August 18, 2019

Alex Borstein and Her ‘Maisel’ Character: ‘We’re Both Like Little Bulldogs’

Actress Alex Borstein plays Susie Myerson, a wannabe stand-up comedy manager on Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the most Jewish new show on TV. The gruff Susie’s sole client is Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a 1950s upper-middle-class Jewish housewife who’s obsessed with planning the perfect Yom Kippur break-the-fast meal until her husband, a failed stand-up comic, dumps her. On a drunken rampage, Midge then takes the stage at her hubby’s comedy club, riffs on their breakup, exposes her breasts and catches Susie’s eye with her ribald act.

The Journal caught up with the 46-year-old Borstein — previously known for her work on TV’s “Family Guy” and “Getting On” — by telephone from her home in Barcelona, Spain.

Jewish Journal: You attended the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge. But your parents have very different Jewish backgrounds.

Alex Borstein: My father was raised Orthodox in Atlanta, Ga., and my mother is a child survivor of the Holocaust. She was born in Budapest at the time when they were lining Jews up and shooting them into pits. My grandmother gave my mother in her bassinet to a cousin, who was around 8 or 9, and the girl just walked out of line and kept walking. There were stories of holes in their shoes and lice in their hair, but they got out alive.

None of us would survive now, because we’re all such [wusses]. We’d be shot because my 9-year-old boy would be like, ‘Does anyone have an iPad?’ ”

JJ: You started doing stand-up at 16 in a small club in the Valley, with your parents accompanying you because you were underage. Did your family’s Holocaust background have anything to do with your budding sense of humor?

AB: It’s that old adage of Jews being survivors; you’ve just got to laugh or else you’re going to cry. But we also had these medical dramas going on because my brother is a hemophiliac. It was just kind of wanting to provide comic relief in the emergency room since everyone was so uptight and scared.

“It’s that old adage of Jews being survivors; you’ve just got to laugh or else you’re going to cry.”

JJ: Does Susie remind you of anyone in your own family?

AB: My grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, was very funny, very dark and bitchy. My mother went back to school later in life to get her MSW or MFT psychotherapy degree, one of those f—— series of letters with a bunch of “m’s” in it. They were tough broads who kept reinventing themselves, and there’s a piece of Susie in there.

JJ: Why were you drawn to your character?

AB: She’s ballsy and she’s got a foul mouth but she’s really vulnerable. She has qualities that are considered masculine: She’s ambitious, assertive and not afraid to say “no.” But it’s not that she feels like she was born in the wrong gender … We’re both like little bulldogs and unapologetic in some ways.

JJ: What does Susie think when Midge shows her breasts onstage?

AB: She’s shocked but she also sees it symbolically — that this woman is really willing to expose herself emotionally. Midge tells the truth: She admits that her husband left her, talks about sex and enjoying sex. And Susie admires that kind of raw honesty.

JJ: Why did you move to Barcelona, of all places? After all, the Jews were expelled from Spain back in 1492 and there are only 6,000 Jews in the country today.

AB: Well, some time has passed. (Laughs.) My show “Getting On” was canceled two years ago and it just broke my heart. So I thought I was done with on-camera TV, and I just felt that I would go out gracefully. I always wanted to live abroad so I thought, the time to do it is now. We have a small but lovely Jewish community. My kids and I attend the Atid Reform temple here. And I haven’t encountered any anti-Semitism. Then again, I’m not running around wearing a yarmulke or dancing with a Torah outside.

JJ: Your character on “Mrs. Maisel” is Jewish, even though we don’t know much about her background except that it is quite different from Midge’s. Were the Tribal aspects of the show a draw for you?

AB: They feel very comfortable, like coming home and putting on a pair of sweats. I’ve been on so many shows where they’re like, “It’s time for the Christmas episode.” I have no problem with that, but it’s really nice when you see your own reflection in something on TV.

Seth MacFarlane: Not an anti-Semite

No one sends out press releases to announce that something is not anti-semitic. 

That’s why this morning’s media is full of reports that host Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar performance last night was just shy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s U.N. speech. 

The Anti-Defamation League was first out of the gate, calling MacFarlane, “offensive and not remotely funny” — which in and of itself is funny, the idea that the ADL is not just the arbiter of anti-semitism, but of humor.

Then came a press release from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, seeing the ADL’s umbrage and raising it to world-historical levels.

“It is unfortunate that at a time when anti-Semitism is so prevalent throughout the world,” said the Center, “that Seth MacFarlane used the pulpit of the Oscars, before an audience of more than a billion people to contribute to the myth that Jews own Hollywood.”

