How ‘The Daily Show’ helped Jews grow up

Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” is, in many ways, a barometer of American society and its evolution.
April 9, 2015

Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” is, in many ways, a barometer of American society and its evolution.

Jon Stewart, host of the show since 1999, has been a significant source of “news” for millennials and others for nearly a generation, as well as a reflection of the zeitgeist. The show has become a mandatory stop for authors pushing books, no matter the author’s political persuasion (from Donald Rumsfeld to Dennis Kucinich), and a unique (sometimes controversial) vantage point from which to view current events. Reviewing broadcasts for the past two decades is a pretty good summary of trends, issues and personalities that have shaped America over that period.

Responses to the show also have been a marker, at least for this observer, of trends in how American Jews view themselves in the broader American polity.

In the mid-1990s, before Stewart began, “The Daily Show” aired a segment about the Orthodox Jewish tradition of kaparot — the pre-Yom Kippur ritual of grasping a live chicken and moving it around one’s head three times, symbolically transferring one’s sins to the chicken. The “news” item — broadcast a day or two before Yom Kippur — showed the ritual taking place in Jerusalem with a young Chasid swinging the chicken over his head and explaining the symbolism. The host (Craig Kilborn) then commented, “Jews used to swing young Christians, instead of chickens, before they got too expensive.”

There were isolated complaints about the humor, a few irate callers — but no groundswell, no wave of indignation, no fear that anti-Semitism might result from the oddly timed humor.

At the time, I was with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and handled most media-related complaints — both local and national. I ordered a videotape of the show, which I had never seen, and watched the broadcast. It was transparently clear that the nature of the show was to poke fun at everyone — politicians, celebrities, newsmakers, religious and ethnic groups, etc. No one was spared the writers’ barbs.

I decided not to complain to Comedy Central about the segment. It may not have been the most sophisticated humor ever written, but I was fairly certain that no one who wasn’t already so disposed was going to suddenly believe in the “blood libel” (i.e. that Jews need the blood of young Christians for ritual purposes) after watching the segment. ADL was not in the reviewing business, so whether it was high, low or mediocre humor was not an issue it had to deal with; Anti-Semitism was a salient issue, and the segment didn’t qualify.

I later gave several talks at ADL meetings where I pointed out that, had the segment aired 15 or 20 years earlier, there is no doubt ADL would have complained and invoked the imagery of an anti-Semitic backlash that might ensue from invoking the blood libel.

In fact, I lived through an earlier experience where ADL did exactly that.

In the 1970s, a major Hollywood production company produced a hit television comedy series, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” (the actress, Louise Lasser, made the cover of Newsweek). The program was a lighthearted look at a beleaguered heroine and her daily travails in the fictional Ohio town of Fernwood (named after the street in Hollywood where the show was taped).

In one episode, a young friend of Mary, who pursues a career in entertainment, gets a big break and is flown to Hollywood to appear on “The Dinah Shore Show.” While being interviewed, the young woman expresses surprise that her manager, her press agent and others whom she meets in the course of her trip (all named Goldberg, Cohen or Shapiro) are so nice: “It’s hard to believe that they’s [sic] the people who crucified our Lord.” This particular segment was broadcast nationally on, of all days, Good Friday.

The following Monday, the calls came in to ADL fast and furious from across the country — the community was up in arms both about the invocation of the deicide charge and the timing of the broadcast. The fear — expressed and implicit — was that reminding Americans of the deicide charge, especially at Easter time, could result in hate and violence directed at Jews. I can’t recall many incidents in my career in the Jewish community that provoked such a tidal wave of phone calls.

We met with the producers of the show following a screening of the episode (which was, incidentally, hilarious), and voiced our concerns (“an anti-Semitic backlash during Easter,” etc.). The producers were polite and listened but didn’t buy it — they didn’t think watching a TV show would generate a wave (or even a single incident) of bigotry. They were right.

By the mid-’90s, America had changed enough so that there was no groundswell of outrage when “The Daily Show” broadcast its kaparot segment, and even ADL didn’t think it was appropriate to register a complaint with the producers.

In some respects, the Jewish community had come of age. It had achieved sufficient security in America to be able to absorb the kind of humor that was being dished out to other groups — majority and minority. Jews didn’t need special protection; pogroms weren’t afoot. The local ADL leadership agreed, an attitude that would have been unthinkable two decades earlier.

I was reminded of these two incidents when ADL’s national director, Abe Foxman, trod lightly when commenting on the tweets of Stewart’s soon-to-be successor, Trevor Noah.

Typical of our times, the blogosphere rummaged through every tweet, videotape and reported remark that Noah had made in his life to try to find something potentially offensive. Sure enough, a couple of tweets surfaced relating to Jews that were, for the most part, not particularly funny but could have generated condemnations and “outrage,” notwithstanding the fact that they were not anti-Semitic.

Mercifully, Foxman acknowledged the tweets and concluded, “… Comedians often use humor to poke fun at stereotypes and to push the envelope of political correctness, and it seems that many if not most of the tweets sent by Trevor Noah over the years fall into those categories.” Exactly! Great humor? No. Testing limits? Yes. Worthy of outrage? Absolutely not.

The reflexive response would have been to criticize Noah for insensitive humor (as Foxman did recently regarding a Lena Dunham humor piece in The New Yorker), but times have changed, humor has changed, and “The Daily Show” prevents anyone from taking themselves too seriously.

David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based human-relations organization headed by former L.A. Mayor Richard J. Riordan.

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