Monday, February 26, 2024

'He Knows to Get a Dollar'

The word tummler I learned from A.J. Liebling. It’s the title of a story he collected in his first book, Back Where I Came From (1938). “Tummler” was published in the February 26, 1938 issue of The New Yorker and begins: 

“To the boys of the I.&Y., Hymie Katz is a hero. He is a short, broad-shouldered, olive-complexioned man who looks about forty-two and is really somewhat older. In his time he has owned twenty-five nightclubs.


“‘Hymie is a tummler,’ the boys at the I&Y. say. ‘Hymie is a man what knows to get a dollar.’”


The I.&Y. is Izzy Yereshevsky’s all-night cigar store at Forty-ninth Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan in the nineteen-thirties. Hymie operates a horse-race tipping scam. He telephones doctors and ministers who live fifty to one-hundred miles from New York City, asking the operator to reverse the charges. Hymie tells them about a horse sure to win, usually at Belmont Park. All the mark has to do is send Hymie the winnings on a ten-dollar bet. “Sometimes the horse does win,” Liebling writes, "and the smalltown man always remits Hymie’s share of the profits. He wants to be in on the next sure thing. Doctors, Hymie believes, are the most credulous of mortals. Ministers never squawk.”

Tummler is Yiddish from the German tumlen, “to make a racket,” and tummeln, “to stir.” The OED’s definition is a little stodgy: “a person who amuses others with light-hearted jokes or clownish humour; a comic entertainer; esp. one employed at a hotel, holiday resort, etc., to entertain or amuse guests, or to direct and encourage their participation in activities.” In other words, the borscht belt resorts in the Catskills, where the clientele was largely Jewish. A friend who grew up on the margins of that world told me tummler can be used disparagingly to describe bottom-rung comics, people who will do anything for a laugh, like dropping his trousers or telling fart jokes. His example was Jerry Lewis. Among writers, Laurence Sterne and Stanley Elkin are tummlers, and not in a negative way.


In my personal lexicon, I apply tummler to men (and it’s almost always men) who work desperately to be thought of as irresistibly funny guys but are not. In addition, they tend to laugh at their own gags, which always kills whatever vestigial humor might have been in the original joke. Liebling closes his story:


“‘You know who was in here?’ Izzy asks friends who come in after Hymie has departed. ‘Hymie Katz.’ Izzy shakes his head admiringly. ‘He’s a real tummler, that Hymie. He knows to get a dollar.’”

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