Jewish Humor of the 1980s

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

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You want to go where ev'rybody knows your name."

--Theme from Cheers

In the "Me decade," '80s TV audiences lost interest in "message" shows like M*A*S*H and All In The Family and tilted toward sitcoms like Silver Spoons and Diff'rent Strokes. "I think as politics became unimportant, people became very self-absorbed and narcissistic, and most humor came right out of that," says Nora Ephron.

One new sitcom countered the trend, remaining relentlessly political. Family Ties, created by Gary David Goldberg, examined the relationship between ex-hippie parents Steven and Elyse Keaton (Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter-Birney) and their Republican son Alex (Michael J. Fox). The clash between liberal parent and conservative child--the reverse of the All In The Family formula--resonated deeply with many baby boomers who had "Alex P. Keatons" of their own.

Though the Keaton family was ostensibly gentile, the writers of Family Ties (who included Jewish Blazing Saddles co-screenwriter Alan Uger) often addressed Jewish themes, such as racial and religious discrimination. In the pilot episode, for example, Elyse scolds Alex for going to a club that discriminates against "Blacks, Jews, Hispanics, or any other group that didn't come over on the Mayflower." The show ends with Alex not joining the club and emerging a more enlightened character as a result.

Another seminal '80s television show, Cheers (1982-93), was bolstered by its Jewish director, James Burrows, son of legendary comedy writer/director Abe Burrows (Duffy's Tavern, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Broadway's Guys and Dolls) and a largely Jewish writing staff, including Tom Leopold, Ken Estin, and Earl Pomerantz. "Cheers took a big step," says Robert Smigel, "in allowing sex in sitcoms. The Sam and Diane thing was new and interesting--actual characters who really were interested in each other and having sex made it compelling. And it gave other shows permission to take off and explore sexuality."

Cheers also broke new ground in portraying an interfaith couple raising a Jewish child: The show's sole recurring Jewish character, Dr. Lilith Sternin Crane (Bebe Neuwirth), and her gentile atheist husband, Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), raise their son, Frederick, as a Jew.

A funny and touching episode late in the show's run, "For Real Men Only" (1989), deals with the issue of circumcision. Perceiving the ritual as alien and unwanted, Frasier attempts to kidnap Frederick. Eventually, Frasier calms down and, as the couple prepares for Frederick's bris, announces to his friends, "As you all know, I was raised without a religious tradition, and I'm determined my son shall not be similarly deprived. I'm so grateful to Lilith and her Jewish faith for providing Frederick a heritage of spirituality." The fact that the cynical, scientific-to-a-fault Frasier Crane was exultant about Judaism underscored the message: spirituality matters.

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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.