Jewish Humor of the 1980s

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

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This is typical Jewish humor, Porges says, "because it's visual, it's davka [meaning 'just because'], and in your face!" Similarly, he explains, when Harry spits grape seeds at the windowpane and it sticks to the glass, thereby annoying Sally--a Billy Crystal innovation--the gag has a typically visual, "in your face" Jewish flavor.

Billy Crystal has succeeded in synthesizing old-world Jewish values with a contemporary attitude. As a writer/ performer on SNL in 1984-85, he created the washed-up Borscht Belt comic Buddy Young, Jr., a character inspired by his childhood heroes Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, and Jackie Mason.

Crystal was also renowned for his on-the-mark impression of Sammy Davis, Jr. (In one SNL episode, host Reverend Jesse Jackson comments to "Sammy": "You're black... you're Jewish... you're the whole Rainbow Coalition!") His blend of Jewish "in your face" comedy and mainstream likeability has paved the way for Ben Stiller, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and other "cute" leading men who are confident, self-assured, and comfortable in their Jewish skins.

Compared to the previous two decades, when most Jewish comedy writers went mainstream (throwing in Jewish references with a "wink" to those in the know), the post Vietnam and "Me" decades of the '70s and '80s brought Jewish characters completely out of the closet. These characters evolved from the paranoid Jewish cabbie "Bernie X" in National Lampoon and neurotic Alvy in Annie Hall to the cuddly Billy Crystal. By 1989, the wacky outsider had given way to the witty insider.

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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.