[ANOTHER TAKE: Oscars win awards for sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and racism]

I found these reactions more annoying than MacFarlane’s comments, which varied from the very funny to the remotely funny, but never came close to anti-semitism. 

Seth MacFarlane was joking.  He was poking fun.   He was mocking the widespread understanding that Jews are disproportionately represented in the entertainment business.  This fact comes as a shock to exactly no one, and the idea that joking about it “feeds” anti-semitism misunderstands both the nature of humor and of anti-semitism.

One thing humor does well, even better than press releases, is difuse prejudice.  It does that through mockery, exaggeration and sometimes by just bringing prejudice to light.  That explains everything from Charlie Chaplain in “The Great Dictator” to Sascha Barron Cohen’s character of Borat,  who got hundreds of Arizonans at a rodeo to sing the “famous” Kazhakstan folksong, “Throw the Jew Down the Well.”   Cohen wasn’t out to whip up Jew-hatred, he was out to expose human — hmm, what’s the word? — stupidity.

MacFarlane doesn’t really believe you have to change your name or give to Israel to make it in Hollywood, he was riffing on the simplistic belief that that’s all it takes.

Billy Crystal could make a dozen Jewish references at the Oscars and no one would do anything but kvell. Granted, MacFarlane’s humor is more in-your-face — but it goes nowhere that Crystal, or Adam Sandler in his “Chanuka Song,” or Lenny Bruce in his Jewish/Gentile rift, or a hundred other comedians, haven’t gone before.

So why the outrage?  Maybe because against the backdrop of increasing anti-semitism in Europe and elsewhere, Jews are extra sensitive.  Maybe because an older generation of Jews is unfamiliar with a newer brand of Family Guy/South Park humor.  Even Amy Davidson, writing on the New Yorker blog, took offense — this from a magazine whose editor David Remnick once wrote a much-deserved, flattering profile of Howard Stern.  Stern's brand of satire paved the way for comedians like MacFarlane.   

Or maybe the outrage arises because Jews are still uncomfortable with the notion of being powerful.   But here's the fact: Jews are disproportionately represented in Hollywood.   The Jewish state has over 200 nuclear weapons and a hegemony of power in the Middle East. Jews are also disproportionately represented in government, finance, law, publishing and medicine.   Only Jews can read these factual statements and think, Oy!  I often wonder if our instinct to cringe and keep quiet, to not publicly own our power, as a self-help guru might put it, is also a way of avoiding having to think about what the responsibilities of that power are, what our true potential is, and what it means to be both Jewish and powerful.  

The ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center not only miss the humor, they are missing the opportunity.  MacFarlane’s jokes, like all good comedy can get people thinking, can open a conversation:  Why are Jews so prevalent in Hollywood?  How does their Jewish identity inform their creative choices?   How would Hollywood look if it were composed, disproportionately, of WASPs, or Thais, or anti-semites?

Hollywood is one of the Jews' greatest gifts to the world — why else would 2 billion people tune in to see “Lincoln” get robbed of Best Picture?   There is nothing to hide, and plenty to joke about.

Rob Eshman is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Actress Mila Kunis opens up about Jewish history

Actress Mila Kunis said she had to hide her Jewishness as a youngster in Ukraine and was miserable during her early years in the United States.

In an interview published in Britain’s The Sun on Saturday, Kunis said that most of her family was killed in the Holocaust and that she had to hide that she was Jewish in Ukraine out of fear of persecution.

“My parents raised me to know I was Jewish. You know who you are inside,” said Kunis, who starred in the film “Black Swan” and the TV sitcom “That ‘70s Show.”

Kunis, 28, said she saw anti-Semitic graffiti in her school in Chernivtsi, a city in southwest Ukraine.

Arriving in the United States at age 7, she said she was miserable in part because she did not know English.

“I cried every day. I didn’t understand the culture. I didn’t understand the people,” Kunis said.

Kunis began acting classes at 9 and two years later had a role on the soap opera “Days of Our Lives.” She won the role on “That ‘70s Show” at the age of 14, though applicants were told they had to be 18. She also has appeared in the movies “Friends With Benefits,” “Date Night” and “The Book of Eli,” among others.

Kunis told the Sun that she is happier in the U.S., where she is free to express herself.

“I’m pretty Jewish, I’ve got to say. I go ‘Oy’ and people are like, ‘Oh, you’re very Jewish,’ the actress said.

“When I’m in New York, I become super-Jew. When I’m in L.A. I’m like a California surfer girl.”