The 1990s were the decade of Jews, and Jewish culture, blazing their way into the television mainstream. There were numerous contributors to this occurrence, but only one need be specifically singled out: the groundbreaking NBC series Seinfeld, in which stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld reinvented the sitcom as a dazzling exploration of nothingness. Seinfeld was a show about four Jews in which only one–Seinfeld himself–was explicitly identified as Jewish. Judaism, and specifically Jewish humor, had been refined until it had melted into the American pot.
In many ways, the 2000s were the long tail to Seinfeld’s revolution, with television series of the early 21st century underscoring, and occasionally critiquing, the mainstreaming of Jewish culture onscreen. Television had become about the particular, not the universal, and Judaism was one of its primary markers of the idiosyncratic array of American mores.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Photo courtesy of David Shankbone.
The obvious starting point for a discussion of Jews on television in the early 21st century is the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, created by and starring Seinfeld co-creator Larry David. David is the absurdist extension of the lovably zany Seinfeldians. He is crude, self-absorbed, and convinced of the soundness of his inevitably flawed logic. David (identified as Jewish, unlike Seinfeld’s George) hires a prostitute so he can drive in the carpool lane, schemes to purchase a friend’s cherished shirt, and steals a little girl’s favorite doll. In short, David is an exaggerated stereotype of Jewish scheming and talmudic hair-splitting, like the Seinfeld characters gone feral.
Other Jewish TV protagonists took David’s lead, their offensiveness tempered by the humorous charm of their salvos. The Sarah Silverman Program was like a younger, sprightlier version of Curb Your Enthusiasm, more dedicated to the potty humor so beloved of its Comedy Central audience.
Much of Silverman’s act–on the show as well as in her stand-up–was predicated on the disjunction between her Jewish-girl-next-door looks and the panoply of jokes about (among other things) the Holocaust and date rape. Silverman’s intent was to shock, but in a complicated bit of rhetorical jujitsu, her comedy saluted her viewers for being in on the joke. Anyone who was offended was, by definition, a humorless prig.
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