Thursday, September 3, 2009

Where'd the Jews go?

How TV Jews Moved To Cable

The new Jewish TV ‘homeland’ is on cable.

September 4, 2009

Abe Novick
Special to the Jewish Times

It was back in May of this year when the 2009-10 fall television season was unveiled to advertisers in what’s called the “upfronts.” This is the opportunity for the networks to showcase their shows while attempting to gain interest and attract sponsors.

New York Times ad columnist Stuart Elliott wrote a column describing the season that carried the headline, “10 New Sitcoms Meant to Cure the Recession Blues.”

With a banner that contained the word “Sitcoms,” it was in hopeful anticipation that one would find the next “Seinfeld,” or a show like it, with Jewish characters.

After all, with the medium of TV and the content of comedy, there had to be a punch line with a few funny Jews. Or at least one could hope. But reading further, what followed were names like Courteney Cox Arquette in “Cougar Town” and Chevy Chase in “Community” and Kelsey Grammer in “Hank.” Not exactly the making of a minyan.

What’s going on? Where are the Jews?

Surely with the success of shows like “Seinfeld” and “Mad About You” with a character named Paul Buchman and show like “Friends” with Rachel Green and Monica and Ross Geller, all turning Thursdays on NBC into “Must See TV,” the networks weren’t going to abandon us again as they had in the late ’50s with an expulsion that lasted up until “Bridget Loves Bernie”?

Rather than settle back like a remote-less couch potato and accept the disconnect to cultural sustenance that feeds the funny bone, there were three experts in the field of television and media to turn to, who have each written remarkably in-depth books on the subject of the history of Jews on the small screen.

Beginning with Baltimore’s own David Zurawik, author of “The Jews of Prime Time” and the Baltimore Sun’s TV and media critic, the quest was launched to find our lost tribe.

On the way, there was also David Marc, who wrote “Comic Visions, Television Comedy & American Culture,” and Vincent Brook, author of “Something Ain’t Kosher Here, The Rise of the Jewish Sitcom.” Between the three of them and some sachel (Yiddish for common sense), the passageway to piecing together a fall TV guide that’ll lead to a virtual promised land where Jews are entertaining us was in sight. Like many investigations, it’s the search that’s as rewarding as the discovery. (Though this one didn’t take 40 years in the desert.)

In Mr. Zurawik’s book, which came out in 2003, he documents how the same Jewish network TV executives, who were all Jewish, suppressed identifiably Jewish characters. He explains how the phenomenon was encapsulated in the phrase, “Too Jewish,” which was frequently invoked by network bosses to describe their perceptions of Jewish characters on television.

While the term dates back to the early days of TV and “The Goldbergs,” it was used as a label all the way through to 1991, when Brandon Tartikoff, the late president of NBC Entertainment, labeled it in relation to “Seinfeld.’ (He actually did get them to change the name Kessler to Kramer.)

Larry DavidToday, distinctly Jewish characters do occupy a place on television, but they’re not on network TV. Jews there have been homogenized and assimilated into a multicultural bouillabaisse. If you want chicken soup, you have to go to cable and perhaps nowhere is “Too Jewish” exemplified more than on Larry David’s HBO show “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

This season on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the cast of “Seinfeld” will come together in what’s sure to be one of the most anticipated and talked-about group reunions since The Beatles broke up.

On a macromedia level — the same way that Jews emigrated from the old country to the new country; the same way Carl Reiner’s Laura and Rob (who were originally conceived as Jewish, based on Reiner’s life as a writer with Sid Caesar) lived in New Rochelle; and the Goldbergs in an episode actually called “Moving Day” moved from New York City to Haverville — today’s Jewish characters have fled from the networks and found a homeland on cable.

For a medium that was once skittish about depicting Jews, it’s like a Bizarro Catskills on cable. Moreover, the same way there once existed media barriers that kept Jews hidden and under the radar of TV detection, now, due to the multiplicity of channels and the ability to segment to specific audiences, walls have opened — but also realigned.

For Mr. Zurawik, the aggressive Jewish satire on cable is a reaction to an unnatural repression. “When the floodgates are open, they responded in an extreme way and it was in-your-face and meant to provoke.

