In the early
1990s, the children of America's baby boomers--the second generation
raised on television--came to be known as Generation X, a label
that signified their unsure place in the world. Unlike their
parents, they deferred marriage after college to pursue their
dreams of lucrative and glamorous careers. The Jewish comedy
writers of this period played on the "Gen X" mentality of self-fulfillment
and indulgence in scripting films and television programs which
spoofed their self-centeredness. And Jewish performers in the
'70s and '80s who had been largely relegated to supporting roles
now emerged as the leads in popular TV sitcoms such as Seinfeld
and Friends. So, too, some of the principal characters
had Jewish identities, such as Grace Adler in Will and Grace
and Kyle Broflovski in South Park--a stark contrast to
the '70s, when Jewish characters, such as Archie Bunker's Jewish
niece Stephanie, had only supporting roles. The public's acceptance
of this phenomenon affirmed that "Jewishness" had finally become
an integral part of America's pop-culture landscape.
ADO ABOUT "NOTHING"
I'm the best man, why is she marrying him?" --Jerry
1988, comedian Jerry Seinfeld (a frequent Tonight Show
guest) sat across from his longtime friend Larry David (a former
writer for Saturday Night Live) at the Westway Diner
in midtown Manhattan and bemoaned his inability to create a
sitcom vehicle that reflected the "Seinfeld brand of humor"--astute
observational comedy. They conceived of a sitcom which would
recall classic television: Jerry Seinfeld, like fellow Jewish
comedian Jack Benny before him, would play himself, a comedian
beset by life's trials and trivialities.
premiered in May 1990 to a tepid response. "We were fortieth
in the ratings," recalls Seinfeld writer Tom Leopold,
"but network execs just left it on. Now they'd kill it after
six episodes--but because it stayed on and it was funny, word
of mouth did the rest."
by Jewish head writer Larry David (the inspiration for Jerry's
friend George Costanza, portrayed by Jason Alexander), assisted
by Jewish writers Tom Leopold, Carol Leifer (the model for the
character of Jerry's friend Elaine Benes, portrayed by Julia
Louis-Dreyfus), and Dave Mandel, Seinfeld soon emerged
as the hippest sitcom in America. "People said it was 'a show
about nothing,'" says writer/performer Robert Smigel (SNL,
TV Funhouse), "but it had the most dense plotlines. It was
about the minutiae, the minor annoyances that define our everyday
lives." Seinfeld's character reflected the ambitious Jewish
man of the '90s who is unable to make a commitment to a woman,
breaking up with girlfriends for trivial reasons; in one episode
he dropped a woman for wearing the same dress every day. Lawrence
J. Epstein, author of The Haunted Smile, sees Seinfeld's
indecisiveness in matters of love as a metaphor for the inability
of many American Jews to affirm their Jewishness. "The longstanding
tension between Jewish and American identities is partially
overcome in Seinfeld," Epstein writes, "by having the
characters not choose at all, by refusing to be grown up enough
to have to choose."
brand of humor was "a neurotic Jewish craziness and narcissism
that just captured America," comments comedy legend Carl Reiner
(Your Show of Shows, Oh, God!). In one episode, Jerry's
friend Kramer (Michael Richards) meets Jerry's Jewish girlfriend,
who keeps kosher ("Wow! You're so pious...when you die, you're
going to get some special attention"). Later on, Kramer stops
her as she is about to succumb to the temptation of eating lobster.
"You saved me," she says. "I knew you'd regret it for the rest
of your life," he replies. In the end, however, George (Jason
Alexander) tricks her into eating the forbidden food. This twist
reveals the essence of Seinfeld: comedic interplay between
kindness and cruelty.
writers, however, did not condone heartless behavior. In the
final episode, Jerry and his friends land in prison for standing
idly by as a man is robbed of his car. The show's closing message:
even in Seinfeld's amoral universe, one cannot escape
openly Jewish leading man and Jewish themes, Seinfeld,
the most successful sitcom of the '90s, was a watershed in the
portrayal of Jews on TV.
because if Santa and the Holiday Armadillo are even in the
same room for too long, the universe will implode!"
