How Jews Revolutionized Comedy in America
by Arie Kaplan
Part II: 1970-1989
From Assaulted to Assimilated
The early 1970s was a time of transition, as America experienced the aftershocks of the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the sexual revolution.
Jewish comedy writers responded in different ways to the upheavals. Older writers who had come of age in World War II tended to focus their sitcoms and films on the ills of society; some of the leading younger writers responded by pushing the boundaries of acceptable humor to the limits. As was the case in previous generations, many of the new comedy writers were Jewish. However, as the social climate of the country changed, allowing for greater openness and tolerance, the new crop of Jewish comedy writers viewed their Jewishness not as restraining, but empowering. As a result, they helped create a Jewishly informed but uniquely American comedic genre.
‘Nam and Neuroses
“…The priest [says] to the rabbi, ‘Why don’t you ever eat ham?’ and the rabbi says, ‘It’s against my religion. Why don’t you ever go out with a girl?’ and the priest says, ‘It’s against my religion,’ and the rabbi says, ‘You oughtta try it, it’s better than ham.'”
–Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), All In The Family
Foremost among the socially conscious sitcoms of the Vietnam era was All In The Family(1971-79). Overseen by Jewish writers, including Rob Reiner, creator Norman Lear, and Mel Tolkin, the show exposed the idiocy of bigotry by poking fun at its narrow-minded protagonist Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), who frequently clashed with his liberal son-in-law Mike Stivic (Rob Reiner, son of Jewish television pioneer Carl Reiner). In the classic episode, “Stretch Cunningham, Goodbye” (co-written by veteran Jewish humorist Milt Josefsberg), Archie is forced to come to terms with his antisemitism after agreeing to deliver a eulogy for his pal Stretch (a.k.a. Jerome), only to discover that his longtime co-worker at the loading dock was Jewish. At the synagogue, Archie reluctantly dons a yarmulke, saying, “I wish I knew he was Jewish because there was an awful lot of remarks and jokes passed around…not by me–some of the other guys….Not that Stretch felt bad…..I just wish, while you was here, I coulda made you laugh more, Stretch…. Jerome…Shalom.” Later in the series, Archie is once again forced to confront his prejudice against Jews when he adopts his Jewish niece, Stephanie (Danielle Brisebois). After Stephanie tries to conceal the fact that she’s Jewish, an uncharacteristically introspective Archie realizes with regret that some of his comments about Jews have diminished Stephanie’s self-esteem. As a result, he gives her a necklace adorned with a Star of David, saying, “You gotta love somebody to give them one of these. I mean, you gotta love everything about them.”
Another popular Vietnam-era television series, M*A*S*H, made its debut in 1972. Depicting a decidedly antiheroic portrait of war, M*A*S*H featured the darkly comic exploits of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Korea. While none of the characters were overtly Jewish, the series itself was a metaphor that reflects the Jewish historical experience, says the show’s executive producer Larry Gelbart (Caesar’s Hour, Tootsie). “I think these people were ghettoized. They were in a place they didn’t want to be and were powerless to change their conditions.”
Lampooning the Nation
“The original NatLamp editors were from out of town…from foreign countries like Harvard, England, or Canada… Gerry was our first natural-born New Yorker. He was thus inherently obsessed with the state of his health, Yiddish terms of abuse, sports…and Chinese food. He quickly became our resident expert on these essential [points of] humor.”
–Sean Kelly, eulogizing Jewish writer Gerry Sussman (editorial, National Lampoon, June 1990)
National Lampoon, the humor magazine created in 1970 by Harvard grads Rob Hoffman (Jewish) and Henry Beard and Doug Kenney (not Jewish), set a new standard for irreverence typified by sarcasm and ironic detachment. The trio had formerly worked on their alma mater’s humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon, developing what would come to be known as the “Harvard style” of comedy writing–a style characterized by its shock value. “Michael O’Donoghue [Lampoon editor] used to do things just to do them,” recalls former Lampoon contributor Tom Leopold, who went on to write for Seinfeld and Cheers.“He suggested on one of the famous covers, ‘If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog’ [January 1973]. A lot of the stuff wasn’t funny at all, but it was outrageous. Sort of like the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’–you couldn’t say it wasn’t funny, and if you said it wasn’t funny, it was because you weren’t hip.”
