As far as minority representation on television is concerned, some seem to think that Jews have gotten off pretty lucky. TVTropes.org a collection of recurring tropes and archetypes in TV, Film and books posits that Jews are plentiful in TV and film because the influence Jews wield in Hollywood. A section on the site titled, “You Have To Have Jews” lists the examples of TV shows with predominant Jewish characters, it is however surprisingly short, and filled with almost entirely contemporary examples. On Wikipedia’s List Of Fictional Jewish Characters, the same characteristic is present, examples of Jewish TV characters from before the 1990’s are few, and from before the 1970’s non-existent. TVTropes has also compiled of tropes specific to Judaism including some predictable, and some less so. Predictably Jews are stereotyped as: cheap, argumentative, bad-ass (only if they’re Israeli), nerdy, complaining, sexy (to non-Jews) and sexually obsessed (with non-Jewish women.) More interestingly, the site points out the tendency for Jews on TV to be always be portrayed as Ashkenazi, never Sephardic as well as the tendency for Jewish characters to be paired with Irish characters. Then there’s “The Ambiguous Jews” characters often played by Jewish actors with Jewish characteristics or tendencies but who are either never identified as Jewish or only cryptically so, such as David Duchovny as Fox Mulder on The X Files. In attempt to quell any sensitivity, the site goes onto reason that there was once few career options for the ambitious, educated non-Christians, and that Jews happened to be among the few willing to take the risk on both film and TV when they were new mediums. As a result, the Jews practically built Hollywood, yet they are still so under and misrepresented. Spike Lee popularized the term, “The Magical Negro” while lecturing to a group of students at Washington State University, but it had been ostensibly identified as a trope some time before that. Most authors cite Sidney Portier’s role in The Defiant Ones as the first of this kind, but similar examples of African American characters span up to the present. Though the stereotypical and often demeaning trope is most pervasive with black fictional characters, in more recent years it’s seemingly spread to other minorities. The Magical Minority has 3 basic characteristics.
The examples of such characters are many but here’s a start. Notable Magical African American Characters include, Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Scatman Crothers in The Shining, Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty and Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile. These characters all share folksy wisdom, martyrdom and numerous magical abilities. But the Magical Character Trope has made its way across the rainbow, pervading minorities throughout movies and TV. Magical Native American characters such as Jose Chavez in Young Guns are given wisdom and magic with categorically spiritual implications while Magical Gay characters’ wisdom and power is a mixture of one part wisdom and one part camp. Magical Female characters have been represented in a number of markedly different ways but “A Magical Girlfreind” is a character brings a protagonist out of some kind of funk and helps them discover their real purpose in life. Recently, a more specific version of the Magical Girlfriend has emerged in the form of, “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a term cooked up by The Onion AV Club’s Nathan Rabin. Manic Pixie Dream Girl’s include Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethatown and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. According to Rabin, these characters exist, “solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Often Manic Pixie Dream Girls are characterized as Jews, either ambiguously or not, as is the case with Dharma Finkelstein in Dharma and Greg or Jenny Shecter in The L Word or even Barbara Streisand in What’s Up Doc.
Interestingly, Jews have yet to be formally included in the Magic Minority archetype, and that may be a mistake. Mandy Pantinkin compellingly plays the role of the role of Saul Berenson on Showtime’s Homeland. As the methodic and wise CIA boss over protagonist Carrie Mathison, it seems Patinkin has perhaps shed light on the current TV writers’ rendition of “A Magical Jew.” Carrie Mathison, the haphazardly brilliant, bi-polar CIA agent played the oh-so-waspy Claire Daines (who once played a Jewish Manic Pixie Dream Girl in Igby Goes Down) depends on Saul to bring her down to earth during her incremental manic binges. Carrie also looks to Saul to push her frowned upon hunches through CIA red tape, often to his detriment. She even goes as far as to offer herself to him sexually skirt the rules. However, in true Magic Minority fashion, Saul refuses her advances (seemingly he’s the only character capable of doing so, such is the magic of the Jew) and always sacrifices himself to her whims. When Mathison goes off her medication and has to be watched after 24/7, Patinkin steps in despite his marriage crumbling on the periphery. As Saul, Patinkin plays a magic Jew. He may be educated which seems to go against the usual Magic Minority archetype, but in a sense, this is his magic. Practical scholarly wisdom intended to bring down the more folksy, charming WASP protagonist is the magic or the Jew.