“With any kind of repression it doesn’t flow out naturall, it explodes,” he continued. “Oh, you’re afraid of ‘too Jewish,’ I’ll show you ‘too Jewish!’”

Most of us may not realize it today, but the dam that held us back is as old as the beginning of television. For example, both Jack Benny and George Burns, who had emigrated from radio to television, also had to hide that they were Jewish. While they played themselves in their shows, they both celebrated Christmas on them, too.

The cast of SeinfeldEven with a program that would seem like an exception to the rule, like “The Goldbergs” (another radio to TV transition) about a Jewish family in the Bronx, they too had to assimilate, eventually changing the show’s name to the more wholesome and homogenized, “Molly.”

That closeted approach to Jewish identity carried all the way through to 1972, when a blip on the screen materialized and Bernie Steinberg married Bridget Fitzgerald on “Bridget Loves Bernie,” about an intermarried couple. It aired for one season.

Sitting and watching today’s line-up with characters like Jon Stewart, it’s hard to recognize where we had once been. But as Mr. Zurawik sees it, Stewart is a descendant who can say, “Hey, it’s the Jew here.” If he was born even 10 years earlier, he wouldn’t be saying that and one-third of his act would be dead or he wouldn’t be doing it on TV.

Lucky for him, cable has allowed these antics, whereas the networks have put a kibosh on such over-the-top pranksters.

Part of the reason is when that wall came down, others materialized. By having outlandish Jewish comedy on the outer channels of cable, marketers have created a separate space where they can corral particular audiences off and advertisers can appropriately target them with specific messages that will appeal to them.

The term used by advertisers today is “segmentation” and cable is one of the fronts on which to implement it. The Web is another and is even more powerful.

On the flip side, while cable can target with fine cross-hairs, networks still use a big net and continue to haul in more audience share than cable. If cable’s aim is to customize, networks are selling to the masses. To do that more cost effectively, and with a changing demographic, they believe they need to appeal to everyone.

Fran DrescherIn doing so, one trend we’ve seen for years is what Mr. Brook calls “platoon” shows with casts that resemble a military platoon and are made up of multiple ethnicities. Old shows in this category include “Barney Miller,” “Welcome Back Kotter” and “Taxi.”

Today he refers to them as “neo-platoon,” as they derive from the same structure but are also made of multicultural casts. He describes them as “a tight-knit or fatefully intertwined cohort of ethno-racially intertwined diverse characters with a complex, soap-like narrative structure.” Examples today would be shows like “Heroes” or “Ugly Betty.”

Writing about the changes in demarcated media, Mr. Marc writes in an essay called “Audience Segmentation: The Lonely Crowds,” “For most of the 20th century, the American communications industry worked at building audiences of unprecedented size.” However, he goes on, “cable robbed the medium — and American society — of a functioning electronic gathering point.”

At one point, everyone in America sat around the set on Saturday nights and watched “All In the Family.” It placed No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive years in the 1970s. Everyone knew Archie.

Today, due to the wide array of programming, a typical audience of viewers lives in a Balkanized, post-Diaspora world, rather than a traditional, unified Nielsen family. Mom will be on the computer while Dad is watching the game, one of the kids is surfing the Internet while the other is watching a video game. Multiply that into the millions and you have a picture of current viewership.

Aside from technology, networks have lost those viewers because they’ve lost social significance. Along with their pull, they’ve also lost their edginess. Gone is their observationally satirical and socially critical perspective. That brand of humor moved out of the main metropolis, where most people received their fix of shtick. Today those sharp arrows of televised wit and irreverence get tossed down from a satellite, or they travel down the long, fiery tail of cable on the outer limits of a 500-plus channel universe.

Matt WeinerLike the old neighborhood we’d left behind, once the culture that inhabited it left, it lost its moxie. Looking back in time, it wasn’t that long ago that a number of Jewish characters occupied a place on networks beginning in the late ’80s with shows like “Anything But Love,” “Northern Exposure,” “Brooklyn Bridge,” “thirtysomething” and “The Nanny.” Each possessed a clearly identifiable Jewish character with themes woven into them that dealt with Jewish characteristics.

