Author Archives: Arie Kaplan

Arie Kaplan

About Arie Kaplan

Arie Kaplan is the author of the critically-acclaimed nonfiction book From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books (JPS). He's also a comic book writer and a screenwriter. Recently, Arie wrote the story and dialogue for the upcoming House M.D. videogame. Please check out his website, www.ariekaplan.com.

Seinfeld and Company

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The following article is adapted with permission from Reform Judaism  magazine.

In the early 1990s, the children of America’s baby boomers–the second generation raised on television–came to be known as Generation X, a label that signified their unsure place in the world. The Jewish comedy writers of this period played on the “Gen X” mentality of self-fulfillment and indulgence in scripting films and television programs which spoofed their self-centeredness.

Jewish performers in the ’70s and ’80s who had been largely relegated to supporting roles now emerged as the leads in popular TV sitcoms such as Seinfeld and Friends. So, too, some of the principal characters had Jewish identities, such as Grace Adler in Will and Grace and Kyle Broflovski in South Park–a stark contrast to the ’70s, when Jewish characters, such as Archie Bunker‘s Jewish niece Stephanie, had only supporting roles. The public’s acceptance of this phenomenon affirmed that “Jewishness” had finally become an integral part of America’s pop-culture landscape.

Much Ado About “Nothing”

“If I’m the best man, why is she marrying him?” –Jerry Seinfeld

In November 1988, comedian Jerry Seinfeld (a frequent Tonight Show guest) sat across from his longtime friend Larry David (a former writer for Saturday Night Live) at the Westway Diner in midtown Manhattan and bemoaned his inability to create a sitcom vehicle that reflected the “Seinfeld brand of humor”–astute observational comedy. They conceived of a sitcom which would recall classic television: Jerry Seinfeld, like fellow Jewish comedian Jack Benny before him, would play himself, a comedian beset by life’s trials and trivialities.

Spearheaded by Jewish head writer Larry David (the inspiration for Jerry’s friend George Costanza, portrayed by Jason Alexander), assisted by Jewish writers Tom Leopold, Carol Leifer (the model for the character of Jerry’s friend Elaine Benes, portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Dave Mandel, Seinfeld soon emerged as the hippest sitcom in America.

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Jews in Television: 1990s

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The following article is adapted with permission from Reform Judaism magazine.

“Hanukkah is the festival of lights,
Instead of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights!
When you feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree,
Here’s a list of people who are Jewish, just like you and me!”
Adam Sandler, “Hanukkah Song

In the ’90s, Jewish parodies on Saturday Night Live reflected two contrasting comedic impulses: the audacious Lenny Bruce and the amiable Adam Sandler.

In the Brucian tradition, Jewish writer Hugh Fink satirized network TV’s rush to air Christmas specials while ignoring Hanukkah. In his SNL sketch “And So This Is Hanukkah,” Fink had pop icon Britney Spears (played by Christina Ricci) deliver the line: “Hanukkah is a special holiday, where we as Christians take time out to think about forgiving our Jewish friends for killing our Lord.”

Reaction was swift. “The head of the Anti-Defamation League was all over the national press,” recalls Fink, who attributes the backlash to the politically-correct climate of the ’90s.

In contrast, Adam Sandler’s ethnic-pride anthem “Hanukkah Song,”–a celebratory “who’s a Jew” in song (“Some people think that Ebenezer Scrooge is / Well, he’s not, but guess who is? / All Three Stooges!”)–set off no alarms at the ADL.

Lenny’s Legacy

“Thou shall not kill. Thou shall not commit adultery. Don’t eat pork. I’m sorry, what was that last one? Don’t eat pork? Is that the word of God, or is that pigs trying to outsmart everybody?” –Jon Stewart

jon stewart

Jon Stewart

On January 11, 1999, Craig Kilborn, the smarmy host of Comedy Central’s late-night news parody The Daily Show, turned over the reins to whip-smart writer/comedian Jon Stewart (a.k.a. Jon Stewart Liebowitz). Stewart, who is also executive producer, writes much of his own material for the revamped show, which was renamed The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

An adept and witty political satirist in the tradition of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, Stewart lampoons news media trends with a stream of wisecracks and a team of on-location correspondents whose buffoonery recalls the residents of Chelm, the fabled Jewish village of fools.

