Jews in Television: 1990s

From SNL to South Park.

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"Sick Humor"

Another comedy trend of the '90s--"sick humor"--owes its inspiration to Lenny Bruce. Turning the tables on the politically-correct mindset of the '90s, comedians like Dave Attell and radio "shock jocks" like Howard Stern--both Jewish--transformed taboo into titillation. Equal opportunity offenders, they smashed the sacred cows of the right and left wings with equal fervor.

"Sometimes, for lack of a better word, people call [this comedy] 'sick,'" says humor writer Tom Leopold, "but, in fact, it's just so purely honest it's hilarious, because it says what we all think, but can't say. Lenny Bruce did that."

Dave Attell, acclaimed by The New York Times magazine in 1994 as one of the 30 most brilliant artists under 30, performs the "Ugly American" segments on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and writes and stars in a Comedy Central series, Insomniac with Dave Attell--exactly the kind of television Lenny Bruce would have craved. Each 30-minute show follows Attell as he enters America's nocturnal world, populated by hookers, strippers, and junkies.

South Park

Comedy Central is also the home of South Park, an animated satire of small-town America from the perspective of a quartet of foul-mouthed children. Created in 1997 by Trey Parker (non-Jewish), and Matt Stone (Jewish), this "sick comedy" largely appeals to Generation X and their younger peers precisely because of its blunt satire of the hypocrisy employed by adults to achieve selfish ends.

south park

South Park

Stone, who writes many of the show's scripts, is the voice of Kyle Broflovski, son of the only Jewish family in South Park. (His father wears a red kipah, and his mother is a typical yenta.)

In one episode, Kyle questions the existence of God when he becomes deathly ill with hemorrhoids, while his cruel friend Eric Cartman (voiced by Trey Parker) inherits a million dollars and buys his own amusement park. In South Park Synagogue, Kyle stuns his best friend Stan Marsh (Trey Parker) with the following soliloquy:

"... All my life I was raised.. .to believe we should all behave a certain way, and good things would come to us. I make mistakes, but every week I try to better myself.... And what does this so-called God give me in return? A hemorrhoid!"

To comfort Kyle, his parents tell him the story of Job, whose faith was similarly tested, but Kyle is unimpressed. By the end of the episode, however, Cartman loses all his money, and Kyle's health--and faith--is restored. The lesson: The meek (and the faithful) will inherit the earth, while the Cartmans will fall victim to an unbending moral universe that does not tolerate evil.

This is, in fact, the moral of many a South Park episode. Cartman, who represents evil incarnate, regularly schemes to victimize the more goodly residents of South Park; by the end of the episode, he ends up with nothing.

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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.