Jews in Television: 1950s & 1960s

From Milton Berle to Dick Van Dyke.

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Reprinted with permission from The Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

During its so-called "Golden Age," television had many variety show hosts who were Jewish--e.g., Jack Benny, George Burns, Groucho Marx, Red Buttons, Phil Silvers, George Jessel, Morey Amsterdam, Sid Caesar, and "Mr. Television" himself, Milton Berle. Star of the variety show Texaco Star Theater, Berle drew in over 75 percent of the viewing audience in the program's first years (1948-1951), when its audience was almost exclusively urban. To the increasing number of rural midwesterners who began to receive the show over the coaxial cable, however, Berle's abrasive style (not to mention his cross-dressing) seemed "objection able," "loud," and "vulgar." 

 

milton berle

Milton Berle at 41st Emmy Awards.
Photo by Alan Light.

 

Milton Berle & Sid Caesar

What some critics call Berle's "Jewish shtick" and "ethnic vaudeville humor" quickly lost their appeal; by 1956, the show was off the air. "Too fast, too urban, and too Jewish to be broadly acceptable;' Berle's show could not meet the medium's requirement that its stars emanate from mainstream America or at least blend in with "heartland" values." The demise of the program signified how quickly television had come to "disdain ethnic and racial differences, in both program content and the look of its performers."

Caesar, like Berle, brought broad physical comedy and other characteristic Yiddishisms into his show (which was written by a stable of Jewish writers, including Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, and Neil Simon). David Marc contrasts the "Jewing-out" of such "electronic toornlers" to the more subdued sitcom characters like Benny and Burns, who played themselves as fully American characters who celebrated Christmas, joined golf clubs, and seemed, in every way, non-Jewish.

Esther Romeyn and Jack Kugelmass agree, arguing that while most Jewish variety show comedians avoided explicitly Jewish impersonations, their portrayals were implicitly coded as Jewish--for example, Sid Caesar's gibberish-talking European refugee intellectual. Romeyn and Kugelmass suggest that TV's "Yiddishization of American humor" replicated the vaudeville model of gags, skits, and improvisations but also embodied a particular Jewish "outlook," portrayed through the "klutz" body language of a Jerry Lewis or Danny Kaye or the scheming of a Buddy Hackett or Don Rickles.

The Goldbergs

While Caesar and his fellow comedians may have succeeded for a time in projecting Yiddish "right into American living rooms" by the end of the decade the spontaneous, unpredictable humor of the variety show format gave way to the more tightly controlled situation comedy. Following Berle's eclipse, Caesar's Your Show of Shows went off the air in 1957. In the monolithic, increasingly domesticated, television America of the 1950s, even The Goldbergs could not retain their distinctive ethnic character.

When in 1955 the television family moved from a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx to a suburb aptly named Haverville (city of the "haves" as David Marc observes), most of the show's explicit Jewish content had been erased; no longer were episodes routinely devoted to Jewish holidays like Passover or Yom Kippur. One program about Molly's favorite recipe was called "Molly's Fish" since "gefilte fish" seemed much too Jewish.

Now members of the suburban, assimilated middle class, the Goldbergs had left their Bronx (Jewish) neighbors and their working-class roots behind them. Yet Molly's malapropisms, and her Yiddish accent, persisted, and she continued to sprinkle her language with well-known Yiddish words. In spite of the show's "ethnoreligious denial" under Molly's influence white-bread Haverville became in some ways "Berg-larized."

But with Molly's core Jewishness camouflaged in suburbia, the show lacked a vital center and did not survive; it was canceled in 1956. Displaced by homogeneous, suburban-based "WASPcoms" as David Marc calls them, the "Ethnicorns" of early network TV like The Goldbergs lost their audience. With the exception of Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy, only families of Northern European descent survived on the television screen. (A brief 1960 revival of Berg's show was named Mrs. G; the letter stood for "Green" not "Goldberg." The domesticated sitcoms of TV's early years left no room for either diversity or irreverence.

According to a 1991 study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, in the 1960s family shows were "all American... carefully noncontroversial" and homogeneous; in that decade, for example, just one in 700 characters was Jewish. Shimon Wincelberg, who wrote for television during this period, explained that "back in the 60s, there was a sort of informal quota on television westerns, police shows, detective shows; they let you do one Jew a year...one black a year...The producers made you feel that they were doing you a great favor by throwing you a bone."

In Todd Gitlin's view, a great deal of "self-censoring" took place in early TV regarding the presentation of images of Jews, blacks, and other minorities. As far as Jews were concerned, network executives were driven by marketplace judgments as well as by "self-protectiveness against any real or conceivable anti-Semitic charge that Jews were too powerful in the media." In the belief that much of their audience preferred its "Jews Gentile" producers, advertisers, and suppliers kept any character or theme that might be "too Jewish" off the air.

Dick Van Dyke Show

No sitcom history better illustrates the wariness of TV executives about televising Jews than the highly acclaimed, Emmy Award-winning Dick Van Dyke Show, which ran on CBS from 1961 to 1966. Although comedian Carl Reiner had written the pilot for a show based on his own life as a New York TV writer (originally called Head of the Family). CBS bought it on the condition that he recast the lead with a less ethnic actor to make it more "accessible" to the general public.

Dick Van Dyke was cast as the writer, Rob Petrie, while Reiner, who directed the show, was cast as his boss, Alan Brady, an Irishman, Although there was one Jewish character on the show, Buddy, played by Morey Amsterdam, it was not until the final season of the show that Buddy celebrated his long delayed bar mitzvah on network television.

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Joyce Antler

Joyce Antler is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University.