Claus (Matthew Perry), when Ben (Cole Sprouse) asks why the
Holiday Armadillo (David Schwimmer) has to go away, on Friends
a new sitcom focused on six single New Yorkers, two of them
Jewish. Created by Jewish comedy writer Marta Kauffman and her
writing partner David Crane, Friends explores the lives
of these twenty- and thirty-something platonic friends, lovers,
roommates, and siblings who form an extended family. In a classic
episode, Ross Geller, a single Jewish father (played by David
Schwimmer), tries to teach his young son Ben (Cole Sprouse)
about the meaning of Hanukkah. Ben, who's been celebrating Christmas
(Ross's ex-wife is Christian), can't imagine not having a visit
from Santa. To please him, Ross sets out to buy a Santa suit,
but can only find an Armadillo costume. Dressed as the "Holiday
Armadillo," he wishes Ben a "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Hanukkah."
Ben then asks, "Are you for Hanukkah too? Because I'm part Jewish!"
Elated by his son's reaction, Ross tells his friends: "I'm finally
getting him excited about Hanukkah!" The episode's message:
with so much intermarriage, divorce, and assimilation, it isn't
easy for a young Jewish single in a state of limbo to raise
a child with his Jewish identity intact.
couples became commonplace in '90s sitcoms. In The Nanny,
an outspoken, self-spoofing Jewish nanny (played by Jewish actress
Fran Drescher) eventually married her proper English employer.
Dharma and Greg explored the comedic contrasts between
a new age Jewish hippie and her button-down WASP businessman
husband. Mad About You delved into the lives of Jewish
filmmaker Paul Buchman (Paul Reiser) and his beautiful non-Jewish
wife Jamie (Helen Hunt). In stark contrast, a generation earlier,
the 1972 series Bridget Loves Bernie (about the relationship
between a Jewish man and his Irish Catholic wife) had to be
cancelled because of protests from both the Jewish and Catholic
FEMALE & PROUD
"Well, what makes you think that you have the better candidate?"
"Grace, he's gay."
"Well, mine's a woman and Jewish. That makes two victims to
(Eric McCormack) and Grace (Debra Messing) arguing about political
candidates, Will and Grace
and Grace, a comedy series featuring a gay male lead, broke
new ground when it premiered on network TV in fall 1998. Created
by David Kohan and Max Mutchnick (both Jewish), the show explores
the platonic relationship between Will Truman (Eric McCormack),
a gay WASP lawyer, and Grace Adler (Debra Messing), a heterosexual
Jewish interior designer. In addition to its honest portrayal
of homosexuals, the series is trailblazing in its depiction
of a beautiful, proudly Jewish female lead who is refreshingly
free of negative stereotyping. In the "Cheaters" episode, for
example, Grace discovers that Will's married father George (Sydney
Pollack)has taken a mistress, Tina (Lesley Ann Warren). Grace
informs a disbelieving Will, who then invites his father and
Tina to dinner. Frustrated by the triviality of the conversation,
Grace takes Will aside and explains that, in her Jewish family,
a matter of such gravity would have been put on the table before
the appetizer. Will counters by saying that, in his family,
that's not the way things happen. Finally, as a result of Grace's
prodding, Will and his father engage in a long-overdue heart-to-heart.
The show's portrayal of a Jewish woman as emotionally forthright
and honest contrasts sharply with Woody Allen's depiction of
Alvy Singer's loud and outlandish Jewish family in Annie
COMEDY COMES OF AGE
is the festival of lights,
of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights!
you feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree,
a list of people who are Jewish, just like you and me!"
Sandler, "Hanukkah Song"
Saturday Night Live producer/writer Lorne Michaels (born
Lorne Lipowitz) tapped Simpsons and SNL writer
Conan O'Brien to host NBC's Late Night. Renamed Late
Night with Conan O'Brien, the revamped show was built around
comedy sketches rather than celebrity interviews. Conan's handpicked
head writer Robert Smigel seized this opportunity to add Jewish
content, casting himself as Ira, Conan's ineffectual, sleazy
agent, satirizing the stereotypically Jewish Hollywood mowerbroker.