Unlike comedic institutions of years past, such as the predominantly Jewish Your Show of Shows and MAD magazine, National Lampoon was staffed primarily by non-Jews, including Sean Kelly (Cosmoparody), John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Home Alone), Bruce McCall (Saturday Night Live), Tony Hendra (This Is Spinal Tap), and P. J. O’Rourke (Easy Money). “Comedy writing changed in the ’70s,” explains writer/performer Robert Smigel (Saturday Night Live, Late Night With Conan O’Brien). “It wasn’t as Jewish-dominated. Comedy became more ironic and detached; there was the huge influence of the Harvard-type of comedy writing.” Still, as Lampoon cartoonist Drew Friedman observes, “Lampoon took off from what Lenny Bruce was doing. That’s the Jewish connection. Lenny Bruce wanted to go further than anyone else had gone in the world of comedy, and Lampoon took that; they wanted to go further as well. And they did.”
For all the non-Jewish “Harvard-types” associated with Lampoon, a handful of Jewish writers achieved prominence in the magazine. Paul Krassner (The Realist) wrote “The Unforgiving Minute,” a column which satirized trends of the day. In his Lampoon debut (November 1971), Krassner took the magazine to task for accepting cigarette ads, brazenly biting the hand that fed him. Jewish writer Gerry Sussman (Playboy) created the recurring Lampoon feature “My Meter Is Running,” about a foulmouthed Jewish cabbie named “Bernie X” who commented on New York City’s mores from a distinctly paranoid perspective. In one of Bernie’s earliest appearances, “The Goyspiel According To Bernie” (December 1974), Bernie’s passenger is a fellow Jew on his way to the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Bernie immediately launches into a tirade, accusing the Christians attending the conference of plotting to blackmail its rabbinic members with incriminating photos. Bernie’s theory: “The gist of the plan is to destroy the rabbis’ reputations…Then, with all our top rabbis in disgrace, [the Christians] are going to walk in and feed the kids a line of propaganda and convert them all to gentiles.” Bernie’s outbursts were not meant to be taken literally. Sussman’s character embodied Judaism’s notion of the yetzer ha-ra (the evil inclination); his racist ravings served both as a mirror and a warning to readers not to indulge in their own evil inclinations. “Bernie X” influenced a number of contemporary Jewish “shock comics,” among them Andrew “Dice” Clay and Howard Stern.
Standup Comedy Goes Mainstream
“He looks and talks like he just fell off Edgar Bergen’s lap.”
–David Steinberg on Gerald Ford
Another trend beginning in the early ’70s was the gentrification of standup comedy. Once the province of sleazy nightclubs and strip joints, standup found a new home and a mainstream audience in comedy clubs such as Catch A Rising Star in New York and The Comedy Store in L.A. Comedian Lewis Black(The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) recalls how, since 1971, “the number of clubs doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled–then there were a ton of them.” “In the ’80s, comedy became sexy,” says standup comic Susie Essman (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist). “Also, it became a way into television, a way to get famous. If you were a comedian, you became a rock star.”
Many of the young standup comedians working the comedy club circuit were Jewish, among them Richard Belzer, David Steinberg, David Brenner, Jerry Seinfeld, Elayne Boosler, Rita Rudner, and Paul Reiser. Why was this brand of comedy so attractive to Jewish entertainers? “One of the reasons,” says Rabbi Bob Alper, a standup comic and author of Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This: The Holiness of Little Daily Dramas, “is that we Jews love language. Comedy is an art built on love of language.”
Several successful standup Jewish comedians credit their Jewish upbringing. Lewis Black, known for his comical rants on sociopolitical matters, says the ranting comes from “my Russian Jewish family as much as anything else. After five minutes of yelling and screaming, my grandfather would announce, ‘It’s a great life; I was born in Russia, and they’re going to bury me in Jersey!'” Susie Essman attributes the boldness of her sexually candid comic monologues to her Jewish roots. “Jews in general are less ambivalent about sex,” she says. “In Judaism, sex is life-affirming.”
