March 24, 2005
How to Get Jews on TV
In 1989, Richard Rosenstock created an ABC pilot based on the film, "The Flamingo Kid," which was ostensibly set in the Jewish beach club scene of the 1950s and '60s.
"I'd grown up among the Westchester County, N.Y., version of those clubs, so it was a chance to draw on autobiographical elements and to write what I knew," said Rosenstock, now an Emmy-winning co-executive producer of Fox's "Arrested Development."
Yet when he tracked down the original script of the 1984 movie, he noted that the filmmakers had changed the hero's name from Jeffrey Weiner to Jeffrey Willis and "had de-Jewed the material," he said. "So I actually made the pilot even more Jewish than the movie, on purpose, because that bothered me."
Rosenstock is one of six Jewish screenwriters who will appear on a panel to discuss how Judaism affects their work as part of The Jewish Screenwriter Speakers Series on March 29 and May 3 at B'nai David-Judea. Participants at the young professionals event, sponsored by The Jewish Journal, will include Michael Borkow ("Roseanne," "Friends," "Malcolm in the Middle"); Mike Sikowitz ("Friends," "Veronica's Closet"); Howard Gordon ("The X-Files," "24"); David Sacks ("The Simpsons," "Malcolm in the Middle") and Michael Glouberman ("Third Rock from the Sun," "Malcolm in the Middle").
Sikowitz, for one, could call his connection "revenge of the Jewish nerd." When the 38-year-old did stand-up comedy early in his career, he identified with Woody Allen.
"Allen was aware that he was a scrawny, bookish, horny young man, and I felt like, 'yes, I've been the guy who just wishes he could get the beautiful girl, although she's not looking at him,'" Sikowitz said. "I was drawn to his smart self-deprecation, and the ability to find not only the pain but the amusement of the situation."
While writing for "Friends" in the mid-1990s, Sikowitz helped bring that sort of pain and humor to the character of Ross, whom he describes as a "shlimazel."
Sikowitz cites an episode in which Ross (David Schwimmer), buys a monkey in an effort to appear mysterious and Mediterranean to potential dates, only to have the animal attack a pretty woman on the subway.
Sikowitz was part of the writers group that decided to label Ross Jewish in a holiday episode that opened with him picking the wax out of his menorah. While some observers have complained about a dearth of other Jewish details for Ross, Sikowitz said, "the series was a pop fantasy about attractive, funny people in their 20s hanging out, and I don't think it had a responsibility to be any more than that."
He is taking a similarly universal approach with his current pilot, "Grown Men," based on the friendships and rivalries he experienced with buddies at the Jewish fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu, at the University of Pennsylvania.
"The show will focus more on the fraternity behavior than the Jewishness," he said.
Nevertheless, a central character, David Horowitz, is a member of the tribe and shares Sikowitz's Woody Allenesque sensibility. When the character kvetches about being less successful than an old frat pal, it's partly Sikowitz speaking.
"I've done fairly well in entertainment," Sikowitz said, "yet when my buddy who I started out with invites me to his Malibu beach house, part of me goes, 'Good for him,' but there's this sort of Dave Horowitz character part that goes, 'Why shouldn't I have this? I've worked hard, and if I had gotten this break instead of him, he'd be visiting me at my beach house.'"
If Sikowitz has been inspired by Woody Allen, Rosenstock looks more to Philip Roth. His penchant for Jewish subjects began, he said, when he viewed the movie version of Roth's "Goodbye, Columbus" upon its release in 1969. Based on Roth's work about class warfare between nouveau riche and working-class Jews, the film "astounded" Rosenstock with material that felt so familiar to his own upper-middle-class Conservative Jewish childhood in Yonkers, N.Y.
Rosenstock was also influenced by a late 1960s zeitgeist in which Dustin Hoffman and Richard Benjamin were leading men, and in which Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky made commercial films with varying degrees of Jewish content.
"All this inspired me -- that you can actually put overtly Jewish characters onscreen," he said.
Rosenstock did just that when he created his own TV series in the 1990s; 1992's "Flying Blind," which he describes as "'The Graduate' meets 'After Hours,'" tipped the hat to Roth with a protagonist named after "Columbus'" Neil Klugman.
Meanwhile, Gordon, a Reform Jew active at University Synagogue, waited four years to create the perfect "X-Files" episode based on the Frankenstinian Jewish legend of the Golem.
"It was an opportunity to delve into the mythology of a culture and a religion I identify with strongly," he said. "It definitely meant more to me than my episode about an African melanin vampire."
In his current job executive producing the real-time counter-terror drama, "24," Gordon's Judaism emerges, if more obliquely, in the dialectic tradition he brings to the characters. Points argued include whether torture is permissible under certain conditions, a thread that has helped make the show popular in Israel, Gordon said. A recent trip to the Jewish state has inspired him to consider introducing an Israeli character on the show, as well as to plan missions to Israel for people in the entertainment industry.
"I'm very interested in finding ways to communicate how wonderful that country is," he said.
For Orthodox screenwriters, integrating religious observance with sitcom schedules has been a major issue. When Sacks got his first job after he began observing Shabbat in 1987, the producers essentially told him "either work on Shabbos or you're fired," he recalled.
His agent said he would not work in television again; eventually, the producers agreed to keep Sacks on the sitcom, but with a lesser salary and title.
The writer has since proved himself on shows such as "The Simpsons" and "Third Rock From the Sun."
"Now before I accept a job I always discuss Shabbos," he said. "These days I find people are not quite as concerned about whether you think the dead are going to be resurrected at the end of days. They want to know if you can solve the story problem at the act break."
Sacks is now a consulting producer at "Malcolm in the Middle," where three of 11 writers are observant Jews and a kosher lunch menu circulates in the writers room. Nevertheless, he said, he is not a "crusader for Judaism" at work but only in his private life. To this end, he teaches two classes at the Happy Minyan and is a founder of Jewish Impact Films, which aims to improve public relations for Jews and Israel by empowering novice filmmakers to produce positive films on these subjects.
He apparently has paved the way for other observant Jews in the sitcom world. Glouberman, for one, said Sacks indirectly helped him secure his first job, at "Third Rock," a decade ago. At the time, Glouberman's agent advised him to mention the Shabbat issue only after he had been hired: "So I called the showrunner and I was very anxious and I said, 'I'll work 24 hours a day, but I can't work Shabbat or Jewish holidays,' and he said, 'Don't worry about it, David Sacks worked on our pilot, and we loved him.'"
Today, Glouberman works with Sacks on "Malcolm," about a quirky family with a genius middle child (Frankie Muniz) his three hooligan brothers, clueless dad and drill-sergeant mom. It's the universal family, Glouberman said, but he was drawn to the show because the pilot read like someone had hidden a camera in his Orthodox childhood home. To write one episode, he drew on the time his parents accidentally left his brother standing in the corner all night long.
Although the show is rife with gross-out humor and sight gags, Glouberman believes it jibes with his Torah values. He points out that Malcolm's parents actually love each other, unlike the bickering parents on shows such as Fox's "Married... With Children," and that "the children honor their mother and father, although not necessarily in classic terms."
When the boys take on four clowns who have dissed their mother, for example, "She watches them with this proud smile on her face while they fight and knee clowns in the groin," Glouberman said.
It may not be classic Torah, but it comes from a Jewish place. As Gordon put it, "My Judaism informs me so deeply it's hard to unbraid my [writer's] identity from my Jewish one."
March 29 and May 3, 7:30 p.m. (cocktails), 8:30 p.m. (speakers). Free. B'nai David-Judea, 8906 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P. with the number of people in your party to RSVP@jewishjournal.com.