Because we need “Gravity Falls” – The Forward more than ever

It is as difficult to explain how a joke works as to explain how Jewish it is. Take this … please. “My wife still misses”. She pauses. “But her focus is getting better.”

What makes a joke work is, in part, a matter of timing. You lose the break and the audience misses the beat. Not just an audience, but any number of audiences in any number of places. Even if you get on a dilapidated dinghy from which you approach other boaters in the middle of a lake and tell the joke, if you lose the rhythm, chances are no one will laugh.

The odds are greater that they won’t laugh if you explain why they should: “See, it’s funny because marriage is terrible.” The odds get even greater no one will laugh if everyone, including the hapless prankster, is resident in a fictional Oregon town called Gravity Falls.

See, that makes it fun. And Hebrew, which is less a case of having the right timing than being so terribly wrong.

“Gravity Falls” is not the title of a Richard Russo or Ann Beattie novel – much less Thomas Pynchon’s sequel to his epic laff revolt, “Gravity’s Rainbow” – but instead of Alex Hirsch’s stunning animated television series. It blew up 10 years ago and shone for just two short years. Much to the dismay of the Disney outfits – the show topped the charts for his cartoon channel – as well as fans of “Falls”, Hirsch decided he had told the story he wanted to tell and brought it to a close.

The show follows the adventures of twins Pines, Dipper and Mabel, 12, wrapped up by parents we never see spending the summer with a great-uncle, or Grunkle, they never met: Stanley Pines. Neglected and ambiguous, Stan is a blatant cheater. He lives in a roadside junkyard that doubles as a tourist trap called The Mystery Shack, where he throws wool over the eyes of visitors with exhibits of fantastic wildlife he has glued together – the Jackalope or Sascrotch – then combs through them in his he shop. of souvenirs.

It is inevitably lovable; this is, after all, a children’s cartoon. But it’s also persistently cheeky because that’s a special kind of cartoon for kids too. According to my 17-year-old Louisa, with whom I have seen (more than once) all the episodes and who is proud to own a Dipper cap (yes, Gravity Falls has its own virtual gift shop), the show is “meta. “- a four-letter word for self-awareness served with a hint of irony.

But long before Bojack and Bart, Beevis and Butthead, meta was, if not betta, at least as good in a place called Frostbite Falls. This was where Rocky Squirrel and Bullwinkle Moose were born. Yes, the same Bullwinkle who, when another character told him “Let me be frank”, replied “And let me be Bullwinkle”.

Six years old and glued to the set with bunny ears every Saturday morning for “The Adventures of Rocky, Bullwinkle and Friends”, I don’t think I get the joke. But I had, at least, the visual joke of a talking squirrel and moose. Also, I realized that there was something more at work, something I couldn’t understand, but my parents could. Why else would they laugh at what I thought were the wrong times?

Looking back, I enjoyed the rumors and the farce, but my mother enjoyed the dialogue. How could she not do it? Take “Goof Gas”, where Pottsylvanian spies Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale discuss whether to spray gas in the Senate chamber, turning its members into fools. After hearing the speeches, a senator asks: “Let’s take the government out of the government!” while another complains that he is sending foreign aid “to places like Hawaii and Alaska” – Boris and Natasha conclude that goof gas would be redundant.

The distance between Gravity Falls and Frostbite Falls isn’t that great. Rocky and Bullwinkle, as well as the iconic “George of the Jungle”, were the brainchild of Jay Ward. Like Alex Hirsch, Ward was born in California to a Jewish father and a kind mother and eventually abandoned his paternal surname Cohen. While Ward didn’t make much of this background, Hirsch did. A type of. In a tweet a few years ago, he observed that Uncle Stan grew up Jewish but became an atheist.

Alex Hirsch’s fictional world has something in common with that of Rocky and Bullwinkle the Moose, seen here flying at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Photo by Getty Images

But the show’s Jewish sensibility appears to be a topic of interest in the “Gravity Falls” fandom. Certainly it is to Louisa – that she also has a Jewish father and a kind mother – that she finds something Jewish in the spectacle’s attraction to the embarrassing and outcast, the stranger and the other. All the more so when, still a child and still a Jew, you find yourself catapulted into a place like Gravity Falls, alien and goy like the YMCA camp buried in Poconos where I was banished one summer.

Of course, there is something clearly Jewish in episodes like “Dipper vs Manliness”. Mortally embarrassed when Stan surprises him, wrapped only in a towel and singing together Abba’s “Dancing Queen” in the bathroom mirror, Dipper decides to become a man. Leading him is a “minotaur” named Chutzpar – who sports a red yarmulke between his horns and a carpet of hair on his back – who takes him to the Cave of Man for his initiation. (Predictably, at the end of the episode, Dipper learns that showing compassion for the weak and not breaking the boulders above one’s head is the most manly trait.)

But that’s too obvious a clue for a show that boasts of the complexity of clues that Dipper and Mabel face in their quest to uncover the reason for the strange happenings that keep happening in Gravity Falls. Their guide is a three-volume diary, filled with cryptic warnings and cryptic answers that, volume after volume, Dipper discovers and decrypts. As Dipper masters these Gnostic texts, Gravity Falls approaches an apocalypse called Weirdmageddon to which only the diaries hold the key.

While it’s not quite as obvious as a minotaur wearing a red yarmulke or Don Rickles’ channeling of arch-villain Bill Cipher, there is something Jewish going on here. It is not just Dipper’s attachment to the written word, but to the ethical, almost eschatological meaning carried by the words, a focus that seems not only Talmudic, but somewhat cabalistic. The observation made by Gershom Scholem, the pioneering scholar of Hebrew mysticism, that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet have “magical and secret power” is equally suitable for the letters and numbers in Dipper’s diaries.

Even more appropriate, however, is the ethical angle shared by both of these worlds. Just as Kabbalah emphasizes the role we all have to play in repairing a broken world, so too Hirsch’s heterogeneous group must unite with each other to set up a “strange” world. Since Gravity Falls is canceling itself out in the show’s final episode, the only way to retrieve the fragments and do it again is as a group. Given the personal dislikes running through the group, that’s easier said than done, but it is. (Or almost, but that’s another story.)

Yet Scholem could very well point to a crucial difference. At the end of the day, Kabbalah literally seeks the end of the day. The kabbalist desires, Scholem observes, the “restoration of the ideal order, which constitutes the original purpose of creation.” Given the violent reality of Jewish life in early modern Europe, this embrace of the ideal makes sense.

But less so in the postmodern Gravity Falls. At the end of the final season, the inhabitants of Gravity Falls are not so immodest as to seek the restoration of ideal order. Instead, all they want is the restoration of their wildly non-ideal order. An order that also makes room for ganifs like Stan, who wisely notes that “when life gives you lemons, call them yellow oranges and sell them for double the price”.