It was in the ’70s that female comedy writers rose to prominence, among them Nora Ephron (Crazy Salad, Heartburn), her sister Amy (National Lampoon), Fran Lebowitz (Social Studies), Elaine May (A New Leaf), and Treva Silverman (The Mary Tyler Moore Show). A generation earlier, Jewish men had broken into comedy writing on the strength of the postwar economy; in the early ’70s, the catalyst for women was the feminist movement. “This was a tough club for women to break into,” explains Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, co-author of The Big Book of Jewish Humor. “It was a father/son kind of club. It was like the bagel business. If your father was a bagel baker, you were a bagel baker. As women gained confidence, they became unafraid to speak their minds freely.” Susie Essman elaborates: “There’s always been a certain mean streak in comedy, and women weren’t always comfortable with their own aggression and meanness.” The feminist movement gave women the necessary empowerment to channel their aggressiveness in an honest, funny way.
Uncle Andy’s Nuthouse
“It wasn’t an act; it was a happening.”
–Carl Reiner, about Andy Kaufman
Andy Kaufman was one of the first comedy stars whose genesis was wholly the comedy club circuit. Considered by some as the father of modern performance art, Kaufman both amazed and baffled audiences with his defiantly postmodern routines, which often consisted of singing corny children’s songs or reading aloud from The Great Gatsby for fifteen minutes straight in a snooty British accent, then scolding the audience for booing. “People like Andy Kaufman took comedy in a different direction in the ’70s,” says Robert Smigel, whose children’s show parody TV Funhouse was inspired by Kaufman’s Uncle Andy’s Funhouse (both spoofing Eisenhower-era programs such as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Howdy Doody).
Carl Reiner discovered Andy Kaufman in 1971 at Catch A Rising Star. “He was doing Elvis, he was doing the Foreign Man, he was reading The Great Gatsby, he was doing it all,” Reiner recalls. “And then he got mad at the audience. And you couldn’t tell if he was really mad or not, because he told bad jokes, and they booed him and he ran off. I told Dick Van Dyke about Kaufman. Dick was doing a special at the time. He put Andy on the show, and that was his first paid job, 1500 bucks!”
Through Kaufman’s constant riffs on identity–the just-off-the-boat immigrant Foreign Man, the washed-up showbiz hedonist Tony Clifton, and the “Uncle Miltie”-style TV host Uncle Andy–he toyed with the masks Jews often wear in everyday life. It’s no coincidence that Tony Clifton resembled Borscht Belt insult comics such as Don Rickles and Jack E. Leonard, and that Foreign Man–a variation of which appeared in his character Latka (named after the Jewish potato pancake) on the hit TV series Taxi–mimicked the kind of European immigrants Kaufman no doubt knew as a child growing up in Great Neck, New York.
When Kaufman died of cancer in 1984, his fans thought he had faked his own demise as the ultimate performance piece, a variation on the “Elvis lives” theme. Considered the king of ’70s comedy, he influenced a generation of comedians, including Bill Murray, Robin Williams, Paul “Pee-Wee Herman” Reubens, and David Letterman.
Live From New York: It’s… Your Show of Shows?
“I think the first show was over-thought. There were six months leading up to that show and six days leading up to the second show…. until you do it, you have no idea what it is you’re doing.”
–Lorne Michaels, Saturday Night Live: The First Twenty Years (1994), edited by Michael Cader
In 1973, Jewish producer Bob Tischler joined forces with National Lampoon writer/editor Michael O’Donoghue to create the National Lampoon Radio Hour. The show featured several then-unknown Jewish writers/performers, including Tom Leopold, Christopher Guest (This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride), Richard Belzer (Law and Order), and Second City alumni Gilda Radner and Harold Ramis. Mock-nostalgic routines such as “The Immigrants,” in which Radner portrayed a hillbilly immigrant from Russia during the California gold rush, were among the show’s tight, original sketches. The series lasted just over a year, even with the added firepower of John Belushi, Doug Kenney, Chevy Chase, and Bill Murray, among others. Luckily, however, just before its cancellation, a young producer named Lorne Michaels recruited Radner, Belushi, and others for his new sketch comedy show NBC’s Saturday Night, later changed to Saturday Night and then toSaturday Night Live.
