Jews in Television: 1950s & 1960s

From Milton Berle to Dick Van Dyke.

By

Reprinted with permission from

The Norman Lear Center

at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

During its so-called “Golden Age,” television had many variety show hosts who were Jewish–e.g., Jack Benny, George Burns, Groucho Marx, Red Buttons, Phil Silvers, George Jessel, Morey Amsterdam, Sid Caesar, and “Mr. Television” himself, Milton Berle. Star of the variety show Texaco Star Theater, Berle drew in over 75 percent of the viewing audience in the program’s first years (1948-1951), when its audience was almost exclusively urban. To the increasing number of rural midwesterners who began to receive the show over the coaxial cable, however, Berle’s abrasive style (not to mention his cross-dressing) seemed “objection able,” “loud,” and “vulgar.” 

 

milton berle

Milton Berle at 41st Emmy Awards.
Photo by Alan Light.

 

Milton Berle & Sid Caesar

What some critics call Berle’s “Jewish shtick” and “ethnic vaudeville humor” quickly lost their appeal; by 1956, the show was off the air. “Too fast, too urban, and too Jewish to be broadly acceptable;’ Berle’s show could not meet the medium’s requirement that its stars emanate from mainstream America or at least blend in with “heartland” values.” The demise of the program signified how quickly television had come to “disdain ethnic and racial differences, in both program content and the look of its performers.”

Caesar, like Berle, brought broad physical comedy and other characteristic Yiddishisms into his show (which was written by a stable of Jewish writers, including Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, and Neil Simon). David Marc contrasts the “Jewing-out” of such “electronic toornlers” to the more subdued sitcom characters like Benny and Burns, who played themselves as fully American characters who celebrated Christmas, joined golf clubs, and seemed, in every way, non-Jewish.

Esther Romeyn and Jack Kugelmass agree, arguing that while most Jewish variety show comedians avoided explicitly Jewish impersonations, their portrayals were implicitly coded as Jewish–for example, Sid Caesar’s gibberish-talking European refugee intellectual. Romeyn and Kugelmass suggest that TV’s “Yiddishization of American humor” replicated the vaudeville model of gags, skits, and improvisations but also embodied a particular Jewish “outlook,” portrayed through the “klutz” body language of a Jerry Lewis or Danny Kaye or the scheming of a Buddy Hackett or Don Rickles.

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Joyce Antler is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University.

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