Jewish Humor of the 1970s & 80s

The 1970s: Archie Bunker, National Lampoon, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Animal House

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Caesar's Auteurs

"Two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountain resort, and one of them says, 'Boy, the food at this place is really terrible!' And the other one says, 'Yeah, I know. And such small portions!'" --Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), Annie Hall (1977)

Still another comedy trend of the '70s was the catapulting of Sid Caesar writers Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles, 1974), Woody Allen (Annie Hall, 1977), and Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart (Oh, God!, 1977) to movie stardom.

With his landmark film Blazing Saddles, a slapstick farce with a serious agenda--prejudice and racism--Mel Brooks achieved his first box-office success. The film, co-written with African American comedian Richard Pryor and Andrew Bergman, Norman Steinberg, and Alan Uger (all Jewish), tells the tale of the new Black sheriff, Bart (Cleavon Little), and his white dipsomaniac sidekick, Jim, a.k.a. The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), in an all-white town.

At first, the townsfolk are horrified by Little; eventually they rally around him and band together to fight a force of KKK, Nazis, Arabs, and other outlaws. The film's subtext is a clarion call for a new age of racial, religious, and ethnic harmony against the backdrop of real-life riots and civil unrest in America.

One of the most memorable scenes depicts a Sioux chief (Mel Brooks) drawing his horse up to a black family during an Indian raid on a wagon train and saying in Yiddish: "Zeit nisht meshugge. Loz em gaien... Abee gezint" --"Don't be crazy. Let them go... As long as we are all healthy." No translation was provided, but audiences generally understood Brooks' linking Indians, blacks, and Jews as historic underdogs who could use a helping hand in a cruel and hostile world.

Woody Allen's multiple Oscar-winning film Annie Hall, a comic exploration of interfaith romance in the '70s, chronicles the exploits of Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), a neurotic standup comic who attempts to sustain a relationship with his equally neurotic non-Jewish girlfriend Annie Hall (Diane Keaton).

Alvy is hypersensitive, even paranoid, about his Jewishness and he perceives anti-Semitism everywhere. In one scene, Alvy dines with Annie's WASPy family, including her anti-Semitic grandmother. Feeling acutely self-conscious, he imagines himself as he thinks "Grammy Hall" must see him: a Hasidic Jew with a beard, black hat, and peyoss [side locks]. Alvy's excruciating ambivalence as a Jew trying to fit into America epitomizes a conflict faced by many Jews coming of age in the 1970s, before it was "in" to be overtly Jewish.

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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.

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