Premiering on October 11, 1975, the show became an instant hit. Not since Sid Caesar’s heyday in the 1950s did people in large numbers stay home on Saturday night to watch sketch comedy. The Caesar connection was no coincidence; Lorne Michaels used Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour as templates for the new show. But there was a difference, as SNL writer Robert Smigel explains: “Sid Caesar’s sketch comedy came out of vaudeville and had more of a straightforwardness to it. Caesar is more about wacky people in normal situations; the newer writing was more about normal people in strange situations.”
SNL combined the often-risqué shock comedy of National Lampoon with a more sophisticated Jewish style of humor, an approach fostered by producer/writer Lorne Michaels and by the show’s Jewish writers–Rosie Shuster (The Larry Sanders Show, Square Pegs), Bob Tischler, Al Franken (Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot), and Alan Zweibel (It’s Garry Shandling’s Show), among others. Clearly, SNL did not fear the ADL. One of Saturday Night Live‘s more controversial sketches was “Jewess Jeans” (1980), a faux ad for jeans with Jewish stars emblazoned on the posterior, modeled by Gilda Radner’s gum-chewing Jewish shopaholic. Rabbi Bob Alper criticizes the sketch for giving “permission to those who engage in negative Jewish stereotypes.” Robert Smigel defends it as simple observational comedy. “Jewess Jeans doesn’t bother me,” he says, “because there are girls like that. That’s what comedy is about. You’re pointing things out. If there wasn’t an element of truth to it, the sketch wouldn’t have been such a big hit. It worked because it struck a chord. I’m not saying all stereotypes are born out of truth, because there are stereotypes that are total nonsense. But I think a lot ofthe time the audience is going to tell you what’s appropriate.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, SNL launched the careers of a rainbow coalition of young comedians, including Jews who were not afraid to affirm their roots on TV. In 1989, actor Jon Lovitz created Hanukkah Harry, a bearded Jew in a black Santa’s cap. In his sketch “The Night Hanukkah Harry Saved Christmas,” Lovitz parodied TV Christmas specials that linked materialism and gift-giving with happiness. “Hanukkah Harry,” “Jewess Jeans,” and other SNL sketches of the period (such as 1988’s game-show parody “Jew, Not a Jew,” which satirized the assimilation of Jews in showbiz) enabled SNL writers/performers of the ’90s such as Adam Sandler to be even more open about their Jewish identities.
“Two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountain resort, and one of them says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible!’ And the other one says, ‘Yeah, I know. And such small portions!'”
–Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), Annie Hall (1977)
Still another comedy trend of the ’70s was the catapulting of Sid Caesar writers Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles, 1974), Woody Allen (Annie Hall, 1977), and Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart (Oh, God!, 1977) to movie stardom. Although all four had already produced, written, directed, and/or starred in films, these hits put their creators on the map as auteurs.
With his landmark film Blazing Saddles, a slapstick farce with a serious agenda–prejudice and racism–Mel Brooks achieved his first box-office success. The film, co-written with African American comedian Richard Pryor and Andrew Bergman, Norman Steinberg, and Alan Uger (all Jewish), tells the tale of the new Black sheriff, Bart (Cleavon Little), and his white dipsomaniac sidekick, Jim, a.k.a. The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), in an all-white town. At first, the townsfolk are horrified by Little; eventually they rally around him and band together to fight a force of KKK, Nazis, Arabs, and other outlaws. The film’s subtext is a clarion call for a new age of racial, religious, and ethnic harmony against the backdrop of real-life riots and civil unrest in America. One of the most memorable scenes depicts a Sioux chief (Mel Brooks) drawing his horse up to a Black family during an Indian raid on a wagon train and saying in Yiddish: “Zeit nisht meshugge. Loz em gaien… Abee gezint” –“Don’t be crazy. Let them go… As long as we are all healthy.” No translation was provided, but audiences generally understood Brooks’ linking Indians, Blacks, and Jews as historic underdogs who could use a helping hand in a cruel and hostile world.
