The Kugelmass Episode

by Woody Allen

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Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 417

“The Kugelmass Episode” is a very amusing story, and its humor is that of a network of incongruities. There is a striking disparity between anxious, balding Kugelmass and the glamorous life that he would lead. The reader laughs at his pretensions and groans for his frailties. Kugelmass is yet another version of the distinctive Allen persona, familiar from other stories and from Allen’s film roles. He is a contemporary American reincarnation of the Yiddish schlemiel figure: the hapless man who, according to the Yiddish proverb, falls on his back and breaks his nose. Though Sidney Kugelmass, whose very name ludicrously undercuts his romantic aspirations, has failed at everything, including freshman English, he naïvely keeps returning for more.

After Emma and Kugelmass exchange their first remarks, the reader is told, “She spoke in the same fine English translation as the paperback.” By the end of the relationship, Emma is complaining to Kugelmass that “watching TV all day is the pits.” Much of the humor in this story results from juxtaposing the florid style of a literary classic—about a woman steeped in literary rhetoric—with the casual vernacular of a modern, irreverent New Yorker. Kugelmass holds a respected social position and is in awe of Emma Bovary, but his speech is laced with outdated proletarian slang: “sock it to me,” “scam,” and “jitterbug.” His streetwise talk is as affected as are provincial Emma’s aristocratic airs. Although Emma covets elegant formal clothing, she is fascinated by the marked-down leisure suit that her new lover wears. It is difficult to imagine an odder, and more appropriate, couple than Emma Bovary and Sidney Kugelmass. One is a French heroine and the other an American antihero, but both are in love with a narcissistic idea of love.

As its title suggests, “The Kugelmass Episode” is more a sketch than a fully realized fictional universe of three-dimensional characters. It is an essay in narrative form, an inventive meditation on Madame Bovary. Much of its charm derives from its self-mockery and its awareness of its own artifice. One of the more remarkable moments in the piece occurs when a professor at Stanford who is a specialist in Flaubert suddenly discovers a strange character named Kugelmass in his familiar novel. He rationalizes that it is the mark of a classic always to surprise on each reading. In depicting a nineteenth century literary character visiting the urban American culture of television, films, and football, Allen’s brief, perceptive fantasy delights on each reading.

Historical Context

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New York City, Comedy, and the Jewish American Experience
The first Jews to settle in North America arrived in New York City, then the Dutch port of New Amsterdam, in 1654. By the end of the century they had established synagogues, and by 1740 Jews were entitled to full citizenship. Jewish families settled all over New York and the community set up hospitals, businesses, and cultural organizations. Immigration to New York by European Jews continued in the nineteenth century, intensifying in the 1880s. Between 1880 and 1920, the Jewish population in New York City swelled from 60,000 to more than 1.5 million. Between the two world wars, the Jewish community in New York evolved from an immigrant community divided by language, politics, and culture into an English-speaking, upwardly mobile American citizenry. Jews began to play an increasingly significant role in the general cultural life of New York. Many of New York’s leading entertainers, writers, artists and art patrons were of Jewish origin, and American intellectualism began to become closely associated with the New York Jewish community.

As Jewish immigrants began to assimilate, their humor began to integrate into mainstream American entertainment. Many Jews became successful Vaudeville acts, and future stars such as The Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, George Burns, Milton Berle, and The Three Stooges began their careers in Vaudeville. By the mid-1920s, a literary form of humor created by Jewish comics came out of Vaudeville: stand-up comedy. When Vaudeville theaters were replaced by nightclubs in the 1930s and 40s, comedy became less physical and began to focus on language and observations about the incongruities and anxieties of life. Jewish comedy began to reflect its intellectual tradition of exhaustive reasoning and questioning. Before the second world war, much Jewish humor relied on self-caricature, but after 1945 Jews ran into less discrimination and new possibilities opened up to them, and they began to get into radio and television. Television signaled a return to physical comedy, and in the early 1950s the Jewish comic Sid Caesar created Your Show of Shows, which used a combination of physical comedy, one-liners, and intellectual wit to offer social commentary and satirize highbrow culture. Among Caesar’s writers were the Jewish comics Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Allen. Your Show of Shows did not directly address Jewish issues, and in fact fearing the anti-Semitic sentiments of its audience pointedly avoided presenting any sense that it was created by Jews. However, it did make numerous Jewish references and used inside jokes, and the Jewish background of the writers helped to produce humor laced heavily with irony and caustic wit.

