CBS to adapt British sitcom about Jewish family


CBS will adapt a British sitcom called “Friday Night Dinner” about a Jewish family.

The British show, created by Robert Popper, is about the Goodmans, a traditional Jewish family with two sons who come home each week for Friday night dinner.

According to entertainment publication Deadline Hollywood, it is unclear whether the family in the CBS adaptation –which Popper will write — will be Jewish. The show’s development is still in its early stages. Deadline reported that the show will have features similar to those of successful ABC sitcom “Modern Family.”

“Friday Night Dinner” premiered in 2011 and is in its third season. It was previously picked up for American adaptation by NBC for the 2011-2012 season, but the pilot did not become a series.

 

Must-see TV: Sitcoms, sex top Fall lineup


It’s September at last, when summer reruns and C-level realty shows cede their timeslots to returning favorites and new contenders. This fall’s offerings include Jewish connections galore, on and off camera; prolific producers J.J. Abrams, Jerry Bruckheimer and Jonathan Littman are just a few of the series’ creators. Littman is behind “Hostages,” the CBS drama based on a concept producer Alon Aranya brought over from Israel about a female surgeon ordered to kill the president or her family will die. Fittingly, returning favorite “Homeland,” also based on an Israeli series, plans to shoot the last few episodes of its season in Israel. As for Jewish stars, these are some of the familiar faces you’ll see. 


JAMES CAAN

James Caan in “Back in the Game.” Photo by Randy Holmes/ABC

Those who know James Caan from gritty dramatic fare like “The Godfather,” “Misery” and more recent turns on TV’s “Las Vegas” and “Magic City” might be surprised that he’s starring in a sitcom. “Unless there are 12 people dead on page 20, I don’t usually get the job,” he quipped. But having occasionally waded into comic territory with lighter fare like “Elf,” Caan said he is “really excited about laughing a little bit” as a curmudgeonly ex-baseball player and coach whose daughter and grandson move in with him in ABC’s “Back in the Game.”

The sports milieu is a comfortable fit for Caan, who played football in college at Michigan State University and coached his son’s Little League team. He also was known as “The Jewish Cowboy” when he worked the rodeo circuit. “In many ways, my whole life has revolved around sports,” he said, and he’s got the scars to prove it. “I’ve had 15 operations, screws in my foot, just had my elbow sewn back together from non-Jewish activities, choices that were not very Yiddish.” 

But if being an athlete was outside the Jewish norm, becoming an actor was even more unusual for a kid from a tough Bronx neighborhood. “I don’t think any actors came out of there,” he said. “That was an even bigger convention to break.”

“Back in the Game” premieres Sept. 25 at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.


ANDY SAMBERG

Andy Samberg in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Photo by Mary Ellen Matthews/FOX

It should come as no surprise that Andy Samberg was voted class clown in school. “I got kicked out of class a lot for not being able to keep my mouth shut,” said the former “Saturday Night Live” mischief-maker, who stars as smart-ass, hotshot detective Jake Peralta in the Fox comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

“Jake goes into the crime scene acting like a maniac, but he’s great at catching bad guys. He’s serious when it comes to solving crimes, so when he’s being a jackass, you can forgive him,” observed Samberg, who is comfortable with the “irreverent and silly vibe” of the show. “To show up and be handed 25 great jokes is the best feeling you can have as a comedian,” he said.

The Berkeley native is from a long line of funny Jews. “I grew up in a funny family with a funny father, and his family was funny. We were always joking around and cracking each other up,” Samberg remembered. He wasn’t raised in an observant home. “I’m much more into the heritage and the history of it and remembering everybody that came before me more than the religious part” of Judaism, he said.

Samberg admits to missing his friends at “Saturday Night Live,” particularly the “camaraderie and the intensity of coming up with something on a Thursday or Friday and have it be on television on Saturday.” He’d be glad to make a guest appearance. “I’ll go back to host anytime they want me to.”

Brooklyn Nine-Nine” premieres Sept. 17 at 8:30 p.m. on Fox.


LINDA LAVIN

Linda Lavin in “Sean Saves the World.” Photo by Chris Haston/NBC

Best known as the titular waitress on the long-running sitcom “Alice,” and later as Nana Sophie on “The O.C.,” and more recently, for movie roles in “The Back-up Plan” and “Wanderlust,” Linda Lavin returns to the small screen this fall as Sean Hayes’ pushy, meddling mom, Lorna, in NBC’s “Sean Saves the World.”

“It’s great to be back. I love being in this town with a job,” said Lavin, who was lured by the “smart, sophisticated” pilot script for the show about a divorced gay father and his relationships with his mother, teenage daughter and co-workers. “The generational differences are a source of comedy,” she added

Although the family’s religion has not yet been established on the series, Lavin finds that being Jewish, as well as female, “gives me a unique perspective on life. I bring what the script and tonality demands, whether it’s Jewish, European or New York humor. As an actor, I’m not the same in everything I do, but I bring myself to everything I do.”

“Sean Saves the World” premieres Oct. 3 at 9 p.m. on NBC.


SETH GREEN

Seth Green plays stoner Eli Sachs in “Dads.” Photo by Joseph Llanes/FOX

The premise of the Fox sitcom “Dads” is simple: A pair of best friends and business partners, played by Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi, have their lives disrupted when their fathers (Peter Reigert, Martin Mull) move in with them. Green, as single stoner Eli Sachs, and Riegert, as his grumpy dad David, in a case of art imitating life, are Jewish. “Jewish negativity, guilt, pessimism — there will be a lot of that stuff,” said executive producer/writer Alec Sulkin, adding, “The other pair is as WASPy as they come.”

Green, (“Family Guy,” “Robot Chicken”), whose diverse comic influences include Mel Brooks and Don Rickles, finds depth in the played-for-laughs father-son arguments. “The relationship is so caustic. We say whatever we’re feeling. We may not be solving anything, but there are moments of tenderness and connection where we’re trying to find a way to each other despite so much acquired damage,” he said. 

Thankfully, Green’s relationship with his own father, Herb, a retired teacher, is drama-free. “My dad and I get along really well,” he said, adding, “I’ve definitely acquired more sympathy for my parents as I’ve gotten older and see things from a different perspective. I don’t know that I’m in a hurry to have kids, but I would do my best not to completely foul them up.”

“Dads” premieres Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. on Fox.


LIZZY CAPLAN

Lizzy Caplan in “Masters of Sex.” Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/SHOWTIME

Since starting out in the television cult favorite “Freaks and Geeks,” Lizzy Caplan has worked steadily in TV and film in everything from “True Blood,” “Mean Girls,” “Cloverfield,” “Party Down” and “127 Hours” to a role on “New Girl” last year. Her latest role is a distinct departure from what she’s done before, and certainly her most provocative: sex researcher Virginia Johnson in the Showtime drama “Masters of Sex.” 

Based on the book of the same name by Thomas Maier, the series co-stars Michael Sheen as William Masters, Johnson’s boss and subsequent research partner and lover. Calling Johnson “by far the most layered and the toughest” character she’s played to date, Caplan says she was drawn to the contradictions in a 1950s woman and single mother with a progressive attitude toward sexuality. “She wasn’t tied down by society’s moral rules,” she said.

