A Salute To Schnooks!
Where would comedy be without them?
As I toil away on my next podcast and oddball comic, let’s take a moment to appreciate that crucial part of comedy known as “The Schnook.”
A schnook is defined as “an easily imposed-upon or cheated person, A stupid or unimportant person, a pitifully meek person, a particularly gullible person, a cute or mischievous person or child.” Schnook has it’s foundation in Yiddish, which as anyone with even a modicum of comedic knowledge knows is a language rich in comedy “K’s” with words so useful to hilarity like “Schlemiel,” “Shmendrick,” “Putz,” “Klutz,” or “Yutz.”
While one can be a Klutz they can easily be a Yutz, Putz and a Shmendrick, as well as be a Schnook.
Now that I think about it, Yiddish has as many words to describe a “fool” as Eskimos have for the word “snow.”
This tells you something about the relationship between comedy and Judaism. As Mel Brooks says, “Feeling different, feeling alienated, feeling persecuted, feeling that the only way to deal with the world is to laugh - because if you don't laugh you're going to cry and never stop crying - that's probably what's responsible for the Jews having developed such a great sense of humor. The people who had the greatest reason to weep, learned more than anyone else how to laugh.”
And what’s more crucial to a good laugh than a patsy for the joke, a total putz for the fall, or a incredible schnook as the victim?
It’s human nature to laugh at the pratfalls of others. If it wasn’t there would never have been schnooks like court jesters, clowns, dismal stand-up comedians, politicians …or George Costanza.
Comedy without a “Schnook" is called “boring.”
My illustration with this article demonstrates just a small handful of the many outstanding schnooks from American TV and Film that helped to make the world laugh.
Ed Wynn (not to be confused with Ed Flynn) is the oldest schnook depicted. He started out in Vaudeville in 1903 and spent most of his career playing characters who were good-hearted, goofy voiced simpletons in silly costumes.
Here’s a scene from The Ed Wynn Show from the 1950’s with guests, The Three Stooges, who were also schnooks.
William Bendix carved out quite the career for himself as an actor who usually played comedic roles. His most notable role was that of Chester A. Riley, the lovable schnook in the Film and TV show, “The Life of Riley.” His classic catch phrase after whatever predicament he found himself in was “What a revoltin' development this is!”
Kevin James in “The King of Queens” owes much of his schnookish character to the stereotype set by William Bendix.
The actor Ernest Borgnine was often typecast as a schnook, though usually a moody, depressed underdog schnook. His did it so well he earned an Oscar for his performance as the lead role in the film “Marty.”
While Borgnine played the moody underdog schnook, actor Herb Vigran was always cast as a background schnook in the middle-aged "everyman" roles: cops, crooks, bartenders, judges, etc.
Although sometimes his role verged more to the schmendrick side of the comedy aisle.
The Schnook in Sci-fi and Mystery.
If you ever watched The Twilight Zone you’d notice that Rod Serling often used the schnook as the protagonist in many episodes since a fool’s actions make great fodder for sci-fi and mystery tales.
The episodes Escape Clause, where a fool pays a heavy price for immortality in a deal with the Devil, or Time Enough at Last , where a book worm survives a nuclear apocalypse and thinks he has all the time in the world to catch up on his favorite books only to break his glasses in the last scene, both illustrate perfectly the use of the schnook in the series.
Many of the actors I’ve illustrated all appeared in Twilight Zone episodes. Ed Wynn as the Salesman making a pitch to stall Death; William Bendix in an early version of the show as a man from the future who tries to warn people in 1941 of the Pearl Harbor Attack. Percy Helton also appeared in a couple Twilight Zone episodes. Helton was a character actor known for his raspy falsetto voice and often nebbish portrayals as a clerk, a manager or some other schnook.
John McGiver was another actor with incredible range in regards to schnooks. He usually was cast as pompous Englishmen and other stuffy, aristocratic and bureaucratic types. But his best moment was in Midnight Cowboy as a truly disturbed schnook. We should also note that in this movie Dustin Hoffman’s character Ratso Rizzo is another classic schnook.
Speaking of disturbed schnooks, Ray Walston was an accomplished actor who perfected schnookism with a wonderful side-helping of mania. While he was better known in My Favorite Martian, he will also be remembered for his playing jealous schnook husband Orville J. Spooner in Kiss Me Stupid and obsessed schnook teacher, Mr. Hand, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Not to be left out from the schnook line-up is Arnold Stang. Stang was the classic caricature of a schnook and played as such in most of his roles. He was a short bespectacled, chinless dork with a distinctive squawky, nasal Brooklyn voice. He was the perfect spokesman for Chunky chocolate bars since he resembled the kind of awkward pimply faced kids who would gobbled down such crud. However he wasn’t just some typecast schnook, he was also a voice actor and best known as the voice of Top Cat.
While Stang was a pretty close top contender for all around schnook, the absolute king of schnookery was none other than Don Knotts. Who can forget the innumerable roles he played where he was the hysterical patsy in everything from The Andy Griffith Show to all his hilarious film roles, Like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken or The Shakiest Gun in The West
Don Knotts made a lifelong career from playing the meek gullible fool and proved just how integral The Schnook is to any great comedy.
Knotts was also known, oddly enough, as quite a ladies’ man, which begs one question as to rather women prefer a leading man or the schnook.
Since I’m more closely akin to a schnook, I’ll say women prefer the latter.
Just ask my wife, please.
Thanks for reading this. I’ll be back next week with a new comic and a podcast.
What’s your opinion of the schnook? What’s your favorite play, movie or TV show where one is featured?
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