the archetype. Wisse continues,
Vulnerable, ineffectual in his efforts at self-advancement and self-preservation, [the fool] emerged as the archetypal Jew, especially in his capacity of potential victim. Since Jewry’s attitudes toward its own frailty were complex and contradictory, the schlemiel was sometimes berated for his foolish weakness, and elsewhere exalted for his hard inner strength. (5)
Garry is thoroughly cowed by his domineering wife—when he attempts to stand up to her verbal abuse, at Billy’s suggestion, Rucchel throws him out of the house (“Blade Stallion”). He comes to live with Billy and proves himself to be shockingly inept at the bachelor lifestyle. Other characters play this sexual ineptitude for a joke; talking to Garry’s wife Rucchel, Billy says:
BILLY. Oh, please, Rucchel. My parents hated you. You know that. They were just happy that Garry could lose his virginity.
RUCCHEL. Exactly. I took one for the team. (“Code Change” 00:09:21-8)
Garry’s manhood is a punching bag throughout the series, but never once does the series question his inherent goodness. Garry is a hardworking business owner who provides for his family and can always be relied upon to help family and friends. When Billy finds him in his own basement after his rejection from the Israeli army, he remarks, “You’re living down here? This is like Room if that abuser had kept kosher! (“Code Change” 00:10:58-00:11:01) Garry, if somewhat stupidly, sacrifices his own comfort in order to make his wife and children proud.
GARRY. I’m scheduled to come home soon, so if I could pull it off I have, you know, one of those really great, like, heroes’ welcomes. You ever see those YouTube videos of soldiers coming home and those dogs don’t even consider biting them? I want that with Rucchel. (“Code Change” 00:11:17-25)
His desire for a “heroes’ welcome” home from Israel does, to some degree, stem from his fear of his (admittedly terrifying) wife, but also from a place of love. His moral strength, it seems, comes from his weakness in more practical, quotidian matters.
While Garry exemplifies the schlemiel stereotype, Billy and Julie more squarely fall into the schlimazel category. Billy and Julie’s mishegas is reminiscent of that of Curb Your Enthusiasm’s iconic (fictionalized) Larry David—every effort, well- or ill-intentioned, ends in failure and cringe-worthy awkwardness. As Dauber writes,
The distinction between the schlemiel and the schlimazel has lent itself to all sorts of characterization…There’s not so much to say about the schlimazel, except to note that as the kind of avatar for Jewish misfortune, his troubles are always writ small…The schlimazel’s only option, his only power, is the right to complain. (214)
Despite their constant kvetching, Julie and Billy (like the rich and famous Larry David of Curb) exist in a space of immense privilege. They are both Manhattanites in show business, either, like Julie, unemployed and supported by her mother and boyfriend or, like Billy, underemployed as a waiter and barely able to perform in his menial role. Though they live in relative ease, their every move complicates their lives further. In “The Courage of a Soldier,” Billy and Julie sing the Curb theme song as the episode ends, both an acknowledgment of yet another failed show business endeavor and a nod to the structural similarities between Difficult People and Curb. As Julie laments during “Difficult Christmas,” “Why can’t things be easier for us, you know? Why do we have to be miserable all the time?” (00:01:10-4) This moment recalls the salient and oft repeated quotation from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall:
I feel that life is divided up into the horrible and the miserable. Those are the two categories. You know, the horrible would be like, um, I don’t know, terminal cases…and the miserable is everyone else. So when you go through life, you should be thankful that you’re miserable, because you’re very lucky to be miserable. (00:36:47-00:37:08)
Perhaps if Alvy Singer had met Billy and Julie, he’d feel compelled to add a third category to his taxonomy of humanity: the difficult (Julie and Billy, of course, would hate this—the show mocks Woody Allen constantly). The difficult are the schlimazels, those who are miserable as a result of their own actions, rather than simply the hands of fate. The difficult are the centers of their own universes, around which everyone else must orbit.