Lamenting the sexual double standard that still exists six decades later, Caplan feels “fortunate that I wasn’t raised in an ultra-religious household where I was told to abstain from sex and think of my body as evil.” A Los Angeles native, she did attend Hebrew school, Jewish camp, had a disco-themed bat mitzvah and went on an ulpan group trip to Israel at 16. She started acting professionally shortly thereafter.

While she’d been “quite comfortable” in the comedic, contemporary niche she’d carved out for herself, Caplan is relishing the opportunity to step out of that comfort zone. “I needed something like this,” she said, “I’m hoping that the audience will be accepting of me trying something new.”

“Masters of Sex” premieres Sept. 29 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.


JAMES WOLK

James Wolk stars in “The Crazy Ones.” Photo by Monty Brinton/CBS

After memorable turns in the dramas “Political Animals” and “Mad Men,” James Wolk is putting his comedy and improv theater background to use in the CBS workplace sitcom “The Crazy Ones,” opposite Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar as father-and-daughter owners of an advertising firm. 

Although he says it’s “nearly impossible” to keep a straight face in scenes with Williams, Wolk is relishing his role as young creative genius Zach Cropper. “He’s flying by the seat of his pants. He’s like Peter Pan — he never wants to grow up.” 

Wolk, who grew up in the Detroit area in a Reform Jewish home, was bar mitzvahed and has fond memories of celebrating the Jewish holidays and of one Jewish food in particular. “Detroit has amazing challah,” he said.

While Zach Cropper isn’t Jewish, Wolk plays a doctor named Noah Bernstein in the romantic comedy “There’s Always Woodstock,” due out later this year. 

Travel plans are also on his future agenda. “I’d like to make a trip to Israel at some point,” he said. “I never took my Birthright trip.”

“The Crazy Ones” premieres September 26 at 9 p.m. on CBS.


Other offerings of note: The PBS documentary series “Genealogy Roadshow” includes the story of a Latina from Texas hoping to verify her Sephardic Jewish ancestry (Oct. 14). Oliver Jackson-Cohen plays reporter Jonathan Harker in NBC’s “Dracula” (Oct. 25), and Ben Rappaport joins the cast of CBS’ “The Good Wife” as a fourth-year associate who’ll join the new law firm Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and Cary (Matt Czuchry) are secretly forming (Sept. 29).

Yom HaAtzmaut special: California on Hebrew [VIDEO]


California on Purim [VIDEO]


Enter Elijah, designated drinker


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In a video on his elijahdrinks.com Web site, Jaffe demonstrates his invention to a friend. Because he wanted a genuine reaction, he had a set-up that sitcom writers seldom encounter: “I had to do it in one take.” (Thus Jaffe mentions in the video that it sells for $29.95, when it’s actually priced at $34.95 plus shipping on the

You’re Lucky You’re Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom


The following excerpt is the prologue to “You’re Lucky You’re Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom,” (Viking, 2006) a memoir by Phil Rosenthal, creator and executive producer of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2006 by Buona Sera Productions, Inc.

My brother, Richard, got married on September 5, 1993. I was the best man, and with that honor comes the giving of the toast. I had been earning a living as a writer on an assortment of television sitcoms for about four years at this point, and so I felt there was an expectation to be humorous whenever forced to speak in public — a self-imposed pressure, but real nonetheless, as if I deeply needed to communicate to people, “See, I can be funny, it’s not my fault the shows are terrible.”

And so I racked my brain for material. Material at family functions often focused on the family at hand, and my particular family had served me well in the past — years earlier I wrote a little poem at my parents’ twenty-fifth anniversary party (at their nonstop insistence) that seemed to be hilarious to the relatives and friends. “Better than Broadway!” I had been told. But now, at this wedding, I was thirty-three, and there were people there who didn’t know the family, and worse, didn’t know me — but here he is: the Hollywood toastmaster. This could be a bad wedding, meaning I could bomb. And then it hit me, an anecdote that had actually happened, that I had suppressed for several years, that drove me nuts then and thinking about it again now rekindled the nuts, and that illustrated the insanity in our family and would serve as a warning to Richard’s bride, Karen, as to why she should perhaps reconsider marrying into this psycho ward. Why she should run screaming into the hills rather than subject herself to a life of unrelenting complaining and unbearable frustration, petty domestic politics and life under maternal rule. The more I thought about this story, I realized it wasn’t funny at all, but that didn’t matter anymore. I had to tell it as a purely cautionary tale. The fact that the toast would come at the wedding reception and that my brother and his wife would be already married didn’t change the urgency of my warning.
“Karen,” I started. “There is still time to run.”

I explained: When I first started to make a little money in Hollywood, I bought my mom, for Hanukkah, a gift of the Fruit-of-the-Month Club.

And then came the phone call from my mother in Rockland County, New York: “Philip, we got the pears.”

“Oh, that’s good, Ma. You like them?”

“Yes, they’re very nice, but please . . . it’s an entire box of pears. There must be twelve or fourteen pears here. There’re so many pears. Please, Philip, do me a favor. Don’t ever send us any more food again, okay?”

I said, “Well, Ma . . . another box is coming next month.”

She said, “What? More pears?”

I said, “No, Ma, a different fruit every month.”

“EVERY MONTH? My God, Max, he got us in some kind of cult. What am I supposed to do with all this fruit?”

“I don’t know,” I told her. “Most people like it. You eat it … You share it with your friends.”
“Which friends?!”

“I don’t know … Lee and Stan.”

“Lee and Stan buy their own fruit!”

“Oh my God, Ma…”

“Why did you do this to me?”

“What is happening?”

“I can’t talk anymore, there’s too much fruit in the house!”

I went on to describe my father’s misery as well at this misfortune that had befallen them. (“You think we’re invalids? We can’t get our own fruit?”) The wedding guests laughed. No one laughed harder than my parents, who really did treat the gift of fruit from their son as if they’d received a box of heads from a murderer. Richard and Karen remain married to this day and have even brought two children into the world.

My warning didn’t take. Nobody listens to me. Maybe you will.

I guess if we have to classify this book, it is a memoir of sorts. (That’s right, Oprah, and I’ll swear it’s all true even if you make the mean face at me on the couch.) We’ll also, if you’re interested, get into how to make a show, specifically the show “Everybody Loves Raymond.” We’ll see how it came to be, how “writing what you know” is not just a saying but essential, and how almost anyone’s life can be turned into fuel for comedy. We’ll use, for example, my life — where I’m from, the other jobs and other shows I toiled on, my relationships with family, with women, with The Writers’ Room, with show business, and how all of it found its way into the work, became the work, to the point where it wasn’t work anymore. And all of it is here — in the hope that you’ll be entertained, and maybe learn a thing or two that could help you in your own career, your life, your diet. You’ll learn a little about how to write, cast, edit, direct, run, cater, and, most of all, enjoy the gift of a hit show.

I was crazy lucky to get such a gift, and for nine years, I savored it; I loved it; I was tremendously thankful for it. It would not have occurred to me to return it or leave it or be unhappy with it, let alone complain about the gift to whoever gave it to me that it was all “too much.”