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Jewish Jokes of the 1950s & 60s

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Reprinted with permission from Reform Judaism magazine.

Henny Youngman

"I once wanted to become an atheist, but I gave up… they have no holidays."

Rodney Dangerfield

"I told my psychiatrist that everyone hates me. He said I was being ridiculous; everyone hasn’t met me yet."

Groucho Marx

"Marriage is a wonderful institution. But who wants to live in an institution?"

George Burns

"This is the sixth book I’ve written, which isn’t bad for a guy who’s read only two."

Mel Brooks

"Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is if you fall into an open sewer and die."

Oscar Levant

"A politician is a man who will double cross that bridge when he comes to it."

Woody Allen

"It’s not that I’m afraid to die; I just don’t want to be there when it happens."

Marty Feldman

"The pen is mightier than the sword, and considerably easier to write with."
 
 

 

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Improv, Jerry Lewis, Sesame Street & Woody Allen

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The following article is adapted with permission from Reform Judaism magazine.

Improv Debuts

“I can’t remember a single coherent sentence Paul Sills said. But as it often happens with talented directors… somehow he got his message across.” –Alan Arkin
 
In the late ’50s, after helping to create television sketch comedy, the modern humor magazine, and the stand-up routine, Jewish writers invented yet another comedic institution: contemporary improv theater. Founded in 1959 and named for an article about Chicago in The New Yorker by A. J. Liebling, Second City attracted the University of Chicago’s best and brightest. Second City would, over the next decade, launch the careers of numerous Jewish celebrities, including Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, Robert Klein, George Segal, Ed Asner, and David Steinberg.
 
In 1963, continuing in the politically aware, satirical tradition of The Realist and Second City, The Committee emerged in San Francisco as the comedy troupe for the hippie counterculture. Appearing frequently on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and in its own self-titled concert film, both in 1968, The Committee included such future Jewish comedic lights as Rob Reiner, Gary Goodrow (a Beat poet and future co-author of the first two Honey I Shrunk The Kids movies), and Carl Gottlieb (screenwriter of Jaws and The Jerk, among other films).

Fumbling & Filmmaking

“I’m nine, going on 69!” –Jerry Lewis
 
While Jewish comedians were breaking new ground in the world of improvisation, Jerry Lewis was staking out a middle ground between crowd-pleasing clown and social commentator. Film historian Leonard Maltin notes in his book The Great Movie Comedians that Lewis almost single-handedly carried the banner of film comedy throughout the ’60s, as most of his colleagues migrated to television.
 
As writer, producer, and director of his own movies, Lewis wanted to make a statement about the plight of the “little guy.” While his comedy had nowhere near the sting of Lenny Bruce, it was more critical of society than the antics of Sid Caesar.

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1950s Jewish Humor

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The following article is adapted with permission from Reform Judaism magazine.

Jews have revolutionized American comedy. The comic books you collected, the funny movie or the sitcom you saw the other night–all have been shaped by Jewish humorists who have transformed the comedy industry since the 1950s. Jewish writers, in particular, have been the driving force in rocking the comedy boat, fueled by their “outsider” vantage point, street-smart creativity, and outsized chutzpah.

“Jew Comics” to Jewish Comedy

“With the collapse of vaudeville, new talent has no place to stink.” –George Burns
 
Before World War II, the Jewish presence in the comedic entertainment world was marked by humiliating self-caricature. Jews such as Jack Pearl, who played radio’s Baron Munchausen, and Al Shean of the comedy team “Gallagher and Shean” performed on the radio and in vaudeville, often wearing the accoutrements of the baggy-pants clown.
mad magazine 
“There were comedians called ‘Jew Comics,'” explains legendary comedian and filmmaker Carl Reiner. “They wore derbies and talked with a thick accent.” Such self-caricature was acceptable “until Hitler came along,” Reiner explains, “and then all of the Jewish accents disappeared, because we realized we were giving fodder to the enemy.”
 
