Jews in Television: 1990s

From SNL to South Park.

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Standup Becomes Alternative

"The Jewish concept of God is too difficult to fathom. An omniscient, omnipotent Peeping Tom who loves us and smites our enemies. Although recent history suggests he's a little slow on the smiting." --from Naked Pictures of Famous People by Jon Stewart

The golden age of standup in the '70s and the comedy club boom in the '80s began to decline in the '90s as audiences turned to cable TV for comic relief. Many standup comics quit the business, but those who were in it for the art, not the money, stuck around and honed their craft, helping to create an alternative comedy movement in the mid-'90s.

New clubs, such as Rebar and the Luna Lounge in New York, featured Jewish comedians Marc Maron (Almost Famous, The Late Show with David Letterman), Sarah Silverman (There's Something About Mary), and Jeffrey Ross (Comedy Central Presents: The New York Friars Club Roasts), among others.

In these alternative venues, comedians rarely performed rehearsed, "safe" TV routines. Sarah Silverman, for example, once came onstage with fellow Jewish comedian Sam Seder dressed as Seder's teenage nephew, a bar mitzvah boy who complains: "My friends don't even know who you are! Adam Sandler is funny, and you are not funny! I wish that Adam Sandler was my uncle! You suck, and Adam Sandler rocks!"

Industry bigwigs began flocking to these alternative spaces, hoping to cash in on what might become "the next big thing." Silverman soon landed a spot writing and performing on Saturday Night Live, which led to film roles; Ross became a regular presence on Comedy Central; and Marc Maron's one-man show, "The Jerusalem Syndrome," enjoyed a sold-out Off Broadway run and, in 2001, was published as a book.

The more mainstream standup comedy clubs continued to headline Jewish comedians--including Susie Essman, Lewis Black, Hugh Fink, and Judy Gold--who were influenced by their counterparts in the alternative movement. Gone was the era of simple, Seinfeldian observational comedy. A new type of edgy, intellectual humor was on the rise, one that still made observations but also crossed the line into a more philosophic realm.

Consider Hugh Fink's "Pizza" joke: "I don't like the way people are now using September 11th as an excuse. I was in Phoenix last week, and I ordered a pizza. I said, 'Half pepperoni and half cheese.' The guy came in half an hour later, and I said, 'Hey, this is sausage. I said half pepperoni and half cheese.' And he goes, 'Um, due to the recent tragedy of September 11th, we forgot to put pepperonis on.'"

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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.