I'M NOT ARGUING, I'M JEWISH
People often ask me about my upbringing, and if there was anything particular about it that made me become a cartoonist.
To that, I could reply, "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."
But I don't, because if you want to know the truth, that is the first paragraph of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and has nothing to do with me — except that I first read that book back in my eleventh-grade English class and have been hoping ever since that I could work it into something I was writing, and now I have. So let me throw in a Salinger New Yorker cartoon of mine for good measure.
But enough about Salinger. He's dead now, and I'm still hanging in there.
So, let's move back to the influences of my un-lousy childhood, in which I was the much loved (maybe too much loved) and doted upon only child of Lou and Mollie Mankoff, here seen in 1939, the year they were married.
No doubt I was doted on somewhat for my eminent dotableness.
Mollie was flamboyant and needy. Lou was reserved and giving. It was a case of the reserved Lou finding in the emotional Mollie someone who could complete him, and of Mollie finding someone who could balance her emotionalism. Besides, Mollie was hot. There's an old song that goes,
Whatever Lola wants Lola gets.
Substitute "Mollie" for "Lola" and you have the idea.
Anyway, Lou gave.
A song popular in 1943 had the lyrics "Just Molly and me / And baby makes three / we're happy in my blue heaven." And by 1944 Mollie and Lou did have me, not in my blue heaven but the Bronx. Actually, when I was born it was really Mollie and me, with no Lou around, because he was away doing his bit in the Big One, while Mollie doted on the little one back home.
"Doting" is probably too mild a word to describe my mother's obsessive attention to my existence, so long in doubt (there had been a number of miscarriages) and which she felt could be snatched away from her at any time. I'm told that when I was sleeping, she would put a mirror up to my mouth to see if it would fog over, showing that I was indeed breathing and alive. I still do that myself, every once in a while, just to make sure. I think Mollie's ministrations instilled in me a potential for hypochondria, a potential that has been fully realized and has made its way into a number of my cartoons, with the name used in them no coincidence.
Or maybe I just inherited the disposition from her. She was what I would call in robust ill health her whole long life (she lived to ninety-three). Whenever I asked her how she felt, she would always reply, "Not a hundred percent." I think her high-water mark was around seventy-four percent. Whether about a real or imagined illness or some other problem, real or imagined, my mother was either panicking or making preparations to panic, and my father was always there ready to say, "This too shall pass" and stick with it until whatever was troubling Mollie did pass.
During the war, my father had to placate my mother from afar by mail. In one letter, he tries to calm her by explaining that it's not a lack of love that's causing the lack of letters she's getting from him but army logistics.
A lot of what you need to know about my dad is in that letter. Even as he complains about her complaining, he says, "I know how you feel and can hardly blame you ... everybody likes to get mail." He also had a dry sense of humor. In another letter he mentions a handbag he has sent her and quips, "It's pretty popular in Paris, so it should be OK in the Bronx."
And despite the war and wartime postal problems, things were okay in the Bronx, if a bit crowded. In addition to my mom, there were my mom's mother and father, my mom's sisters, Annie and Sarah, Sarah's husband, Jack, and their kids, my cousins, Mike, Joan, and Irwin, all crammed into the top floor of a little house at 1453 Teller Avenue.
In 1945 my dad came home from the war. He was a welcome sight to my mother and everyone else in the household, except me. I had never laid eyes on him, or vice versa. My mother had gotten pregnant while he was on leave, and he'd been sent overseas a few months before I was born. Family lore has it that when I saw him for the first time, I cried, "Who is that man!" That man, and the rest of us, confronted a severe postwar housing shortage in New York at that time, which this contemporaneous New Yorker cartoon refers to:
This led to the landlord of 1453 needing the top floor (where we all lived) for his own relatives, which led to us, all of us, being booted out, all the way to Queens. Ex-sergeant Lou Mankoff took command, marching his troops from B (the Bronx) to Q (Queens).
There, all of us decamped to a little house not all that different from the previous one, but now we occupied both floors. Luxury.
Two years later, my dad used a VA loan to buy the house right next door, and me, my dad, my mom, and my aunt Anne moved there: 76-37 169th Street, just the four of us, with two floors all our own — the ap of luxury.
Really. And the lap was about to get larger. The booming fat fifties of postwar America were just around the corner, with television, air-conditioning, and a new car in the garage every two years (if it could fit).
Not to mention wall-to-wall carpeting, which I really have to mention because this particular postwar luxury was the way my dad earned a living. He was the owner of Atlas Floors, selling wall-to-wall carpeting, a previously out-of-reach luxury that was available, for the first time, to a middle class now flush with some surplus cash. Wall-to-wall in the new living room said you'd arrived and were a stakeholder in the American dream. Due to wall-to-wall, we were soon living that dream.