Woody Allen’s multiple Oscar-winning film Annie Hall, a comic exploration of interfaith romance in the ’70s, chronicles the exploits of Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), a neurotic standup comic who attempts to sustain a relationship with his equally neurotic non-Jewish girlfriend Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). Alvy is hypersensitive, even paranoid, about his Jewishness and he perceives antisemitism everywhere. His favorite film is the lengthy Holocaust documentary The Sorrow and the Pity. He tells his friend Max (Tony Roberts), “I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said, ‘Did you eat yet, or what?’ and Tom Christie said, ‘No, Jew?’ Not ‘Did you?’ ‘Jew eat? Jew?'” In another scene, Alvy dines with Annie’s WASPy family, including her antisemitic grandmother. Feeling acutely self-conscious, he imagines himself as he thinks “Grammy Hall” must see him: a Hassidic Jew with a beard, black hat, and peyoss.
Alvy’s excruciating ambivalence as a Jew trying to fit into America epitomizes a conflict faced by many Jews coming of age in the 1970s, before it was “in” to be overtly Jewish.
Oh, God!, written by Larry Gelbart and directed by Carl Reiner, is an unflinchingly direct exploration of spirituality and faith in our time. Grocery-store manager Jerry Landers (John Denver) is visited by God (George Burns) and instructed to convey God’s word to the people of Earth, who are, at best, indifferent to matters of moral virtue. “I felt very good about the film,” says Carl Reiner. “Everybody has their version of what God said, and it was so pleasing to me to be able to have God come down and say to all the people, ‘You got it all here. You have to make it work. You muddied the waters; I’m just coming down to tell you. Go figure it out and do it right.’ And that was God’s message. He didn’t say, ‘Pray to me.’ In fact, at the very end, when Jerry Landers says, ‘Can we talk again?’ God replies, ‘You talk, I’ll listen.’ And that was my message. I’m not gonna tell you what to do.”
Larry Gelbart is also proud of the film, but says he wouldn’t write it the same way today. “I have different questions about God now. Back then, I had the John Denver character ask God about things he had done in the past. Now I think I’d ask about the future. Now, I’d say, ‘Can you lift the curtain a little bit and let me see?'”
A Slob Scorned
“We’re in trouble. I just checked with the guys at the Jewish house and they said that every one of our answers on the Psych test was wrong.”
–Robert Hoover (James Widdoes), Animal House
While the former Sid Caesar writers were grappling with the role of God and existential questions of good and evil, the National Lampoon alumni and friends focused on primal revenge. Their raunchy, teen-oriented 1978 comedy hit National Lampoon’s Animal House,co-written by Harold Ramis (Jewish), Doug Kenney and Chris Miller (non-Jewish), featured Tom Hulce as Larry “Pinto” Kroger, a freshman at the fictitious Faber College. Shunned by the WASPy Omega fraternity, Larry conspires with fellow outcasts in the lowly Delta frat to lay siege to Omega House. It is no coincidence that the film–co-written, produced, and directed by Jews–would array a band of shunned outcasts against the entrenched establishment. An early scene foreshadows the inevitable confrontation. As Larry and his roommate Kent “Flounder” Dorfman (Stephen Furst) are escorted into Omega House during pledge week, it’s all too obvious that our gawky hero and his pudgy pal have nary a chance of fitting in with the blonde, blue-eyed, upper-class specimens who populate Omega House. Omega membership chair Douglas C. Neidermeyer (Mark Metcalf), a neo-fascist army brat, puts the two candidates “in their place”:
Neidermeyer: “I’d like you to meet Mohammed, Jugdish, Sidney and Clayton…”
(Neidermeyer points toward a row of students off to the side: a black Muslim student, a Middle Eastern student, a Jewish student, and a blind student in a wheelchair.)
Neidermeyer: “Now, just grab a seat, and don’t be shy about helping yourselves to punch and cookies.” (playfully hits Kent in stomach)
The film’s non-Jewish co-writers Doug Kenney and Chris Miller created a scathing portrayal of Harvard-style WASPs. They knew firsthand what it was like to be in the company of elite snobs; indeed, the script is based in part on Miller’s own experiences in the Ivy League world. At its core, National Lampoon’s Animal House, like Blazing Saddles, delivered the message that all outsiders in the social hierarchy (in this case, nerds, intellectuals, and rebels) need to stick together against the cold-hearted establishment.
Coming-of-Age, Jewish Style
Kate: “What would you tell your father if he came home and I was dead on the kitchen floor?”