Later, Smigel introduced perhaps the show's most successful
character, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a talking-dog puppet
(with a Russian accent reminiscent of Smigel's immigrant Jewish
family) who conducted celebrity interviews while parodying such
Jewish Borscht Belt comedians as insult comic Don Rickles and
Yiddish dialect comedian Myron Cohen.
'90s, Jewish parodies on Saturday Night Live reflected
two contrasting comedic impulses: the audacious Lenny Bruce
and the amiable Adam Sandler. In the Brucian tradition, Jewish
writer Hugh Fink satirized network TV's rush to air Christmas
specials while ignoring Chanukah. In his SNL sketch "And
So This Is Chanukah," Fink had pop icon Britney Spears (played
by Christina Ricci) deliver the line: "Chanukah is a special
holiday, where we as Christians take time out to think about
forgiving our Jewish friends for killing our Lord." Reaction
was swift. "The head of the Anti-Defamation League was all over
the national press," recalls Fink, who attributes the backlash
to the politically-correct climate of the '90s. "Al Franken
had done jokes about Jews killing Jesus years earlier, but back
then, Jewish groups didn't bat an eye."
Adam Sandler's ethnic-pride anthem "Hanukkah Song,"--a celebratory
"who's a Jew" in song ("Some people think that Ebenezer Scrooge
is / Well, he's not, but guess who is? / All Three Stooges!")--set
off no alarms at the ADL. "Adam takes his role as a stereotype-breaker
very seriously," says longtime friend and collaborator Robert
Smigel. "He grew up in New Hampshire, where he had to deal with
antisemitism; now he likes being a strong role model for Jewish
kids. A lot of Jewish role models in comedy have been the nebbish,
the nerd, the loser, the self-deprecating guy. Adam feels really
good about saying, comedically, you don't have to be the geek;
the fact that you're Jewish doesn't mean you're any less cool."
shall not kill. Thou shall not commit adultery. Don't eat
pork. I'm sorry, what was that last one? Don't eat pork? Is
that the word of God, or is that pigs trying to outsmart everybody?"
11, 1999, Craig Kilborn, the smarmy host of Comedy Central's
late-night news parody The Daily Show, turned over the
reins to whip-smart writer/comedian Jon Stewart (a.k.a. Jon
Stewart Liebowitz). Stewart, who is also executive producer,
writes much of his own material for the revamped show, which
was renamed The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
and witty political satirist in the tradition of Mort Sahl and
Lenny Bruce, Stewart lampoons news media trends with a stream
of wisecracks and a team of on-location correspondents whose
buffoonery recalls the residents of Chelm, the fabled Jewish
village of fools. Recently, for example, correspondent Stephen
Colbert went to Maryland to interview homeowners who were being
harassed by members of a gun club. "Why can't you live peacefully
with the firing range?" Colbert asked. "They live peacefully
with you, er...except for all the shooting."
often refers to his Jewish identity on The Daily Show.
He opened one show by saying, "I had a discussion with a Southern
gentleman today, and we were trying to find common ground...about
legalizing drugs. And he said to me, 'I think ham should be
legalized.' And I said, 'I think ham is legal. Now, I'm
Jewish, when I eat it, I don't feel so good about myself, but
I eat it.' And it turns out, he said, 'Hemp.' But in a way that
made me say, 'Ham.' And I thought to myself, 'So that's how
the Civil War started.' It's the misinterpretation."
love of clever wordplay, a Jewish comedic tradition, also colors
his prose fiction. Like many comics of the '90s, he wrote a
book of short humorous pieces. Released in 1998, his Naked
Pictures of Famous People includes a number of pieces in
which protagonists wrestle with their Jewish identity. In "Breakfast
At Kennedys," for example, a timid Jewish boy who has befriended
the young John F. Kennedy in 1935 quietly endures the future
president's antisemitic abuse. In a sly, non-didactic way, this
story exposes what historians have known for decades: though
touted as a champion of the underdog, Kennedy, in his youth,
was a spoiled brat who did not hesitate to make racist remarks.
