Is Jonathan Cheban The Schlemiel of Calabasas?
Fame, fries, and vanity on social media
On top of a hill overlooking the San Fernando Valley, Queen Kris lived with her five beloved princesses in a gated shtetl called Calabasas. The shtetl was filled with happy, cheerful folk who lacked any worries other than reconciling their love of spray tans with their need for chemical peels. Each day, the sun rose with roosters crowing over the Malibu horizon and set with the loud splash of Instagram models diving into infinity pools. All was well in the shtetl until one day, Kim, Kris’s favorite princess, decided to bring home her new BFF, Jonathan Cheban. He descended from a shtetl far, far away in New Jersey. “He’s so funny, mom!” Kim called her mother and sisters downstairs to introduce them to her new companion. He had pasty tan skin, a bowl-cut, and was ambiguously aged. Little did they know that they were welcoming the schlemiel of Calabasas into their palace.
A famous Yiddish idiom states, “If a schlemiel decided to sell candles, the sun would never set.” In Yiddish folklore, the schlemiel is a farcical figure, clumsily stumbling into absurd situations because of his naïveté. In one tale about a schlemiel, a traveler driving a wagon picks up a peddler carrying a heavy sack. During the ride to the village, the driver asks the peddler why he doesn’t place the sack in the back of the wagon. The peddler replies, “It’s enough that you’re taking me to the city — you don’t have to carry my sack too!”
Jonathan Cheban, a 43-year old man who refers to himself as the “Foodgōd,” is something of an anomaly in the Kardashian-Jenner universe. Over the course of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” he has randomly appeared throughout the series, supporting his best friend Kim during times of need, soaking up all the attention at a tomato farm in Iceland, bragging about his impeccable PR wisdom while sitting poolside with Kendall Jenner, and — his favorite thing to do — snapping selfies with expensive food. His motivations and origins are unclear. In what nightclub did he befriend Kim Kardashian? What does he exactly do? Why is he so obsessed with food? On a TV show filled with people whose fame has been tirelessly debated, Jonathan Cheban illuminates the Kafka-esque shallowness of his surroundings in a highly specific way.
Before he was a Foodgōd, he was a publicist in New York City, working with Sean “Diddy” Combs and other celebrities in the early 2000s. At some point between the invasion of Iraq and the fall of Lehman Brothers, Jonathan Cheban met Kim Kardashian and became a reoccurring guest on her reality show. After a decade of standing in awe of his BFF’s success, he’s taken a stab at self-branding. Mr. Cheban spends his days documenting his excessive eating habits on SnapChat, Twitter, and Instagram. A typical day begins with gold-flaked Eggs Benedict for breakfast, followed by a lunch of albacore sashimi, a strategically lowbrow afternoon snack of French fries, dinner at an expensive steakhouse, and then the grand finale — an elaborate, pyro-technically enhanced cupcake topped with butterscotch caramel and Captain Crunch cereal. His quivering voice offers a rare window into a fraught subjectivity — “you guys…what’s up… you won’t believe this… a cupcake that lights up… and tastes like…cereal… you guys, this is HAPPENING! You guys…”
In Ruth Wisse’s book The Schlemiel as a Modern Hero, she argues that the schlemiel is “a fool, out of step with the actual march of events. Yet the impulse of the joke, and of schlemiel literature in general, is to use the comical stance as a stage from which to challenge the political and philosophical status quo.” Through his clumsy attempt at self-branding, Cheban manages to expose and subsequently mock the “status quo” of his star-fucker universe. Like other Instagram celebrities, his posts are peppered with sketchy product sponsorships and promotion deals. With Jonathan Cheban, however, everything seems laughably, hyperbolically fake. When scrolling through his Instagram feed or watching his Snap stories, rather than feeling hungry, jealous, or a combination of the two, one feels desensitized — more steak, more cupcakes, more 1Oak, more Miami Beach.
Though Kim Kardashian has mastered the art of social media-fame, Jonathan Cheban seems blissfully unaware that the secret behind his friend’s success is that she gestures towards being relatable. Her Instagram intersperses photos of her children with luxurious moments in private jets, embodying a 21st century motherhood that’s unattainable and yet seems achievable. After falling victim to a robbery in Paris, she took a break from social media altogether and then returned with a more refined, simplified aesthetic coupled with a renewed focus on her nuclear family.
While Kim occasionally gifts the masses a few breadcrumbs of authenticity — a tweet about how her son Saint West resembles the baby emoji, a lo-fi family video, and late night confessions of her psoriasis — the Foodgōd tosses us a self-combusting lava-cake for the umpteenth time. At its core, the Foodgōd brand is a vessel of excess lacking intimacy or narrative. Similar to his schlemiel forefathers, the moment he tries to sell candles, the sun decides not to set.
In spite of all the wealth and proximity to fame, Cheban’s schlemiel tendencies always radiate through, showing how unlike a gold-flaked sugary pastry, a fool can’t be repackaged with a shiny aesthetic. Yiddish scholars Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, however, had insisted that readers treat the schlemiel charitably, describing him as having a “halo of comic sadness” whose “foolishness innocence triumphs over the wisdom of the world.” Although the Kardashians are successful at self-branding, there’s something oddly charming and endearing about Cheban’s shallowness — he’s either tragically oblivious or a self-aware genius. His awkward attempt at fame manages to triumph and expose the fallacy of social-media star “wisdom.” As Kim and her family conquer the world, Jonathan Cheban is tripping and falling behind them, bringing down the curtains and then turning off all the smoke and mirrors — a vanity that is powerfully poignant and revealing.
The schlemiel of Calabasas chips away at the princess’s kingdom one unicorn donut selfie at a time.