Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Esperanto — The Most Neutral Thing

Tobias Sigel
Not a funny man.
Except the hair
An Esperantist walked into a bar… Okay, that’s a setup for a joke, but I’m not certain what the punchline should be. Maybe it’s better that way.

Most of the article that appeared in the October 13, 1914 Washington Post was concerned with the then-current antipathy the Canadians had for the Germans. Canada had been in the war since August 4, 1914 and the Canadians were ready to cast off all things German, just as Americans did after their entry in the war.

Groucho Marx, in his 1972 album An Evening with Groucho attributed anti-Germany sentiments in Canada to the Lusitania, noting, “I was supposed to sing a song, a German song, and I was afraid they were going to kill me if I did, that audience.” Groucho’s fears might have been appropriate even before the sinking of the Lusitania, which (after all) wasn’t a Canadian ship (it was British), wasn’t sailing from or to Canada (New York to Liverpool), and Canada was already at war with Germany when the Lusitania was torpedoed (May 7, 1915). It is entirely possible that Groucho decided it would be prudent not to sing “Oh, How That Woman Could Cook” (and here’s a 1915 rendition, so it stayed popular for a while).

In vaudeville, performers often specialized in performing as specific ethnic stereotypes, though the didn’t necessarily stick with it. And so Ada Jones and Len Spencer recorded as “The Original Cohens” (not one of the finer moments of the music business), although neither of them were Jewish. So, just because you had been a German comedian, didn’t mean you have to stay one, which was undoubtably a great help to the unnamed performer in an article from the October 13, 1914 Washington Post.

“German” Comedian Greeted in Toronto With a Shower of Empty Beer Bottles
Detroit. Oct. 12.—If the man who got up the idea of burdening the theater with so-called dialect comedians—and if he is ever uncovered he should be shot at sunrise—would only invent a neutral dialect, he would circumvent a lot of inconvenience.

A man who is working at one of the local burlesque theaters this week said he was almost killed in Toronto last week because he appeared before the footlights dressed as a German.

He said he find the Canadians are intensely patriotic. He started to perform in German dialect, and somebody shied a beer bottle at him. This convinced him that Irish or Scotch is the only safe stuff across the border.

German comedians also find it hard to get from the United States to Canada. The royal spies are ever on the alert to bring death and destruction on the heads of any detractors of the mother country. It’s not a pleasant life to be a German comedian.

Dr. Tobias Sigel was asked about this and he said the only thing to do is to instruct all comedians in Esperanto. He says this will be a great boost for the universal language and should be offensive to nobody. He says the Esperanto is the most neutral thing he knows of.
(I'd like to commend the Post writer's aversion to ethnic humor, which is sort of a contradiction in terms, since it is rarely funny.)

Groucho Marx’s solution was to adopt a stock Jewish persona. As he said from the stage of Carnegie Hall, “so I put some makeup on here and made myself a Jew comedian, which I had never been.” There’s a problem with the suggestion of telling the jokes in Esperanto: what do you do if audiences don’t speak it?

Note also that the comedian in question was a [in quotes] “German” comedian. It could have been Groucho himself, for all we know. Not, more likely than not, one who was an actual native of Germany. Groucho himself was born in New York City (as Julius Henry Marx), the son of Jewish immigrants from Alsace and Germany.

But what of Dr. Tobias Sigel? He was a physician, born in Germany in May 1862, who emigrated to the United States in 1879 (that would be eight years before the publication of Esperanto). He was secretary of the Detroit Esperanto Society (at least in 1911) and was active in the Esperanto movement from 1909 until his death in 1936. Dr. Sigel seems to have been an influential figure in the Detroit medical community, where he specialized in hydrotherapy. He does not seem to have been any particular authority on what’s funny.
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1 comment:

  1. An Esperantist walks in a bar. Because they forgot the accusative ending.


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