Jews in Animated TV
Laughing at and with Jews on The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy.
Since the advent of The Simpsons in 1989, the animated prime-time genre, which primarily targets adults instead of children, has been one of the most creative zones in contemporary television.
Shows such as The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy have delivered some of the most consistent laughs on TV, creatively skewering American life and culture from an infinite range of perspectives. Centered around a single family or a set of friends, these three series have steadily spiraled outward to encompass a miniature universe of walk-on characters, among which a number of Jews are present.
Each show has also, on occasion, poked fun at Judaism and American Jewish life. The tone, for the most part, has been strikingly gentle--almost tender, preferring to use Judaism for nostalgic or satiric material rather than out-and-out savaging it. While other animated series have milked Jewish material--the children's show Rugrats, which featured Jewish characters and released Passover and Hanukkah specials, foremost among them--it is these three series that have had the most significant impact on American culture.
With so many writers of television comedy being Jewish, it should be no surprise that these animated series all eventually took a crack at crafting Jewish-themed episodes. The freedom granted by animation allows for an inordinately wide-ranging approach to comedy, far more so than for its live-action counterparts. Judaism was hardly the focus of these series; it was only one in a nearly infinite array of subjects deemed worthy of being run through the animated wringer.
As the granddaddy of them all, The Simpsons was the first of these three shows to foray into Jewish material. The show's imaginary Springfield was stocked, as the show progressed, with a seemingly infinite array of supporting characters: sailors, stick-up men, doctors, convenience-store clerks, and a dazzling assortment of oddballs and kooks. Among the most memorable and endearing, was the cynical children's-show host Krusty the Clown, who was revealed in the show's third season to be Jewish. His real name: Herschel Krustofski.
Krusty's tragic backstory--disapproving father and conflicted feelings about his heritage--was lifted directly from The Jazz Singer. The Simpsons offered some fine comic touches of its own, such as Krusty's father's response to his son's clowning: "If you were a musician or a jazz singer, this I could forgive!" The Simpsons would return to Krusty's Jewish roots a few more times, with legendary comic Jackie Mason providing the voice of Rabbi Krustofski.