November 18, 2018

Getting It—Courtesy of The Daily Show

Comedy Central’s The Daily Show is, in many ways, a barometer of contemporary 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 the better part of a generation and 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 and what it does have also 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, even before Jon Stewart began hosting the show, The Daily Show aired a segment about the Orthodox Jewish tradition of kaparot – the pre-Yom Kippur ritual of grasping a live chicken moving it around one's head three times, symbolically transferring one's sins to the chicken. The Daily Show “news” item—broadcast a day or two before Yom Kippur—showed the ritual taking place in Jerusalem with a young Hasid swinging the chicken over his head and explaining the symbolism. The host (Craig Kilborn) then commented that, “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—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 and handled most media related complaints—both local and national. I ordered a video tape 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 that 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 fifteen or twenty years earlier there is no doubt that 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 in the mid-70s where ADL did exactly that.

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

In one episode, a young friend of Mary's, who is pursuing 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 has met 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 across the country — the community was up in arms both about the invocation of the deicide charge and the timing of the broadcast during Holy Week. The fear — expressed and implicit — was that reminding Americans of the deicide charge, especially at Easter time, could result in hate and violence being directed at Jews. I can’t recall many incidents in my career in the Jewish community which 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 was going to 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 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 this past week when ADL’s National Director treaded lightly when commenting on the tweets of Jon Stewart’s soon-to-be successor on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah. The script could have been very different.

When Noah's name was announced, typical for our times, the blogosphere rummaged through every tweet, videotape and reported remark that Noah had made in his life to ferret out something potentially offensive. Sure enough a couple of tweets surfaced relating to Jews that were, for the most part, neither particularly funny nor offensive, but could have easily generated condemnations and “outrage.”

Mercifully, ADL’s Abe Foxman offered a measured response to the Noah tweets and concluded that “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 earlier in the week in criticizing a Lena Dunham humor piece in The New Yorker) but the times have changed, humor has changed, the Jewish community's sense of belonging has matured and The Daily Show prevents anyone from taking themselves too seriously.