When you watch "Everybody Loves Raymond," you take it for granted that the Barones are Italian, right?
But don't these people remind you a lot of people in your family? Your Jewish family?
While "Raymond" is a traditional family sitcom -- not sexy or taboo-breaking like HBO's "Sex in the City" -- it has managed to draw a growing audience, and hold it for six years. "Raymond" is a top-10 show, the bulwark of CBS' Monday night schedule at 9 p.m., and its repeats were the top-rated (this is its first year in syndication).
It's the show's family sensibility that makes it so popular.
Is it an Italian sensibility? Or is Raymond a crypto-Jew?
Back in the old days, in the Hollywood created by the founding fathers, Goldwyn, Mayer and the Warner Bros., there were no Jewish characters on screen, only idealized white Christians.
"...American values came to be defined largely by the movies the Jews made," writes Neal Gabler in his book, "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" (Anchor, 1989). "Ultimately, by creating their idealized America on screen, the Jews reinvented the country in the image of their fiction."
As Hollywood grew and flourished, television and films began to be populated by what seemed to be Jewish characters: They spoke like Jews, joked like Jews, ate like Jews ... but were they Jews? They were hidden Jews. Crypto-Jews. Characters with Jewish sensibilities all dressed up as Protestants. They were named Petrie and Bratter and Reed and played by actors like Dick Van Dyke, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda and, more recently, Meg Ryan. Illustrating Neil Simon's oft-quoted edict for commercial success: "Write Yiddish. Cast British."
"Seinfeld" was a veritable hive of crypto-Jews. Jerry himself was, of course, openly Jewish, but what of the supporting cast? Anyone who wanted to could recognize that George, Elaine and Kramer were Jews. They were based on real people, all of whom were, in fact, Jewish, but on the show they were not. Network rule: only one Jew per show.
Are the Barones Maranos? Is Marie lighting candles in the basement on Friday night without knowing why? Don't look for that scene on your television anytime soon.
So, is the show really about Jews but with gentile characters to appeal to an American public? Well, no: It might as easily be said that the show is Italian and was then infused with a Jewish sensibility to make it acceptable to an American public which now is used to comedies emanating from a hamish sense of humor. But that's not really it either.
So what is it? Jewish or Italian? Ray Romano and his family are what the show was built around from the beginning and they are, of course, Italian. Phil Rosenthal, the creator of the show, is Jewish, and he brought his own family to the characters.
The characters on the show are named Barone -- obviously an Italian name, but in Italy, it is, in fact, a Jewish name.
Is this choice a deliberate one that brilliantly addresses the question: are they Italian or are they Jewish? It might be, except they're named after the Italian restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. Rosenthal used to pass it all the time, and he's very into food. So they're the Barones.
Is there a difference between Italian sensibility and Jewish sensibility or does it all turn into a New York state of mind out in the midlands? Let's figure this out pseudo-scientifically, with charts and everything.
What's Jewish and What's Italian on Raymond: Listed on the chart at the top of Page 28 are blatant and insensitive clichés, essential to the creation of television comedy and now shamelessly used to make facile jokes in this article.
What we can see from this chart is that sometimes "Raymond" is Jewish, sometimes it's Italian, but mostly some degree of both. And therein lies its significance as the representative of a new American sensibility.
What it comes down to is that stereotypes are useful for comedy but don't mean much in terms of individuals. Jewish, Italian, Greek, Danish or Arabic, what mother wouldn't want her son to prefer her cooking to his wife's? What father doesn't resent his son's surpassing him? What brothers don't compete for their parents attention and what wife doesn't get exasperated with her husband's lack of appreciation for all she does around the house?
Everyone sees their own family in Frank and Marie and Ray and Debra and Robert. This universality that emerges from the specific is what has made Raymond one of the most popular comedies of the last six years
"Everybody Loves Raymond" does not have an Italian sensibility or a Jewish sensibility. It has is an American sensibility, where cultures don't so much melt together but rather overlap each other, and the lines blur. It's not about insistence on a bland sameness, but rather about recognition of common humanity. That is what makes American culture so very ... well, American.
Bringing us finally to the American breakfast, which, as we all know, is no longer coffee and a doughnut, but cappuccino and a bagel.