Cultural Shift Prime-time hits with Jewish stars are one of the latest TV trends

November 01, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

One is a recently wed documentary filmmaker living i Manhattan. One is a recent college graduate working on his first job and first real relationship. The third is a newspaper columnist who just fell in love with a woman named Wally.

What they have in common is that they are all Jewish guys, and they star in three critical hits of the new season -- Paul Reiser as Paul Cooper in NBC's "Mad About You," Corey Parker as Neil Barash in Fox-TV's "Flying Blind," and Jay Thomas as Jack Stein in CBS' "Love and War." NBC has already renewed "Mad About You" for the second season, and "Love and War" is among the highest rated shows on all of television.

When you add this trio to Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) of "Northern Exposure" and Jerry Seinfeld, of "Seinfeld," you suddenly have a lot of shows featuring Jewish guys making Nielsen waves.

"That is a lot of shows, . . . especially in light of the history of Jewish characters in prime-time television," said Dr. Lawrence Mintz, who teaches popular culture at the University of Maryland and who has written extensively on Jewish humor.

Mintz also said that if you examine the Jewish characters now on television in connection with the superstar popularity of Billy Crystal and the larger-than-life interest in Woody Allen, you might even have a "new kind of male for the '90s" -- a guy who is smart, funny, sexy, but not threatening in the ways that some male sex symbols are. That, Mintz said, might explain the appeal of the shows.

The shows' producers have their own explanations for the appeal of their Jewish characters. But, like Mintz, they all say you have to start with the history of Jews in prime time to appreciate how unusual this current crop of shows is.

From 1954 -- when "The Goldbergs," a sitcom about a Jewish family, was canceled -- until 1972, there were no Jewish characters in starring, prime-time roles. For 18 years, not one.

The absence is made all the more remarkable by the fact that Jews controlled the means of production during those years -- owning the three networks that then dominated television, as well as working in many of the leading writing and producing jobs in Hollywood where the TV shows were made. Moshe Waldoks, author of "The Big Book of Jewish Humor," describes the phenomenon as that of "the invisible Jew."

In 1972, CBS introduced "Bridget Loves Bernie," a TV version of "Abie's Irish Rose," starring Meredith Baxter as a young Irish Catholic woman in love with a Jewish man played by David Birney. Under fierce pressure from Jewish and Catholic groups opposed to the characters' intermarriage, CBS canceled the series after just one season, despite high ratings.

Then, in the mid-1970s, as prime-time became awash in "ethnic comedies" -- such as "Chico and the Man" and "Sanford and Son" -- Jews finally arrived on the scene in "Barney Miller," "Rhoda" and "Welcome Back Kotter." But, unlike other comedies that emphasized the lead characters being black or Hispanic, these shows featured Jews as non-Jews or maybe-Jews.

Jew as maybe-Jew

Danny Arnold, the creator of "Barney Miller," explained it this way in Sally Bedell's "Up the Tube: Prime-Time TV in the Silverman Years": "We never said Barney [Hal Linden] was Jewish, and we never said he wasn't. We deliberately called him Miller because it was an ethnic/non-ethnic name." The Jew as maybe-Jew.

Danny Jacobson, co-creator and executive producer of "Mad About You," further explained in a telephone interview last week, saying "When I started to break into television in the late 1970s, you always heard, "Don't make him [any character] Jewish." And being Jewish and knowing that Jewish is funny,. . . it seemed stupid to me. It seemed like, OK, you can do a martial arts show, but no Asians."

Jacobson said when he went to work on ABC's "Soap" in 1979, producer Susan Harris told him, "None of our characters are Jews, but we write them all Jewish." The Jew as non-Jew.

The first character allowed to clearly identify himself as Jewish and celebrate the fact in both an ethnic and religious sense did not arrive in prime time until 1987, in the person of Michael Steadman (Ken Olin) on "thirtysomething." If nothing else, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, creators of the show, finally made it OK to be Jewish in prime time.

And now it seems as if it's better than OK. In addition to the five shows listed at the start of the story, there's also "Brooklyn Bridge," a period piece set in the 1950s. And don't forget "Chicken Soup" with Jackie Mason and "Anything But Love" with Richard Lewis -- two recent shows with Jewish leading men that were canceled. The question is: How did things change so dramatically?

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