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The following article is adapted with permission from Reform Judaism magazine.
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 anti-Semitism 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.”
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