If the theory is that magical Jews are written just as other magical minority characters only with wisdom pertaining specifically to practicality and book smarts, then another notable Magical Jew in recent TV history would be The West Wing’s Toby Ziegler. Though Ziegler notably went a city school rather than an Ivy like the rest of the Bartlet White House staff, Ziegler remains the quiet, even-keel wise man of Sorkin’s West Wing, always ready with a raspy-voiced aphorism to put Martin Sheen’s world into perspective. Ziegler, the son of an ex-Jewish gangster who is supposedly based on Clinton advisor Patrick Cohen, is always willing to let his personal life fall apart (he divorces early in the show) in order to aid President Bartlett. Zeilger’s magical abilities include his acerbic wit, keen eye and the ability to “fix” social security after a sleepless night. The identifying characteristic of the Magical Jew is that he’s an advisor of sorts to the protagonist, always able to pull practical wisdom out of his yarmulkah in order to save the day.
In the end, there have been Magical Jews all along; only a more uniform version has begun to take shape on TV in recent years. The Magical Jew embodies all the stereotypical characteristics TV writers have been attributing to Jews for decades: they’re nerdy and argumentative, they’re sometimes irresistible, sometimes full of lust, and like all other minority characters, they’re self-sacrificing for the good of the protagonist, and until Jewish characters are given room to exist as full fledged three-dimensional characters, or even (gasp) as the protagonists themselves, we’ll just have to settle for borderline magical intellect as a sort of door prize instead.
People have been talking about the new TV renaissance for long enough now that it’s probably time to prepare for the beginning of the end. But it doesn’t have to be so, and as it turns out, you might have some say in the matter.
We’re finding ourselves at a point where a lot is changing in the television landscape. For instance, you can’t have your ear to the ground without getting an earful about what Netflix is doing, how they’re crafting genetically engineered shows to perfectly enamor the modern consumer and putting knockout pills in our Wonderbread. I think it’s still fair to say that TV drama is still in a good place. High quality new dramas continue to come out each season and they go on live full and healthy lives.
But I ask you: What is going on with comedy?
It was about a decade ago when two important things happened in TV comedy. Family Guy was taken off air, only to be put back on air when executives realized the monetary potential of alternative media consumption methods and the ways they applied to the show. The same thing happened with The Office only differently. DVD’s saved Family Guy. iTunes saved The Office.
Few caught the The Office’s first season. The second season seemed doomed until word got around via video stores and message boards, and eventually, water coolers that there was something special in the show that most discerning viewers assumed to be cheap knock off of the British treasure. The Office had one foot in the grave when suddenly, iTunes (then a very new resource for TV) listed the show as “Most Downloaded” day after day. There were days when different episodes of The Office Season 2 made up the entirety of iTunes 10 Most Downloaded list. Shoot forward two years and Dunder Mifflin is a household name.
The show that was once regarded as “indie” or “edgy” gained Cosby-caliber acceptance yet it remained one of the most venerated comedies on TV. Not far on its heels was 30 Rock, another show that found its saving grace in alternative viewing methods. Now, here we are, 30 Rock has just ended its run. The Office has one more episode left to air. Aside from The Big Bang Theory, a show that never fails to deliver laughs, but also has nary a challenging moment (Ed. Note: this comment might not be totally fair. The moments in this past season where they delve into the asexuality of Sheldon Cooper have actually been pretty interesting,) where is the great comedy on TV? The answer - It’s cancelled.
Happy Endings may be the one show the networks have offered up in the past few years with the potential to reach 30 Rock/Office heights. The show seemed to be getting its due. NY Magazine featured the series as a success story in an issue last year, the players were making appearances all across the entertainment spectrum and the show was on the tip of many a tongue. Yet, there’s a good chance the show is now cancelled. So, what happened? We have a network series that’s seemingly followed the success of The Office and 30 Rock in every way, and yet it’s circling the drain. Let’s remember, neither The Office nor 30 Rock nor Parks and Recreation found success in their first season. The Office didn’t achieve mainstream acceptance until the 3rd season. Same goes for 30 Rock. Parks and Recreation wasn’t even very good until the very last episode of the first season and nobody realized it until well into the second season. Happy Endings is only the most recent and perhaps best of the great comedies of late that have met the fate of the impatient network axe.
