Jews in Television: 1970s & 1980s

From Mary Tyler Moore to Jackie Mason.

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All in the Family

Norman Lear's All in the Family was in many ways a more important historical marker because it brought issues involving anti-Semitism and racial prejudice into open view. Yet Jews were not featured on the show until relatively late in its run, when the name of the show was changed to Archie Bunker's Place and Martin Balsam was added to the cast. Several important episodes showcased Jewish issues. In one episode, Archie helps Stephanie, a young girl he and Edith help raise after her Jewish mother is killed, celebrate her bat mitzvah: in another, he joined a group to fight synagogue vandalism after Stephanie's synagogue was attacked.

Television's new concern with minorities was short-lived, ending by the early 1980s; the numbers of shows with Jewish characters accordingly diminished. Love Sydney was canceled in 1983 after two seasons, while the four-part miniseries Masada drew the lowest ratings in modern TV history. From 1984 to 1987, not a single program in Nielsen's top twenty shows had even one regularly appearing identifiably Jewish character.

Two television events in the 1989 season seemed to point in contradictory directions. Jackie Mason's show, Chicken Soup, was canceled for the stated reason it was too marked as "East Coast urban ethnic" (critics might have cited its quality). Yet the sitcom Anything But Love, starring Richard Lewis, finished number 10 for the year.

In that show, Lewis played a neurotic Jewish character he had perfected in stand- up comedy routines. The following year saw the debut of a sitcom showcasing the talents of still another stand-up comedian, Jerry Seinfeld. With the success of Seinfeld and other Jewish comedians who followed with their own shows, like Paul Reiser and Garry Shandling, the Jewish presence on TV solidified, and led to further experimentation.

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Joyce Antler

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