By the end of the ’60s, the presence of Jews in the New York comedy scene had moved from vaudevillian acts to the forefront of radical social change. The brash humor of Lenny Bruce in that decade heralded an age of intelligent, sophisticated comedy that tackled important social issues and also spoke unashamedly and irreverently about the Jewish experience. In 1969, Allen’s Take the Money and Run presented a Jewish protagonist who was no longer the Jewish vaudevillian clown of old but a neurotic, analytic, intellectual New York Jew, thoroughly urban and anxiety-ridden. This persona, taken from his standup routine, appropriated some of the techniques and types from the Jewish humorist tradition, for example casting the hero as a schlemiel, a bungler and lovable failure who is to be pitied. But it was also much more clever and self-consciously reflective even while being selfdeprecating and zany. In the 1970s, as the social climate in the country changed, Jewish comedy writers began more and more to emphasize their Jewishness, and Allen’s string of hit movies is a testament to the increasing tolerance of Jewish culture and ideas in the mainstream. Like his story ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode,’’ Allen’s films poked fun at the Jewish American experience but never in mean-spirited way, offering rather a gentle look at what it means to be Jewish in America and paying tribute to the particularly Jewish ability to find humor in the most unlikely situations.

In 1975, the television comedy variety show Saturday Night Live, whose writers were almost all Jewish, was launched in New York and televised nationwide. The program often parodied Jewish manners, people, and culture and encouraged performers to be open about their Jewish identities. Since then, the American comedy scene has embraced Jewish comics and Jewish humor. The synthesis of Jewish and mainstream comedy is seen in the work of Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, and Larry David, for example, whose verbal jabs and neurotic self-observations have popularized the sensibility of Jewish humor. But the work of these contemporary Jewish comics has also in some ways sublimated Jewish comedy’s very Jewishness by making it ‘‘all-American.’’ Thus, while New York Jewish humor defined comedy in twentieth-century America, in the twenty-first century, Jewish American humor and its particular fusion of intellectual and lowbrow satire has become assimilated to the degree that it is regarded as one of the defining elements of American humor.

Literary Style

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Farce/Satire
‘‘The Kugelmass Episode’’ uses humor and comic situations to poke fun at people and situations and to show the absurdity of human desires and pursuits. The humor in the story can be classified as satire, which is the ridicule of ideas, institutions, particular individuals, or humanity in general to lower the reader’s esteem of them and make them laughable. The story may also be viewed as a farce, which is a comedy characterized by broad satire and improbable situations. Satire and farce are used by writers to different effects, sometimes reducing ideas or people to absurdity to proffer a moral criticism against injustice or social wrongs. Allen does not seem to offer heavy moral lessons in his story, but his humor does expose human foibles and critiques modern humanity’s particularly crass pursuit of bodily satisfaction, material wealth, and fame. The story is a parody of a number of types of people and situations. The characters are broadly drawn and have stereotypical traits. Kugelmass is an ironical portrayal of a middle-aged Jewish man undergoing a sexual crisis; his wife Daphne is a satire of an over-the-hill, unrefined and materialistic Jewish wife; Emma is a spoof of shallow, celebrityseeking, and untalented would-be actor; and Persky sends up Jewish speech and manners as well as cheap entertainers.

Using these characters, Allen also satirizes literature and high art, material pursuits, Jewish culture, and the entertainment industry. One of Allen’s techniques in his satire is to present a serious situation or moment and then undercut its importance with an absurdity. The entire fantastic situation of being transported into a fictional realm is undercut by characterizing it in mundane terms. The cabinet Persky uses for Kugelmass’s amazing journeys is cheap and ‘‘badly lacquered.’’ When it malfunctions, Persky crawls under it and bangs it with a large wrench; the problem, he reveals, was with its transmission. Allen undercuts serious romantic moments often by using colloquial expressions and incongruities. Emma is dazzled by Kugelmass’s modern dress, which he tells her he got on sale. She is enthralled by stories of New York, and he talks about O. J. Simpson’s ‘‘rushing records.’’ Throughout the story, situations and people are mocked, practically everything they say and do reduced to complete silliness.