Networks may as well get used to the new way. A successful comedy has a good first season. The first few of the taste makers get their hands on it. They start to recommend it. By the time the second season is out on DVD, it gets a buzz and it’s not until the 3rd season is almost finished airing that anyone starts to get a moist beak.
Best Friends Forever was a series that a featured real life best friends and comic Lennon Parham and Jessica St Clair. The Show featured 30 Rock-style rat-tat-tat humor with the off beat delivery of shows like Portlandia, complete with hysterical nod’s to the show’s director Fred Savage. The series aired last year, and was cancelled after only four episodes.
Ben and Kate was a single camera comedy about a brother and sister who helped raise one-another. Grown up and living together, the two raise a child of their own (not their own. What a show that would be )
The show starred Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don) and Nat Faxon and was given a mere two seasons before it got the axe. The show achieved a rare mixture of off-beat comedy and heart. Watching the series, it seemed a great example of what a family comedy should look like the modern era.
So far we’ve covered shows on Fox, ABC, and NBC. What about cable? Presumably shows on cable should get a bit more time to breathe and find their groove.
Party Down fans will be quick to tell you that it’s not so. Party Down has now begun to receive legendary status a few years after its cancellation and the fandom surrounding it is such that a movie is supposedly in the works, but once again we have a series that was cancelled after only two seasons, only this one was on Starz. While Starz has delivered some truly interesting and edgy shows of the past couple of years, they seem unwilling to let any of them live full lives. Spartacus recently ended it’s run after only three seasons despite scattered fervor over the show. Boss was being hailed as the next Sopranos, yet it was cancelled after two seasons.
Where every other TV network has yet to learn the lessons of The Office and Family Guy, there is one network seems to have read the writing on the wall. Lucky Louie may have been cancelled by HBO, nonetheless FX gave Louis CK a shot at his own show. The nature of the deal was unprecedented, CK traded his budget for complete and utter control of his show’s content. According to CK, FX doesn’t even know what an episode of Louie is about until it airs. FX have already seen the fruits of their foresight with shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Sons of Anarchy, shows that generate income outside of the usual channels and achieve cult-like followings.
What other networks have yet to learn is: in the internet age, the term “cult-like” doesn’t really apply. Cult-like is what you hope for. It’s what you need to survive.
With all the great cancelled comedies of the past couple of years, is the renaissance over as far as comedy is concerned? Are there are any good comedies left on TV?
There are a few, Bob’s Burgers continues to walk the line between edgy and accessible. It’s also perfectly cast. In an interview, Mike Judge once stressed the importance of finding the right voices for cartoon characters. In that sense, Bob’s Burgers has been tremendously successful (much due to Kristen Schaal.) Those who aren’t watching are missing out. Kroll Show on Comedy Central had a side-splitting first season and will be a major success if it continues in the same direction. The Jeselnik Offensive and Inside Amy Schumer have been so far, so good. Impractical Jokers on TruTV is an improv/reality show that provides some of the most dependable laughs on television right now.
But, there is one comedy that hits the mark, that gives us hope that the comedy renaissance is not over. To be fair, Louie could qualify here, except there’s an argument to be made that the show is something other than a comedy (don’t you dare even think dramedy) almost like Shameless (another totally unappreciated jewel) the show hits a strange and uncharted spot on the spectrum, for which there is currently no word. The League is probably the best, and most steady on its feet, top notch comedy on TV a show that is finally reaching the “wet beak” stage of its existence. There is one show currently on TV, a comedy with a touch of heart that has been utterly surprising and unique in its execution.
Legit is another series about the life of a comedian staring Aussie comic Jim Jeffries. The show’s setup features the interesting twist of its protagonist helping to care for his best friend’s brother who suffers from muscular dystrophy. The show has those moments that are funny solely because of the situation, but there are also laughs that come completely out of left field, a function of the off beat and life-like performances of the show’s ensemble.
