July 3, 2003
The Heroes of Jewish Comedy
On Monday, July 7, Comedy Central will premiere the first of a six-part series called, "Heroes of Jewish Comedy." Unfortunately, the series suffers for being a clip job not up to its subject. Less documentary and more comedy would help.
Produced in Britain, the show already seems dated (the series has high hopes for NBC's "The In-Laws," a show that has already been canceled). The narration, read by iconic TV Semite Judd Hirsch, is equally underwhelming.
As my mind wandered while watching, I thought of a bleak future where the direst predictions of professional Jewish pessimists had come true: the Jewish race had disappeared, and all that was left was Holocaust memorials and Jewish museums showing this video in a hall with dioramas of Tussaud-like wax figures doing shtick. A frightening thought.
Not to worry. The true heroes of Jewish comedy in television, much like their counterparts in film, are not Jewish -- at least not on screen. They remain offscreen -- the writers and executives who borrowed their own personal history to create characters whose values and humor inform the American experience. This is the real assimilation -- of Jewish experience and values into American culture or, as I like to call it, "the bagelization of America."
Currently the most popular sitcom on television is "Everybody Loves Raymond." Fortunately, our home has been earthquake retrofitted, because when Raymond comes on, our house shakes, literally, with my laughter. As the credits reveal, the show is based on the comedy of Ray Romano, but the show's success owes much to executive producer Phil Rosenthal (former maitre d' at New York's PJ Bernstein Deli) and his aesthetic of pain. The Barone family may be Italian but their family psychopathology is Jewish -- the vain cruel love his mother offers, the father's aggression, his brother's resentment, Ray's simultaneous embarassment, disdain and love of his parents. Rosenthal's credentials as a child of Holocaust survivors are assured (trust me on this).
"Something Ain't Kosher Here: The Rise of the Jewish Sitcom" by Vincent Brook details a history that begins with "The Goldbergs," hits its apogee with "Seinfeld" and concludes that "Jewish representation on TV is no longer a big deal; it appears to be a done deal." But again, that is only if you imagine that Jewish representation is what matters.
Let's look at the history of sitcoms another way. In the beginning, working as a sitcom writer was a profession for people who were not going to be accepted in the mainstream. Jewish kids who became comics were never going to college, or were fleeing the garment industry (Carl Reiner, for example). The career path, such as it was, went: borscht belt, standup, gag writing, radio, TV. But, in class-conscious America, humor was still lower class
In the late 1960s, Doug Kenney and Henry Beard found success at the Harvard Lampoon creating parody magazines. Upon graduation, they saw no reason to get serious. Instead, they founded The National Lampoon, a magazine that captured the zeitgeist and launched the ambitions, and careers, of a generation of humorists. Only a few short years later, the pair sold out for millions. Suddenly a career in comedy became respectable.
The National Lampoon begot a radio program and then a stage show, "Lemmings," whose cast members were recruited by Lorne Michaels for "Saturday Night Live" and were managed by Bernie Brillstein, who partnered with Brad Grey to form Brillstein-Grey Entertainment. No one would accuse Brillstein, Grey or Michaels of being part of a Jewish media cabal (at least no one we would listen to), but, like the movie moguls a century ago, their thumbprints are all over American humor. (In a similar fashion, if you look up the credits of James L. Brooks, Allan Burns and James Burrows, you get a list of almost every sitcom on TV.) But let me return to the history of employment opportunities for Harvard grads.
The next landmark occurred in the early 1990s, when Andy and Susan Borowitz created "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," a show about joining the mainstream in America without losing your identity. The show was based on the experiences of Benny Medina and starred the charismatic Will Smith -- an African American -- yet the Borowitzes, who themselves were Harvard Lampoon graduates, wrote a show that all Americans, but especially Jews, felt mirrored their experience "moving on up," as the Jeffersons used to say.
The Borowitzes own success made being a sitcom writer a respectable and lucrative career. For a while there it seemed as if there was a direct path from the Lampoon to writing on a show. It also established the precedent for a series of shows, starring charismatic African Americans ("In Living Color," "Martin," "The Jamie Foxx Show," "Bernie Mac") staffed by Jewish American writers. The boom years have past, but sitcom writing still remains an acceptable career ambition.
"Remember," I purr in my daughter's ear each night before she falls asleep, "funny is money."
Nonetheless, we also need to credit the executives themselves. The late Brandon Tartikoff comes to mind, but we can also look to leadership of Colin Callender, president at HBO, and of his executive vice president of original programming, Carolyn Strauss. They stand behind the success of "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City," "Six Feet Under" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
In short, the heroes of Jewish comedy are not all Jewish, but in the history of the American sitcom, Jews continue to play an important -- if not covert -- role, fusing their sensibilities with the American mainstream. Now, that's a documentary I'd like to watch.
The first episode airs on Comedy Central at 5 p.m. For additional dates and times, visit www.comedycentral.com .
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.