Jewish Humor in the 1990s

Nerdy, yet cool.

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Jewish Women Laughing

In the '90s, it became more common to see female performers in comedy clubs and playing openly Jewish characters on TV and films. Among the pioneers were Susie Essman (who's had supporting roles in such films as Keeping the Faith and Bolt) and Judy Gold (who was a writer/producer on the Rosie O'Donnell Show and who had a recurring role on the Drew Carey Show). While some might be put off by Susie Greene, the foul-mouthed character Essman essays on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, she's a strong-willed character, and a far cry from the typical "materialistic Jewish princess" stereotype so dominant in the '80s. And half of Judy Gold's routine seems to center around her mother, a lovable yenta that many Jewish audiences can relate to.

Then there's Sarah Silverman, whose stand-up act frequently references her Jewish identity. At one stand-up comedy show in the mid-'90s, Silverman came onstage with fellow Jewish comedian Sam Seder. She was dressed as Seder's teenage nephew, a bar mitzvah boy who complains: "My friends don't even know who you are! Adam Sandler is funny, and you are not funny! I wish that Adam Sandler was my uncle! You suck, and Adam Sandler rocks!"

A Decade to Remember

Yes, Adam Sandler does rock. Like Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler represented a completely new breed of emerging comedy: the openly-Jewish comedy rock star whose most famous routines were often about Judaism. What made both Seinfeld and Sandler so refreshing to young audiences is that they blended the old and the new. Just as Sandler fused the goony antics of Jerry Lewis with a more polished frat-boy swagger--nerdy, yet cool--Seinfeld's persona was a more modern spin on an older template: Jack Benny in sneakers.

This was the essence of Jewish humor in the '90s: Jewish humorists retrofitting the very idea of what it meant to be Jewish--and to play a Jewish character--in the last decade of the 20th century.

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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.