Hidden In Plain Sight

There's always been a place on network TV for Jews -- as long as they're not too Jewish.

Television

April 06, 2003|By David Zurawik

Editors note: The following is an excerpt from The Jews of Prime Time, a new book by Sun television critic David Zurawik. The book, from Brandeis University Press / University Press of New England ($29.95, 275 pages), is the result of an 11-year study he undertook on the treatment of Jewish identity on network television shows. His research began with a story he wrote for The Sun in 1991.

A riddle: What is "too Jewish," yet not Jewish enough?

An answer: the strange history of Jewish characters on prime-time network television, starting in 1949 with The Goldbergs, a remarkable CBS sitcom about a multigeneration Jewish family living in a six-room apartment in the Bronx.

That's the conclusion of what began in 1991 as an image study of Jewish characters in prime-time network television. My plan was to look at the on-screen lives of such characters as Molly Goldberg, Bernie Steinberg, Rhoda Morgen-stern, Michael Steadman, Joel Fleischman, Jerry Seinfeld and Fran Fine and try to discern patterns to the ways in which Jewish identity was depicted on the small screen.

It would take seven years before the riddle would start to unravel. But one of the first findings that arose was the startling fact that in the 18 years from 1954 to 1972, there was not a single prime-time series on all of network television that featured a character who was clearly identified as Jewish.

There was a similar void from 1978 (when Rhoda left the air) to 1987 (when thirtysomething made its debut). The dearth of Jewish characters was all the more puzzling given the fact that during most of those years, the television landscape was essentially a three-network universe, and the three networks were founded and owned by Jews. How could this be?

The fog started to lift during an interview in a California hotel room with Al Franken, the Emmy Award-winning writer from Saturday Night Live who had gone on to become a best-selling author, actor and television producer. The interview was in connection with a 1998 NBC midseason series, Lateline, in which Franken played a television newsman named Al Freundlich. Franken, creator of the series, had described Freundlich during a press conference as "the foolish Jew." I knew we had to talk.

We began by talking about a story Brandon Tartikoff, the late president of NBC Entertainment, had once told about Saturday Night Live and his own self-consciousness and ambivalence when it came to Jewish images.

No program tested what he called his "skill with the censors" more than Saturday Night Live, Tartikoff had said. And the SNL sketch that gave him "the most grief" was the "Jew / Not-a-Jew game show." The sketch featured SNL guest host Tom Hanks as the emcee of a game show in which a photograph of a famous person would appear on the screen, and panelists then tried to guess if the celebrity was Jewish.

"Our first famous personality," Hanks says in the sketch, "is Penny Marshall, the star of television's Laverne & Shirley. OK, panelists, Jew or not a Jew?"

After the panelists gave their answers, the sketch cut to a mock-commercial, which was a parody of a series of IBM commercials titled "You Make the Call." The parody featured baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax, with a narrator's voice saying, "Sandy Koufax is on the mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers. It's Game Seven of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins. The stylish left-hander is involved in a tense battle ... OK, IBM invites you to make the call: Sandy Koufax -- Jew, not a Jew?"

The sketch ends with Hanks telling the audience that Penny Marshall was really Italian -- and then awarding prizes to those contestants who guessed "not a Jew."

"I thought it was funny," Tartikoff said, "but was it anti-Semitic? All week long, I agonized over that question. Since I'm Jewish, I wondered if I was being too sensitive -- or maybe I wasn't being sensitive enough. If this was about Italians, would I think it should be kept off the air? Finally, a few hours before airtime, I took a deep breath, conferred with the [network censors], and we decided to air the sketch."

According to Tartikoff, the phone rang off the hook the Sunday morning after the "Jew / Not-a-Jew" sketch aired with calls from colleagues, many of whom were Jewish. The call Tartikoff said he remembered best, though, was from his mother.

"I cannot believe it," Tartikoff quoted his mother as saying, "I'm embarrassed to call you my son. This 'Jew / Not-a-Jew' sketch was the most anti-Semitic thing I've ever seen." Tartikoff said there was silence between them for a few moments as his mother paused and he tried to think of an appropriate reply. It was his mother who spoke first.

"Besides," she said, "I always thought Penny Marshall was Jewish."

A laugh and a complaint

I had barely started recounting the anecdote when Franken stopped me.

"Yes, I'm familiar with 'Jew / Not-a-Jew,' " Franken said. "I wrote it.

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