History of American Jewish Humor: The 1980s

Cheers, Family Ties and two characters named Harry and Sally.

Coming-of-Age, Jewish Style

Kate: “What would you tell your father if he came home and I was dead on the kitchen floor?”
Eugene: “I’d say, ‘Don’t go in the kitchen, Pa!'”

–From Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs

Perhaps in a reaction to the raucous teen film comedies of the late 1970s, gentle, “old-fashioned” family comedies made a comeback in the ’80s, many of them nostalgic coming-of-age stories told from a Jewish vantage point. In My Favorite Year (1982), produced by Mel Brooks and written by Blazing Saddles co-author Norman Steinberg, Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker), a young writer on a popular live TV show in the ’50s, is asked to keep a watchful eye on the show’s unpredictable, alcoholic guest star Alan Swan (Peter O’Toole).

Here, Jewish identity is equated with family and ethnicity. In the scene in which Benjy brings Swan home for dinner, the entire apartment house turns out to see the big-shot movie star. Benjy is embarrassed, but Swan longs for the close familial ties of Benjy’s Jewish family, recognizing that despite his fame and riches, he’s spiritually the poorest one at the table.

In Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986), the widowed Aunt Blanche (Judith Ivey) of aspiring young writer Eugene Morris Jerome (Jonathan Silverman) wants to date Frank Murphy (James Handy), the nice Irishman across the street, but Kate (Blythe Danner), Blanche’s traditional sister, disapproves: “I know their kind. Remember what Momma used to say to us: ‘Stay on your own side of the street. That’s what they have gutters for.'”

Ignoring her sister, Blanche becomes involved with Frank, who is hospitalized following a drunk-driving accident. When Kate refers to “these people” (i.e. the Irish) as a nation of drunkards, Blanche voices a sentiment not expressed in the Jewish cinema of an earlier age: “Who are you to talk? Are we any better? Are we something so special? We’re all poor around here! The least we can be is charitable!”

Brighton Beach Memoirs message is clear: we Jews, still a struggling people ourselves, must not shun other “outsider Americans.”

TV and the “Me” Decade

“You want to go where people know, people are all the same,
You want to go where ev’rybody knows your name.”
–Theme from Cheers

In the “Me decade,” ’80s TV audiences lost interest in “message” shows like M*A*S*H and All In The Family and tilted toward sitcoms like Silver Spoons and Diff’rent Strokes. “I think as politics became unimportant, people became very self-absorbed and narcissistic, and most humor came right out of that,” said screenwriter Nora Ephron.

One new sitcom countered the trend, remaining relentlessly political. Family Ties, created by Gary David Goldberg, examined the relationship between ex-hippie parents Steven and Elyse Keaton (Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter-Birney) and their Republican son Alex (Michael J. Fox). The clash between liberal parent and conservative child — the reverse of the All In The Family formula — resonated deeply with many baby boomers who had “Alex P. Keatons” of their own.

Though the Keaton family was ostensibly gentile, the writers of Family Ties (who included Jewish Blazing Saddles co-screenwriter Alan Uger) often addressed Jewish themes, such as racial and religious discrimination. In the pilot episode, for example, Elyse scolds Alex for going to a club that discriminates against “Blacks, Jews, Hispanics, or any other group that didn’t come over on the Mayflower.” The show ends with Alex not joining the club and emerging a more enlightened character as a result.

Another seminal ’80s television show, Cheers (1982-93), was bolstered by its Jewish director, James Burrows, son of legendary comedy writer/director Abe Burrows (Duffy’s Tavern, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Broadway’s Guys and Dolls) and a largely Jewish writing staff, including Tom Leopold, Ken Estin, and Earl Pomerantz. “Cheers took a big step,” says Robert Smigel, “in allowing sex in sitcoms. The Sam and Diane thing was new and interesting–actual characters who really were interested in each other and having sex made it compelling. And it gave other shows permission to take off and explore sexuality.”

Cheers also broke new ground in portraying an interfaith couple raising a Jewish child: The show’s sole recurring Jewish character, Dr. Lilith Sternin Crane (Bebe Neuwirth), and her gentile atheist husband, Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), raise their son, Frederick, as a Jew.

A funny and touching episode late in the show’s run, “For Real Men Only” (1989), deals with the issue of circumcision. Perceiving the ritual as alien and unwanted, Frasier attempts to kidnap Frederick. Eventually, Frasier calms down and, as the couple prepares for Frederick’s bris, announces to his friends, “As you all know, I was raised without a religious tradition, and I’m determined my son shall not be similarly deprived. I’m so grateful to Lilith and her Jewish faith for providing Frederick a heritage of spirituality.” The fact that the cynical, scientific-to-a-fault Frasier Crane was exultant about Judaism underscored the message: spirituality matters.

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 did 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?”

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.

Adapted with permission from Reform Judaism magazine.

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