Colloquial Language
Much of the humor of ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode’’ comes from his characters’ manner of speech, as they use slang and expressions that undercut the seriousness of the situations they are in. The tone of the language emphasizes the New York setting and Jewish characters. Persky in particular uses extremely colorful phrases and one can almost hear a Brooklyn Jewish accent. When Kugelmass is skeptical of his transporting cabinet, he tells Kugelmass ‘‘It’s the emess,’’ then asks for a ‘‘double sawbuck’’ to transport him to Madame Bovary. Kugelmass, a literature professor, uses colloquial language most of the time, and when he an Emma become close begins to call her ‘‘sugar’’ and ‘‘cupcake.’’ At first Emma speaks in the ‘‘same fine English translation as the paperback,’’ but by the end of the story she is telling Kugelmass that ‘‘watching TV all day is the pits.’’ Over and over, weighty and important matters are made absurd by the way the characters talk about them, bringing them into the realm of the ordinary and mundane.

Compare and Contrast

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1970s: There are approximately 5.5 million Jews living in the United States, of which about 1.2 million live in New York City. Jews make up approximately 15 percent of the population of New York City.

Today: There are approximately 6 million Jews living in the United States, of which just under 1 million live in New York City. Jews make up 12 percent of the population of New York City.

1970s: While Jews account for less than 2 percent of the United States’ population, approximately 80 percent of the country’s comedians are Jewish. Most of them are from New York City.

Today: Jews make up 2.5 percent of the United States’ population, while 70 percent of the country’s comedians are of Jewish descent. Most of them are from New York City.

1970s: Lorne Michaels’s television comedy program Saturday Night Live premieres. Nearly all the writers who work on the show are Jewish. Today: Saturday Night Live continues its successful run. Only one of the writers on the show is Jewish.

Media Adaptations

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The Audio CD Fierce Pajamas: Selections from an Anthology of Humor Writing from the New Yorker, a recording of the collection edited by David Remnick and Henry Finder, includes a reading of ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode.’’

The Kugelmass Affair is Jonathan Karp’s stage adaptation of Allen’s story.

The web site http://www.woodyallen.com/ offers comprehensive information on Allen’s life, movies, books, plays, and standup comedies. It also includes interviews with the author and links to other useful information.

Allen’s film The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) uses a device similar to that found in ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode’’: a character from a movie steps off the screen, into the theater, and into the life of the moviegoer Cecilia.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Champion, Laurie, ‘‘Allen’s ‘The Kugelmass Episode,’’’ in Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 1, Fall 1992, pp. 61–63.

Harty, John, ‘‘Allen’s ‘The Kugelmass Episode,’’’ in Explicator, Vol. 46, No. 3, Spring 1988, pp. 50–51.

Further Reading
Abramovitch, Ilana, and Sean Galvin, eds., Jews of Brooklyn, University Press of New England, 2001. This is a kaleidoscopic look at the history, culture, and community of Brooklyn’s Jews, from the first documented settlement of Jews in the borough in the 1830s to the present day Jewish presence.

Bakalar, Nick, and Stephen Kock, eds., American Satire: An Anthology of Writings from Colonial Times to the Present, Plume Books, 1997. This collection brings together some of the best American satirical prose and poetry, from the 1800s to the late twentieth century.

Epstein, Lawrence, The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, Public Affairs, 2002. This history of how Jewish comedians changed the face of American entertainment, from vaudeville to the movies to television, includes anecdotes, personal stories, samples from comedians’ stand-up material, immigrant sociology, and details tying the Yiddish language to Jewish American humor.

Lax, Eric, Woody Allen: A Biography, Da Capo Press, 2000. Allen’s friend Lax offers a lighthearted account that includes the filmmaker’s own opinions about this life.

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