The Eastern European Jews who migrated to America in significant numbers towards the end of the 19th century arrived — after two millennia of persecution just about everywhere else in the Western world — with a highly evolved collective sensitivity to violence. The defense mechanism they fashioned to protect themselves and their culture over the next few decades was both uniquely Jewish and uniquely American. It started out quite humbly as just another Jewish collective unconscious response to just another perceived existential threat, likely one of many over the centuries. But this one was different. This one arose from the newly formed electronic ether of the early 20th century like a glittering golem, conjured and summoned to mollify a beast that — thankfully — never materialized. This one we called the entertainment industry.
Ironically, after centuries of anti-semitic tropes, the only real Jewish conspiracy was the one that made us laugh until we cried. As an extension of the Yiddish storytelling ethos forged over centuries of harsh and perilous life in Eastern European shtetls, modern humor emerged on these shores in the early 20th century as a great American Jewish art form: self-deprecating, razor sharp and brutally funny. The story of Jewish humor was the story of the common man’s endless struggles against the dehumanizing and oppressive forces of workaday life. The story of Jewish humor is the story of the common man’s art form.
This, however, is the story of what happened to the common man’s art form once the Jews moved out of the metaphorical neighborhood. It’s the story of what happened when the same neighborhood was then gentrified by subsequent generations of corporate media elites who weaponized the art form and (irony of ironies) outlawed the common man’s ability to make fun of the common man in the process — especially if that common man was a woman, or was dark-skinned or gay or trans or Polish or Italian or…
Of course, the ability to poke fun at the common man is the very essence of Jewish humor (just so it shouldn’t be a total loss), and it works best when the one poking fun is another common man. The sheer brutality of immigrant life in early 20th century New York City forged an entire generation of Jewish burlesque and vaudeville comedians whose primary social function was to help the denizens of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn laugh at themselves — a not inconsiderable achievement at the time. Life was hard, and moralization was a luxury early Jewish comedians and entertainers simply couldn’t afford. While the art form was imbued with a basic sense of fairness and decency, social justice for Jewish comedians of the day was a separate calling, better reserved for rabbis and synagogues, socialists, local politicians, unionizers and charitable organizations. Social workers among the oppressed immigrant populations of the early 20th century were a dime a dozen. A good comedian, however…
Yes, Jewish humor may have evolved as largely apolitical, but it was hardly indifferent. Instead, it reflected the realities of the Jewish condition after centuries of diaspora life in shtetls and ghettos, outlier communities with little or no political agency and often limited shelf lives. Thus the historical job of Jewish humor in early 20th-century America was not to move the needle, but to dull the needle and — to the extent it permeated the greater culture beyond the Jewish neighborhoods of New York City — mollify the beast.
Over time, however, any perceived need to mollify the beast waned as the assimilation of immigrant Jews into American culture emerged as an unqualified (and largely unexpected) success, replete with its very own, very influential industry: motion pictures, another great American Jewish art form. The Jews not only took centerstage in the movie industry, they owned the stage. Early Jewish movie moguls like Harry Cohn, Adolph Zukor, Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, and the Warner brothers built the Hollywood studio system. Jewish entertainers like Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, Fanny Brice, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges were household names, not just in the budding media empires of New York and Los Angeles, but nationwide — in every town with a moviehouse and every household with a radio.
Commercial radio and motion pictures were in full stride by the time the Great Depression arrived. It was the great age of the common man as clown and narrator, and Jewish entertainers were simply the funniest and most common storytellers. Unemployed and half-starved, the common man of the day may have lined up for bread, but he feasted on a circus performed by funny Jews with rags-to-riches bona fides perfectly attuned to the hardscrabble sensibilities of the Great Depression. Perhaps not surprisingly, the entertainment industry exploded at a time when many other industries barely survived: radio revenues more than doubled and movie theater attendance soared while newspaper revenues plummeted. The Great Depression was the perfect canvas for the common man’s art form as motion pictures and commercial radio came of age.