This fear of being laughable spread to the forefront of the Borscht Belt itself, explains writer and historian Moshe Waldoks, co-author with William Novak of The Big Book of Jewish Humor. “In 1947, there was a debate in The Contemporary Record [the magazine that preceded Commentary] between [comedians] Myron Cohen and Sam Levenson on the subject of dialects. Sam Levenson thought the Jewish dialect was demeaning, particularly after what had just happened in Europe. Myron Cohen’s retort was basically, ‘It’s only demeaning if you’re trying to demean,’ which he never did, with his use of accents.”
 
As apprehension over the use of accents persisted, dialect comedians such as Myron Cohen became an increasingly rare breed.
 
It was this fear that kept Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks from recording “The Two Thousand Year Old Man,” who had a strong Yiddish accent. For 10 years the two had been performing the act privately at friends’ houses.

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Jews in Comic Books

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Jews built the comic book industry from the ground up, and the influence of Jewish writers, artists, and editors continues to be felt to this day. But how did Jews come to have such a disproportionate influence on an industry most famous for lantern-jawed demigods clad in colorful tights?

First Comic Books

The story begins in 1933. During that year, the world experienced seismic changes in politics and pop culture. An unemployed Jewish novelty salesman named Maxwell Charles “M.C.” Gaines (née Max Ginzberg) had a brilliant idea: if he enjoyed reading old comic strips like Joe Palooka, Mutt and Jeff, and Hairbredth Harry so much, maybe the rest of America would, too. Thus was born the American comic book, which a contract with god, jewish comic bookssin its earliest days consisted of reprinted newspaper funnies. Gaines and his colleague Harry L. Wildenberg at Eastern Color Printing soon published February 1934’s Famous Funnies #1, Series 1, the first American retail comic book. 

Rival comic book publishers sprang up immediately. However, by the mid-1930s publishers were already starting to exhaust the backlog of daily and Sunday strips that could be reprinted. The easiest way to fill the demand for new comic book features was for publishers to tap writers and artists who couldn’t get work anywhere else, either because they were too young, too inexperienced, or  Jewish–in most cases, all three. Advertising agencies had anti-Semitic quotas, and newspaper syndicates only occasionally took on a token Jewish cartoonist like Milt Gross or Rube Goldberg. But the comic book companies were mostly run by Jewish publishers like Timely Comics’s Martin Goodman or DC Comics’s Harry Donenfeld. It was a situation similar to that of the early motion picture industry, in which Jewish directors, producers, and studio executives who’d faced anti-Semitism in other industries built an industry of their own.

Because the comic book stories were being written and drawn largely by inexperienced teenagers, they were often crude rip-offs of the popular newspaper strips of the day, such as Tarzan or Buck Rogers. Enter writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman. In 1938, DC Comics published the Man of Steel’s first adventure in the pages of Action Comics #1. Superman was an instant hit. Literally dozens of Superman clones were rushed into production by rival comic book publishers, and suddenly the comic book industry had a future.

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Jewish Humor of the 1970s & 80s

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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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Jewish Sketch Comedy & Stand-Up

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The following article is adapted with permission from Reform Judaism magazine.

Gentrified Comedy

“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

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Jewish Humor of the 1980s

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The following article is adapted with permission from Reform Judaism magazine.

Coming-of-Age, Jewish Style

Kate: “What would you tell your father if he came home and I was dead on the kitchen floor?”

Eugene: “I’d say, ‘Don’t go in the kitchen, Pa!'”