comedy trend of the '90s--"sick humor"--owes its inspiration
to Lenny Bruce. Turning the tables on the politically-correct
mindset of the '90s, comedians like Dave Attell and radio "shock
jocks" like Howard Stern--both Jewish--transformed taboo into
titillation. Equal opportunity offenders, they smashed the sacred
cows of the right and left wings with equal fervor. "Sometimes,
for lack of a better word, people call [this comedy] 'sick,'"
says humor writer Tom Leopold, "but, in fact, it's just so purely
honest it's hilarious, because it says what we all think, but
can't say. Lenny Bruce did that."
acclaimed by The New York Times magazine in 1994 as one
of the thirty most brilliant artists under thirty, performs
the "Ugly American" segments on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
and now writes and stars in a new Comedy Central series, Insomniac
with Dave Attell--exactly the kind of television Lenny Bruce
would have craved. Each thirty-minute show follows Attell as
he enters America's nocturnal world, populated by hookers, strippers,
Central is also the home of South Park, an animated satire
of small-town America from the perspective of a quartet of foul-mouthed
children. Created in 1997 by Trey Parker (non-Jewish), and Matt
Stone (Jewish), this "sick comedy" largely appeals to Generation
X and their younger peers precisely because of its blunt satire
of the hypocrisy employed by adults to achieve selfish ends.
Stone, who writes many of the show's scripts, is the voice of
Kyle Broflovski, son of the only Jewish family in South Park.
(His father wears a red kipah, and his mother is a typical
yenta.) In a recent episode, Kyle questions the existence of
God when he becomes deathly ill with hemorrhoids, while his
cruel friend Eric Cartman (voiced by Trey Parker) inherits a
million dollars and buys his own amusement park. In South Park
Synagogue, Kyle stuns his best friend Stan Marsh (Trey Parker)
with the following soliloquy:
my life I was raised...to believe we should all behave a certain
way, and good things would come to us. I make mistakes, but
every week I try to better myself....And what does this so-called
God give me in return? A hemorrhoid!"
Kyle, his parents tell him the story of Job, whose faith was
similarly tested, but Kyle is unimpressed. By the end of the
episode, however, Cartman loses all his money, and Kyle's health--and
faith--is restored. The lesson: the meek (and the faithful)
will inherit the earth, while the Cartmans will fall victim
to an unbending moral universe that does not tolerate evil.
This is, in fact, the moral of many a South Park episode.
Cartman, who represents evil incarnate, regularly schemes to
victimize the more goodly residents of South Park; by the end
of the episode, he ends up with nothing.
critically acclaimed Comedy Central show in the Lenny Bruce
tradition is Robert Smigel's TV Funhouse, a series of
subversive animated shorts (for example, "The Ambiguously Gay
Duo," a homoerotic parody of Batman and Robin, was inspired
by Bruce's landmark adult cartoon "Thank You Masked Man," which
portrayed the Lone Ranger as gay). TV Funhouse comes
in two versions--one on SNL and a second, even more outrageous
one on Comedy Central, which shares the spot with a half-hour
live action series delving into the sleazy behind-the-scenes
antics of a children's show and cartoons too racy for SNL.
In one of these cartoons, an adorable yet antisemitic muppet
named Mischievous Mitchell (a parody of Dennis the Menace) tricks
his well-meaning non-Jewish neighbor Mr. Wilton into dressing
like Hitler--then leaves poor Mr. Wilton to take the rap for
the tasteless charade when his Jewish neighbors arrive on the
scene. In an edgy, dark way, Mischievous Mitchell exposes the
veiled pockets of antisemitism in America's heartland.
Jewish concept of God is too difficult to fathom. An omniscient,
omnipotent Peeping Tom who loves us and smites our enemies.