A Show About Me: Marilyn, Rucchel, and the difficult issue of Jewish motherhood
In the opening sequence of the season 3 episode, “Code Change,” Julie explains, “The problem is, if my mom calls me when phone is dead, she gets mad she can’t reach me and it activates the guilt sequence” (00:00:07-14). As Martha A. Ravits writes in her article, “The Jewish Mother: Comedy and Controversy in American Popular Culture,” the Jewish mother has long been portrayed in media as “a nagging guardian of ethnic identity and the embodiment of its worst traits” (3). Ravits’s article traces the roots of the overbearing Jewish mother stereotype back to its roots in misogynist male writing during second-wave feminism in the United States, and feminism’s ongoing failure to adequately combat it. As Ravits writes,
Whether the Jewish mother is represented as protecting her children or demanding their loyalty, she is seen as exceeding prescribed boundaries, as being excessive. Her claims to affection, her voicing of opinions, her expressions of maternal worry are perceived as threatening in part because she acts as a free agent, not as a subordinate female according to mainstream cultural ideals. Even when she is represented as self-effacing, cast as the martyr, she is interpreted as being manipulative or passive-aggressive, secretly striving to impose her will on others. (4)
This passage merits quotation at length because it illuminates the central tension present in Jewish maternal representation—its threat to masculinity and social norms. The Jewish mother stereotype allows male writers to deflect their own misogyny and troubled relationships with their Jewish-American identities (Ravits 6), but in doing so, these writers reveal their own fear of women’s power. The Jewish mother is too powerful—therefore she must be ridiculed and contained.
Marilyn Kessler’s presence in Difficult People at once affirms and disrupts the Jewish mother stereotype. Marilyn has all the hallmarks of the stereotype—an obsession with weight (especially Julie’s), suspicion and contempt for Julie’s gentile boyfriend, and the beleaguered martyr complex one expects of an archetype so embedded in contemporary popular culture. But Marilyn is (ironically) a celebrated, successful, independently wealthy therapist. She has the delusional self-importance of a cast member of the Real Housewives franchise (in the episode “Carter,” she does become Countess Luann’s television therapist, but proves too good at her job to remain on the conflict-driven program). Marilyn maintains tyrannical control over her household (the series references but never introduces Mr. Kessler). While she does hold an unhealthy amount of sway over Julie’s emotions, leading Julie to seek treatment to cope with this (“Code Change”), her love for her daughter is obvious, if filtered through Marilyn’s unchecked narcissism. In the season one episode, “Premium Membership,” she stages a musical celebrating her own accomplishments with her patients under the guise that it is “art therapy,” which she titles, “Me! A Show About Me.” Marilyn may, on the surface, be the stereotypical, overbearing Jewish mother, but her constant successes belie such stringent categorization. Whether she is surge-pricing her therapy patients during the holidays (“Difficult Christmas”) or being offered a book deal (“Rabbitversary”), Marilyn’s indefatigable self-confidence, delusional or otherwise, reads feminist.
Rucchel Epstein, though she exists in vastly different circumstances as Marilyn (she lives in a modest home in a Jewish neighborhood in Queens with her schlemiel of a husband, Garry, and their two daughters, Renée and Tal), is most certainly overbearing as Jewish mother archetypes are wont to be, but she takes the persona to a comic extreme. Rucchel says whatever she wants, whenever she wants (her speech is riddled with insults and profanity) and is undoubtedly the leader of her own home. She transforms her home into a deeply observant Jewish one, to an absurd degree (she is, indeed, a “nagging guardian of ethnic identity”). For instance, while Rucchel exorcises a dybbuk from her home (“Code Change”), Marilyn skips fasting during Yom Kippur because it is “uncomfortable” (“The Courage of a Soldier”). While Marilyn gleefully anticipates Christmas or “suicide season,” a boon for her therapy practice (“Difficult Christmas”), Rucchel takes continuing education Yiddish poetry classes (“Blade Stallion”). She is the constant butt of jokes about being “too Jewish” and out of touch with contemporary social norms, something frequently attributed to the Jewish mother stereotype (Ravits 6). Rucchel’s presence in the series both engages with the stereotype at its most negative and proves exactly what Ravits attempts to in her article: Jewish women are powerful.