Today, there are only a few Jewish characters lingering on shows like ABC’s “brothers & sisters” (Ken Olin, who played an identifiably Jewish character on “thirtysomething,” is an executive producer) and where Sally Field, (that’s right, the former “Flying Nun”) plays a Jewish matriarch, the widow of a mixed marriage. Then there’s “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS with a stereotypical nebbish named Howard who lives with his mother. There are others, too, but one has to go digging to find them. They simply don’t have the top-of-mind recognition that comes from tapping a societal nerve, the way great shows in the heyday of network sitcoms did.

Form and content meld together as never before in this altered landscape. As Mr. Marc points out in “Comic Visions,” “Television — especially the sitcom — valorized suburbia as democracy’s utopia realized, a place where the white middling classes could live in racial serenity, raising children in an engineered environment…”

Hence McLuhan’s maxim on media, “The medium is the message,” is as true today as it was in 1964 when there were just three networks. The message of the shows today is directly related to the medium by which they get delivered. The form aligns with the current crop of programming — only it’s the reverse of what it was in the ’50s when the Goldbergs left town to join Ozzie and Harriet in the plain-Jane, non-ethnic ’burbs.

On the media, it’s the networks that are now like the white-bread cities, while cable and the Internet provide ethnic identity.

With niche programming, Jewish-themed shows can be segmented off and ghettoized.

The irony is that just as in Molly Berg’s day, when the neighborhoods of New York were clearly demarcated between Chinatown, Little Italy and the Jewish Lower East Side, every ethnicity left the city in order to lose their identity. Virtually with cable and the Internet today, we’ve again walled ourselves off, albeit with cable’s subscriber fees those walls are tony, virtual-gated communities that mirror Westchester, N.Y., Montgomery County or Caves Valley, Md., rather than duh Bronx.

Furthermore, and again like the medium, the message too reflects this affluence, as Larry David’s Santa Monica, Calif., home in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is a palatial mansion, as is the home of his friends Jeff and Susie Greene. While the setting is serene and affluent, thematically there’s nothing that resembles a “Father Knows Best” atmosphere. The dysfunctional personalities of Larry and Susie, along with Richard Lewis (who plays himself), chew up the vicinity, turning them into crazed enclaves of tsuris.

Adding further ironic perspective to this notion of the more things change the more they stay the same, it was network executives who lifted “The Goldbergs” from radio and placed them onto television. Their thinking was radio would disappear and that television was just radio with pictures.

However, according to historian Marc, “While on radio ethnicity and thick accents played very well, whether ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy,’ ‘The Goldbergs’ or ‘Life With Luigi,’ when all those shows were brought to TV, something that was amusing on radio became grotesque on television. Adding the physical gestures to the aural ones was going over the top.”

Is it any wonder, after years of being held in tow and straitjacketed, that we now wave our arms, curse and go bananas after being freed from the binds of the nets?

Evidently it’s just what the world needed. As trust in traditional media waned, a savvy consumer turned to other sources to rely on news, information and entertainment. While networks and traditional news have lost relevance, during the same period humorists have claimed the stage and the microphone.

The height of this post-modern phenomenon is that, while back in 1964, and an era when Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America, now Jon Stewart (a full-fledged Jewish comedian who hosts a fake news show on cable) is able, like Prometheus, to steal the fire away from the news gods of network to become the most trusted man in America, according to aTime magazine poll.

Through a glass darkly, we also witness that same bygone era on yet another cable network, AMC, with its Emmy Award-winning, period drama, “Mad Men,” about the advertising business on New York’s Madison Avenue. The creator, producer and head writer of the show is Matt Weiner, who was born in Baltimore and began his career as a comedy writer on the Fox network.

In another twist, “Mad Men” has a producer who is Jewish and is now pulling the strings at a faux ad agency during an era when ad agencies were notorious culprits for keeping Jews out of their industry.

