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From Larry David to Sarah Silverman
By Saul Austerlitz
The 1990s were the decade of Jews, and Jewish culture, blazing their way
into the television mainstream. There were numerous contributors to
this occurrence, but only one need be specifically singled out: the
groundbreaking NBC series Seinfeld,
in which stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld reinvented the sitcom as a
dazzling exploration of nothingness. Seinfeld was a show about
four Jews in which only one--Seinfeld himself--was explicitly identified
as Jewish. Judaism, and specifically Jewish humor, had been refined
until it had melted into the American pot.
In many ways, the 2000s were the long tail to Seinfeld’s
revolution, with television series of the early 21st century
underscoring, and occasionally critiquing, the mainstreaming of Jewish
culture onscreen. Television had become about the particular, not the
universal, and Judaism was one of its primary markers of the
idiosyncratic array of American mores.
The obvious starting point for a discussion of Jews on television in
the early 21st century is the HBO series Curb Your
Enthusiasm, created by and starring Seinfeld
co-creator Larry David. David is the absurdist extension of the lovably
zany Seinfeldians. He is crude, self-absorbed, and convinced of the
soundness of his inevitably flawed logic. David (identified as Jewish,
unlike Seinfeld’s George) hires a prostitute so he can drive in
the carpool lane, schemes to purchase a friend’s cherished shirt, and
steals a little girl’s favorite doll. In short, David is an exaggerated
stereotype of Jewish scheming and talmudic hair-splitting, like the Seinfeld
characters gone feral.
Other Jewish TV protagonists took David’s lead, their offensiveness
tempered by the humorous charm of their salvos. The
Sarah Silverman Program was like a younger, sprightlier
version of Curb Your Enthusiasm, more dedicated to the potty
humor so beloved of its Comedy Central audience.
Much of Silverman’s act--on the show as well as in her stand-up--was
predicated on the disjunction between her Jewish-girl-next-door looks
and the panoply of jokes about (among other things) the Holocaust and
date rape. Silverman’s intent was to shock, but in a complicated bit of
rhetorical jujitsu, her comedy saluted her viewers for being in on the
joke. Anyone who was offended was, by definition, a humorless prig.
Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) was, in his own way, another Jewish stereotype:
brassy, egotistical, self-absorbed, crude. The Hollywood super-agent on
this genial Tinseltown comedy was cutting deals in synagogue on the
High Holidays, scuttling between executives from pew to pew and sneaking
calls on his cellphone. He was a huckster on the make, grandson to the
protagonist from Budd Schulberg’s What
Makes Sammy Run?
And yet, Ari was gradually domesticated and tamed, surrounded as he was
by the warm, familial atmosphere of superstar Vincent Chase (Adrian
Grenier) and his circle of friends. Ari (based on real-life agent Ari
Emanuel, brother of White House chief of staff, Rahm) was a bully and a
pig, but he was our bully and our pig, and Entourage,
taking the lead from its viewers, drew Ari into an ever-closer embrace
as the show progressed, until we had forgotten why we had ever loved to
hate him in the first place.
Some dramatic series had Jewish regulars who fit the pattern of the
ugly Jewish smears from the past: The amoral shyster of The Wire, and
the callous record company executive and quasi-mobster of The Sopranos.
But these characters were also surprisingly complex, with The
Sopranos’ Hesh Rabkin (Jerry Adler) a sweet, jovial father figure
to Tony Soprano at the same time that he was a ruthless businessman,
ripping off an entire generation of African-American recording artists.
The same went for The Wire’s mobbed-up lawyer Maury Levy
(Michael Kostroff), who fit every pattern of oily Jewish criminality
while subtly eroding it from within. Mad Men,
AMC’s exercise in discomfiting nostalgia, revisited the casual
anti-Semitism of the early 1960s, with Jewish department-store owner
Rachel Menken turning to the golden-haired WASPs of the Sterling Cooper
advertising agency for advice on how to attract a less Jewish clientele
to her store. Harry Goldenblatt, the pit-bull divorce lawyer to, and
later husband of, Kristin Davis’ Charlotte on later seasons of HBO’s Sex and the
City, was introduced as a risible walking cliché before
steadily revealing himself to be more than a sweaty, bald, hirsute
paragon of Jewish crassness.
Other characters’ Judaism was a matter of some secrecy, only belatedly
explored, like The Simpsons’
Krusty the Clown (nee Herschel Krustofsky), or the Griffin family of Family Guy, briefly
putting on kippot and saying blessings over the Passover candles.
There were also unlikely Jews, like Grey’s Anatomy’s
Korean-Jewish intern, played by Sandra Oh. Television series were intent
on subduing the stereotypes, and proving that anyone could be
Jewish--and that Jews could be anyone. Now that television had
splintered into a myriad of niche audiences (dog lovers, foodies, HBO
fans), propelled by the profusion of new cable channels and the
slow-motion implosion of the networks, its interest in the unexplored
corners of American culture grew exponentially. Jews were part of the
texture of contemporary American life, their mystery--their
difference--now crucial to their TV allure.
Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.
This article was reprinted with permission from MyJewishLearning.com. To read the rest, click here.