You still there, Ma?

On Oct. 24 from 7-8:30 p.m., Phil Rosenthal will be at Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.

For more information, call (800) 764-2665 or visit

Forget March — Try Midseason Madness


The Olympics drama is over. The Oscar drama is over. The TV ratings drama is just beginning. Now that the networks have a handle on what worked in the fall (ABC’s “Commander-in-Chief”) and what didn’t (CBS’s “Head Cases”), it’s time to make room for some midseason replacements that — if they do well — will return to the schedule this fall.

ABC

With shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost,” ABC is now the place to be for dramas and dramedies. But how will a new family comedy fare on a network that was once home to uber-sitcoms “Full House” and “Growing Pains” — and is now the place to find “Freddie” and “Rodney” (yeah, we haven’t seen them either)?

“Sons & Daughters” (Tuesdays at 9 p.m.), created by Fred Goss (who also stars) and Nick Holly, is ABC’s answer to critically acclaimed but ratings-deprived “Arrested Development.” The modern-day family comedy about the Walker/Halbert siblings and their parents and children is a mix of improvisational and scripted humor, although it is hard to tell which is which.

Goss plays Cameron Walker, whose second wife, Liz, is Jewish. As a result, in the first episode, evil Aunt Rae tells their young daughter, Marni, that the family is going to hell. While Aunt Rae is napping, the kids use a marker to draw a Hitler mustache on her face, and Henry, Cameron’s resentful teenage son from his first marriage, gets it all on camera.

Cameron is based largely on creator Goss’ own life — he is married to a Jewish woman and is raising his kids Jewish — and facing prejudice from some of his family members.

The show airs in the “Commander-in-Chief” spot through mid-April, and while it isn’t a typical comedy (no laugh track), you might find yourself laughing at the similarity between its family and yours.

ABC also ventures into the CBS stronghold of crime solving with “The Evidence” (Wednesdays at 10 p.m., starting March 22). In every episode, the audience plays detective with inspector Sean Cole (Rob Estes) and Cayman Bishop (Orlando Jones), who get help from Dr. Sol Gold (Martin Landau).

The whodunit takes place in San Francisco (one of the few places “C.S.I.” hasn’t been) and kicks off each episode with Gold presenting clues from a videotaped evidence log. The show then goes to the day the crime was committed, and viewers can play along with the detectives as they find each clue, determine its meaning, put the pieces together and solve the crime.

Landau, who won an Oscar for portraying Bela Lugosi in 1994’s “Ed Wood” and picked up a 2005 Jewish Image Award for his work in “The Aryan Couple,” told The Journal that he’s happy to play a Jewish character again.

“They always cast me as Italian,” said Landau, who has recently been Anthony LaPaglia’s father, Frank Malone, on the CBS drama, “Without a Trace.”

If the show can draw viewers from NBC’s staple, “Law & Order,” expect it to hang around until the fall.

The WB

Switching channels, the WB (soon to be CW) adds a new guys-who-can’t-figure-out-women-but-aren’t-sure-why comedy to its lineup with “Modern Men” (Fridays, 9:30 p.m., starting March 17), from executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

Twentysomething childhood friends Tim (Josh Braaten), Kyle (Max Greenfield) and Doug (Eric Lively) each have problems with the women — or lack thereof — in their lives and seek the advice of life coach Dr. Victoria Stangel (Jane Seymour).

Adding to the mix is Tim’s dad, Tug (George Wendt), a former NFL player, and law school student and sister, Molly (Marla Sokoloff), the catalyst for the men seeking professional help, who tells them: If women don’t need men any more, it’s up to men to make women want them.

Sokoloff has been seen on the small screen as Lynette’s cutie-pie nanny on “Desperate Housewives” and as the firm’s receptionist on the late ABC drama, “The Practice.” The actress-singer-songwriter told The Journal that she enjoyed playing a young Jewish woman in “The Tollbooth” (for which she won a Jewish Image Award). She is so much fun to watch that maybe it’s time for her to get her own show.

The male-dominated sitcom concept can either work (CBS’s “Two and a Half Men”) or tank (NBC’s “Four Kings”). If “Modern Men” can keep the numbers of its lead-in — “Reba” — on a evening lineup filled with female-geared shows, it might end up in the former category.

NBC

The Donald is back for another round of hirings and firings — well, mostly firings, on the latest round of “The Apprentice” (Mondays at 9 p.m.). This year’s crop of candidates includes Orthodox Jews Lee Bienstock, 22, and Daniel Brody, 31.

Bienstock, a business analyst and Cornell University graduate who counts Israel among his top travel destinations, has already made one trip to the boardroom after his team, Gold Rush, lost the first challenge of the season. Bienstock escaped unharmed but was told beforehand by project manager Tarek Saab not to throw blame Saab’s way for the loss or Bienstock would become a “target.”

In the second episode, Bienstock became project manager, and his team won — but some early mismanagement on his part could have easily lost the task for Gold Rush. Past seasons have shown that the “young guy” always gets fired before the final two — usually for not having enough experience or being too cocky.

Brody, an alum of Yeshiva University and founder of Brody Sport, a designer brand of activewear, was also on the Gold Rush team but escaped a visit to the boardroom. In the second episode, he showed he can be relied upon to do what is asked of him. The New Jersey native and father of two could break the “entrepreneurs don’t get picked” reputation the show has exhibited so far.

Bienstock and Brody both went to shul for Rosh Hashanah during the week three task — much to the chagrin of fellow teammates, specifially 37-year-old Lenny Val, a Russian-born New Jerseyite who, when Brody said they would be gone, said, “This is f—— stupid,” and then pointed out several times in the episode that even though he is Jewish, he wasn’t taking off.

Val told Bienstock and Brody that if Gold Rush loses, he would blame them — and continued to do so after their team indeed lost their task. Though neither Bienstock nor Brody was taken to the boardroom, Val was and told Trump that he is Jewish and could have taken off, but he felt the team was more important. Trump told Val, who was not fired, that he could have chosen to take off — but “that’s life.”

It will be intersting to see how Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah play into the next few episodes.

Goodbye

The Journal gives a warm send-off to syndication heaven to a trio of longtime shows: NBC’s Sunday night political drama, “The West Wing” (also on Bravo), which ends its term with an election that could go either way); The WB’s Monday night family drama, “7th Heaven,” which spent 10 years offering a wholesome look at a reverend, his wife, their Jewish in-laws and seven kids who got into more trouble than the Bradford children on “Eight Is Enough”; and NBC’s Thursday night sitcom, “Will & Grace” (on Lifetime and the WB), which brought gaydar and tons of guest stars to the small screen, along with Grace’s (Debra Messing) humorous nods to the holidays: “I mean, the holidays are all about … misery and … obligation … and the Maccabees riding an elephant, or whatever the hell Chanukah is about.”