Although recent history suggests he's a little slow on the
Naked Pictures of Famous People by Jon Stewart
age of standup in the '70s and the comedy club boom in the '80s
began to decline in the '90s as audiences turned to cable TV
for comic relief. Many standup comics quit the business, but
those who were in it for the art, not the money, stuck around
and honed their craft, helping to create an alternative comedy
movement in the mid-'90s. New clubs, such as Rebar and the Luna
Lounge in New York, featured Jewish comedians Marc Maron (Almost
Famous, The Late Show with David Letterman), Sara Silverman
(There's Something About Mary), and Jeffrey Ross (Comedy
Central Presents: The New York Friars Club Roasts), among
others. In these alternative venues, comedians rarely performed
rehearsed, "safe" TV routines. Sara Silverman, for example,
once came onstage with fellow Jewish comedian Sam Seder dressed
as Seder's teenage nephew, a bar mitzvah boy who complains:
"My friends don't even know who you are! Adam Sandler is funny,
and you are not funny! I wish that Adam Sandler was my uncle!
You suck, and Adam Sandler rocks!" Industry bigwigs began flocking
to these alternative spaces, hoping to cash in on what might
become "the next big thing." Silverman soon landed a spot writing
and performing on Saturday Night Live, which led to film
roles; Ross became a regular presence on Comedy Central; and
Marc Maron's one-man show, The Jerusalem Syndrome, enjoyed
a sold-out Off Broadway run and, in 2001, was published as a
mainstream standup comedy clubs continued to headline Jewish
comedians--including Susie Essman, Lewis Black, Hugh Fink, and
Judy Gold--who were influenced by their counterparts in the
alternative movement. Gone was the era of simple, Seinfeldian
observational comedy. A new type of edgy, intellectual humor
was on the rise, one that still made observations but also crossed
the line into a more philosophic realm. Consider Hugh Fink's
"Pizza" joke: "I don't like the way people are now using September
11th as an excuse. I was in Phoenix last week, and I ordered
a pizza. I said, 'Half pepperoni and half cheese.' The guy came
in half an hour later, and I said, 'Hey, this is sausage. I
said half pepperoni and half cheese.' And he goes, 'Um, due
to the recent tragedy of September 11th, we forgot to put pepperonis
women comedians, many of whom had encountered gender discrimination
in the '70s and '80s, the playing field began to level out in
the '90s. "I'm treated more equally now," says Susie Essman
(Curb Your Enthusiasm, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist).
"My group of comedians--me, Judy Gold, Joy Behar--broke a lot
of barriers. I took the discrimination as a challenge. I became
so good that they couldn't deny me--and now they don't." Like
their male counterparts, Jewish female comics began incorporating
more Jewish references into their acts, such as this recent
Judy Gold routine:
mother just got an answering machine for her house: 'You have
reached 478-____. I live at 310 Gibson Boulevard. On Tuesdays
from 8-11:30 I go to Bingo at the synagogue to help out. The
money is in the top drawer of my dresser in the bedroom; the
key is under the mat....'"
and I used to talk about how we needed to kick the dust off
our faiths, bring 'em up to speed with the times. No more
of the old routines. Jake said we're gonna give 'em an old-world
God with a new-age spin."
Brian Finn (Edward Norton), speaking about Rabbi Jake Schram
(Ben Stiller), Keeping The Faith
and film persona of Billy Crystal--funny, cute, and indelibly
Jewish--helped pave the cinematic path for SNL comic
and proud Jew Adam Sandler. But unlike the wisecracking Crystal,
Sandler has shed the self-deprecating vaudeville and Borscht
Belt humor of the past. As a result, he has been offered roles
previously unavailable to Jewish men. He wrote and starred in
Billy Madison (1995) and Happy Gilmore (1996),
then tried his hand at films with more serous themes, such as
1998's The Wedding Singer (about a struggling songwriter
obsessed with marriage) and 1999's Big Daddy (in which
he's forced to raise a small child). Later this year, Sandler's
most explicitly Jewish film will be released--Adam Sandler's
8 Crazy Nights (taken from a line in his "Hanukkah Song").
This animated musical starring Sandler, as well as Jewish SNL
alumni Jon Lovitz and Rob Schneider, tells the unlikely story
of an aging coach who teams up with the head of marketing for
the New York Knicks to coach a basketball team. The film is
set to premiere in time for Hanukkah 2002.
