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The following article is adapted with permission from Reform Judaism magazine.
“He looks and talks like he just fell off Edgar Bergen’s lap.” –David Steinberg on Gerald Ford
A trend beginning in the early ’70s was the gentrification of standup comedy. Once the province of sleazy nightclubs and strip joints, standup found a new home and a mainstream audience in comedy clubs such as Catch A Rising Star in New York and The Comedy Store in L.A. Comedian Lewis Black (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) recalls how, since 1971, “the number of clubs doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled–then there were a ton of them.”
Many of the young standup comedians working the comedy club circuit were Jewish, among them Richard Belzer, David Steinberg, David Brenner, Jerry Seinfeld, Elayne Boosler, Rita Rudner, and Paul Reiser.
Why was this brand of comedy so attractive to Jewish entertainers? “One of the reasons,” says Rabbi Bob Alper, a standup comic and author of Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This: The Holiness of Little Daily Dramas, “is that we Jews love language. Comedy is an art built on love of language.”
Several successful standup Jewish comedians credit their Jewish upbringing. Lewis Black, known for his comical rants on sociopolitical matters, says the ranting comes from “my Russian Jewish family as much as anything else. After five minutes of yelling and screaming, my grandfather would announce, ‘It’s a great life; I was born in Russia, and they’re going to bury me in Jersey!'”
Susie Essman attributes the boldness of her sexually candid comic monologues to her Jewish roots. “Jews in general are less ambivalent about sex,” she says. “In Judaism, sex is life-affirming.”
It was in the ’70s that female comedy writers rose to prominence, among them Nora Ephron (Crazy Salad, Heartburn), her sister Amy (National Lampoon), Fran Lebowitz (Social Studies), Elaine May (A New Leaf), and Treva Silverman (The Mary Tyler Moore Show). A generation earlier, Jewish men had broken into comedy writing on the strength of the postwar economy; in the early ’70s, the catalyst for women was the feminist movement.
Uncle Andy’s Nuthouse
“It wasn’t an act; it was a happening.” –Carl Reiner, about Andy Kaufman
Andy Kaufman was one of the first comedy stars whose genesis was wholly the comedy club circuit. Considered by some as the father of modern performance art, Kaufman both amazed and baffled audiences with his defiantly postmodern routines, which often consisted of singing corny children’s songs or reading aloud from The Great Gatsby for 15 minutes straight in a snooty British accent, then scolding the audience for booing.
“People like Andy Kaufman took comedy in a different direction in the ’70s,” says Robert Smigel, whose children’s show parody TV Funhouse was inspired by Kaufman’s Uncle Andy’s Funhouse (both spoofing Eisenhower-era programs such as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Howdy Doody).
Carl Reiner discovered Andy Kaufman in 1971 at Catch A Rising Star. “He was doing Elvis, he was doing the Foreign Man, he was reading The Great Gatsby, he was doing it all,” Reiner recalls. “And then he got mad at the audience. And you couldn’t tell if he was really mad or not, because he told bad jokes, and they booed him and he ran off. I told Dick Van Dyke about Kaufman. Dick was doing a special at the time. He put Andy on the show, and that was his first paid job, 1,500 bucks!”
Through Kaufman’s constant riffs on identity–the just-off-the-boat immigrant Foreign Man, the washed-up showbiz hedonist Tony Clifton, and the “Uncle Miltie”-style TV host Uncle Andy–he toyed with the masks Jews often wear in everyday life. It’s no coincidence that Tony Clifton resembled Borscht Belt insult comics such as Don Rickles and Jack E. Leonard, and that Foreign Man–a variation of which appeared in his character Latka (named after the Jewish potato pancake) on the hit TV series Taxi–mimicked the kind of European immigrants Kaufman no doubt knew as a child growing up in Great Neck, New York.
When Kaufman died of cancer in 1984, his fans thought he had faked his own demise as the ultimate performance piece, a variation on the “Elvis lives” theme. Considered the king of ’70s comedy, he influenced a generation of comedians, including Bill Murray, Robin Williams, Paul “Pee-Wee Herman” Reubens, and David Letterman.
Live From New York
“I think the first show was over-thought. There were six months leading up to that show and six days leading up to the second show…. until you do it, you have no idea what it is you’re doing.” –Lorne Michaels, Saturday Night Live: The First Twenty Years (1994), edited by Michael Cader
In 1973, Jewish producer Bob Tischler joined forces with National Lampoon writer/editor Michael O’Donoghue to create the National Lampoon Radio Hour. The show featured several then-unknown Jewish writers/performers, including Tom Leopold, Christopher Guest (This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride), Richard Belzer (Law & Order), and Second City alumni Gilda Radner and Harold Ramis.
The series lasted just over a year, even with the added firepower of John Belushi, Doug Kenney, Chevy Chase, and Bill Murray, among others. Luckily, however, just before its cancellation, a young producer named Lorne Michaels recruited Radner, Belushi, and others for his new sketch comedy show NBC’s Saturday Night, later changed to Saturday Night and then to Saturday Night Live.
Premiering on October 11, 1975, the show became an instant hit. Not since Sid Caesar’s heyday in the 1950s did people in large numbers stay home on Saturday night to watch sketch comedy. The Caesar connection was no coincidence; Lorne Michaels used Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour as templates for the new show.
But there was a difference, as SNL writer Robert Smigel explains: “Sid Caesar’s sketch comedy came out of vaudeville and had more of a straightforwardness to it. Caesar is more about wacky people in normal situations; the newer writing was more about normal people in strange situations.”
Jon Lovitz as “Hanukkah Harry”
SNL combined the often-risqué shock comedy of National Lampoon with a more sophisticated Jewish style of humor, an approach fostered by producer/writer Lorne Michaels and by the show’s Jewish writers–Rosie Shuster (The Larry Sanders Show, Square Pegs), Bob Tischler, Al Franken (Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot), and Alan Zweibel (It’s Garry Shandling’s Show), among others.
Clearly, SNL did not fear the Anti-Defamation League. One of Saturday Night Live‘s more controversial sketches was “Jewess Jeans” (1980), a faux ad for jeans with Jewish stars emblazoned on the posterior, modeled by Gilda Radner’s gum-chewing Jewish shopaholic.
In the 1970s and ’80s, SNL launched the careers of a rainbow coalition of young comedians, including Jews who were not afraid to affirm their roots on TV. In 1989, actor Jon Lovitz created Hanukkah Harry, a bearded Jew in a black Santa’s cap. In his sketch “The Night Hanukkah Harry Saved Christmas,” Lovitz parodied TV Christmas specials that linked materialism and gift-giving with happiness.
“Hanukkah Harry,” “Jewess Jeans,” and other SNL sketches of the period (such as 1988’s game-show parody “Jew, Not a Jew,” which satirized the assimilation of Jews in showbiz) enabled SNL writers/performers of the ’90s such as Adam Sandler to be even more open about their Jewish identities.
Arie Kaplan is a freelance writer who has written for MAD magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Time Out New York, among other publications. He has also written jokes for MTV’s Total Request Live. More of his work can be found on his website, www.ariekaplan.com.
This article is the fourth in a seven-part series on Jewish-American comedy since the 1950s. To read the next article in the series, click here.
This piece originally appeared as "Wizards of Wit: How Jews Revolutionized Comedy in America, Part II: 1970-1989, From Assaulted to Assimilated" in the Spring 2002 issue of Reform Judaism magazine. To read the entire article, click here.