Barely one generation later, however, motion pictures and radio would surrender their hegemony to a more attractive and far more lucrative newcomer: television. The movie industry was hit especially hard as families stayed home to watch TV, and the creative writing on the wall was clear: Jewish influence in the entertainment industry was in decline. A mere four or five decades into their collective sojourn, Jewish entertainers, writers, directors and producers still commanded a disproportionate share of airtime in the new medium, but gentile corporate interests owned the production and distribution. The same was true of another art form, one that had already proven itself in print and radio, one that would dominate and direct American culture across all media for the foreseeable future: commercial advertising.
While the Jews had dominated much of American entertainment and popular culture through the first half of the twentieth century, commercial advertising in the age of television took over in the second half. TV and the commercial ad model teamed up to become the great American social and cultural engine, powered by more than a trillion ad dollars over the ensuing decades. As one might expect, such a hefty investment in such a potent cultural mechanism was not without consequences, good and bad.
Two of the better consequences we enjoy as Americans today are inclusivity and diversity, the natural byproducts of an all-powerful and all-embracing commercial advertising model charged with the default imperatives to saturate existing markets and open new ones. No mistake, therefore, that the popular sitcoms of the 1950s and 60s — shows like Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, The Andy Griffith Show and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet — reflected the white middle-class demographic composition of the first mass target audience for TV. Once the white middle-class audience was saturated, however, the commercial advertising model — ever insatiable and predatory — turned elsewhere in search of fresh meat.
Accordingly (and thanks in no small measure to the social unrest and liberation movements of the 1960s), sitcoms shifted from the largely patriarchal and lily-white suburban themes of the 1950s and 60s to more urban themes with color and gender diversity — like All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude, Chico and the Man, Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons — in the 1970s. Concurrent with the above, the internal demographics of the big advertisers themselves also changed as more women and more people of color entered the workforce in significant numbers. Hence, the commercial advertising and programming produced by Facebook, Google, Apple, Hulu, Netflix and Amazon.com today reflect not only the sensibilities and hyper-sensitivities of their millennial SJW audience, but the sensibilities and hyper-sensitivities of the SJWs who populate and patrol their corporate campuses as well.
Through it all, disingenuous advertisers and TV executives have insisted that they are only responding to the programming demands of consumers in a consumer society. But consumer demand has always been a self-serving media and ad industry canard and myth, especially transparent in the age of billion-dollar advertising budgets and trillion-dollar ad networks. In truth, the commercial media industry is all powerful and utterly rapacious. Those who run it and are paid to work in it don’t respond to consumer demand. They manufacture it.
Of the many not-so-good consequences of the commercial advertising model, perhaps the most worrisome has been the near-total surrender of American culture to a tonedeaf cabal of media and entertainment industry elites ensconced in impervious blue-thought bubbles on both coasts. By the early 21st century, the stage was set for the weaponization of humor via immensely powerful media corporations, supreme among them a coterie of digital behemoths: massive corporate bullies like Facebook and Google and Apple and Amazon.
Looking back, the primary characteristic of Jewish humor had always been the irreverence manifest in the juxtaposition of the common man to wealth and authority. In the Russian and Eastern European shtetls of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish irreverence focused on the local rabbi, neighborhood rich man and the distant czar. In the Great Depression, Jewish comedians like the Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges took on the hoi polloi and the cops. In the 1950s and 60s, following the defeat of Hitler and the birth of Israel in the 1940s, newly emboldened Jewish writers and producers turned their irreverence to authorities with guns in sitcoms like Bilko, McHale’s Navy, F-Troop, Hogan’s Heroes, Get Smart and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. But the authority figures they created were mostly sympathetic characters themselves, common-man bunglers thrust by war or circumstance into positions of authority for which they showed little appetite and even less competence.
All in the Family was perhaps the first TV sitcom to weaponize humor, as the social unrest of the 60s found overt voices and champions in the show’s characters and storylines. The genius of Archie Bunker was the juxtaposition of bigot buffoon to sympathetic family man whose social status and authority was in constant decline. We felt his pain while we laughed at him, and virtue signalled for the first time — simply by watching primetime television. Who knew feeling this superior could be this easy and this entertaining?
