Lenny Bruce cursed a blue streak. Don Rickles insulted anyone within hearing distance. Sacha Baron Cohen has raised embarrassment of the unsuspected — Jews and non-Jews alike — into an art form. And for Sarah Silverman, not even the memory of the Holocaust is sacred.
But urinating on a portrait of Jesus?
Larry David last week may have gone farther than any Jewish comic in pushing the comedic envelope — and perhaps flushing it down the toilet.
In an episode of the popular HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which caricatures David’s true-life social faux-pas and uncouth mannerisms, the wise guy accidentally splashes the framed picture hanging in his devout secretary’s bathroom, just next to her toilet. Because of a medical condition, he is taking a drug that makes him urinate like a racehorse (his sidekick Jerry Seinfeld, who appears in the episode, compares his stream to that of the great Seabiscuit).
When a drop splashes right under Jesus’ eye, David tries but fails to clean up the spray, which has now taken the shape of a tear crawling down Jesus’ cheek. Hours later, David’s secretary Maureen springs into his office in excitement, announcing that she and her mother had witnessed a miracle in their bathroom and would be touring the country in an RV with the crying portrait. (The allusion, presumably, is to believers who claim to see depictions of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in such unlikely places as grilled cheese sandwiches.)
Catholics — and even some Jewish comics and organizations — are crying foul.
“I think it’s important that people understand that Catholics have had it,” Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, told The Jewish Week. “Larry David wouldn’t piss on the face of Barack Obama and then tell blacks who are upset to get over it. They just simply wouldn’t do it.”
Donohue feels that Catholics have been taking all the punches in the entertainment world lately and wonders why David has to go “below the belt” with his mockery rather than simply criticizing Catholicism.
And after this latest incident, Donohue has garnered some support among religious and secular figures outside the church.
“I’m now an Orthodox comedian who currently has a show running Off-Broadway, so there is no way I’d want to [anger] Larry David,” said Yisrael Campbell, a former Catholic converted to Judaism, star of the new show “Circumcise Me.”
“As an ex-Catholic I’m conflicted, as my aunt was a nun, which makes Jesus my uncle, so I’ve got to say treating my uncle that way is not cool.”
Rabbi Bob Alper, a stand-up comic who did admit that the episode was funny, agreed with Campbell’s sentiments as well.
“I really cringed at the urine splatter moment, and definitely understand how seeing something like that can not only be offensive, but painful and devastating to some people,” the rabbi said. “But I don’t think the urine splatter sinks to the level of intentional defamation. It’s intensely edgy humor, which sometimes works and sometimes truly tanks, and a lot of it is in the eye of the viewer.”
Among Jewish comedy experts, Rabbi Alper wasn’t alone in his mixed feelings.
“I found it really shocking,” said Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, the co-author of “The Big Book of Jewish Humor” and a rabbi in the Jewish Renewal movement. “I’m not going to defend it even though I thought it was a very funny show in its entirety. Remember, Larry David doesn’t present himself as a very likeable character. That in itself makes Jews uncomfortable. What saves the day is that he usually gets his comeuppances at the end of the show.”
Even the Anti-Defamation League took a swipe at David’s latest antics, along with the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, which condemned the tastelessness and the vulgarity of David’s latest incident.
“Larry David took his irreverence to a new low in the scene involving a picture of Jesus,” said ADL spokeswoman Myrna Shinbaum. “His mocking of Christianity to get a laugh was offensive to Christians and disrespectful of religion.”
But HBO does not apologize for David’s antics and supports the comedian’s right to poke fun at whomever he so chooses.
“Anyone who follows ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ knows that the show is full of parody and satire,” read an official statement from HBO. “Larry David makes fun of everyone, most especially himself. The humor is always playful and certainly never malicious.”
Since the series began back in 2000, David has had a history of poking fun at Christian beliefs and rituals. Perhaps most memorable is the Season 3 episode when David accidentally eats cookies shaped like the baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary, which his Christian wife Cheryl has left on the countertop as part of a Christmas manger scene.
“I thought they were animal cookies!” he exclaims to her astonished family members.
“I thought he was a monkey,” David continues, pointing to Jesus’ spot in the edible nativity scene. “I though that was all part of the zoo.”
But to the Catholic League’s Donohue, most of these jabs — though quite offensive — pale in comparison to urine on a portrait of Jesus.
“He has to understand that some of the stuff that he’s talking about don’t quite match up with pissing on Jesus — it’s not quite in the same ballpark per se,” Donohue said. “If we don’t say anything about this, then they’ll be [defecating] on him next week.”
Says Rabbi Waldoks: “We do a lot of talk about anti-Semitism and we don’t talk about the fact that there’s a lot of anti-goyism in Judaism as well,” Rabbi Waldoks said.
“Larry David is an equal opportunity offender,” said Rabbi Alper, pointing to David’s mockery of the Yom Kippur service, where irreverent Jewish congregants are scalping their tickets outside the synagogue on the holiest day in Judaism.
“It still made me laugh because of the absurdity,” he added. “Maybe I have a thick skin.”
Campbell added, “If we’re looking for Larry David to be tame and in the middle of the road we’re looking for the wrong thing.”
And overall, though these experts agree that urinating on Jesus brings David’s shtick to a whole new level of insult, they also suggest that David probably didn’t have particularly cruel intentions.
“I don’t think there was an underlying mean agenda,” Rabbi Alper said. “It was comedy, and if there was any agenda, it was mocking silliness in the mother and daughter’s decision to buy a Winnebago and travel the country with the picture.”
But the one issue that pretty much everyone — Catholic or Jewish, comedian or not — remains baffled over is why a portrait of Jesus was hanging next to the toilet in the first place.
“I doubt that Jesus portraits are often found in Christian bathrooms,” Rabbi Alper continued. “Judaism, of course, has a prayer for going to the toilet, often posted just outside the lavatory, thanking God for bodily orifices that work.
“Talk to someone who has urinary tract problems and you’ll understand how meaningful this prayer can be.”