An Ode to Parents and Other Strangers


When Paul Reiser co-created and starred in the 1990s hit sitcom, “Mad About You,” — about a secular Jew married to a Christian — he helped spur a new trend in TV comedy: the cute but neurotic Jewish leading man. Along with Jerry Seinfeld and Richard Lewis (“Anything But Love”), he elevated male Jewish characters from whiny sidekicks to leads that remained appealing, despite their anxieties and preoccupation with exasperating parents.

Reiser’s new film, “The Thing About My Folks,” also revolves around a secular Jew, Ben Kleinman (Reiser), who is preoccupied with exasperating parents. In the comedy-drama, Ben bonds with his father, Sam (Peter Falk) on an impromptu road trip after mom (Olympia Dukakis) unceremoniously leaves dad. During assorted misadventures, Ben learns more about his father — indeed his parents — than he ever knew before.

The Jewish Reiser began writing the script around the time he starred in the 1980s coming-of-age film, “Diner,” in part because he was curious about his own parents.

“[I’d] look at pictures and go, OK, you were a young, handsome, beautiful couple,” the 48-year-old said. “How do you go from 24-year-olds who kiss for the first time in a car to 70-year-olds falling asleep watching Mike Wallace?”

The film explores their journey in fictional form; it’s also an ode to Reiser’s late father, a crusty, scrappy businessman who apparently did not reveal much about himself. Then, one day in 1983, the actor heard his father laugh hard while watching Falk — who excels at playing crusty, scrappy characters — in Neil Simon’s “The Cheap Detective.” It was a rare, much treasured glimpse into the inner life of the elder Reiser, who seldom belly-laughed, the actor said recently at the Four Seasons Hotel.

“I said, ‘Huh, Peter Falk is the only guy that always makes my dad laugh,'” Reiser recalled. “The next morning, I woke up and thought, OK, I’ve got to make up a movie … with Peter Falk as my father.”

Perhaps because of his father’s affection for Falk, Reiser, too was a big fan: “I fell in love with him … from the first time I saw him in ‘Robin and the Seven Hoods.'” he said. He later noticed similarities between the two older men, who both seemed unpretentious and down to earth.

Yet over the years, Reiser did not complete his Falk project, in part because he was intimidated by the personal nature of the material, he told the Bradenton Herald. It was only after Sept. 11 reminded him that life was short that he sat down and wrote the script in just two weeks He promptly sent it to Falk, the son of Eastern European Jews, who accepted the role the next day. Apparently the fictional Sam fits into his long acting portfolio of cops, G.I.’s, husbands and other men who “don’t have a pretentious bone in their bodies,” Falk (“Columbo”) told The Journal. “This man can be wrong, but he’s never fake.”

Unlike Reiser, the older actor became a television star in an era when it was seldom acceptable for a show to revolve around a Jewish character. Hence his famed 1970s TV detective was the Italian Catholic Columbo, although he just as easily could have been named Goldberg. Conversely, the fictional Sam exhibits distinctly Jewish values.

“He works hard and he believes in this: You provide for your family. You provide for your children. You provide for your wife and you don’t cheat,” Falk said.

Reiser, for his part, is more Jewishly active than the fictional Ben, participating in Jewish charities and at his synagogue, Stephen S. Wise Temple, The Forward said in 2003. Yet he does not regard the feature as a Jewish movie. It’s a universal film about parents and children.

“We have been taking ‘Folks’ from city to city, and finding out this is so resonating with people in every market, in every demographic,” he said.

The film opens Friday in Los Angeles.

 

Spectator – How Sweet She Is


At the beginning of her risqué comic monologue, “Sugar Happens,” Rachel Bailit struts onstage wearing a tight black corset, a skimpy skirt, garters, thigh-highs and an attitude.

“I know what you’re thinking: Big boobs … big lips. Bimbo. Starlet. Slut,” she says. “But don’t judge me; you don’t really know me. I’m just a nice Jewish girl from Needham, Mass.”

While laundering her costume at her rent-controlled Santa Monica apartment recently, the cheery actress says she intends her introduction to confront the bimbo stereotype and to declare, “I’m a lot more than that.”

Bailit, for example, grew up in a WASPy New England town but attended Reform synagogue and camps. She achieved a lucrative journalism career before switching to acting in 1995; trained at the Lee Strasberg Institute; studied at the University of Judaism; taught at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and wears a Star of David, even to auditions. She had a good experience playing a naive screenwriter in Henry Jaglom’s “Festival in Cannes.”

“But my body confuses people,” she says. “In Hollywood, I’m considered sexy from the neck down, but with a character face. So they [often] have me play trashy or over the top.”

Bailit portrayed a Whoville resident in a tiny nurse outfit in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”; “Nose Job Girl” in a vinyl dress and dog collar in “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” and a hooker wearing “really whory makeup” on “NYPD Blue.” “In many films, I’m wearing a bikini for no reason,” she says.

Then, while pitching a sitcom about herself as a non-clichéd Jewish woman, a producer suggested she try standup comedy and asked writer Sherry Coben (“Kate & Allie”) to help.

“So I went to Rachel’s Web site and immediately dismissed her as another starlet bimbo,” Coben told The Journal. “But then I met her and I thought, ‘She really is this nice Jewish girl.’ I was intrigued by the image she projects vs. who she is and also because I was so quick to label her as something she wasn’t.”

After conducting interviews, Coben decided a one-woman show, rather than standup, would best dramatize the actress’ roller-coaster life story. In the play, Bailit’s musings range from finding JDate guys “a little too nice” to working product testing jobs in which “I exercise 45 minutes, then drink Gatorade … and repeat. For six hours.”

Coben also wanted to capture Bailit’s unflagging optimism.

“I really believe that all these [negative] things are leading to something better; that sugar happens, not ‘s— happens,'” says the actress, who declines to give her age.

Workshop performances of “Sugar” run through June 21 at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. For information, call (323) 650-7777.

 

Spectator – ‘The Nanny’ Robs the Cradle


May/December romances are in. Just ask Hollywood. But we’re not talking Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones. There’s absolutely nothing new about older actors dating younger actresses (can you say Bogie and Bacall?) Nope, it’s the older woman/younger man scenario that’s making headlines, specifically the relationship between Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher.

Perhaps hoping to ride the coattails of this trend, actress Fran Drescher’s new sitcom “Living With Fran” debuted in April on the WB’s Friday night line-up. It features Drescher as a 40-something divorcee with two kids who is dating a younger man.

“He’s a big, blonde goy, and he works with his hands. He’s a contractor, a carpenter,” the star of “The Nanny” fame recently told The Journal.

Working titles for the show, according to the Web site imdb.com included “Robbing the Cradle” and “Shacking Up,” seeming to prove the creators’ interest in playing up the older woman/younger man aspect of the show.

Although it may be trendy, however, the storyline actually also imitates Drescher’s own life. After divorcing the husband who had been her high school sweetheart, the 47-year-old actress became involved with a man 16 years her junior.

Unlike Fran Fine, Drescher’s character on “The Nanny,” the actress said this character — Fran Reeves — hits closer to home. “She got married very young … but by the time she hit 40, it was like she started living her life backward, which is what I’ve been doing,” Drescher said, “enjoying a youth that she never allowed herself to have in the first place.” However, like Fran Fine, Drescher’s new character will still seem familiar to viewers.

