By Debra Rubin, THE JEWISH STATE
Humor has long been a staple of Jews on the American entertainment scene, although it has evolved from vaudeville and slapstick into a more refined medium where openly Jewish characters are featured on television and the movies. These comedians, actors and actresses have been a major influence on American comedy – from the Three Stooges, George Burns and Milton Berle to the stars of today such as Jerry Seinfeld, Debra Messing and Adam Sandier, according a writer and humorist who specializes in the subject.
‘Jewish Comedy used to be very Borscht belt, then in the 50’s and 60’s it began to reach a higher level and then became more intellectual,’ said Arie Kaplan, a writer for a number of magazines and frequent lecturer on the history of Jews in show business. “In the 70’s, it became very angry and became not as Jewish dominated. There were a lot of Jews that began contributing to `Mad’ magazine and `National Lampoon’ and `Saturday Night Live.”
Kaplan will elaborate further on Jewish humor March 9 at Temple Beth O’r/ Beth Torah in Clark when he speaks on the “Wizards of Wit: How Jews Influenced American Comedy,” at the annual Sol Sern Memorial Lecture. The program, during which video clips of comedy shows will be shown, is free and open to the public.
The lecture is named in memory of Sol Sern, a former member of the synagogue who died on March 18, 1993, and is underwritten by donations to the Sol Sern Memorial Fund.
“We always try to honor Sol Sern around Purim because in the first place, he always had a joke to tell you,” noted Thelma Purdy, Beth O’r Beth Torah’s adult education chair. “He used to get dressed up on Purim in costumes so when his wife (Gloria) and the synagogue made this lecture in his memory, it was decided it had to have some element of humor. Purim was his holiday so to speak. He was a kind of fun guy.”
Kaplan, who has written for “Mad Magazine,” “Entertainment Weekly,” “Time Out New York,” “Teen Beat” and the MTV series “Total Request Live,” also authored the series “Wizards of Wit” for “Reform Judaism Magazine.” “My lecture is loosely based on my Wizards of Wit series, which I started writing two years ago about Jews in comedy,” said Kaplan in an interview from his Astoria, Queens, home. “It started out about Jewish comedy writers. hut I also looked at comedy series. From Jerry Seinfeld to Jerry Lewis to Sid Caesar, they were all writers or writer/performer. Everybody I talk about wrote their own jokes. I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback.”
Kaplan said he will discuss Jewish comedians of generations past. will show a number of clips from films and television, including from the movies “When Harry Met Sally” (Billy Crystal), “Keeping the Faith” (Ben Stiller) and the television series “Your Show of Show of Shows” (Sid Caesar) and “Will and Grace” (Debra Messing), read passages from his writings, and include a few surprises.
“It’s very interactive. I’ll answer questions.” said Kaplan. “It will be very lively. I’ll even tell some jokes. And older audiences do tend to like the fact that a guy in his 20s knows a lot about Eddie Cantor, George Burns and the Marx Brothers.”
For Kaplan, one of the most exciting things about writing the comedy series was being able to interview such Jewish comedy legends as Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart (the executive producer of M*A*S*H) and Robert Smigel, head writer on the “Conan O’Brien Show” and creator of the long running animated cartoon, “TV Funhouse,” appearing on “Saturday Night Live” and on Comedy Central and comedian Lewis Black, who appears on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” hosted by Jon Stewart. By the way, Stewart’s real last name happens to be Liebowitz, but Kaplan pointed out the comedian, who often makes note of his Jewish identity in his routines, did not drop his given name to hide his religion.
“A lot of times people think Jewish comedians changed their names because they were ashamed of being Jewish, but a lot of times they do it because (their name) it’s too hard to say,” said Kaplan, adding that early in his career an announcer mispronounced Liebowitz, which prompted Stewart to use only his first and middle names.
But, unfortunately the events of Sept. 11 prevented Kaplan from interviewing another comedy idol of his, Lorne Michaels (real last name Lipowitz), executive producer of “Saturday Night Live.”
“In show business, if you can’t get your name out there and if you can’t get people to pronounce it correctly and remember it, it’s an issue,” he noted.
However, in comedian/actor/ writer Albert Brooks’ case, the reason is more practical since his real name is Albert Einstein, which could have created some confusion between Brooks and the physicist.
In fact, as the 70’s progressed, openly Jewish characters albeit some stereotypical such as “Rhoda” began making their way onto American television screens. But, there was also Archie Bunker’s Jewish niece, Stephanie, on “All in the Family” as well as Lilith, the Jewish wife of Dr. Frazier Crane on “Cheers,” that included a storyline where the couple decides to raise their new son, Frederick, as a Jew.