Lou was, as they used to say, a good provider, pulling down fifty thousand dollars a year by the end of the decade, when a slice of pizza and The New Yorker both cost only fifteen cents. But the providing didn't come easy. He left for his store before seven A.M. and didn't return home until late at night. Sunday was the only day he ever took off, and, exhausted, he always slept past noon that day. The upshot was that he wasn't the constant, mirror-up-to-the-mouth (at least metaphorically) presence in my life that my mother was. That, combined with the fact that for nearly the first two years of my life he'd been absent, amplified the effect of my mother's presence on me.
And, oy gevalt, what a presence: an old-school, you shouldn't know from it, but nevertheless now you're knowing from it, Jewish mother's presence.
Oy gevalt is Yiddish, loosely translated into English as "Oh goodness," but you really can't easily translate Yiddish into English without losing something important — its humor. "Oy gevalt!" is funny; "Oh goodness" isn't. Mishegas, bupkes, kvetch are funny; their English equivalents —"craziness," "nothing," and "complain"— aren't. And words like schlemiel and schlimazel are funny not just because of how they sound but because they are best defined through a joke: a schlemiel (bungler) is someone who spills his soup on a schlimazel (unfortunate person).
My mother spoke fluent Yiddish. As I was growing up, she would variously call me a klainer hunt ("little dog"), a groisser ferd ("big horse"), and, when I was particularly annoying, a narvez choleryeh ("nervous plague" — literally, cholera). All of those terms, both endearing and insulting, are the kind of two-faced communication Yiddish excels at, combining aggression, friendliness, and ambiguity, a basic recipe for humor that my mother was excellent at cooking up and on which I was spoon-fed.
But even when she wasn't sprinkling her English with Yiddishisms, the humorous influence of Yiddish was there.
If I told her I didn't like a certain food I had never complained about before — like the egg salad sandwiches she made every damn day for my school lunch — she would say, "Since when did you throw a hate on egg salad?" If I said I was bored, she would answer, "You're bored? So go knock your head against the wall, you won't be bored." And if I answered her back, "Which wall?" I'd get back "Would you look at the mouth on him." Right, Mom — your mouth.
What she said, I gainsaid. Or as she would put it, "If I say black, you say blue." I added my own funny spin to everything, using material from the wider culture for our exchanges. Once when she complained to my father that I was lazy, saying, "Lou, he don't do nothin'," I shot back,
"He don' plant taters, he don't plant cotton An' dem dat plants 'em is soon forgotten."
She wouldn't have laughed at that. My mother wasn't logical or knowledgeable. What she was, was intuitive. She wasn't really an audience for my jokes, she was a target. And, as my therapist would tell you, still is. Yet I've gotten a lot from her, including a mother lode of material, some of which I'm unloading here. Although my relationship with my mother was less than ideal from a relationship standpoint, from a development-of-humor standpoint it worked very well. Humor thrives on conflict
and needs a target.
She was the first.
Others came later, like the kids on "the block"— all my Jewish boyhood friends: Larry Kantor, Danny Kleiman, Stevie Roth, Ricky Werber. We fought all the time. Not with our fists — punching is not my tribe's preferred technique. We preferred insults, in endless hours of arguing and ranking out and putting down, none of which would be worthy of the Algonquin Round Table and wouldn't even have made the grade here:
But the important thing for me in all this jousting was that I put the "mouth I had on me" to good use, giving better than I got, and training my brain to be on the lookout for anything in any interaction that had worthy comic potential.
So, how did all this rub off on me? When I was first dating my wife, Cory, who is not Jewish, we once were having what I thought was an ordinary conversation, and she said, "Why are you arguing with me?" I replied, "I'm not arguing, I'm Jewish." Which means, to me, the questioning of everything just for the hell of it and then questioning the questioning just for the fun of it and the funny in it. The expression "Two Jews, three opinions" sums it up nicely and funnily.
Jews are overthinkers. It's no surprise that we invented psychoanalysis. Humor is the antidote to overthinking. It's a way of saying that life is paradoxical. Humor contains contradictions; it does not resolve them but revels in them. It says that the right way to exist among the contradictions, paradoxes, and absurdities of life is to cope with them through laughter.
Now, I don't want to overdo this Jewish thing. On the other hand, I don't want to underdo it, either. A study done in 1978 showed that although Jews constituted only 3 percent of the U.S. population, 80 percent of the nation's comedians, at that time, were Jewish.
