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Are Jewish Stereotypes Funny? Part 2

June 24, 2009 | by Marnie Winston-Macauley

Where did the American negative Jewish stereotype come from?

"Stereotypes." Today, the very term can trigger a debate of Talmudic proportion. After all, generalizations are not only insulting, they're downright "anti-American." Weren't we founded by fierce individualists to allow all individuals to be – individualists? Suggestions that all Italians are gangsters, Blacks are shiftless, or Jews are money-grubbing" make our PC hackles stand at attention when we hear them – aloud!

"Stereotypes" trigger a debate of Talmudic proportion.

Ah, but when we see them? The Sopranos, Sanford and Son, Chico and the Man, The Nanny. All successes-by-stereotype.

In our first instalment we looked at one of the very first sitcoms, The Goldbergs that started in 1930s radio and became legend during the infancy of television. Using cracked Yinglish and Yiddishe kops, the show was rife with "stereotypes." Yet, there was little, if any, shouting from the "typical-negative-stereotype-that's-offensive-to-the-Jewish-people" corner. We Jews were proud of the Goldbergs.

Shalom, Molly, Hello Rhoda!

In the 1970s we met Jewish, New Yorker, "Rhoda Morgenstern," Mary's best gal pal, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Rhoda's mother, Ida, started showing up in Minneapolis – with chest pains, distributing even-handed guilt.

[Excerpt from the Mary Tyler Moore Show: "Rhoda's Sister Gets Married," 1973. Rhoda and Mary go to the Bronx to attend Rhoda's sister's wedding]:

IDA: Martin [Rhoda's father], and I are glad that you, her best friend, are going to be here to support her in her time of real hurt.
MARY: No, no. Mrs. Morgenstern, Rhoda isn't hurt that Debbie is getting married.
IDA: She covers up. She's unhappy because she thinks that I think that Rhoda should be getting married.
MARY: That is not true.
IDA: Yes, it is true. I do think Rhoda should be married. Rhoda knows there's a pain in my heart because she isn't getting married. Because there isn't anyone on this block who doesn't know that that pain is there.

And so it went. Out went the wise, beloved stereotype, as over the years, we've watched Jewish media characters such as Fran Fine, Paul Buchman, Jerry Seinfeld, and Grace Adler, among many, kvetch, as "Yiddishe" nourishment was increasingly portrayed as force feeding, while Yiddishe succor and family sacrifice became "suffocation."Where The Goldbergs was balanced, and used Yiddishe life to make a larger, universal point, this new "Jewish stereotype" got big laughs turning our traits and characters into punch lines, with guffaws around one note – often sour: a Jack Klugman nose, a Sylvia Fine finger in a frozen Sara Lee, a Morty Seinfeld missing a Paris trip to sell a few shlock raincoats.

What changed was the message. And the wit, sarcasm, and yes, negativism of the 1970s was affecting the Boomers. Those nice, placid kids of the fifties, roared into the 60s, with outrage, and outrageous behavior. As Jewish humor is wildly and uproariously subversive, it was the perfect comic shorthand for this emerging generation. And ... it set a pattern.

It's Not Just Us

Increasingly, American sitcoms of all stripes – from Chico and the Man, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, to Everybody Loves Raymond – began to use ethnicity with abandon.

Let's look at a few.

Notable is Lord of the Wimps, Ray Barone: He's been "fixed," neutered, by "Everybody [Who] Loves" him. His Italian family are portrayed as low-class vultures who act with (hysterical) vengeance – that "comes from love."

Sitcom guys, in general, are portrayed as "too-stupid-to-live" infants with "Women Know Best" tattooed on their psyches. In The King of Queens, non-Jew Doug and his father-in-law are (talented and funny) court jesters for non-Jew Carrie, who often punctuates her irritation with "Oy."

The Jeffersons. While many may disagree, when the Jeffersons spun off from All in the Family, the point of view changed, although both were produced by the brilliant (and Jewish) Norman Lear. In Archie and Meathead, we had perhaps the very first sitcom that used stereotypes to bust them. In The Jeffersons, the message was muddy. While Archie's slurs and "Meatheads" knee-jerk liberalism kept colliding with each other and the world, George Jefferson, without a real foil or social agenda, was reduced, for the most part, to a Black caricature who "moved on up," despite being surrounded by intelligent Black women (yet another "stupid" man/ smart wife stereotype).

We Set the Mold

Any doable stereotype has some basis in reality.

I have a Jewish mother. I do try to avoid the term ... but any doable stereotype has some basis in reality." –Michael Medved, American critic, and syndicated conservative radio talk show host..

In fairness, there must be some truth in stereotypes, which are comic shorthand to get the big laughs before the first commercial break. More, "Jewishy" humor, regardless of how it's portrayed, must, at its core, resonate will all groups to be successful.

And it's our very American principle -- multiculturalism – that's provided that universal appeal. Need proof? Quick! Tell me a Finnish joke? How much "shtick" can you do on "that darn sauna?"

Look closely and you'll find that most sitcoms – despite ethnicity--are influenced by the style, cadence, and mind set of Jewish humor, and the Yiddishe kop. Simply, we were better at it, earlier. And we "wrote (and produced) the words that make the whole world laugh." "Raymond" could be a crypto-Jew. Everybody Loves Raymond, could easily convert to Everybody Loves Mendel. And (brace now), we Jews "Jewishized" the American sitcom, in all its stereotypical "glory."

Stay tuned for Part III


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