With 30 Rock and The Office gone, Legit is a definite contender for the Best Comedy on TV title. Without a doubt it’s The Best Comedy that No One is Watching. Will it become another unfortunate example of a show that was never allowed to spread it’s wings? Luckily, Legit is on FX, which has shown itself to be one of few networks with patience, but Legit, despite it’s quality has yet to achieve any kind of viewership, and therefore it will make for an interesting case study. If you’re not watching Legit, it’s time. It’s also time to start voicing your love for the shows you do enjoy. If a couple thousand Facebook ‘likes’ would have saved Happy Endings, it would have been a small price to pay.
I’ve had a slew of Freelance Life posts go up since my last entry, as well as a recent interview. Here’s my week in writing
The Freelance Life: Finally Getting a Kindle After Years of Resistance
From day 1, I’ve resisted e-readers and wanted to believe that they would not catch on. Having finally acquired one, I weight the pro’s and cons of a digital reading world.
The Freelance Life: 3 Books Lists From Influential Book Lovers
Last year’s books lists are well compiled at Largehearted Boy, but I pushed 2 influential NYC booksters into giving me the exclusive on their personal best books lists. Then, since I never listed my favorite books of the year, I added my own list for good measure.
The Freelance Life: How To Cold-Contact Editors
One of the biggest and toughest questions for an up and comer: how do i reach out to people in power who have no reason to care, and get them to consider me? I don’t purport to have cold hard answers, but here’s some tips to help you on your way to consideration.
I’d like to wholeheartedly endorse the new novel, Fight Song and the work of Joshua Mohr in general. Mohr’s fiction is like if Charles Bukowski had the structural discipline of a Don DeLillio. His work is primal, trenchant and hard hitting. Yet, Fight Song is totally outside the realm of the kind of work he’s become known for: it’s surreal, it’s fun (at times even silly) and it’s quite ethereal compared to his earlier stuff.
I also recently interviewed Kyle Kinane for Punknews, click here. Interviews are one of my favorite parts of the the freelance writing life, but this was my first interview with a comic. It can be hard to break through the inherent desire that all these people have to make you laugh. The thing is, lots of jokes, particularly banter jokes, aren’t going to be funny in print. Luckily, Kinane wasn’t particularly guarded.
Kinane and I talked a lot about DIY culture and punk reminiscence. If you’ve not yet seen it, Kinane’s most recent Comedy Central special Whiskey Icarus is one of the best stand up specials you’ll see this year.
Last month I read at The Soundtrack Series and yesterday the story I read was posted on the SS website and released as a podcast, I’m really happy with how it went. My story is about the song Knowledge, as well my experiences with fraud, sweatpants and my grandfather the Holocaust survivor when i was 13.
I’ve also written a bit about the band, here’s my interview with Jesse Michaels who sang in Op Ivy, and now sings in Classics Of Love, his father was also an amazing and very influential author.
Here’s a review I wrote of the oral history on the East Bay Punk scene which birthed the band.
GIMME SOMETHING BETTER by Jon Reiss
(Orig at Jewcy.com)
I used to be so obsessed with Operation Ivy that I would search far and wide for bootleg audio and video recordings of their live shows. I listened to those recordings so much, so closely until I not only knew every word to every song, but I knew every word of banter that took place between songs. I listened close, hearing them make fun Green Day, and teasing a band called Isocracy, always keeping it light and fun, always joking. I eventually became hell-bent on understanding what they were talking about and who the other bands that they mentioned were, bands like, Crimpshrine and Econochrist, bands that I would go on to love.
Eventually I became obsessed with the whole East Bay/Berkeley punk scene and all the bands involved. I became pen pals with Larry Livermore, the man who started Lookout Records and I met Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day. It was my freshman year of high school and I took my girlfriend to a huge Green Day concert for her birthday. After the show, a huge crowd of people waited outside the venue trying to get Tre Cool and Mike Drint to sign autographs, this was post Dookie, after all. I walked past the mob and snuck into the venue. Once inside, a guy with a high voice shouted to me, “hey, nice backpatch.” I was wearing an Econochrist back patch, one of the bands I learned about from the Opeartion Ivy bootlegs. Billie Joe called me over and shared his beer, as we chatted for a good while about the East Bay punk scene, Gilman St., all the places that I’d never been to but idealized so much. I’d come to imagine the San Fransisco/Berkeley punk scene as a kind of utopia for punk kids who just wanted to be part of something real and I ate up every moment of listening to him talk about it. Then, Billie Joe gave me a bit of a speech, telling me that any place could be an amazing scene like Berkeley and it was up to me to kick it off. That night I went home and put on an Op Ivy bootleg video, imitating Jessie’s on-stage moves, singing “Sound System,” quietly enough not to wake my parents.