Eugene: “I’d say, ‘Don’t go in the kitchen, Pa!'”
–From Brighton Beach Memoirs
Perhaps in a reaction to the raucous teen film comedies of the late 1970s, gentle, “old-fashioned” family comedies made a comeback in the ’80s, many of them nostalgic coming-of-age stories told from a Jewish vantage point. In My Favorite Year (1982), produced by Mel Brooks and written by Blazing Saddles co-author Norman Steinberg, Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker), a young writer on a popular live TV show in the ’50s, is asked to keep a watchful eye on the show’s unpredictable, alcoholic guest star Alan Swan (Peter O’Toole). Here, Jewish identity is equated with family and ethnicity. In the scene in which Benjy brings Swan home for dinner, the entire apartment house turns out to see the big-shot movie star. Benjy is embarrassed, but Swan longs for the close familial ties of Benjy’s Jewish family, recognizing that despite his fame and riches, he’s spiritually the poorest one at the table.
In Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986), the widowed Aunt Blanche (Judith Ivey) of aspiring young writer Eugene Morris Jerome (Jonathan Silverman) wants to date Frank Murphy (James Handy), the nice Irishman across the street, but Kate (Blythe Danner), Blanche’s traditional sister, disapproves: “I know their kind. Remember what Momma used to say to us: ‘Stay on your own side of the street. That’s what they have gutters for.'” Ignoring her sister, Blanche becomes involved with Frank, who is hospitalized following a drunk-driving accident. When Kate refers to “these people” (i.e. the Irish) as a nation of drunkards, Blanche voices a sentiment not expressed in the Jewish cinema of an earlier age: “Who are you to talk? Are we any better? Are we something so special? We’re all poor around here! The least we can be is charitable!” Brighton Beach Memoirs’ message is clear: we Jews, still a struggling people ourselves, must not shun other “outsider Americans.”
TV & the “Me” Decade
“You want to go where people know, people are all the same,
You want to go where ev’rybody knows your name.”
–Theme from Cheers
In the “Me decade,” ’80s TV audiences lost interest in “message” shows like M*A*S*Hand All In The Family and tilted toward sitcoms like Silver Spoons and Diff’rent Strokes. “I think as politics became unimportant, people became very self-absorbed and narcissistic, and most humor came right out of that,” says Nora Ephron. One new sitcom countered the trend, remaining relentlessly political. Family Ties, created by Gary David Goldberg, examined the relationship between ex-hippie parents Steven and Elyse Keaton (Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter-Birney) and their Republican son Alex (Michael J. Fox). The clash between liberal parent and conservative child–the reverse of the All In The Familyformula–resonated deeply with many baby boomers who had “Alex P. Keatons” of their own.
Though the Keaton family was ostensibly gentile, the writers of Family Ties (who included Jewish Blazing Saddles co-screenwriter Alan Uger) often addressed Jewish themes, such as racial and religious discrimination. In the pilot episode, for example, Elyse scolds Alex for going to a club that discriminates against “Blacks, Jews, Hispanics, or any other group that didn’t come over on the Mayflower.” The show ends with Alex not joining the club and emerging a more enlightened character as a result.
Another seminal ’80s television show, Cheers (1982-93), was bolstered by its Jewish director, James Burrows, son of legendary comedy writer/director Abe Burrows (Duffy’s Tavern, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Broadway’s Guys and Dolls) and a largely Jewish writing staff, including Tom Leopold, Ken Estin, and Earl Pomerantz. “Cheers took a big step,” says Robert Smigel, “in allowing sex in sitcoms. The Sam and Diane thing was new and interesting–actual characters who really were interested in each other and having sex made it compelling. And it gave other shows permission to take off and explore sexuality.”
Cheers also broke new ground in portraying an interfaith couple raising a Jewish child: the show’s sole recurring Jewish character, Dr. Lilith Sternin Crane (Bebe Neuwirth), and her gentile atheist husband, Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), raise their son, Frederick, as a Jew. A funny and touching episode late in the show’s run, “For Real Men Only” (1989), deals with the issue of circumcision. Perceiving the ritual as alien and unwanted, Frasier attempts to kidnap Frederick. Eventually, Frasier calms down and, as the couple prepares for Frederick’s bris, announces to his friends, “As you all know, I was raised without a religious tradition, and I’m determined my son shall not be similarly deprived. I’m so grateful to Lilith and her Jewish faith for providing Frederick a heritage of spirituality.” The fact that the cynical, scientific-to-a-fault Frasier Crane was exultant about Judaism underscored the message: spirituality matters.
