Seinfeld and Company

On Seinfeld and other 1990s TV shows, Jewishness became part of the American pop-culture landscape.

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The following article is adapted with permission from Reform Judaism  magazine.

In the early 1990s, the children of America's baby boomers--the second generation raised on television--came to be known as Generation X, a label that signified their unsure place in the world. The Jewish comedy writers of this period played on the "Gen X" mentality of self-fulfillment and indulgence in scripting films and television programs which spoofed their self-centeredness.

Jewish performers in the '70s and '80s who had been largely relegated to supporting roles now emerged as the leads in popular TV sitcoms such as Seinfeld and Friends. So, too, some of the principal characters had Jewish identities, such as Grace Adler in Will and Grace and Kyle Broflovski in South Park--a stark contrast to the '70s, when Jewish characters, such as Archie Bunker's Jewish niece Stephanie, had only supporting roles. The public's acceptance of this phenomenon affirmed that "Jewishness" had finally become an integral part of America's pop-culture landscape.

Much Ado About "Nothing"

"If I'm the best man, why is she marrying him?" --Jerry Seinfeld

In November 1988, comedian Jerry Seinfeld (a frequent Tonight Show guest) sat across from his longtime friend Larry David (a former writer for Saturday Night Live) at the Westway Diner in midtown Manhattan and bemoaned his inability to create a sitcom vehicle that reflected the "Seinfeld brand of humor"--astute observational comedy. They conceived of a sitcom which would recall classic television: Jerry Seinfeld, like fellow Jewish comedian Jack Benny before him, would play himself, a comedian beset by life's trials and trivialities.

Spearheaded by Jewish head writer Larry David (the inspiration for Jerry's friend George Costanza, portrayed by Jason Alexander), assisted by Jewish writers Tom Leopold, Carol Leifer (the model for the character of Jerry's friend Elaine Benes, portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Dave Mandel, Seinfeld soon emerged as the hippest sitcom in America.

Seinfeld's character reflected the ambitious Jewish man of the '90s who is unable to make a commitment to a woman, breaking up with girlfriends for trivial reasons; in one episode he dropped a woman for wearing the same dress every day. Lawrence J. Epstein, author of The Haunted Smile, sees Seinfeld's indecisiveness in matters of love as a metaphor for the inability of many American Jews to affirm their Jewishness. "The longstanding tension between Jewish and American identities is partially overcome in Seinfeld," Epstein writes, "by having the characters not choose at all, by refusing to be grown up enough to have to choose."

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Arie Kaplan

Arie Kaplan is the author of the critically-acclaimed nonfiction book From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books (JPS). He's also a comic book writer and a screenwriter. Recently, Arie wrote the story and dialogue for the upcoming House M.D. videogame. Please check out his website, www.ariekaplan.com.