LGBT Jew: Difficult Representation
If women’s issues are at the forefront of the consciousness of the Difficult People writing staff, so are issues of LGBTQ rights and identity. The season two episode of Difficult People, “Italian Piñata,” begins:
JULIE. Ah, Stonewall. Judy Garland died. The cops raided the place. Gays, trans people, and drag queens were in no mood to be fucked with and began to riot.
BILLY. And thanks to their sacrifice I am now free to be out, proud, and know at any given moment where the power bottoms are within a five-mile radius. (00:00:00-17)
Though this exchange happens well into a series that proclaims itself as LGBTQ-friendly (if not unfriendly to straight, white cis-people), it perfectly captures Difficult People’s overall attitude toward LGBTQ history. First, Julie sets the joke up by proudly recalling the legendary 1969 incident at Stonewall, a landmark moment for the queer community, and Billy provides the punch line, that queer activists endured violence and riots to secure Billy’s rights, which he now uses to have anonymous sex via Grindr. In moments like this one, throughout the series, Difficult People uses its platform (streaming service in the U.S., its territories, and Japan) to both elevate LGBTQ folks (half the cast is queer) and call out the ways in which even avowed queer allies fail.
Difficult People ascribes to no illusions, nor does it place any minority figure on a pedestal. On Difficult People, queer people are people, just like anyone else, and as such, are deeply flawed (Lola, the trans waitress who works with Billy, played by Jewish, trans actor Shakina Nayfack, is a 9/11 truther, for instance). Characters often accuse Billy himself, an out gay man, of homophobia:
JULIE. Oh, that’s right, ‘cause you hate other gay guys.
BILLY. No I do not hate other gay people—yes, I do. I get very homophobic when I go to my gym. (“Library Water” 00:07:54-00:08:01)
As discussed in the season two episode, “Italian Piñata,” much of Billy’s frustration surrounding gay culture is his own lack of ability to strictly meet a gay “type.” Billy’s “otherness” in his own community mirrors the “otherness” Jewish characters feel throughout the series, like Rucchel’s exorcism in “Code Change,” or Julie’s neighbor’s WiFi network named “Hitler Had Some Good Ideas” in “Unplugged.” Queer characters on Difficult People also often engage in oppression one-upmanship. When Billy complains about Coming Out Day customers at work, Lola shouts, “Check your privilege, faggot. And I can say that, because I was one (“Italian Piñata” 00:01:49-53). Later in the series, Lola shouts, “I swear, if I have to hear one more cis person complain about their life I’m gonna kill myself” (“Passover Bump” 00:02:29-30). Difficult People’s queer characters are often the mouthpieces for the series’ most offensive lines—Billy quips, “I’m sorry NAMBLA doesn’t have a ‘Ones to Watch’ section in their monthly newsletter that you could use as a press clipping” (“Library Water” 00:12:56-00:13:01) at his flamboyant coworker Matthew—just as its Jewish characters often have the sternest words against Jewish culture. Difficult People is not precious about its representations of queer characters as shows like Modern Family can be—Difficult People exposes the worst attributes of humankind, which, ironically, unify it.
