What took so long?

Adam Baker on the slow progress of British Jewish humour on to TV

There was an excellent Channel 4 documentary seven years ago called Funny Already: A History of Jewish Comedy, that pretty much argued that if American comedy was a planet, then it would have a big flag struck in the ground with a Star of David on it.

What was striking however that with all the achieve footage of greats such as the Marx Brothers, Phil Silvers, Jack Benny, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen, not one Brit was ever featured. In all the talking heads for the British-made documentary, which included Jackie Mason, Joan Rivers and Sid Caesar, only one British Jew was featured: David Baddiel. So if Jews are known for their comedy, what went wrong with British Jews?

In the last year, two British-made Jewish sitcoms have aired on UK television. Simon Amstell’s Grandma’s House and Robert Popper’s Friday Night Dinner, which are based around English Jewish families and especially, with the former, are quite explicit in the references that the characters are Jewish.

Britain has produced some great Jewish character comedians such as Peter Sellers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Matt Lucas, but they are more famed for characters that are far from being Jewish.

Of the hundreds of characters that Peter Sellers did, only a handful were obviously Jewish, including his last recorded performance as Monty in a Barclays commercial. Matt Lucas never did a Jewish character in Little Britain, although a one-off character in Come Fly With Me, Mrs Wolf, resembled an elderly Germanic Jew, while Baron Cohen instead tends to do characters with anti-Semitic streaks in them such as Borat – although there was ambiguity on the ethnicity of Ali G.

So why has it taken until now for Jewish characters to appear in British television comedy – aside for the odd exception such as Dorian in Birds of a Feather. In his 2003 book The Jews of Prime Time, David Zurawik asked the same question about US TV where why, when American networks were run by Jewish executives, and many television shows were written by Jewish writers, there were so few identifiably Jewish characters on the television screen? This is exactly the same phenomenon that has occurred in the UK.

Zurawik gave the example of Friends. Set in New York, the story of the everyday lives of the beautiful people that frequent a coffee shop a little too often for my liking, you had a character called Rachel Green and siblings with the surname Gellar, yet the J-word was hardly ever uttered. Even Seinfeld avoided too many references to Jewishness.

But Seinfeld co-creator Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm was a game-changer for American TV, as it was overtly Jewish with a capital J. It was then sort of cool to be Jewish and proud. Gentiles Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant had spoken in interviews about their love of Jewish humour, citing Christopher Guest, Larry David and Garry Shandling as influences.

Back in Britain, the cinema has at least been attempting to tackle British Jewish issues in recent years but with rather lacklustre results such as Sixty Six (2006), David Baddiel’s The Infidel (2010) and the lamentable Suzie Gold (2004), a terrible attempt at a British Jewish version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding where in their Hampstead Garden Suburb house, an opening dinner scene goes nearly a whole five minutes before the Holocaust is mentioned.

The problem with many Jews in media, especially in the UK, is they like not to bring too much attention to their ethnicity lest it fuel the conspiracy theories of the nutjob.

Simon Amstell’s wonderful Grandma’s House was perfect in its depiction of ordinary middle-class Jews who don’t live in big houses in Hampstead with lives revolving around the synagogue. It wasn’t ashamed to admit it was about Jews and did not play up to stereotypes like Suzie Gold did. If there is more programming like this, and Friday Night Dinner seems to be following in a similar vein, then we might start seeing more Jewish characters portrayed in a believable way.

Sadly, probably the greatest screen portrayal of British Jewish life has hardly seen the light of day for years. Scandalously, the late Jack Rosenthal’s Bar Mitzvah Boy, a Play for Today in 1976, has still never been made available to buy in the shops. Maybe if the BBC had shown a bit more support for this still piece of unsurpassed work, then maybe it would have taken until the second decade of the 21st century for Jewish life to become the basis for sitcoms.

Published: 28 Feb 2011

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