–From Brighton Beach Memoirs

Perhaps in a reaction to the raucous teen film comedies of the late 1970s, gentle, “old-fashioned” family comedies made a comeback in the ’80s, many of them nostalgic coming-of-age stories told from a Jewish vantage point. In My Favorite Year (1982), produced by Mel Brooks and written by Blazing Saddles co-author Norman Steinberg, Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker), a young writer on a popular live TV show in the ’50s, is asked to keep a watchful eye on the show’s unpredictable, alcoholic guest star Alan Swan (Peter O’Toole).

Here, Jewish identity is equated with family and ethnicity. In the scene in which Benjy brings Swan home for dinner, the entire apartment house turns out to see the big-shot movie star. Benjy is embarrassed, but Swan longs for the close familial ties of Benjy’s Jewish family, recognizing that despite his fame and riches, he’s spiritually the poorest one at the table.

In Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986), the widowed Aunt Blanche (Judith Ivey) of aspiring young writer Eugene Morris Jerome (Jonathan Silverman) wants to date Frank Murphy (James Handy), the nice Irishman across the street, but Kate (Blythe Danner), Blanche’s traditional sister, disapproves: “I know their kind. Remember what Momma used to say to us: ‘Stay on your own side of the street. That’s what they have gutters for.'”

Ignoring her sister, Blanche becomes involved with Frank, who is hospitalized following a drunk-driving accident. When Kate refers to “these people” (i.e. the Irish) as a nation of drunkards, Blanche voices a sentiment not expressed in the Jewish cinema of an earlier age: “Who are you to talk? Are we any better? Are we something so special? We’re all poor around here! The least we can be is charitable!”

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Jewish Humor in the 1990s

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Ahhh, the ’90s. It was an era when people started using something called “e-mail” to communicate with each other, scientists cloned a sheep named Dolly, and then-President Bill Clinton became embroiled in a sex scandal. All of which was fodder for the nation’s comedians at the time. But what were some of the more overtly Jewish themes, topics, and trends that were put under comedic scrutiny by Jewish comics of the 1990s?

Seinfeld

Observational comedy–that is, comedic observations based on everyday life–was a defining characteristic of American comedy in the ’90s. The master of the form, Jerry Seinfeld, was also the single comedian most associated with Judaism during that decade. His TV sitcom Seinfeld (1990-98) was a forum for witty observation of life’s minutiae, and Jewish characters, Jewish food, and Jewish religious practices consistently served as inspiration.

seinfeld

Photo courtesy of Alan Light.

Whether it was tricking Jerry’s kosher-keeping girlfriend into eating lobster, kidnapping a baby rather than see the wee one get a circumcision, or Jerry fearing that his dentist has converted to Judaism simply so that he can make Jewish jokes with impunity, the show was a veritable Jewtopia of Semitic humor. Jerry Seinfeld seemed at times to be channeling some of his Jewish comedic predecessors, most notably Jack Benny. Like Benny, Seinfeld cultivated the image of a lone sane person surrounded by crazies, and like Benny, he often winked at the audience.

Slapstick and Reverence

With an emphasis on multiculturalism and diversity, 1990s American culture allowed ethnic comedians of all stripes to openly discuss their respective cultures. African-American comedians such as Chris Rock, Asian-American comedians like Margaret Cho, and Jewish comedians like Jerry Seinfeld fearlessly aired their culture’s “dirty laundry.” But if Jerry Seinfeld mined ritual observances for their comedic value, the era’s Jewish enfant terrible, Adam Sandler, took a different tack.

Sandler’s characters (such as Opera Man or Canteen Boy) didn’t have their root in the absurdities of everyday life–they were larger-than-life buffoons. He presented himself as a sort of “Jerry Lewis 2.0,” a slapstick clown in a beanpole body. Sandler’s ordinary stand-up routine (free of Jewish references) was reliant on poop jokes and overt sexual references. But when he ventured into the realm of Jewish humor, he suddenly morphed into a Nice Jewish Boy. For proof, look no further than Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song.”

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