Difficult People, though short-lived, though hidden behind the Hulu paywall, though limited to the United States, is a vital text to anyone studying contemporary Jewish comedy. It is a post-postmodern text—Difficult People replaces the shrugging shoulders of Woody Allen and Larry David with characters whose earnestness and desire to succeed cannot be beaten down by their successive failures. Series like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel tackle Jewish comedy even more directly, but Maisel is set in the past, a fantasy of what greater female inclusivity in the industry may have looked like—Difficult People exists in the present (much of it was written and filmed during and after the 2016 election cycle) and therefore must contend with issues as they stand today and the real and present dangers facing American Jews, women, and the LGBTQ community. Difficult People is a Seinfeld of the Twitter age—its schlimazel leads must tackle the fallout from their own shandes with a healthy dose of online harassment. Though one can hardly call the cast racially diverse (aside from standout performances by Gabourey Sidibe and Derrick Baskin, Difficult People exists in the same whitewashed New York as Lena Dunham’s Girls) Difficult People widens the scope of criticism and exploration beyond just Jewish issues in society—its approach is intersectional. As Chametzky writes:
Jewish jokes and humorous stories flourish when traditions are changing or being undermined, when life is precarious…or when the spectacle of human folly or vanity unfolds daily to the perceptive observer. (311)
Difficult People, its humor, and its play at the expense of and in the defense of marginalized communities stands out for exactly this reason; in contemporary America, long-held traditions are changing and bigoted assumptions and attitudes are being held in contempt. Billy and Julie exemplify “human folly and vanity,” and it is the series’ honest portrayal of these negative attributes that makes it so relatable (and so funny). Difficult People exists at a cultural moment of much upheaval and turmoil; as the saying goes, art imitates life.
Allen, Woody, director. Annie Hall. United Artists, 1977.
“Blade Stallion.” Difficult People, season 2, episode 5, 26 July 2016. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/cbf58254-8aae-418c-bfb2-10811f8a29a4.
“Code Change.” Difficult People, season 3, episode 4, 8 August 2017. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/0a83d6c8-e4be-45be-97e0-4c2f166ef4fc.
Cohen, Sarah Blacher, editor. Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor. Wayne State UP, 1987.
“The Courage of a Soldier.” Difficult People, season 1, episode 4, 19 August 2015. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/51df0c1d-1001-4bdc-a69a-dca3c60bc072.
Dauber, Jeremy Asher. Jewish Comedy: A Serious History. Norton, 2017.
David, Larry, creator. Curb Your Enthusiasm. HBO Entertainment, 2011.
“Difficult Christmas.” Difficult People, season 1, episode 8, 16 Sept. 2015. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/a92d1475-7aed-4ae1-8c61-7c2ad2e725b4.
Hoberman, J. and Jeffrey Shandler, et al. Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting. Princeton UP, 2003.
“Italian Pinata.” Difficult People, season 2, episode 3, 19 July 2016. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/adda2da0-b5dc-4a8b-9e24-070535e2c4d1.
“Jewish Humor.” Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature. Edited by Jules Chametsky, Norton, 2001.
“Library Water.” Difficult People, season 1, episode 1, 5 August 2015. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/7bb2016a-f651-4f43-be0e-b46e09212036.
“Passover Bump.” Difficult People, season 3, episode 1, 8 August 2017. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/ed8af0a0-e293-4727-94b7-cd66e6efa2b2.
“Pledge Week.” Difficult People, season 1, episode 3, 12 August 2015. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/3d25ea2c-07f7-4522-b5fa-9c912a60e3c7.
“Premium Membership.” Difficult People, season 1, episode 7, 9 Sept 2015. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/96094e1a-8324-498e-8299-e6c6c739446a.
Ravits, Martha A. “The Jewish Mother: Comedy and Controversy in American Popular Culture.” MELUS, vol. 25, no. 1, Spring 2000, pp. 3-31. Accessed Nov. 21, 2018.
“Unplugged.” Difficult People, season 2, episode 1, 12 July 2016. Hulu, https://www.hulu.com/watch/d8e3a8bd-b0d8-4850-9dbc-da042dc76fc5.
Wisse, Ruth R. No Joke: Making Jewish Humor. Princeton UP, 2013.
Wisse, Ruth R. The Schlemiel as Modern Hero. Chicago UP, 1971.
Zurawik, David. The Jews of Prime Time. Brandeis, UP, 2003.