Elvis Costello once said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” There is something about Operation Ivy that is completely indescribable, absolutely beyond words. Theirs was one of the first punk records I ever bought. Something about the spy logo on the cover of the album is sexy and alluring and the record from the very first note to the end of the twenty-seventh track is completely undeniable.
When I saw Gimme Something Better (Penguin), on the bookshelf, I was thrilled. It was a dream come true, an oral history of the San Fransisco punk rock scene. It was the closest I would ever have to being able to understand what it was like to actually be there.
The Oral History style is one that worked splendidly for the book Please Kill Me. For those who aren’t familiar, the style is chopped up interviews that are put in a certain order to tell a story. Gimme Something Better, contains pieces of interviews with people like: Jessie Michaels, Jello Biafra, Jeff Ott From Fifteen and Crimpshrine, Fat Mike of NOFX, Tim Armstrong of Rancid, Larry Livermore, Aaron Cometbus of Crimpshrine and “Cometbus,” Miranda July, photographer Murray Bowles and a bunch of people whose names were unfamiliar to me, including a Sheriff.
The book begins with a focus on a few major bands at the very beginning of Punk’s emergence, bands like Crime, The Avengers, the Dill’s, The Nuns and Negative Trend. Similar to the early bands in Please Kill Me, these bands were mostly people coming out of the Roxy Music, David Bowie glam scene and getting a bit rougher and more straight forward with their music and style. The kind of apathetic, “no future” outlook that permeates this part of the book is a bit irritating. There is also a fair amount of bickering between interviewee’s about who sucks, and who doesn’t.
What makes the early chapters of Gimme Something Better interesting are the cultural and historical implications of 1970′s San Fransisco. The book begins right around the time that Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk are murdered, and during the riots that came about as a result of the light sentence passed down to the man responsible, Dan White. Reading the book, I get a sense that free thought is really an indispensable part of the San Fransisco cultural climate in a way that a non-San Fransiscan, couldn’t truly understand.
As the book moves on, the focus shifts to bands that that interest me more, bands like the Dead Kennedy’s and DRI, faster and harder bands. There’s also a heavy focus on the different venues that came about, from clubs like On Broadway to makeshift party/living areas like The Vats, up to Gilman St., the utopian DIY punk space. “Maximum Rock n Roll” becomes an important part of the story, first as a radio show and then as the zine that it is today, perhaps the most prominent of Punk Rock zines. In the middle of the book, the irritating parts start to mount, people bickering about who was cool and who wasn’t and endless anecdotes of violence at punk shows. There is a part of the punk ideal, the glue-sniffing, head-kicking, pants-shitting part, which never sat too well with me. Sure, it helps to fuel the unadulterated rebellion and it attracts the kids, but who cares that people used to almost kill each other at Black Flag shows? Some people in the book recount the violence of the scene affectionately and others simply acknowledge it, but it gets tired. It’s similar to the drugs, an unavoidable, but ultimately expendable and boring part of the equation.
Finally I came to the final quarter of the book where the seeds of the late Berkeley punk scene are sewn. Gilman is built, Isocracy forms, Crimpshrine forms and finally Operation Ivy comes up. These chapters for me are heaven, everything I’d hoped for, people trying to describe the amazing force that came from Op Ivy’s music, the ineffable feeling of being part of something that felt so important. It was thrilling to read. I hoovered up every word of the last chunk of this book.
It inspired me to break out the old bootlegs. “Lint Rides Again,” is a recording of Operation Ivy’s last show. At the end of which, the band plays the song, “Unity.” The entire crowd at Gilman St. sings along to every word of the song. As it ends, the final chorus plays out but the crowd won’t let it end. The band stops playing and the crowd continues to sing, “Unity, as one stand together. Unity, evolution’s gonna come,” rushing the stage, singing as one. Someone picks up a stick and keeps a beat on the snare drum, as they sing on, unable to let go of this moment, so important and pure. Watching, it feels like something, something that even in adulthood I am always looking for, something better.