Travelling With The Wandering Joke

 The 2001 Play Underneath the Lintel by Glen Berger is  a monologue by a Dutch librarian who delves into the history of  several rare volumes which are returned 113 years overdue. Upon investigation, he becomes convinced that the borrower is none other than the Wandering Joke.The legend of the comedian destined to immortality, deprived of a final curtain call.  The story’s origins date to the Crucifiction, in the year 0 B.C.E., that murky grey zone, after an unheralded shoemaker’s apprentice directed a volley of corrosive, obscenity laced jokes and physical humour  at Roman legionnaires to distract their attention from their heinous and murderous deeds.

Gene Wilder, in Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein

Gene Wilder, in Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein



The  Jerusalem apprentice, became known as the legend of the eternal joke. A man who dreamed of a theatrical and directing career in Athens at the Aristophanes school of Theatre. He became an ageless spirit, eternally wandering the earth, perpetually reincarnating itself in different corporeal forms as gifted souls who were generally opinionated  ethnic characters, and endearing eccentrics with a knack for scene stealing; a restless form of humour in search of the ultimate comedic aesthetic and conclusive punch-line. Humour has many faces, from the burlesque, to the satirical, to the absurd, and the Eternal Joke has played them all, each actor a variation on humour’s infinite shade of color. The Joke has even resided in several actors at the same time.The Joke received some critical acclamations for dramatic roles, but generally was  found lurking in  black comedies, and less mainstream productions. 

Marty Feldman, Young Frankenstein

Marty Feldman, Young Frankenstein



The Wandering Joke has always noted, that with regard to  worldy philosophers and deep thinkers such as Kant and Freud , it seems that one of the problems with the theories they put forward about humor is their lack of familiarity with the material,and inability to understand juxtaposition and context.  That is, they have a bad sense of humour, know poor jokes,  or, more precisely, they don’t know what a good joke is.  Jokes, in short, are complicated transactions in which communities are forged, intimacy is offered, and otherwise offensive stereotypes and cliches lose their sting—hopefully. Humor has often been used as an instrument of oppression, as a way of expressing contempt towards those outside the privileged group, a way of keeping outsiders in their place.However, The Wandering Joke has always taken the high road , regarding humour as an art form, a uniting force, and above philosophical musings.

: 360px">Lou jacobi

Lou jacobi



While there is some question whether the original incident  in Jerusalem actually took place, there is no doubt that The Wandering Joke has been sighted in towns and villages all over Europe. In the New World the Wandering Joke was reported to have visited Banff, Alberta in 1912, after which his traces have been less noticeable and more fleeting. The recent passing away of Lou Jacobi ( 1913-2009 ) afforded a glimpse of the Wandering Joke and re-ignited interest in finding him and documenting  his sitings.

”When he starred in the short-lived Broadway comedy “Norman, Is That You?” in 1970, Clive Barnes of The Times did not care for the play, but took time to wax rhapsodic about Mr. Jacobi and his character. “Mr. Jacobi is a very funny actor who hardly needs lines to make his point,” Mr. Barnes wrote. He added: “He has a face of sublime weariness and the manner of a man who has seen everything, done nothing and is now only worried about his heartburn. ” ( N.Y. Times ) ” One of my personal favorites is an episode of Sanford & Son titled “Steinberg & Son” where Fred sues when a TV series appears obviously modeled on his life about a junk dealer and his son only the junk dealer is Jewish and played by Jacobi. In one memorable scene, Redd Foxx’s Fred gives Jacobi’s Steinberg tips on how he should react to the sitcom’s version of Aunt Esther.” ( film critic Edward Copeland )

The eternal joke wanders on. Each passage throws a light on complex actors, who in the case of Jacobi, brought a vivid comedy of Eastern European origins, and all its unorthodox, seemingly incompatible and quirky elements to stage and screen in a tussle with the normal. An attraction to it, yet a repulsion at the same time; an aggressively ambivalent attitude  towards conformity. A comedy  that was often of the alienated; often dark, flirting with disaster, and comedies within comedies with competing narratives featuring  a knowing , love- hate relationship with god, as if the lines of communication to the almighty were of the most direct and personal fashion, for better and for worse.  Terribly personal and strangely universal ,and sometimes just plain weird. But, as a general rule, the Wandering Joke chose to appear in fine, but overlooked films. Legend has it, that the Wandering Joke has also inhabited Alan Arkin as well, whose underrated ability extends not only beyond the range of conventional comedy, but beyond the scope of most definitions of acting as well.

How to separate the fact from fiction, the myth from reality of this legend. The figure of the doomed comedian, forced to wander without the hope of rest in death until…. the Wandering Joke, impressed itself upon popular medieval imagination, mainly with reference to the seeming immortality of the wandering sense of humour….

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