Jewish Humor of the 1970s & 80s

The 1970s: Archie Bunker, National Lampoon, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Animal House

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The family from All in the Family

Lampooning the Nation

National Lampoon, the humor magazine created in 1970 by Harvard grads Rob Hoffman (Jewish) and Henry Beard and Doug Kenney (not Jewish), set a new standard for irreverence typified by sarcasm and ironic detachment. The trio had formerly worked on their alma mater's humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon, developing what would come to be known as the "Harvard style" of comedy writing--a style characterized by its shock value.

Unlike comedic institutions of years past, such as the predominantly Jewish Your Show of Shows and MAD magazine, National Lampoon was staffed primarily by non-Jews.

"Comedy writing changed in the '70s," explains writer/performer Robert Smigel (Saturday Night Live, Late Night With Conan O'Brien). "It wasn't as Jewish-dominated. Comedy became more ironic and detached; there was the huge influence of the Harvard-type of comedy writing."

Still, as Lampoon cartoonist Drew Friedman observes, "Lampoon took off from what Lenny Bruce was doing. That's the Jewish connection. Lenny Bruce wanted to go further than anyone else had gone in the world of comedy, and Lampoon took that; they wanted to go further as well. And they did."

For all the non-Jewish "Harvard-types" associated with Lampoon, a handful of Jewish writers achieved prominence in the magazine. Paul Krassner (The Realist) wrote "The Unforgiving Minute," a column which satirized trends of the day. Jewish writer Gerry Sussman (Playboy) created the recurring Lampoon feature "My Meter Is Running," about a foulmouthed Jewish cabbie named "Bernie X" who commented on New York City's mores from a distinctly paranoid perspective.

In one of Bernie's earliest appearances, "The Goyspiel According To Bernie" (December 1974), Bernie's passenger is a fellow Jew on his way to the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Bernie immediately launches into a tirade, accusing the Christians attending the conference of plotting to blackmail its rabbinic members with incriminating photos. Bernie's theory: "The gist of the plan is to destroy the rabbis' reputations...Then, with all our top rabbis in disgrace, [the Christians] are going to walk in and feed the kids a line of propaganda and convert them all to gentiles."

Bernie's outbursts were not meant to be taken literally. Sussman's character embodied Judaism's notion of the yetzer ha-ra (the evil inclination); his racist ravings served both as a mirror and a warning to readers not to indulge in their own evil inclinations. "Bernie X" influenced a number of contemporary Jewish "shock comics," among them Andrew "Dice" Clay and Howard Stern.

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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.