“It’s me, and it’s my voice and it’s my brand of comedy,” she said.

The voice — pure Brooklyn nasal — cannot go unmentioned. And when Drescher says “it’s me,” a big part of that is distinctly Jewish. She said for that reason, choosing to play another Jewish character seemed the only option for her.

“The television sitcom is a very fast medium,” she said, “and I think that one of the keys to success in sitcoms is to play a character that you understand very well … to give it the rich specificity that I think is required to create a character that the public can really embrace week in and week out.”

As for the “goy” boyfriend, Drescher, who is also an executive producer, makes no apologies. Her character is Jewish, as are her kids, and Jewish references will be frequently made.

However, “Lucy and Ricky got so much humor out of the fact that he was Cuban and she was Irish. It’s funny!” she said.

“Living With Fran” airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m on KTLA.

The Gold and the Beautful


 

“They hated me, didn’t they, because they barely laughed,” Elon Gold said fretfully after his audition on the new Fox sitcom “Stacked,” starring Pamela Anderson.

“That’s exactly the neurosis your character needs,” Executive Producer Steve Levitan told the 34 year old comic-actor (“You’re the One,” “The In-Laws”).

The anxiety factor is why Gold was hired as a last-minute replacement for Tom Everett Scott, who was deemed too laid back to portray Gavin, the tense bookstore owner employing party girl Skyler (Anderson).

In the promising pilot — which one critic called “‘Frasier’ with boobs” — Gold proved a hilarious comic foil for the vacuous yet surprisingly insightful Anderson. The ex “Baywatch” beauty whose, er, body of work has rendered her America’s iconic blonde bombshell, is the latest celebrity to essentially play herself on TV, albeit not on a reality show.

Gold, in part, is playing himself, too. The character “needs to be an uptight, neurotic intellectual, and I think that Elon can portray that,” Levitan told the New York Daily News.

The comic agrees that his “head is filled with all kinds of crazy problems”; the latest is Levitan’s idea about creating a Marilyn Monroe-Arthur Miller style affair between Gavin and Skyler.

“I’m almost hoping they don’t make my character Jewish, in case romance sparks and I get in trouble from all my relatives for marrying a shiksa,” said Gold, an observant Jew.

The relatives no doubt approve his take on landing the show to “a Purim miracle,” however. On that holiday, Levitan called him in for a meeting and the next night he was surprised in his synagogue parking lot by a Fox executive, with Gold’s contract in hand.

The comic said he was excited to land the sitcom because it’s “a throwback to shows like ‘Cheers’ and ‘Taxi'” and also because of ex-Playboy model Anderson, whom he had ogled on “Baywatch.”

“It doesn’t matter what she wears, she’s provocative,” he said of meeting her on the “Stacked” set. But he’s madly in love with his wife, Sacha, who does not feel threatened by Anderson.

“Her theory is, the more beautiful the actress, the less chance I’d ever have,” Gold said.

“Stacked” airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m.

 

‘Slap’ Happy


When Melanie Mayron read an early script of the iconic yuppie angst-fest "thirtysomething" in 1987, she rushed to the telephone. The series’ creators had portrayed her character, Melissa, as Jewish, fat and troubled. But the famously redheaded actress didn’t want any of that. She’d already been a recurring character on another show about a food-obsessed Jewish chick, the 1970s sitcom, "Rhoda." And she was tired of the cliché.

"So I talked their ears off about why they shouldn’t make Melissa another self-deprecating Jewish woman who dumps on herself and eats," says Mayron, who has just directed her second feature film, "Slap Her, She’s French," starring Piper Perabo. "I felt that while she had perhaps done that in her 20s, she was 30-something, she’d had therapy, and she was beyond it."

The executive producers agreed, and Melissa went on to become "thirtysomething’s" scrappy, lovable underdog — among the most memorable Jewish characters in prime time — a freelance photographer struggling to find the right job and the right guy. Some complained that she was the stereotypical, unlucky-in-love Jewish girl, but Mayron begged to differ. "I didn’t see Melissa as a loser or a neurotic," she says. "I saw her as a survivor."

The same could be said of the 49-year-old Jewish actress, who in person is funny — and waif-like. If Melissa has been described as Chaplin’s "Little Tramp reincarnated in a woman’s body," so is Mayron. When acting jobs proved scarce over the years, she supported herself as — you guessed it — a freelance photographer.

When Mayron found that the Jewish men who ran Hollywood favored non-Jewish actresses, she co-wrote a short film, "Shiny Shoes," starring herself as "a Jewish girl who wanted a Jewish guy while the Jewish men around her just wanted shiksa goddesses."

By the time the acting jobs started to dwindle, as they do for many women over 40, Mayron had already transitioned into writing and directing. Her credits include ABC "Afterschool Specials," episodes of "New York Undercover" and "Ed" and her 1995 feature film directorial debut, "The Baby-Sitters Club," based on the novels of Ann M. Martin.

She’s continuing to persevere as a director, though the odds are daunting. Despite the success of a handful of female filmmakers such as Penny Marshall and Kathryn Bigelow, only four of the 100 highest grossing films in 2001 were directed by women, according to a recent study from San Diego State University. Though hotshot young male directors are quickly signed to bigger movies, women have a different experience, Mayron, and the study, suggest.

"My debut feature, ‘The Baby-Sitters Club,’ got good reviews and made good money for what it cost," she says, wearing jeans and boots recently in her publicist’s mid-Wilshire office. "But it took me six years to get to direct my second feature. I think a guy would have had another movie out the same year."

Ask why she signed on to "Slap Her" — about a conniving foreigner who usurps the identity of a popular Texas teen — and she jokes, "They were gonna make the movie and they wanted me." While the few reviews out so far have been disappointing, Mayron has been singled out for praise. Variety complimented her for drawing "lively playing from her cast without over-indulging them as a fellow actor."

Mayron says she hopes it doesn’t take another six years to land her next directing gig. Then her head swivels and she’s looking around, Melissa-like, for some wood to knock. "Here’s a tree," she says, brightly, rapping the branches of a potted plant.

Though most people assume Mayron — everyone’s favorite TV gingit — is the quintessential East Coast Ashkenazi Jew, her background is more varied. While her mother hails from Russian Jewish stock, her father, David, a chemist, is a Sephardic Jew whose family goes back five generations in the land of Israel. "My grandfather sold insurance to King Farouk of Egypt," she says. "And my savta’s parents helped found the city of Tel Aviv in 1906. Our family name used to be Mizrahi, but they changed it to Mayron, which means ‘happy water’ in Hebrew."

The actress’s dad was raised in then-Palestine and served as a combat medic in the War of Independence (Mayron carries a photograph of him in uniform in her wallet). Soon after the war, he arrived in Philadelphia to attend university and met Mayron’s mother, Norma, at a Hillel party in 1950.

Melanie, the eldest of their three children, grew up traveling to Israel every few years. Her most vivid memories: playing in bomb shelters and speaking a patois of Hebrew, French and Ladino to her now 101-year-old savta. Back home in Ambler, Pa., she attended Jewish camps and weekly services at a "Conservadox" synagogue.

