Jewish Sketch Comedy & Stand-Up

1970s & '80s stand-up & sketch comedy: Seinfeld's start, Andy Kaufman, Saturday Night Live

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"People like Andy Kaufman took comedy in a different direction in the '70s," says Robert Smigel, whose children's show parody TV Funhouse was inspired by Kaufman's Uncle Andy's Funhouse (both spoofing Eisenhower-era programs such as Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and Howdy Doody).

Carl Reiner discovered Andy Kaufman in 1971 at Catch A Rising Star. "He was doing Elvis, he was doing the Foreign Man, he was reading The Great Gatsby, he was doing it all," Reiner recalls. "And then he got mad at the audience. And you couldn't tell if he was really mad or not, because he told bad jokes, and they booed him and he ran off. I told Dick Van Dyke about Kaufman. Dick was doing a special at the time. He put Andy on the show, and that was his first paid job, 1,500 bucks!"

Through Kaufman's constant riffs on identity--the just-off-the-boat immigrant Foreign Man, the washed-up showbiz hedonist Tony Clifton, and the "Uncle Miltie"-style TV host Uncle Andy--he toyed with the masks Jews often wear in everyday life. It's no coincidence that Tony Clifton resembled Borscht Belt insult comics such as Don Rickles and Jack E. Leonard, and that Foreign Man--a variation of which appeared in his character Latka (named after the Jewish potato pancake) on the hit TV series Taxi--mimicked the kind of European immigrants Kaufman no doubt knew as a child growing up in Great Neck, New York.

When Kaufman died of cancer in 1984, his fans thought he had faked his own demise as the ultimate performance piece, a variation on the "Elvis lives" theme. Considered the king of '70s comedy, he influenced a generation of comedians, including Bill Murray, Robin Williams, Paul "Pee-Wee Herman" Reubens, and David Letterman.

Live From New York

"I think the first show was over-thought. There were six months leading up to that show and six days leading up to the second show.... until you do it, you have no idea what it is you're doing." --Lorne Michaels, Saturday Night Live: The First Twenty Years (1994), edited by Michael Cader

In 1973, Jewish producer Bob Tischler joined forces with National Lampoon writer/editor Michael O'Donoghue to create the National Lampoon Radio Hour. The show featured several then-unknown Jewish writers/performers, including Tom Leopold, Christopher Guest (This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride), Richard Belzer (Law & Order), and Second City alumni Gilda Radner and Harold Ramis.

The series lasted just over a year, even with the added firepower of John Belushi, Doug Kenney, Chevy Chase, and Bill Murray, among others. Luckily, however, just before its cancellation, a young producer named Lorne Michaels recruited Radner, Belushi, and others for his new sketch comedy show NBC's Saturday Night, later changed to Saturday Night and then to Saturday Night Live.

Premiering on October 11, 1975, the show became an instant hit. Not since Sid Caesar's heyday in the 1950s did people in large numbers stay home on Saturday night to watch sketch comedy. The Caesar connection was no coincidence; Lorne Michaels used Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour as templates for the new show.

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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.