Sarah SilvermanLikewise, advertisers at the time were far more powerful when it came to programming decisions on television and in the late 1950s were in large part ultimately responsible for turning television into a reflection of their more white/less rye bread envisioned culture. They are the behind-the-scenes culprits who cleansed ethnicity from the networks in the ’50s. Mr. Weiner, to his credit in season one, had shows dealing with anti-Semitism and the tensions that existed during the period by having the Jewish retailers go to the WASP agency in order to remake their department store so it would adapt, conform and appeal to the rising middle class.

By being the puppet master pulling the strings and shaping the entire narrative of “Mad Men,” Mr. Weiner is the ultimate, post-modern auteur behind the scenes. He’s the outsider shaping what the audience sees. And, oh, that’s exactly what the advertising industry does.

Meanwhile, as more and more industries need a public persona, they’ve borrowed heavily from the television model. In politics today, Rahm Emanuel is the White House chief of staff and David Axelrod is President Obama’s main adviser. As an archetype, the Jew behind the scenes dates from television and film today, all the way back to Joseph in Egypt.

In many ways, it’s the fundamental conundrum — the Jew as both insider and outsider — damned if he tries to fit in and treated suspiciously, and damned if he separates, remaining aloof — too good for the hoi polloi.

In a strange, cyclical example of reality and fiction intertwining, recently Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel referred to both Messrs. Axelrod and Emanuel as “self-hating Jews.” (Weeks later, he denied he said it.)

Relationally, the term has been used for television characters, too. In an essay, “Laughing to Keep from Dying: Jewish Self-Hatred and The Larry Sanders Show,” Mr. Brook explores the issue of the self-hating Jew. In two episodes from Garry Shandling’s program that ran on cable’s Showtime in the ’90s, the issue of Larry as a self-hating Jew came up.

Ironically, one reason Mr. Brook gives for the occurrence is, “The most potent new source of internecine Jewish self-hatred is Israel itself — post-1967 Israel, that is, of the Palestinian occupation, the Lebanon invasions, the ‘Who is a Jew?’ controversy, and the two intifadas.”

The hall of mirrors continues. In another show about showbiz, the Jewish super agent Ari Gold on HBO’s “Entourage” was inspired by the real life super Hollywood agent and brother of Rahm Emanuel, Ari Emanuel? In real life, Ari Emanuel represents Larry David.

No exploration of breaking the bounds of comedy would be complete without Sarah Silverman, who personifies both the challenge for how far comedy can delve into dangerous territory, while also expanding the limits of the Web and new media as a vehicle for that expression.

She’s had a good year, too. First, she’s nominated for an Emmy (for outstanding lead actress in a comedy) for the title role in “The Sarah Silverman Program” on Comedy Central. Also, she’s the recipient of the Webby Award for Best Actress at the 13th Annual Webby Awards in 2009 (for Best Political Video) called “The Great Schlep,” aimed at Jewish kids and pleading with them to urge grandparents in Florida to vote for Barack Obama.

If networks are for the masses and cable can narrow-cast, then the Web can micro-target. Ms. Silverman and comedians like her who Webcast online have reached audiences that have shied away from traditional forms.

Unlike television and radio that seek out viewers, with search engines like Google the opposite occurs — viewers seek them out.

In talking about the impact of niche programming on the Web with David Rath of GenerateLA, a partner at the media and entertainment company where he creates content across multiple platforms and has worked with Sarah, he commented on how it relates to Jewish content:

“Jews will see more of it than non-Jews and I don’t know if that’s good. There’s something about ‘Seinfeld’ and all these shows that were on broadcast, that forced people to contemplate cultures, ask questions and share ideas and in an age of very targeted consumption, you don’t have that same potential to send broad messages.”

The emphasis on “search” is posing a whole new set of challenges for Jewish programming to reach a mass scale of people. The exposure of “Jewish” culture and identity and the groundbreaking impact television has made on a massive scale will diminish as consumers will only seek out what they are interested in.

For a culture that left the shtetl by crossing the ocean, and ended up living in neighborhoods only to move out to the nicer ones in the ’burbs, one wonders if we’re headed back to where we began. Or, if we ever actually left.

Abe Novick is a regular contributor to the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES writing about the intersection of American and Jewish culture.