One of the shows that through the years has openly highlighted Jewish comedy themes and characterS “Saturday Night Live” via its many Jewish writers and stars. Gildna Radner caused a stir when she appeared in her “Jewess jeans.” Lovitz appeared as “Hanukkah Harry,” in such sketches as “How Hanukkah Harry Saved Christmas,” as Judaism’s answer to Santa Claus. And then there was Adam Sandler, whose various versions ot “Hanukkah Song” on “Saturday Night Live” – which humorously note which celebrities are playing dreidel and lighting menorahs – have become concert and radio standards during recent holiday seasons. Sandler further broke uncharted ground with this year’s release of the animated “Eight Crazy Nights” Hanukkah movie, the title of which is taken from his “Hanukkah Song.”
“That was a really big deal,” Kaplan. “Say what you want the movie, it’s a very clear attempt to counter all the Christmas programming, Whenever I lecture to Jewish youth groups, they just love Adam Sandler. They have adopted the Hanukkah song as their anthem. He’s the voice of a generation. He gives them a lot of pride in being Jewish. I think a lot of stuffy critics don’t like him because his movies are not very high brow and don’t have much depth, but they said that about the Three Stooges (who as SandIer notes in the Hanukkah Song were Jewish) and they’ve fared pretty well over time. The critics bash the heck out of him (Sandler), but he just wants to make you iaugh and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people are just naturally funny and some critics I think are jealous of him.”
Likewise, Ben Stiller, son of the comedy team of Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, has also made a mark in the portrayal of Jewish characters in his movies.
“I think Ben Stiller is hugely important because most of the characters he portrays in movies are Jewish.” observed Kaplan. “In Keeping the Faith,” he played a rabbi as a romantic comedy lead, which was a huge deal. That had never been done before. He makes a point to look for Jewish characters and I give him a lot of credit for it.”
On television, openly and proud ly Jewish characters have become commonplace. From Debra Messing’s Grace Adler on “Will and Grace” – which this past year showed Grace being married in a Jewish wedding ceremony – to the bar mitzvah of his son on “Frazier” and an awkward attempt by the character of Ross on “Friends” to teach his son about Hanukkah by dressing up as “The Holiday Armadillo” to try to counter the Santa Claus influence, Jews have come of age in the media.
It’s a far cry from television shows past when everyone tiptoed around Judaism. “In Sid Caesar’s day, you couldn’t even say the `J’ word on television and now you have such series as `Seinfeld,’ or `Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist,’ which are about Jewish characters and have a very Jewish name in the middle of their titles, yet play well over America,” observed Kaplan. “Sid Caesar had a character named Taka Meshugah. If you were Jewish, you knew what was happening, but to others it was sort of a wink to the audience. In fact, I will talk about the changes right after World War II that brought this about. In the 50s and 60s, you began to have a lot more intellectual comedians with college educations, conversant in psychoanalysis. People like Mort Sahl became popular while the previous generation had Milton Berle.”
From Woody Allen to Jerry Lewis to Gary Shandling to the recent spate of Jewish comediennes, including “Friends” star Lisa Kudrow, Kaplan will explore the reasons Jews are such a humorous group.
“From being ghettoized in the 70s, to having supporting roles in the 80s to today when they are lead characters, Jews have come full circle and it’s really something to celebrate, really that Jews have come that far,” observed Kaplan who has written several off-Broadway shows and a screenplay that he optimistically notes some producers are looking at.
In the meantime, a poster he wrote with Scott Sonnenborn (yes, he’s Jewish) for “Mad” magazine’s December issue, “Gulf Wars: Episode II – Clone of the Attack,” has gone international bringing the young comedy writer attention in places he never dreamed, It was illustrated by Drew Friedman, also a Jew. (Note: This is incorrect, it was illustrated by Scott Bricher. Arie)
The poster, which Kaplan describes as a parody of the second Star Wars movie. “Attack of the Clones.” was meant as an anti-war statement featuring President George W. Bush in place of Anakin Skywalker, who later becomes Darth Vader. National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice fills in for Padme Amidala and it co-stars Vice President Dick Cheney in the role of Jedi master Yoda and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Cohn PowelI in the roles of the droids C-3P0 and R2-D2. The first president Bush takes over the role of Jedi warrior Obi-Wan Kenobi and Saddam Hussein replaces the evil bounty hunter Jango Fett.
“The poster announces coming soon, we’re going to war” said Kaplan “We wrote fake credits about it being brought to you by the Bush Adiiiinistration in cooperation with the other Bush Administration to divert your attention from the fail ing economy. Introducing Osama bin Laden as the Phantom Menace. This movie was directed by the desire to win the November elections.”
However, the poster has taken on a life of its own and has been pasted onto at least 50 websites internationally – while there have been numerous requests from movie and television industry people for a copy.
“It’s on a lot of political websites,” acknowledged Kaplan. “I got a call just last night from someone who went to a bar and saw it on the wall. It’s being used as a rally cry for a lot of factions in the upcoming war, but Scott and I just wrote it as a lark.” But, as a comedy writer Kaplan is particularly amused by its posting on a Chinese website where it is thought of as “CIA American pro- consumerist propaganda.”