The Monitor’s been in a nostalgic frame of mind lately, celebrating (some would say wallowing) in its 10th anniversary. Several readers, responding to last week’s front-page essay, “A Decade of Media Monitoring,” asked whether there was one particular column the Monitor counted as a personal favorite.
There were other questions as well, which will be addressed next week (the finale in our retrospective, we promise). As for one column remembered with particular fondness, the Monitor could do worse than the following, from 1999 and thus not available in our online archives:
NBC Peacock’s True Colors? [Dec. 31. 1999]
Incidents like this can make even the reasonably sane among us wish for a Jewish Al Sharpton: Despite complaints from offended viewers and the Anti-Defamation League, NBC has reneged on an earlier written promise and now says that a blatantly anti-Semitic “Saturday Night Live” Chanukah skit will not be removed from future telecasts of the original program.
The skit, which aired on Dec. 4, included a scene in which SNL regular Ana Gesteyer and the actress Christina Ricci, portraying a pair of popular female singers, discoursed on such subjects as Jewish control of the country’s banks and the forgiveness Christians have granted Jews “for having killed” Jesus.
According to news reports, the skit’s negative fallout prompted Roz Weinman, an NBC executive, to write an apologetic letter to the ADL which contained a pledge that the skit would “be excised from all future broadcasts.”
Immediately, strenuous objection to Weinman’s words was raised by SNL executive producer and guiding light Lorne Michaels – born Lorne Lipowitz – who huffed through a spokesman, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s still under discussion.”
Lipowitz’s attitude set the network’s tone for the next few days as NBC officials increasingly distanced themselves from Weinman’s letter. A network source went so far as to disparage Weinman’s motives, suggesting that “in her rush to go on vacation and appease these folks, she said, ‘Fine, here’s what I’m going to do.’”
And then came the announcement that NBC executives had “reviewed the viewer response to the SNL sketch and have decided that it will air again unedited.”
It was a curious statement, to say the least, and the reference to viewer response seemed at odds with the assessment offered by ADL National Director Abe Foxman, who said his organization’s switchboards were “lit up” by outraged callers. (Foxman castigated SNL’s Chanukah skit for promulgating “two canards [that] are the basis for anti-Semitism for which we’ve paid a very, very high price.”)
This is hardly the first time that “Saturday Night Live” has come under scrutiny for pushing the envelope in its references to Jews and depiction of Jewish characters. In fact, in the 25 years that Lipowitz and SNL have been on the air, the show has routinely turned to Jewish themes, with results that have ranged from the silly to the reprehensible.
A short list would include an early parody-commercial of a mohel attempting a back-seat circumcision as his car careened wildly through an obstacle course; the late Gilda Radner portraying a gum-popping, vacuous Jewish American Princesses; a dating video sketch starring former series regular Gary Kroeger as a perverted dentist named “Ira Needleman”; a faux home-shopping program featuring a cheesy, underhanded Israeli electronics salesman (played by guest host Tom Hanks, who even signed off with a hearty “lehitrayot”); the “Minkman brothers,” Al and Herb, a pair of less than scrupulous merchandisers played by cast members Christopher Guest and Billy Crystal in 1984; the endlessly recurring segments involving the Linda Richman “Coffee Talk” yenta; and an infamous skit combining guest host Jerry Seinfeld, a Passover seder and an unbelievably boorish Jewish family.
Speaking of Seinfeld, his NBC sitcom may have been one of the most successful in TV history, but it had a definite Jewish problem all its own.
Maybe it was because the late NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff initially dismissed the show as “too Jewish,” but the writers on “Seinfeld” went to near-ridiculous lengths to blur the ethnicity of three of the four main characters.
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 pointed out that in an episode where “Jerry dates a girlfriend who eats only kosher, [Jerry’s friend] George meanly tricks her into eating trayf.”
Hmmm … you don’t suppose Lorne Lipowitz Michaels could have been sitting in on some of those “Seinfeld” production meetings, do you?
Jason Maoz can be reached at email@example.com