Quintessentially Jewish, Quintessentially American
“Suppose nothing happens to you. Suppose you live there your whole life and nothing happens, you never meet anybody, you never become anything, and finally you die one of those New York deaths that nobody notices for two weeks until the smell drifts into the hallway.”
–Harry Burns to Sally Albright, When Harry Met Sally…
Billy Crystal’s portrayal of Harry Burns in the acclaimed film When Harry Met Sally…(1989), written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner, reinvented the Jewish protagonist as witty, sensitive, cute, sexy, and testy–a significant departure from Woody Allen (nebbishy) and Jerry Lewis (comically pathetic). Crystal appeared a normal guy, the archetypal American “everyman,” and “everyman” started to look more Jewish.
Interestingly, Nora Ephron did not originally conceive of Harry as a Jew, and his religion never comes up in the film. “Harry was originally conceived, in my mind anyway, as a Christian and Sally as a Jew,” Ephron says. “Not that this was ever explicit. When Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan got involved, that was obviously not going to work, so everyone’s last names were changed. And Billy made the character more like himself, more like a standup comic.” Despite the Crystal factor, Ephron does not label the film–or her work in general–as Jewish. “What happened to [my generation] didn’t seem to me particularly ‘Jewish’ in any way. Urban, yes. New York, even. But Jewish, no.”
Writer/cartoonist Paul Peter Porges (MAD, The New Yorker, You Can’t Do Business Or Most Anything Else Without Yiddish) believes such distinctions do not change the fact that the film is replete with traditional Jewish humor. “One of the greatest scenes,” Porges says, “is Harry and Sally’s first trip from Chicago to New York. They’re talking and he’s throwing at her all this typical Jewish dialogue, a ‘Crazy Uncle Max’ type of humor. It’s like Crystal’s standup routine about his uncle, who is always asking questions: ‘Nu, when you going to get married? Gonna make a living?’ In this case [after Sally tells Harry that nothing’s happened to her yet and that’s why she’s going to New York], Harry pesters Sally with all kinds of questions about her life”:
Harry: “So something’ll happen to you?”
Harry: “Like what?”
Sally: “Like I’m going to journalism school to become a reporter.”
Harry: “So you can write about things that happen to other people?”
This is typical Jewish humor, Porges says, “because it’s visual, it’s davka [meaning ‘just because’], and in your face!” Similarly, he explains, when Harry spits grape seeds at the windowpane and it sticks to the glass, thereby annoying Sally–a Billy Crystal innovation–the gag has a typically visual, “in your face” Jewish flavor.
Billy Crystal has succeeded in synthesizing old-world Jewish values with a contemporary attitude. As a writer/ performer on SNL in 1984-85, he created the washed-up Borscht Belt comic Buddy Young, Jr., a character inspired by his childhood heroes Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, and Jackie Mason. Crystal was also renowned for his on-the-mark impression of Sammy Davis, Jr. (In one SNL episode, host Reverend Jesse Jackson comments to “Sammy”: “You’re black… you’re Jewish…you’re the whole Rainbow Coalition!”) His blend of Jewish “in your face” comedy and mainstream likeability has paved the way for Ben Stiller, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and other “cute” leading men who are confident, self-assured, and comfortable in their Jewish skins.
Compared to the previous two decades, when most Jewish comedy writers went mainstream (throwing in Jewish references with a “wink” to those in the know), the post Vietnam and “Me” decades of the ’70s and ’80s brought Jewish characters completely out of the closet. These characters evolved from the paranoid Jewish cabbie “Bernie X” inNational Lampoon and neurotic Alvy in Annie Hall to the cuddly Billy Crystal. By 1989, the wacky outsider had given way to the witty insider.
Wizards of Wit – Part 3
Arie Kaplan is a freelance writer who has written for MAD magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Bop, and Teen Beat, among other publications.