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Is Diss a System?

Is Diss a System?: A Milt Gross Comic Reader

EDITED BY Ari Y. Kelman
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Is Diss a System?
    Book Description:

    Milt Gross (1895-1953), a Bronx-born cartoonist and animator, first found fame in the late 1920s, writing comic strips and newspaper columns in the unmistakable accent of Jewish immigrants. By the end of the 1920s, Gross had become one of the most famous humorists in the United States, his work drawing praise from writers like H. L. Mencken and Constance Roarke, even while some of his Jewish colleagues found Gross' extreme renderings of Jewish accents to be more crass than comical.

    Working during the decline of vaudeville and the rise of the newspaper cartoon strip, Gross captured American humor in transition. Gross adapted the sounds of ethnic humor from the stage to the page and developed both a sound and a sensibility that grew out of an intimate knowledge of immigrant life. His parodies of beloved poetry sounded like reading primers set loose on the Lower East Side, while his accounts of Jewish tenement residents echoed with the mistakes and malapropisms born of the immigrant experience.

    Introduced by an historical essay,Is Diss a System?presents some of the most outstanding and hilarious examples of Jewish dialect humor drawn from the five books Gross published between 1926 and 1928-Nize Baby,De Night in de Front from Chreesmas,Hiawatta, Dunt Esk, andFamous Fimmales-providing a fresh opportunity to look, read, and laugh at this nearly forgotten forefather of American Jewish humor.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-4914-2
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-vii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. viii-x)
  4. Introduction GEEVE A LISTEN!
    (pp. 1-54)
    Ari Y. Kelman

    Milt Gross had an ear for comedy. He could hear humor in the recessed corners of American poetry, in great myths, in historical tales, and in the airshafts of Bronx tenements. In classic slapstick style, Gross created a comic universe in which nobody could avoid a pratfall, a malapropism, or a well-placed anachronism that lowered the gods to human status and humans a bit lower still. Nothing escaped his comic ear or his sharp pen, both of which he showcased in an avalanche of cartoons and newspaper columns steeped in the sounds and culture of immigrant Jews.

    Whether readers considered...

  5. Nize Baby (1926) (excerpts)
    (pp. 55-106)

    By 1926, “Gross Exaggerations” had become so successful that Gross collected some of his more popular columns and published them under the titleNize Baby. Like his columns, the book focuses on the families of a four-story New York tenement—the Feitlebaums, the Yifnifs, and the Goldfarbs. Despite the recurring characters and themes, each chapter basically stands on its own.

    The transitions among the three stories are often clumsy, and changes in story are indicated by a change of “floor” instead of something more elegant or fluid. Gross intended that the move from floor to floor would function as a...

  6. Dunt Esk! (1927)
    (pp. 107-162)

    Gross extended the narrative form ofNize BabyinDunt Esk!. It elaborated on the same characters and themes but with a few changes, including the migration of the Feitlebaums to the second floor and the Yifnifs to the first. Also, Looy dot dope, who belonged to the Yifnif family in the first book, somehow became a Feitlebaum.

    Moreover, Looy dot dope, who appeared occasionally inNize Baby, developed into a fuller character in this volume. His accent and attitude differ from those of his parents, and he provided the voice of a typical wise-cracking, Americanized son. Unlike his brother...

  7. De Night in De Front from Chreesmas (1927)
    (pp. 163-186)

    This is perhaps Gross’s most popular and well-known work, next toHe Done Her Wrong. It is a masterful retelling of the Clement Clark Moore original. The short verses and cartoon illustrations reimagine the poem from the perspective of the Feitlebaums and turn the standard story inside out. Gross replaces stockings hung “by the chimney with care” with a laundry line, and instead of welcoming the sounds of reindeer on the roof, Gross worried about disturbing the neighbors.

    For Gross, the night before Christmas was full of nightmares about “critchures mysteerous,” a spider hunter, and an appearance from “Tsenta Cluss...

  8. Hiawatta (1926)
    (pp. 187-210)

    Somehow, Gross managed to hold on to Longfellow’s characteristic rhythm while still translating the story into broken, Yiddish-inflected English. Unlike other popular parodies of the poem (it is one of the most beloved and parodied poems in American literature), Gross’s version bears almost no resemblance to the original except in rhythm and title.

    In this version, Hiawatta’s village became a suburb, only “fiftin meenits from de station.” And the chief’s “pipe tebecca” poisoned all of the animals of the forest. Hiawatta’s birth violated the “no cheeldren” clause of the settlement, but Hiawatta was permitted to stay, and he learned to...

  9. Famous Fimmales (1928)
    (pp. 211-272)

    Originally written forCosmopolitan, the stories in this book find Gross nearly at his best. His illustrations are increasingly delicate and detailed, and they predict the intensity that would soon reach its full development inHe Done Her Wrong. Likewise, the book is a fuller version of the stories that counted for much of Mrs. Goldfarb’s contribution toNize Baby.

    Whether in his epic retelling of “de insite sturry from de woild” or his version of the story of the Garden of Eden (“Iv”), Gross clearly found his rhythm in this work. Each story is full of the Jewish dialect...

  10. Assorted Milt Gross Images
    (pp. 273-288)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 289-292)
  12. About the Editor
    (pp. 293-293)