No little synagogue on the prairie
A new Canadian comedy series goes out of its way to emphasize that it's not a 'Jewish' show
JAIME J. WEINMAN | October 1, 2008 |
"This is not a show about a Jewish family," says Marvin Kaye, creator of the new series Less Than Kind. "It is about a family that happens to be Jewish." The comedy, premiering on Citytv on Oct. 13, about a Jewish teenager (Jesse Camacho) living in Winnipeg, was conceived by Kaye and co-creator Chris Sheasgreen as a show in the vein of Arrested Development, with Camacho as a smart but shy kid perpetually embarrassed by his dysfunctional family. But because the family is Jewish, a show like this has to work to convince audiences that it's not a "Jewish" show: Citytv has gone out of its way to emphasize the fact that even though an early episode was filmed inside a synagogue, most episodes don't have any specifically Jewish content. When a show is about Jews, there's always the fear that it will be pigeonholed. Maybe that's why you don't see many Jewish characters on TV today.
Many people have noted the irony that even though North American TV has a lot of Jewish writers, it doesn't produce many Jewish characters. Though there have been a few hit shows that featured Jewish characters, like Grace on Will and Grace, there are almost no shows about Jewish families, and very few that will specifically identify even an individual character as Jewish. TV executives are famous for worrying that audiences won't relate to Jewish characters — the creators of The Mary Tyler Moore Show were informed that Americans didn't want to see "New Yorkers, moustaches, and Jews" on TV — and they frequently encourage writers to substitute other ethnicities that they consider more viewer-friendly; a famous Hollywood expression is "write Yiddish, cast British."
So on Seinfeld, which NBC feared would be "too Jewish" for Middle America, Larry David's alter ego, George, was given an Italian last name, and even though the character of Elaine was based on a Jewish comedienne and played by a Jewish actress, she was referred to as non-Jewish. One of the writers of Everybody Loves Raymond, Ellen Sandler, wrote an article for The Jewish Journal, "Raymond Barone, Crypto-Jew?" about how the characters were written Jewish even though they were, officially, Italian. You can have a Jewish guy on TV if he's in show business, like the agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) on Entourage or Larry David as himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm. (When he encountered an African-American family named "Black," he said "that would be like calling me 'Larry Jew.' ") But otherwise, you'll find more witches and superheroes on TV than Jews.
Ironically, Jews are disappearing from scripted TV at a time when other minority groups are becoming more visible. CBC's Little Mosque on the Prairie plays up the ethnic element as part of its premise, while on Global, Da Kink in my Hair is a comedy that mines much of its humour from black culture. And a study by GLAAD showed that there are twice as many gay characters on TV this year compared to the year before. But TV executives still worry, as they have for decades, that Jewish characters could be too parochial for non-Jewish audiences.
That means that a show like Less Than Kind has to remind us that, as Kaye says, "being Jewish is on the same level of importance as saying they're left-handed or have the ability to breathe." That's not to say that the characters' Jewishness doesn't add anything to the show; Kaye, who based the character of Sheldon on himself at that age, adds that "you are able to go certain places comedically that you couldn't go to if this was just any generic family." When Sheldon's father (Maury Chaykin) is thrown out of an art gallery for being obnoxious, he blames the whole thing on anti-Semitism; it's a throwaway joke, but a telling one about the way he blames everyone but himself for his troubles. But the producers and the network need to emphasize that the family's ethnicity is a side issue; otherwise, Less Than Kind could wind up like Brooklyn Bridge, The Education of Max Bickford, and other shows that dealt with Jewish families and paid a ratings price for doing so.
And so the publicity for Less Than Kind is making it clear that a typical episode — like the one where Chaykin gives a disastrous driving lesson to a nervous, hard-swearing teacher — would be funny with any ethnic group. That's the rule for having Jews on TV; if you can't avoid making them Jewish, at least let people know that they're not too Jewish for non-Jews to laugh at. Or as Larry David put it: "I'm not one of these guys who goes, 'Hey, I'm a Jew, I'm a Jew, I'm a Jew.' "