Around the time of her bat mitzvah, she viewed a production of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" and vowed, during the car ride home, to become an actress. But the road wasn’t always easy. After playing a chunky Jewish girl (among other less-than-svelte roles) who considers an affair with a rabbi in Claudia Weill’s 1978 flick, "Girl Friends," Mayron decided to go on a crash diet. "I lived on coffee and Tab for two weeks, lost 16 pounds and then my hair started falling out in clumps," she says sheepishly. "Thank God I had enough nice, thick Jewish hair to cover up the bald spots."

A few years later, she shaved her head to play Vanessa Redgrave’s best friend in the Auschwitz saga, "Playing for Time" — and didn’t work for two years while waiting for her hair to grow back.

Things had picked up by the time Mayron created the role of Isabelle Grossman, the hipster courted by the Pickle Man in Susan Sandler’s "Crossing Delancey" at New York’s Jewish Repertory Theater in 1985. "Susan told me she’d written the part for me after seeing ‘Girl Friends,’" recalls Mayron, the never-married mom of two 3-year-olds. "I was supposed to star in the movie version, but Steven Spielberg bought the [property] for [his then-wife] Amy Irving. I was devastated because I loved that part; I mean, I was her."

Mayron also identified with Melissa, the searching, yearning, single artist she went on to play on "thirtysomething." The series earned her a 1989 Emmy Award for best supporting actress as well as her first shot in the director’s chair (she eventually directed two episodes).

The New York Times recently called her "among the more versatile women in Hollywood," but the actor-writer-director isn’t cocky about her future. She still has the same scrappy license plate she’s had for more than a decade: "It says ONDWAY," she says with a laugh, again sounding like Melissa. "Because I feel like I’ll always be on the way. On the way in, or on the way out."

"Slap Her, She’s French" opens next week in Los Angeles.

Raymond Barone, Crypto-Jew?


When you watch "Everybody Loves Raymond," you take it for granted that the Barones are Italian, right?

But don’t these people remind you a lot of people in your family? Your Jewish family?

While "Raymond" is a traditional family sitcom — not sexy or taboo-breaking like HBO’s "Sex in the City" — it has managed to draw a growing audience, and hold it for six years. "Raymond" is a top-10 show, the bulwark of CBS’ Monday night schedule at 9 p.m., and its repeats were the top-rated (this is its first year in syndication).

It’s the show’s family sensibility that makes it so popular.

Is it an Italian sensibility? Or is Raymond a crypto-Jew?

Back in the old days, in the Hollywood created by the founding fathers, Goldwyn, Mayer and the Warner Bros., there were no Jewish characters on screen, only idealized white Christians.

"…American values came to be defined largely by the movies the Jews made," writes Neal Gabler in his book, "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" (Anchor, 1989). "Ultimately, by creating their idealized America on screen, the Jews reinvented the country in the image of their fiction."

As Hollywood grew and flourished, television and films began to be populated by what seemed to be Jewish characters: They spoke like Jews, joked like Jews, ate like Jews … but were they Jews? They were hidden Jews. Crypto-Jews. Characters with Jewish sensibilities all dressed up as Protestants. They were named Petrie and Bratter and Reed and played by actors like Dick Van Dyke, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda and, more recently, Meg Ryan. Illustrating Neil Simon’s oft-quoted edict for commercial success: "Write Yiddish. Cast British."

"Seinfeld" was a veritable hive of crypto-Jews. Jerry himself was, of course, openly Jewish, but what of the supporting cast? Anyone who wanted to could recognize that George, Elaine and Kramer were Jews. They were based on real people, all of whom were, in fact, Jewish, but on the show they were not. Network rule: only one Jew per show.

Are the Barones Maranos? Is Marie lighting candles in the basement on Friday night without knowing why? Don’t look for that scene on your television anytime soon.

So, is the show really about Jews but with gentile characters to appeal to an American public? Well, no: It might as easily be said that the show is Italian and was then infused with a Jewish sensibility to make it acceptable to an American public which now is used to comedies emanating from a hamish sense of humor. But that’s not really it either.

So what is it? Jewish or Italian? Ray Romano and his family are what the show was built around from the beginning and they are, of course, Italian. Phil Rosenthal, the creator of the show, is Jewish, and he brought his own family to the characters.

The characters on the show are named Barone — obviously an Italian name, but in Italy, it is, in fact, a Jewish name.

Is this choice a deliberate one that brilliantly addresses the question: are they Italian or are they Jewish? It might be, except they’re named after the Italian restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. Rosenthal used to pass it all the time, and he’s very into food. So they’re the Barones.

Is there a difference between Italian sensibility and Jewish sensibility or does it all turn into a New York state of mind out in the midlands? Let’s figure this out pseudo-scientifically, with charts and everything.

What’s Jewish and What’s Italian on Raymond: Listed on the chart at the top of Page 28 are blatant and insensitive clichés, essential to the creation of television comedy and now shamelessly used to make facile jokes in this article.

What we can see from this chart is that sometimes "Raymond" is Jewish, sometimes it’s Italian, but mostly some degree of both. And therein lies its significance as the representative of a new American sensibility.

What it comes down to is that stereotypes are useful for comedy but don’t mean much in terms of individuals. Jewish, Italian, Greek, Danish or Arabic, what mother wouldn’t want her son to prefer her cooking to his wife’s? What father doesn’t resent his son’s surpassing him? What brothers don’t compete for their parents attention and what wife doesn’t get exasperated with her husband’s lack of appreciation for all she does around the house?

Everyone sees their own family in Frank and Marie and Ray and Debra and Robert. This universality that emerges from the specific is what has made Raymond one of the most popular comedies of the last six years

"Everybody Loves Raymond" does not have an Italian sensibility or a Jewish sensibility. It has is an American sensibility, where cultures don’t so much melt together but rather overlap each other, and the lines blur. It’s not about insistence on a bland sameness, but rather about recognition of common humanity. That is what makes American culture so very … well, American.

Bringing us finally to the American breakfast, which, as we all know, is no longer coffee and a doughnut, but cappuccino and a bagel.

In the ‘Company’ of Kline


"Come and knock on my door,"began the jingle on the popular ’70s ABC sitcom "Three’s Company." These days, opportunity knocks on the door of actor Richard Kline.

Kline, who played smarmy bachelor Larry Dallas on the quintessential sitcom, returns this week as director of KNBC weatherman Fritz Coleman’s new one-man show, "The Reception." Coleman’s humorous meditation on marriage follows his and Kline’s collaboration on Coleman’s first production, the autobiographical "It’s Me! Dad!"

Kline’s reception in Hollywood following the 1977-1984 run of "Three’s Company" was the typical typecasting tale. He was in demand for a roster of annoying-neighbor roles, including Jefferson on Fox’s long-running "Married With Children." He declined the role, sans regret.

"It was too sleazy," Kline says. "I know that sounds funny coming from the guy playing Larry. But it’s a question of degree."