Social relevance became the primary sitcom currency thereafter, a transition accelerated by the rise of cable TV and the corresponding fragmentation of the TV audience. Ad industry vernacular and billing mechanisms changed accordingly as the media conversation shifted from mass market reach to targeted relevance throughout the 1980s and early 90s. Ironically, the most successful primetime sitcom of the era was the only one that didn’t rely on social relevance at all: Seinfeld — a show about nothing with an all-white cast of characters so ethically inept that they were sentenced to jail in the final episode for their patent inability to behave as good samaritans. It was also — by far — the most inherently Jewish and irreverent primetime sitcom since F Troop in the 1960s.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that Seinfeld ended at the height of the dot com era. By then, the discrete media agencies had far surpassed their integrated and creative counterparts in billings, and broadcast TV was already the alternative to cable. Mass marketing had all but succumbed to targeted marketing, and the demographic profiles that drove both broadcast and cable on the agency level were about to be supplemented by massive amounts of psychographic and behavioral data made possible by the sudden and explosive growth of digital media. It was also about that time that MSNBC and Fox News joined CNN as anchor tenants in the national cable news lineup.
From this new media miasma emerged yet another brilliant Jewish comedian, one who would capitalize on the rise and popularity of cable news and completely rewire American comedy. His name was Jon Stewart, and over the next couple of decades he established himself as the most trusted source of news for young urban Americans. This irony was not lost on Stewart, his writers or his diverse cast of ersatz reporters. The Daily Show’s faux-news format effectively weaponized popular humor and forever changed the face of late-night TV.
Then came 9/11, and suddenly it was no longer suitable for the common man to make fun of authorities with guns. Into the irreverence void stepped a self-appointed clique of media elites who co-opted the task of speaking truth to power — at least to the extent that obscenely compensated corporate shills can. Worse yet was the subsequent polarization of cable news and digital media around tribalized demographic and political identities. Fueled by big data and hundreds of billions of narrowcast advertising and marketing dollars, the corporate media elite all but outlawed the common man’s option to make fun of other common men. In a self-serving act of eminent domain, the media elite seized the common man’s art form and declared it off limits to all but themselves. The rich and delicious irreverence we once feasted on as a nation was replaced by a low-sodium, fat-free diet of politically correct pablum. In essence, they swapped our hot pastrami on rye for quinoa salad.
Like inclusivity and diversity, political correctness is a commercial media invention and artifact, a byproduct of market fragmentation induced first by a wildly successful cable TV model in the late 20th century, then by a calculated, default meta-addiction to all things media and all things digital in the early 21st century. It was and remains (even and especially online) a concession to corporate advertisers and their proxies in media, government and academia — all of whom need to control the narrative in order to maintain their respective power bases in a brittle media world of tribalized warriors kept separate only by hyperlink.
Irreverence, of course, is an essential expression of freedom and liberty. As such, it stands in direct contrast to political correctness, a pernicious form of official censorship, posing as civility. Over the first two decades of the 21st century, political correctness has been deployed by immense corporate media interests and their commercial shills as a social marketing weapon to politicize every aspect of American life — humor not least — for immense profit. Late-night talk shows became political forums for politically correct corporate shills to elicit laughs from like-minded audiences. Political humor, however, is and always has been a cheap and pandering version of the art form. The laughs it elicits are typically more drug-induced than earned, targeting only those who drink the same political Kool-Aid, while branding those who aren’t hip enough to find it funny as rascist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic.
Once transformed into a political hammer, humor loses its essential social function: to imbue our lives with a realistic sense of proportion. Once politicized, humor sacrifices proportion to anger and power. Gone is the nuance and grace that converted the income inequality between street urchins and the hoi polloi into comedy magic during the Great Depression. Gone is the true irreverence of the common man that invited us to laugh at the army, the police and the intelligence agencies in the 1950s and 60s — at the height of a Cold War between nuclear superpowers.
The Jews, the original world ambassadors for proportion, no longer contribute to American culture in disproportionate numbers. We may have eaten our own. A century of successful assimilation, intermarriage and commercial media-driven moral relativism may have all but eliminated any remaining ability of American Jews to even identify the beast, let alone mollify it. The shtetls of Eastern Europe, the tenements of the Lower East Side, the Borscht Belt retreats and the great movie studios of Hollywood are all distant memories. Seems like the Jews, once the driving cultural engine of American humor, have finally packed up and left the neighborhood. Life is more tragic and less funny without them…