Jews in Animated TV

Laughing at and with Jews on The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy.

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Meet the Broflovskis

The Simpsons was genial in its jibes. South Park, which debuted to much acclaim in 1997, adopted a take-no-prisoners attitude, spraying fire in every possible direction. Religious ideologues, Scientologists, and do-gooder Hollywood types bore the brunt of South Park's fury, but the presence of 8-year-old Kyle Broflovski, along with his parents Gerald and Sheila (who share their names with series co-creator Matt Stone's parents), made for the occasional Jewish joke. Kyle's parents are stereotypical Jews, nervous and neurotic, but South Park mocks the stereotypes at the same time that it luxuriates in them. 

Kyle in particular is the butt of his friend Eric Cartman's jokes and anti-Semitic jibes ("you dirty Jew!" is a particularly popular one). The brilliantly odious Cartman is forever attacking Kyle for being Jewish ("You see, guys," he tells his friends as they pretend to explore an alien planet, "this is why you don't bring Jews along on the away team.") Kyle, though, is far smarter than the moronic Cartman, and is easily capable of bending him to his will when so inclined.

In the series' most memorable Jewish-themed episode, "The Passion of the Jew" (2004), Kyle is troubled after watching the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ. Were the Jews responsible for killing the Lord? Meanwhile, Cartman, dressed as Hitler, forms a Passion club for the citizens of South Park. The members see it as an opportunity to rekindle their Christian faith, while Cartman goose-steps past a synagogue and plans to round the Jews up into camps. 

Mel Gibson eventually shows up, demanding to be tortured and smearing excrement on the walls, and Kyle is relieved: "Dude, I've been freaked out this whole time because of that guy's movie?" Given the generally misanthropic tone of South Park as a whole, Jews get off lightly. 

Weinsteins & Goyim on Family Guy

Family Guy made a belated entrance into the Jewish sweepstakes with the episode "When You Wish upon a Weinstein," originally broadcast in 2003. Dim-bulb father and husband Peter Griffin, lamenting the state of his family's finances, takes note of his friends' financial consultants--all men with names like Rosenblatt and Greenstein. Peter decides to take action, and find a Jewish money-man of his own. His sensible wife Lois demurs: "Peter, not every Jewish person is good with money." Peter takes umbrage, his Rhode Island accent twanging with contempt: "Yeah, I guess not the retarded ones, but why would you even say that--for shock value?"
peter and chris griffin
Nodding to Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Seinfeld, and The Graduate, the episode is a grab-bag of Jewish-comedy references. Peter even gets the opportunity to perform a Brooks-esque musical number documenting his Semitophilia: "Though by many they're abhorred/Hebrew people I've adored/Even though they killed my Lord/I need a Jew." 

As illustrated by the show's references, Family Guy's notion of Judaism--even of Jewish comedy--is a bit musty. But the episode’s comedic inversion of The Graduate is ingenious. Lois interrupts her son's bar mitzvah (Peter thinks a hasty conversion will make him smarter) by banging dramatically on the synagogue's glass walls, and uses a Star of David to fend off angry congregants.

Still, there was something formulaic about Family Guy's foray into Judaism, which made "Family Goy," an episode from 2009, a more satisfactory enterprise. "Family Goy" found Lois unexpectedly discovering her family's Jewish heritage, with her mother disguising her roots to blend into her father's patrician family. Peter, of course, embraces his family's new religion at first ("I'm Jewish!  Yeah!  Holocaust!  #1!") before residual Catholic guilt sets in, and he recoils.  Scheming infant Stewie (voiced by the inimitable Kelsey Grammer) similarly takes a jaundiced view of Jewish culture, learning about Hanukkah at his preschool: "Yeah, yeah, how long before we play pin the eviction notice on the black guy's door?" 

The episode cleverly intersperses insider jokes, like Peter's new Jewish name (pronounced "ch-ch-ch-ch") and his response when Lois tells him she is having a Passover Seder: "You can't do that--it's Easter!" Jesus must eventually arrive to settle matters, solemnly informing Peter that the Lamb of God, too, was a Jew. "Prove it!" Peter demands. "What's a 9% tip on a $200 bill?"  "$18," Jesus responds. "Which is fair." 

Unfettered by the physical, financial, and logistic limitations of live action, animation has been blessed with the freedom to roam. For shows like The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy, every new episode was an opportunity to slay a new dragon, or undermine another sacred cow. Religion was merely another opportunity to satirically jab at the cherished assumptions of American life, and Judaism another target ripe to be shot at. Tweaking the stereotypes, these fresh takes on Jewish life and culture always made sure to have the last laugh.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.