Three Thoughts about that Mayim Bialik Video

Notes on a grotesquerie.

Three Thoughts about that Mayim Bialik Video
Photo by Anandu Vinod / Unsplash


On my first watch, I was confused: what is she laughing at? On my second watch, I was disgusted: how is she laughing? On my third watch, I understood: she is not laughing, she is acting. On my fourth, I had doubts: if I accept that someone is craven enough to pretend to lose their shit at what must be their second or third viewing of this terrible joke, is it such a stretch that they might genuinely lose their shit at it? On my fifth, I felt a dawning horror: human life means nothing to these people. On my sixth, I felt pity: what I’m watching is the natural endpoint of denial, at the root of which can only be shame, the heart’s intuition of its own failures. On my seventh, it was not her laugher that transfixed me but his physicality: the way his weight shifts from leg to leg, the tension in his shoulders, how he spends much of the joke gazing directly at the camera—sometimes form tells us what content keeps to itself, for instance that a writer is more desperate to be heard than to say something. On my eighth I was just embarrassed. I can understand believing all this. That’s no more complicated than being on the receiving end of one of the most effective propaganda efforts in human history. But to believe all this and do what—tell some half-baked jokes in a silly voice? Take a video of yourself laughing? Are you not even humbled by your own idea of what’s happening?


What pisses me off about this whole thing, other than the obvious moral grotesquerie, is how comfortably Ahdoot applies the standard aesthetic vocabulary of comedy to a piece of war propaganda. He posted the joke on Instagram, with the caption “RIP my comments section,” alongside clips of his podcast and videos of a recurring “Gen Z Review” character routine. When the comic Yedoye Travis criticized Bialik’s “remix” on Twitter, Ahdoot cried foul in stereotypical standup fashion, asking why Travis would “pile on with all the other anti-semites threatening my life over a bit.” I would like to set aside the fact that Travis said nothing anti-semitic (nor had countless other critics who took issue with the joke itself) and consider Ahdoot’s use of the word “bit.” Is it so much to expect comedians to have a little respect for their own art? This is no mere bit: it is a polemic in the form of jokes. It makes political and moral arguments grounded in an analysis of history. Among other things, it describes pro-Palestinian protestors as genocidal, rhetorically differentiates those protestors from Jews, and positions Israel’s cession of territory over the last century of this conflict as a defining attribute of both its victimhood and its virtue.

If it needs to be said: no one should be subjected to racism or death threats for political speech. If it also needs to be said: this is political speech, in fact it is extremely inflammatory political speech, which is what makes it so viscerally upsetting to encounter the thing in the same manner one encounters any other piece of comedy on the internet, and worse, to see how unseriously Ahdoot and Bialik themselves seem to take it. For the last four months, the people of Gaza have used these same platforms to show us their destruction, in many cases documenting their own last words. Meanwhile in America, entertainers like Mayim Bialik and Dan Ahdoot use them for business as usual, churning out a stream of meaningless content in denial of the reality that we all know is right in front of them. It makes me sick. 


Dan Ahdoot’s joke falls into the grand literary tradition of the list. This is a very old tradition: Homer’s Catalogue of Ships, in the Iliad, is one of the most famous examples of the form; Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and Bo Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling” are popular recent entries. The list is particularly well-suited to comedy, I think, insofar as it creates a structure for the purpose of finding variation within it, delivering all the pleasures of repetition and all the pleasures of surprise. Lists shimmer and undulate, they play games, revealing themselves slowly through association and contradiction. A good list overwhelms you with the scale of its subject matter, makes you feel small, awestruck, the totality of history washing over you.

One of my personal favorites is Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire,” itself an adaptation of the Jewish liturgical poem Unetanneh Tokef, written more than 1,300 years ago. The prayer, which we recite on the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, describes a book, the Book of Chronicles—the book of lists—in which is written what will befall each of us in the coming year, who will live and who will die, and how we will live or die, whether we will rest or wander, live in peace or in torment. Our fates, in other words. God opens the book, according to the prayer, but God does not read it: it reads itself. This is the power of the list, or at least the power of a good list. It’s primordial. It's self-sustaining. It’s been going on forever; we’re just now tuning in. I’m particularly fond of the version of “Who By Fire” from Cohen’s album “Live in London”—

It’s his stillness that gets me. Eyes fixed ahead, into the light. The list comes to us from elsewhere; we are its instruments. You will almost never hear me say what I’m about to say, but I love reading the comments on videos like this. They’re filled with strange, beautiful stories about what the artist’s music means to people, how they came to it, who shared it with them, who they’ve lost. Eulogies, tributes, confessions. In the top comment on this video, a young Syrian man says Cohen’s work helped him through his studies during the war. “I didn't heal or have a life change I still the same person incapable to feel,” he writes, “but the peace pieces I collected help me to wake up and live my day.” Scroll down and you’ll find this: "Buried my little pet while this beautiful piece of music was playing. I’m devastated and it helped me a lot. Peace.” If you head over to a 2008 live recording of “The Partisan,” Cohen’s take on a song about the French resistance during World War II, you’ll find the following:

A 95 years old partisan died yesterday. His name was Nello Bracalari, from Grosseto, Italy. In a confused country, amidst a surrendered people, he still carried on to look at the future with hope and courage, until the last days. May he be an example to younger generations.
I played this for my mum, she was in tears, I didn't mean for that reaction, but she lost 3 uncles fighting for the resistance, another uncle was awarded Legion deHoneurre, again for the resistance
It hurts to hear this song.  I remember my parents showing respect when they heard this song.  They were occupied for 5 years, living in the Netherlands.  Partisans are, to this day, some of the most beautiful people, no matter the country they live in.
This song brings tears to my eyes. My grandfather was in the  resistance in Paris and he got killed by the Germans. My father had to raise himself and survive the war at 14 yrs. old. Thank you for sharing this song.
In loving memory of mister Henri Poirson, a french resistant I met twenty-five years ago. He was asked in 1942 by his boss to help some fugitives to go through the german lines, in the Vosges. Henri simply answered “Yes,” without consider risks for himself or his family. He was caught by the Nazis soon in the year 1944 and sent first to Natzweiler-Struthof, then Dachau. He survived because he had some friends (real life companions) who gave him some part of their poor eating... When Henri, who was really tall, came back home in his Vosgian village, his weight was less than 45 kg... The first time I met this gentle man at my job, I immediatly saw a tattoed number on one of his arms. Shy, I asked him what was that tattoo. So he explained me calmly what he did during Second World War. Since then, I really loved to talk with him! He could speak about every subject with wisdom and humility. I miss him since the end of 2017... :’(
I knew Henri Poirson very well, a neighbor and friend of Moussey. He was the last survivor of the village's deportees: more than 200 for a population of 1,200. 2/3 died in the camps or just on their return.
My uncle was a Partizan sniper a real hero fascists murdered him during the civil war  in Greece, arms raised up to surrender they shot him in the back, my aunt god rest her soul saw this evolve she was all of 9 took its the grave with her, world be at peace

Isn’t it moving? How art speaks to us through history, how it flattens time. The dead are everywhere, watching us. Once the Unetanneh Tokef gets through all our fates, it warns us that we can avoid the harshest judgments—deaths by plague and sword, lives of poverty and ignominy—through repentance, prayer, and righteousness. I guess it’s a pretty cliché place to end up: one must live a good penitent life or else risk the wrath of the cosmos. Who could have predicted? Then again, maybe that’s why we return to it every year. Some people need the reminder. 

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