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Harmless Humor — Or Insidious Influence?


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NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” has once again inspired dismay among at least some Jewish viewers who feel the line between simple bad taste and outright anti-Semitism was crossed on the Dec. 17 edition of the long-running show.

The segment that raised hackles was a musical claymation production by veteran SNL writer Robert Smigel, titled “Christmastime for the Jews,” which strained to find humor in the annual phenomenon of non-Jews becoming scarce on city streets on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, leaving Jews sole stewardship of the public square.

Whatever one thinks of Smigel’s take on how Christmas serves to accentuate the differences between Jews and their Christian neighbors, this is hardly the first time “Saturday Night Live” has been accused of at least pushing the envelope in its references to Jews and depiction of Jewish characters.

For example, a skit that aired on Dec. 4, 1999, included a scene in which then-SNL regular Ana Gesteyer and actress Christina Ricci discoursed on such subjects as Jewish control of the country’s banks and the forgiveness Christians have granted Jews “for having killed” Jesus.

In its three decades on the air, SNL — which has always been heavily dependent on Jewish writers and, except for a few years in the early 1980’s, has been run from its inception by Jewish executive producer Lorne Michaels (born Lipowitz) — has routinely turned to Jewish themes, with results that have ranged from the silly to the reprehensible.

A short list would include a parody-automobile commercial of a mohel performing a circumcision in the back seat of a car as it careened wildly through an obstacle course; the late Gilda Radner portraying a gum-popping, vacuous Jewish American Princess; a “dating video” sketch starring former series regular Gary Kroeger as a geeky, perverted dentist named Ira Needleman; a home-shopping program featuring Tom Hanks as an underhanded Israeli electronics salesman; the endlessly recurring segments involving the Linda Richman “Coffee Talk” yenta; and an infamous skit involving a Passover seder, a boorish Jewish family, and guest host Jerry Seinfeld as Elijah the Prophet.

Speaking of Seinfeld, his NBC sitcom may have been one of the most successful in TV history, but it had a definite Jewish problem of its own as the “Seinfeld” writers went to near-ridiculous lengths to blur the ethnicity of their main characters — all of whom possessed the sensibilities of typical young New York Jews but who, with the exception of Jerry Seinfeld himself, had by the end of the series been identified in one way or another as non-Jewish.

Even worse was what happened whenever the show attempted to deal with Jewish subjects. As Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum observed, “The episodes with the blabby, buffoonish rabbi are uncomfortable and notably unfunny. And the story about a bris is as painful as the procedure.” Schwarzbaum also noted that in an episode where “Jerry was dating a girl who kept kosher, [Jerry’s friend] George meanly tricks her into eating trayf.”

Little wonder that TV critic Tom Shales wrote, as the show neared the end of its run in 1998, that “Seinfeld is Jewish but the Seinfeld he played on the show, a comic patterned after himself, of course, showed no respect for Jewish traditions or heritage, ever.”

The debate over how much, if any, of an effect Jewish comedians and comedy writers have on influencing public perceptions of Jews and Judaism is an old one, and is certain to continue for many years. It’s a real concern, though — one touched on by Sig Altman in the introduction to his 1971 study The Comic Image of the Jew. Describing an incident on a television talk show in the late sixties, Altman wrote that

An interviewee, in the course of a totally serious discussion, made the quite serious remark, “I looked it up in the Jewish Encyclopedia.” There immediately followed a burst of laughter from the studio audience, which obviously sensed a joke about to materialize, or perhaps saw one already born. The laughter rather suddenly subsided, however, as the collective realization apparently dawned that no joke was in fact intended. Nevertheless, the comic quality of the word “Jewish” in the public consciousness had been perfectly demonstrated.

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.


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