writer/performer who is also filling these new "cool" Jewish
shoes is Sandler's pal Ben Stiller (they appeared together in
Happy Gilmore). The son of Jewish comedians Jerry Stiller
(born Jewish) and Anne Meara (a convert to Judaism), Stiller
has played a number of openly Jewish roles in feature films.
In the 1998 drama Permanent Midnight, he starred as the
heroin-addicted Jewish comedy writer Jerry Stahl (Alf, Moonlighting),
on whose life the film is based. In Keeping The Faith
(2000), written and co-produced by Jewish writer Stuart Blumberg,
Stiller plays Rabbi Jacob "Jake" Schram, a hip, handsome, charismatic
Jewish spiritual leader who sports leather jackets and dark
sunglasses and remains devoted to both his rabbinic duties and
his mother. But the rabbi has a problem--he has fallen in love
with a non-Jewish woman. To complicate matters, his close friend
Father Brian Kilkenny Finn (Edward Norton) has also fallen for
Anna Reilly (Jenna Elfman), their childhood friend who works
as a high-powered corporate troubleshooter. The film stresses
that an interfaith relationship is an issue of contention among
Jews, just as celibacy is controversial among Catholics. After
much turmoil, Rabbi Jake wins Anna's affections and resolves
to bare his soul to the congregation. He confesses in his Yom
Kippur sermon: "Over the past few months, I have been violating
[your] trust...because I haven't been sharing my life with you....I've
been seeing a woman who isn't Jewish....Tonight, I stand before
you and ask you to forgive me." At the end, he realizes that
the relationship might work after all--Anna has been studying
with his mentor, Rabbi Lewis (Eli Wallach), and might convert.
Ben Stiller's portrayal of Rabbi Jake as a "cool" rabbi is a
watershed event: it's the first time a rabbi has been depicted
in mainstream American cinema as hip, fashionable, attractive,
and, perhaps most importantly, as a romantic lead.
comedy writers and performers have made great strides since
World War II, advancing from self-caricature to self-confidence.
Blessed with their "outsider" vantage point, street-smart creativity,
and outsized chutzpah, they have pushed the boundaries
of comedy to the outer limits, compelling audiences to confront
persistent prejudices and question received truths. The current
level of mainstream acceptance they have achieved says as much
about America as about the art of making people laugh.
Kaplan is a freelance writer who has written for MAD
magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Time Out New
York, among other publications. He has also written jokes
for MTV's Total Request Live. Parts I (1950-1969) and
II (1970-1989) of this three-part series can be found online
at http://uahc.org/rjmag Illustration by Fred
wasn't very religious. On Hanukkah they had a menorah on a dimmer."
Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in
my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then
I killed them and took their land."
women wearing perfumes that smell like flowers to attract men?
Men don't like flowers. I wear a scent called 'new-car interior.'"
my parents were intelligent, enlightened people. They accepted
me exactly for what I was: a punishment from God."
always said, 'Don't watch your money; watch your health.' So
one day while I was watching my health, someone stole all my
money. It was my grandfather."
"My dad called
me up the other night, very excited. He said, 'Jonathan, when
I get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I
don't have to turn on the light, the light goes on automatically.
When I'm done, the light goes off automatically.' I said, 'Dad,
you're peeing in the fridge, and it's got to stop.'"
"I once had
a leather jacket that got ruined in the rain. Why does moisture
ruin leather? Aren't cows outside a lot of the time?"
"I went up
to Jackie Kennedy at a party and figured I'd try to break the
ice by getting a little conversation going. So I said, 'Do you
remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard
that Kennedy was shot?'"