The first generation of Jewish comics grew up in large Yiddish-speaking immigrant families and anglicized their names. So Benjamin Kubelsky became
Jack Benny, Nathan Birnbaum was reborn as
George Burns, and Milton Berlinger — well, you can figure that one out.
And even though they had changed their names and the general public didn't identify them as Jewish, we knew. It didn't involve any telltale mannerisms or Yiddish words. Whenever any of them would appear on TV my mother would say, "You know, he's Jewish."
Everyone knew that the second generation of Jewish comics — men like Lenny Bruce (Leonard Schneider), Jerry Lewis (Joseph Levitch), Mel Brooks (Melvin Kaminsky), and Woody Allen (Allan Konigsberg) — were Jewish, but by changing their names they followed an old saying: "Think Yiddish but dress British."
Interestingly, when I was an adolescent my mother suggested that I could get a nose job if I wanted and, when the time came, change my name to Robert Mann. Back then, to be really good-looking and really Jewish-looking was an oxymoron. But while this advice from your mother might be damaging to your psyche and result in many years in analysis,
it also created a psychodynamic conflict of feeling both superior intellectually and inferior physically, causing a tension that humor was better at relieving than a nose job, or at least less expensive.
By the way, that 1978 study I mentioned also pointed out something else of relevance to me. It said that, in general, these comedians had overprotective, constrictive mothers and a drive to break out of the Jewish world and gain general acceptance. I'm sure that's an overgeneralization, but I'm also sure that it nails things in my case, certainly as regards my mother. As for the part about breaking out from the Jewish world and seeking wider acclaim, I think the seeds of that were planted, ironically enough, at my big fat 1950s bar mitzvah celebration at the Hotel Pierre, in 1957.
My imagination was really stirred that night by the guy on the right, who scooted around the stage, singing, dancing, and tummling: Nat Brooks, the fearless, funny leader of the Nat Brooks Orchestra.
Nat was hip, cool, definitely meshuga, and, despite the anglicized last name, clearly Jewish. I remember him playing the piano from under the piano, backward.
He also parodied different genres, used props, and infused all the music with a comic flavor.
Nat was a talented musician. In fact, he was a classically trained pianist. As talented as he was in that field, however, on musical talent alone he wouldn't have carved out the niche he did for himself, if he hadn't combined it with humor. And his comedic talent, even though good, would not have been good enough for him to be a stand-alone comedian. But, like they say (and I'm glad they're saying it rather than me, because it's such a hackneyed cliché), "the sum was greater than the total of the parts." I also would need an analogous combination of my humor and some other talent to avoid going the usual route, in which you make your Jewish parents proud by becoming (in descending order of the joyful kvelling associated with the profession) a doctor, lawyer, dentist, or accountant.
Spoiler alert: That other talent is going to be art. But before we go there, a brief digression on Jerry Lewis and his influence on me.
During the 1950s, my parents often took me to the Catskills on vacation. We'd stay at Brown's Hotel, the place made famous by Jerry Lewis, who got his start there and later played to crowds in its Jerry Lewis Playhouse. The roads on the way to the Catskills were full of billboards for Brown's, with a gigantic head of Jerry Lewis
sticking up above the sign; underneath, large letters announced, "Jerry Lewis says Brown's is my favorite resort."
Here I am with my family at Brown's in 1958:
In skinny, goofy, manic Jerry Lewis I could see something of my own skinny, goofy, manic self. First of all, there's a physical resemblance. His caricature on that billboard would have worked pretty well for an adolescent me:
And it's not hard to imagine the nine-year-old me, on the left, growing up to look like him:
It was much more natural for me to identify with Lewis than with Jack Benny or George Burns. Stylistically, the wacky, googly-eyed slapstick of something like The Nutty Professor
was a lot easier to emulate than the perfectly timed one-liners of George Burns or the carefully calibrated double takes of Jack Benny. Jerry had a big mouth, literally, and could do this:
So could I (you'll have to take my word for it). Not very classy, but being a class clown doesn't involve class. Also, as outrageous, silly, and childish as doing that is, there is something to be said for it. That's why I'm saying it. Acting outrageously makes it that much easier to think unconventionally. If you don't have a silly bone in your body, you're not going to have a funny bone, either. And if you can't combine a mature intelligence with some immature thinking, you're never going to be funny enough to make a living at it.
So, given all this, why didn't I set my sights on being the next Jerry Lewis? Well, I could say — and I think everyone would agree, with the possible exception of the French — that one Jerry Lewis is enough. But the truth is, I had no ambition to be Jerry Lewis, because I had no ambition at all. I was just a kid happy to do what I liked and be liked for doing what I liked, whether it was clowning around or drawing. We've covered the clowning, so now let's move on to the drawing.