Jewish Humor of the 1980s

The 1980s: Cheers, Family Ties, and two characters named Harry and Sally.

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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!"

Brighton Beach Memoirs' message is clear: we Jews, still a struggling people ourselves, must not shun other "outsider Americans."

TV & the "Me" Decade

The Cheers gang

"You want to go where people know, people are all the same,

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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.