Jewish Humor of the 1980s

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

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Quintessentially Jewish & American

"Suppose nothing happens to you. Suppose you live there your whole life and nothing happens, you never meet anybody, you never become anything, and finally you die one of those New York deaths that nobody notices for two weeks until the smell drifts into the hallway." --Harry Burns to Sally Albright, When Harry Met Sally...

Billy Crystal's portrayal of Harry Burns in the acclaimed film When Harry Met Sally... (1989), written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner, reinvented the Jewish protagonist as witty, sensitive, cute, sexy, and testy--a significant departure from Woody Allen (nebbishy) and Jerry Lewis (comically pathetic). Crystal appeared a normal guy, the archetypal American "everyman," and "everyman" started to look more Jewish.

Interestingly, Nora Ephron did not originally conceive of Harry as a Jew, and his religion never comes up in the film. "Harry was originally conceived, in my mind anyway, as a Christian and Sally as a Jew," Ephron says. "Not that this was ever explicit. When Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan got involved, that was obviously not going to work, so everyone's last names were changed. And Billy made the character more like himself, more like a standup comic."

Despite the Crystal factor, Ephron does not label the film--or her work in general--as Jewish. "What happened to [my generation] didn't seem to me particularly 'Jewish' in any way. Urban, yes. New York, even. But Jewish, no."

Writer/cartoonist Paul Peter Porges (MAD, The New Yorker, You Can't Do Business Or Most Anything Else Without Yiddish) believes such distinctions do not change the fact that the film is replete with traditional Jewish humor. "One of the greatest scenes," Porges says, "is Harry and Sally's first trip from Chicago to New York. They're talking and he's throwing at her all this typical Jewish dialogue, a 'Crazy Uncle Max' type of humor. It's like Crystal's standup routine about his uncle, who is always asking questions: 'Nu, when you going to get married? Gonna make a living?' In this case [after Sally tells Harry that nothing's happened to her yet and that's why she's going to New York], Harry pesters Sally with all kinds of questions about her life":

Harry: "So something'll happen to you?"

Sally: "Yes."

Harry: "Like what?"

Sally: "Like I'm going to journalism school to become a reporter."

Harry: "So you can write about things that happen to other people?"

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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.