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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776

Emily Grotta



In the second article of a three-part series documenting the highlights and trends in American Jewish humor from 1950 to the present, Reform Judaism magazine's Spring 2002 edition explores the stars that gave American comedy a Jewish face during the years 1970 to 1989. The topic will be further explored at a panel discussion hosted by Reform Judaism and Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, in which author Arie Kaplan, along with leading writers, performers, cartoonists, comedians, and playwrights, will explain how and why Jews have been the driving force in rocking the comedy boat - see the end of this release for details.

In part one of "Wizards of Wit," Kaplan explored how Jewish comedians and writers in postwar America used their "outsider" vantage point and ability to mine laughter out of adversity to create new forms of American comedy, such as Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, the films of Jerry Lewis, and MAD magazine's social satire. In the second part, he traces the evolution of Jewish humor, and its influence in the films of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, the parodies of Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon, and the routines of popular stand-up comedians. "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 as empowering," Kaplan writes. "As a result, they helped create a Jewishly informed but uniquely American comedic genre."

The popular situation comedy All in the Family, overseen by Jewish writers, including Rob Reiner and creator Norman Lear, exposed the idiocy of bigotry by poking fun at Archie Bunker, its narrow-minded protagonist. Later in the series, Archie was forced to confront his prejudice against Jews when he adopted his Jewish niece, Stephanie. M*A*S*H, the dark comedy set during the Korean War, also managed to reflect the Jewish historical experience without making any of its characters explicitly Jewish. "These people were ghettoized," says Larry Gelbart, executive producer of the series, "They were in a place they didn't want to be and were powerless to change their conditions."

Saturday Night Live was another television program with a strong Jewish sensibility. The show's executive producer, Lorne Michaels, used Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour as templates for his sketch comedy show and relied on a sophisticated Jewish style of humor to achieve laughs. Saturday Night Live's Jewish writers included Al Franken, Rosie Shuster, and Alan Zweibel, a group that often mined controversial subjects for comedy. In one memorable commercial parody, Jewish comedienne Gilda Radner's gum-chewing Jewish shopaholic character modeled "Jewess Jeans," designer denim with Stars of David embroidered on the posterior. Later in the show's run, comedian Jon Lovitz introduced Hanukkah Harry, a bearded Jew in a black Santa cap to satirize TV Christmas specials that linked materialism with happiness.

The Sid Caesar connection was even more evident in film, where former Your Show of Shows writers Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Carl Reiner became filmmakers. Brooks took on prejudice and racism in Blazing Saddles, a parody of classic Westerns. "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," Kaplan writes. In his Oscar-winning film Annie Hall, Woody Allen plays a neurotic standup comic who's hypersensitive, even paranoid, about his Jewishness; according to Kaplan, the character'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."

The influence of Jewish comedy writers was also felt in the social satire of National Lampoon magazine, which targeted commercialism and other flaws in American popular culture; sitcoms like Family Ties and Cheers, in which Jewish writers and producers tackled controversial topics; the standup comedy of Andy Kaufman, Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, and Elayne Boosler, among others; and nostalgic film comedies like Brighton Beach Memoirs and My Favorite Year. By the end of the 1980s, the quintessential Jewish comedian was probably Billy Crystal, who Kaplan credits with "succeeding in synthesizing old-world Jewish values with a contemporary attitude." In When Harry Met Sally…, directed by Rob Reiner, Crystal "reinvented the Jewish protagonist as witty, sensitive, cute, sexy, and testy - a significant departure from Woody Allen (nebbishy) and Jerry Lewis (comically pathetic)," Kaplan writes. "Crystal appeared a normal guy, the archetypal American 'everyman,' and 'everyman' started to look more Jewish…By 1989, the wacky outsider had given way to the witty insider."

How Jews Have Revolutionized Comedy in America: A Panel Discussion will be held on Tuesday, May 7, at 7:00 p.m., at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, One West Fourth Street, in New York City. Guests will include Arie Kaplan, as well as comedians Lewis Black and Hugh Fink and cartoonist Paul Peter Porges. For reservations and information, call (212) 824-2293.

This article, and other articles from Reform Judaism's Spring 2002 issue can be found online at

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Reform Judaism magazine is published quarterly by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the synagogue arm of the Reform Movement in North America. The UAHC represents 1.5 million Reform Jews in more than 900 congregations across the United States and Canada, and offers programs and services including music and book publishing, adult education opportunities, youth camping, outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, and the Religious Action Center in Washington, DC.


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