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D'You Laugh?

Jerry Seinfeld made the American everyman Jewish.

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COMEDY 1990

How Jewish is Jerry Seinfeld?

On the one hand, very.

In addition to creating a genuinely and consistently funny sitcom (the first we’d had in a while), making himself and his co-stars really rich, and reminding straight men that you don’t need a gym or a wardrobe if you have a sense of humor, Seinfeld changed the way America saw New York, which is to say the way America saw Jews. For a while there, Seinfeld was ubiquitous—you can still watch it four times every weekday, and no, there aren’t any you haven’t seen. Jerry’s world was our world, his friends were our friends, he was Everyman. And that meant that Everyman was, by the way, Jewish.

He wasn’t the first to become famous for being a funny, Jewish, wiry-haired New Yorker. The most obvious antecedent is, of course, Woody Allen. But even while Allen’s shtick was about being Mr. New York (think of the opening of Manhattan: This “was his town, and it always would be”), it was also about being the consummate outsider, the misfit, the guy who morphs into a Hasid with sidelocks when his Wasp girlfriend takes him home to meet her Norman Rockwell family. He reminded us constantly, incessantly, that his outsider status and his Jewishness were inextricably linked. In the famous long shot of Allen and Tony Roberts walking up Central Park West in Annie Hall, Allen describes a question a colleague asked him: “ ‘ ’DJew eat?’ Jew? No, not ‘Did you eat?’ but ‘Jew eat?’ ‘Jew.’ ”

It doesn’t matter whether the endless instances of anti-Semitism Allen experiences in his films are examples of paranoia or of bigotry. The point is that you can never be in the presence of the Woody Allen persona and forget for more than a second that if you’re a Jew, you’re other, and if you’re a Gentile, we know you think so (and, frankly, right back at you).

Not so with Jerry. Who cares if you’re Jewish (Seinfeld) or Italian (Costanza) or whatever (Kramer? Elaine?)? Outsider, shmoutsider. In Seinfeld’s New York, we’re all one big wacky, funny, ethnically ambiguous tribe, in it together for mishaps and kicks. Sure, there was the one where Jerry’s dentist converted to Judaism so he could tell Jewish jokes, and the one where they all went to a Bris, and then the one where all sorts of Jewish men kept falling in love with Elaine for her “shiksa appeal.” But there’s no us, no them, at least not along religious lines.

So in a way, Seinfeld is less Jewish than his comic forefathers. Of course, this rests on the fragile assumption that Jews are outsiders. But then, the existence of the New York Jew as a central figure in the history of comedy rests on an equally unprovable (if right-feeling) assumption: that Jews are funny.


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