Friday, October 22, 2010

Deconstructing Uncle Miltie

Yesterday afternoon, between my Art and Culture writing seminar and the final of six sessions on statistics (part of my Evidence and Inference class), I spent a delightful 75 minutes in contemplation of the breakthrough antic comedy of Mr. Television himself, Milton Berle.

The venue was a class for seniors held at the JCC in Manhattan and I gained admission by virtue of the presence of my mom -- a sweet-tempered septuagenarian from Great Neck. Sitting around a table much like the one I had occupied early that day at Columbia was the fast-forward version of my morning seminar group -- men in loose-fitting jeans wearing hearing aids, women in black leggings with their walkers folded against the wall; faces rapt and respectful, turned towards the instructor and the video monitor.

Having spent the morning debating postmodernism, it was a sheer relief to lose myself in the vaudevillian shtick of Berle. Worried that I had offended my professor and our visiting lecturer -- a world-renowned professor of architecture -- by my observation that postmodernist theory often veers into complete BS, I was soothed by the sight of the Berle in drag, Berle tussling with Frank Sinatra, Berle tap-dancing, Berle doing his opening monologue on the weekly Texaco Star Theatre television show, Berle ad-libbing and improvising in that era before taped TV shows, Berle tossing the yiddishisms around like they were weightless matzoh balls.

Berle created an entire genre, argued our instructor, without using the word genre.

Berle's show offered a pastiche of performances, which was itself an innovation, said our teacher, without using the words pastiche or innovation.

From the portal of his laptop, our instructor (seventy-something and bespectacled) presented dozens of video clips of Berle footage, noting that the symbolic value of Berle supersedes the depth of his humor.

By the way, added the instructor, he didn't find Berle all that hilarious. For true comic genius, he said, come back next week when the comedian under discussion will be Jack Benny.

There was no discussion of Berle as product of late capitalism or espousing phallo-centric comic tropes or embodying a populist aesthetic. For 75 minutes, no one mentioned Derrida.

Instead, there was my mom's delighted laughter and her whispered commentary that she remembered the time he had Bob Hope on the show and the little television set she had in her house in Warren, Ohio and how her parents loved him, Mr. Television, Uncle Miltie, and that it was all so long ago but oh, it was so good to remember.

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