Instead, Kline veered into a succession of dramatic guest shots: "Hill Street Blues," "St. Elsewhere," "L.A. Law." He recently returned to situation comedy on NBC’s canceled "Inside Schwartz," and appears on an upcoming episode of WB’s "The Gilmore Girls."

Kline caught the acting bug as a youth in summer camp. Descended from Hungarian-Russian stock, he grew up in New York, where his father sold Israel Bonds, and his mother worked for Jewish Welfare Board. While serving as a first lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles division during the VietnamWar, Kline recalls, "My mother would send over these Passover and Chanukah packages — matzah ball soup, gefilte fish."

Kline still maintains a Jewish connection. He belongs to Stephen S. Wise Temple. His daughter Colby, 18, is finishing up Milken High School. In fact, Kline will be the master of ceremonies at a Milken fundraiser next week.

And while he still enjoys acting, it isn’t everything to him. After "Three’s Company," he got into theater under the tutelage of an icon, Burt Reynolds, who later employed Kline’s directorial services on his own sitcom, "Evening Shade." Reynolds broke Kline into directing at his Jupiter, Fla., playhouse with projects such as "Social Security," a play by Andrew Bergman ("Honeymoon in Vegas").

Directing for the stage has become Kline’s prime passion. He has helmed numerous local productions, including Neil Simon’s "Rumors," and Noel Coward’s "Present Laughter," for which he won the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award.

So did his "Three’s Company" lech-about-town persona hurt him while dating?

"I didn’t really do any dating," Kline says, amused. "I was married throughout the run of the show. It’s a great question, but it didn’t even apply."

"The Reception" runs at the Victory Theatre, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank, from Jan. 19 to Feb. 24. Call (818) 841-5421 for tickets.

From Middle to the Top


Michael Glouberman felt the déjà vu the whole time he was reading the pilot of the Emmy-nominated Fox sitcom, "Malcolm in the Middle." "It was like someone had hidden a camera in my childhood home," says the 33-year-old "Malcolm" writer and co-executive producer.

OK, so Glouberman never tied up his younger brother and hung him on a hook. His mother didn’t punish him by making him run in circles in the living room. Dad didn’t blowtorch mom’s dress and extinguish it in the toilet. Mom didn’t shave dad’s hairy body in the kitchen during breakfast. "That would have been Linwood’s mom," Gouberman says of "Malcolm" creator Linwood Boomer.

But something felt familiar about the quirky sitcom family with the genius middle kid (Frankie Muniz), his three hooligan brothers, clueless dad and drill-sergeant mom. "Mostly it was the way the brothers fought and blamed each other for everything," says the Orthodox Jewish writer, who attended Emek Hebrew Academy with his two younger brothers.

Apparently viewers — and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences — agree. "Malcolm" became an instant hit after it debuted last year, rescuing Fox from a Nielsen black hole. Last month, it raked in eight Emmy Award nominations, two shy of HBO’s "Sex and the City" and four shy of the NBC comedy "Will & Grace."

While "The Sopranos" again stands out with 22 nominations and Holocaust fare predictably dominates the miniseries category (specifically ABC’s "Anne Frank" and TNT’s "Nuremberg"), "Malcolm" surprised observers by edging out NBC’s "Friends" to vie for best comedy.

The sitcom shares a thing or two with competitors "Sex" and "Grace," shows also based on the lives of their creators. "All the humor comes out of real kinds of relationships and interactions," Glouberman says of "Malcolm." "It’s not just ‘setup-joke, setup-joke.’ We write funny scenes. We don’t feel the need to shove jokes in every two sentences."

About a third of the show’s dozen writers are Jewish — including Glouberman, who believes he was destined early on to write for television. "My parents say I was glued to the tube from the time I was 2," confides the Montreal-born writer, who moved to Los Angeles at age 10. "I watched all the trash, from reruns of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ to ‘The Brady Bunch.’" At Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, Glouberman says he was the class clown who "got thrown out of class a lot for having a [smart] mouth." At home, he annoyed his then less-observant parents by pointing out all the food items that didn’t have a heksher.

After graduating from UCLA, Glouberman worked the reception desk at a film distribution company and descended on all the comedy scripts that arrived in the mail. By the age of 25, he was a staff writer on NBC’s "3rd Rock From the Sun," where he helped create the story line in which the fictional aliens decide they’re Jewish because their last name is Solomon. On "3rd Rock," he shared the writer’s room with Boomer, who eventually hired him to work on "Malcolm."

Glouberman has since written seven episodes, mining his own childhood for yuks. One show is based on the time his parents accidentally left his brother standing in the corner all night long. Another recalls how he discovered his dad sitting in a car at 2 a.m., smoking a stogie and wielding a lead pipe lying in wait to catch some teenage hoodlums. Malcolm’s dad is less forbidding; he falls asleep and awakens with cigar ash all over his face.

"Malcolm in the Middle" may be rife with gross-out humor and sight gags, but Glouberman insists it jibes with Torah values. He points out that Malcolm’s mom and dad actually love each other, unlike the bickering parents on Fox’s "Married… With Children." The TV family has dinner together. The kids don’t get away with anything. "The children honor their mother and father, but they don’t necessarily do that in classic terms," Glouberman chuckles.

The show is so hot that observers have wondered what will happen when 15-year-old Muniz and his co-stars complete adolescence. "For a while, they were bleaching the [fuzz] on our lips and having us drink hot lemon juice so our voices didn’t crack," says Justin Berfield, 15, who plays Malcolm’s second-oldest brother, Reese.

For Berfield, a Jew from the West Valley, the relationship between Malcolm and tough guy Reese rings true. "That’s how brothers are — they pick on each other," he says. "Every day, my older brother picks on me somehow."

Sometimes, he confesses, he wishes Malcolm’s family was his own. "Then I would be the older brother in the house, so I could do the beating up, instead of getting beaten up," he quips.

"The Emmy Awards" will air on CBS on Sept. 16.

‘That ’70s Show’ Star Enters Cyberspace


On Fox’s breakout comedy, “That ’70s Show,” Mila Kunis plays spoiled and sassy Jackie Burkhardt. But, in real life, she’s very much a child of the ’90s, down to her fascination with the Internet.

“I’m on AOL and Netscape every day,” the 15-year-old sitcom star told Up Front. “I’m addicted.”

Kunis recently participated in an online public-service campaign called “Turn On Your Light,” sponsored by Sparksmag.com, an electronic magazine for Jewish adolescents between the ages of 9 and 13. In the PSA, Kunis describes how human kindness can brighten up even the darkest moments: “Sometimes we benefit from the light of kindness, and sometimes we’re asked to shine it,” she tells her fans from cyberspace.

“I just I thought it would be fun to do,” said Kunis. “I thought that kids could relate to it.”

Sparksmag.com is the brainchild of Rabbi Mark H. Levine, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., with his wife and three children, ages 8, 11 and 15. Levine launched the http://www.sparksmag.com Web site address in late 1997 after he realized that newsstand magazines in the secular world were better executed than what was coming out of the Jewish sector. To save costs, Levine sought an online outlet for his cyber paper, itself an offshoot of Sparks Family of Media, Levine’s nonprofit organization dedicated to melding Jewish education with the entertainment world.

