Major Project: Jewish humor in TV shows (2018)

By March 3, 2018 November 15th, 2018 Bnei Mitzvah, Major Papers

The following essay about Jewish superheroes was written by Chloe Genick, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this last component can be seen below. The process improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.

Have you ever wondered why your favorite shows have religious humor or jokes? Well I researched all about that, and selected specific shows and picked specific episodes and characters that relate to Judaism. First I will look at characters and how the writers use Jewish humor, then I will look at what message is being conveyed by including these jokes. The Big Bang Theory, Gilmore Girls, Friends and Seinfeld are examples of the many shows that express Jewish humor.

The first show I want to discuss is The Big Bang Theory. Howard and his mother are Jewish and it’s a big part of the comedic aspect of the show. Howard makes jokes about his religion all the time, and one example of this is: The Big Bang Theory Season 5 Episode 21 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXblAAtUZEU Howard’s mother is a very loud, obnoxious Jewish woman; you never see her face but the show stereotypes her in a funny way, making her act out the part of an annoying Jewish middle aged lady in a very exaggerated way. Usually every episode includes some jokes about Jewish culture with Howard, often referencing his displeasure with his mother’s guilt-inducing remarks. I have noticed that they mentioned “Jewish Hell” more than once in the show. It’s funny to watch because I’m Jewish and usually when they are making jokes about Judaism it’s Howard doing it to himself.

I think Jews in the Big Bang Theory come off as very stereotypical, and it’s the old fashioned way to look at Jews. I think Howard’s mother is mocked, but it doesn’t offend me; it might offend some people though. I don’t think the show makes Jewish people look good, but I don’t think its intention was to make Jewish people look bad. I think the writers included this content because they thought it would be funny.  I think it’s funny but on some level, it’s uncomfortable. I think the portrayal of Jews makes them look very over-exaggerated and not at all the reality. The writers included this aspect on the show for a comedy relief, not to be mean.

A very different example of using Jewish references in TV shows is in Gilmore Girls. This show takes place in a tiny country village in Connecticut.  You would guess that there would be few or no Jews living there. Very surprisingly, one main character reveals she is Jewish. This character’s name is “Paris” and Rory meets her at the private school they both attend. You would never guess this because the viewers never see Paris specifically talk about her religion like how Howard does, but she has mentioned it a couple of times to her nanny. I think the writers make Paris Jewish to give more diversity to the show. The main characters are not Jewish, and I think they wanted to add diversity and slip in jokes naturally.

Another character in the show, Brad, a friend of the main character, Rory, is Jewish. I didn’t remember Brad at first because he’s not a recurring character, but then I realized he left Gilmore Girls for a couple seasons to go on Broadway in Into the Woods. When he finished performing in the show, he came back. Brad mentions his rabbi being one of the people who encouraged him to come back to his high school and to “face his fears.” Another example is about Lorelai, Rory’s mother, and her on and off relationship with the character Luke. Luke made Lorelei a chuppa for her wedding when she was marrying someone else, and it stays in her backyard throughout the whole show even when the wedding gets cancelled, and in the very last episode they use it at their own wedding. This is a very unusual item for Luke to build as none of the people involved in the wedding are Jewish. Here is a clip of the scene (Red Light on Wedding Night): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dYZYu8Or5FA

Gilmore Girls barely talks about any religion, but I have noticed that there are Jewish elements to Gilmore Girls. The creator and writer of the show is half Jewish and adds Jewish references and humor to some episodes. In fact, there are Friday night dinners, and the writers add Jewish values into the episodes.  I think the writers want to add diversity to make the show funnier and to honor the creator’s Jewish heritage.

Another show that explores Jewish culture is Friends. In Friends, the characters don’t make jokes about this as much as other shows do, but the show does have some Jewish characters such as: Jack Geller, the dad of two main characters, Monica and Ross Geller. They live in NYC with their friends, Chandler, Rachel, Phoebe and Joey. The co-creator of the show Marta Kauffman is Jewish, and in real-life half of the actors are Jewish.

The show dedicated an entire episode to talking about Judaism. This episode is called “The One with The Holiday Armadillo”. Ben (Ross’s son) stays with Ross for Christmas, and Ross intends to teach his son about their Jewish heritage. He feels Ben is only exposed to Christmas traditions, because he has been living with Carol, his mom, who is not Jewish. So, Ross dresses up as a “Holiday Armadillo” to explain Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. Chandler (one of the friends) shows up as Santa to help Ross, because he thinks things aren’t going so well. Ross, however, feels he was getting through to Ben so he asks Chandler to leave. Here is a clip of the episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DE7qqnm7qwI

I think this episode is trying to add more diversity to the show. One of the main characters was trying to teach his son some of the Jewish traditions that his son was not used to, and while they added humor to the episode I found it meaningful and sweet. I think in general the show does not have much diversity regarding religion and ethnicity. In other episodes, they don’t talk about Jewish culture much.

Lastly let’s talk about Seinfeld. Jerry Seinfeld is Jewish on the show, and since he plays himself on TV he is Jewish in real- life too. His jokes are not hiding in plain sight. He incorporates Jewish humor into the show frequently. I came upon two episodes based on Jewish heritage. The first episode is called “The Bris”, Episode 69. In this episode Jerry and Elaine (one of the main characters) are asked to be the godparents for their friend’s newborn baby. Unfortunately, the position doesn’t last very long when Elaine hires a drunken rabbi to perform the Bris. Another episode I found was “The Yada Yada”, Episode 153. In this episode Jerry worries that Tim (one of his friends) only converted to Judaism because of the “jokes”. In response, Jerry goes to a confession booth for advice from a priest on how to deal with his friend. I didn’t  grow up watching Seinfeld but from the scenes I’ve seen I think that by the way he acts and his personality it’s sort of a stereotype. I do think they make it very funny and add this to the comedic element of the show. I don’t think all the characters are “Jewish” in the show but I think that the way they act and their personalities are supposed to come off as Jewish. I know there was a lot of controversy about this topic and that the network thought that the show was “too Jewish”. I know there was some controversy about the character George Costanza. He is written as an Italian Catholic but the way he acts and his personality are a typical “Jewish stereotype”.

 

In conclusion, Jewish humor is sometimes added to shows that are not obviously Jewish-themed by putting Jewish references into the episodes. The Big Bang Theory and Gilmore Girls are examples of this. I think a big reason why TV shows add Jewish references is to appeal to a wider variety of viewers and to add diversity into their show. Some of the time Jewish jokes are added to make the episode funnier, like in The Big Bang Theory with Howard and his mother. Other shows have overtly Jewish themes like Seinfeld.  The Jewishness of some of these characters is apparent all the time.  Even the definitive non-Jew in the show (George) acts very Jewish.  I think a big impact of Seinfeld and other well-known shows that represent Jewish culture is that more people around the world get to know other people’s traditions and culture. I think little by little our society is more open to accepting and seeing different types of characters represented on television. I am proud to see my heritage and history represented in this way, and I had a good time researching this project.