Says the 46-year-old Reconstructionist rabbi of his pet project: “It’s nondenominational. It tries to teach Jewish values. It is not a religious site per se…. For many kids…if you come on strong with the religious element, that’s really going to turn them off.”

Updated monthly, Sparksmag.com, according to Levine, helps children “see elements of the world around them through Jewish eyes.” It also appeals to the fact that, as Americans, “we live in two civilizations, not just the Jewish world.” In hitting up Sparksmag.com, Levine promises, Jewish kids will glean factoids related to their heritage and history.

Levine is now in the early stages of developing a radio show. He also hopes to enlist the talents of Marla Sokoloff (“The Practice”) to join Kunis on the “Turn On Your Life” spots.

As for Kunis, the sitcom star thinks that, as a young Jewish actress, it’s important to set a good example for her fans and Hollywood peers. Aside from more episodes of “That ’70s Show,” Kunis will grace the cover of YM magazine in September and, as her schedule permits, continue to participate in causes when and where she can.

“The more I could do to help people, the better,” said Kunis. “Every little thing counts.” — Michael Aushenker, Community Editor

Seinfeld Borrows a Talmud


‘Seinfeld’ Borrows

a Talmud

By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

The Jewish Community Library is used to catering to the literaryneeds of groups of school children, Yiddish scholars and day-schoolteachers. But seldom does it get a call for Talmudic texts to gracethe set of a sitcom. That changed a few weeks ago when librarydirector Abigail Yasgur received a request from the “Seinfeld” artdepartment to borrow a set of the sacred books. The 29-volume redSoncino Talmud filled the bill. The books, borrowed for a week, willappear in an episode scheduled to air next Thursday (Oct. 9) on NBC.

The story line centers around a bar mitzvah to which JerrySeinfeld’s friend Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is invited, apparentlyas a kind of token shiksa. The bar mitzvah boy has a crush onher and, since he is now a man, figures he can grab a kiss. After hekisses her, his dad kisses her, and she ends up seeking the rabbi’sadvice on what to do about her rampant “shiksa appeal.” The rabbi, inwhose office the books appear, assures her that there’s no suchthing.

In the past, the Anti-Defamation League has fielded complaintsabout other “Seinfeld” episodes that Jewish viewers felt traded onwell-worn stereotypes — including a very high-energy mohel ata bris. But ADL-Los Angeles Associate Director Jerry Shapirodidn’t seem too concerned about this one, pointing to episodes thatmake fun of other ethnic groups, the disabled and the elderly. “Ithink everyone is fair game on that show.”

If “Seinfeld” or other TV shows have further requests for propsfrom the library, they may have to wait awhile, since the libraryclosed its doors last week in preparation for the Jewish FederationCouncil’s move to a new location in November. So far, a new spot forthe library’s 30,000-piece collection of books, videos and softwarehasn’t been found. “This is a temporary inconvenience, I hope,”Yasgur said. “We’ll do whatever we can to maintain visibility in thepublic eye.” Maybe they should have the rabbi on “Seinfeld” make apitch for space.

Touch and Go


Touch and Go

TV writer and CBS executive Eugene Stein exposes a darkerside in his latest book of fiction

By Naomi Pfefferman, Senior Writer

Eugene Stein calls himself a Jewish writer, a gay writer, aprogressive writer.

He is also a successful TV writer and the vice president of comedydevelopment at CBS, where he develops sitcom scripts and pilots,including one for next season that will feature a cheerful nanny fromouter space.

But when the workday is done, Stein, 37, explores a darker part ofhimself, a biting, sardonic side that is featured in his second workof fiction, “Touch and Go” (Rob Weisbach Books, $22.). The oftenwickedly funny volume of short stories is about as far away fromsitcom as you can get.

The characters are mostly lost, lonely souls who wander bleak,absurd landscapes, from Belize to Fairfax Avenue. The stories arereminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut and Brett Easton Ellis, and, no, theywon’t play in Peoria.

A bedridden grandmother turns into a murderous giantess in “TheGrandma Golem.” A gay Jewish teen-ager is jealous of his straightbrother in “Mixed Signals.” Even the criminals are served freshcoffee at “Mom’s Diner.”

“What my protagonists have in common is that they are outsiders,”says Stein, who has something of an outsider’s perspective as a gayand Jewish man.

Yet the friendly, low-key executive seemed much the corporateinsider during a recent telephone interview, which he conducted fromhis busy CBS office. His hectic schedule goes around the clock: At 6a.m., he sits down to write his own fiction for two hours; he goesinto the office from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; at night, he often attends acomedy club or a sitcom taping.

Growing up near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, Stein, who says thathe was first drawn to sitcoms while watching “Get Smart” and “The OddCouple,” was imbued with “Jewish left-wing” politics and a love forliterature. His grandfather was a barber and a Yiddish journalist,his father was a union organizer, and his mother was a librarian.

The author draws upon his childhood memories in illustrating theBronx Jewish middle-class families that appear in “Touch and Go.” Healso touches, however unconsciously, upon the family trauma thatoccurred when he was 15 — the beginning of his older brother’sdownward spiral into mental illness.

Several characters in the short stories are tormented byrelationships with troubled brothers: In “Death in Belize,” a gay manjourneys far from home to avoid the pain of watching his siblingwaste away, but remains wracked by guilt.

In “Close Calls,” the pill-popping protagonist is pushed intobecoming an overachiever because his brother is not. “[He] can’t holddown a job, and I was always the one who succeeded, always the onewho set goals, always the one who had to do everything perfectly,”the character says, lamenting. “I take pills perfectly, too. I don’teven need water to swallow them.”

Stein dealt more directly with his brother’s illness in his firstnovel, “Straightjacket & Tie” (1994), in which the elder brotheris a schizophrenic who believes gays are taking over the world, andthe younger brother is struggling with the growing awareness that heis gay.

All this hasn’t stopped Stein himself from becoming anoverachiever. He graduated from Yale and from the Columbia GraduateSchool of Journalism and worked his way up the corporate TV ladderwhile still in his 20s. He has written episodes of “Cheers,” “MurphyBrown” and “The Golden Girls.”

Yet he isn’t above poking some vicious fun at his day job in”Touch and Go.” In “Close Calls,” the mortified protagonist has topitch a show to Fox about a black rabbi: “Go Down, Moses.” “They lovehigh-concept,” his boss assures him.

Once, Stein really did hear a pitch for a “‘Go Down, Moses,’ butwe passed on it,” he says, laughing.

Actually, the writer likes balancing the “intensely communal”world of television with the “intensely solitary” world of fiction.And he doesn’t see any conflict between calling himself a “gay-Jewishsocialist” and working in the capitalistic world of network TV.

“It is not unprogressive to give people pleasure,” says Stein, whois proud of his upcoming series, “George & Leo,” starring JuddHirsch and Bob Newhart as the mismatched machitonim (in-laws)of a mixed marriage. “I just hope I can work on shows that givepeople as much pleasure as ‘Taxi’ and ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’have given me.”

Go to The Jewish Journal’s 7 Days in theArts

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