Part of growing up in Pikesville means hearing stories of the good old days when TV was Jewish. Even at 8, I realized this was nostalgia for an era that never existed. I’m pretty sure there were more Jews on television when I was a kid, both actors and characters, than ever before, but a kid who got yelled at half the days of his childhood for refusing to speak to his family in Yiddish didn’t relate to them.
Fifty years ago, mass culture was Jewish, and even the goyim seemed Jewish. Goyisher icons like Buddy Sorel were revealed to be Jewish, and the ultimate goyisher bigot, Archie Bunker, was based on Norman Lear’s Jewish father. The dialogue was spoken by Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Ted Danson, Carol O’Connor and William Christopher, but what they said had that blitz-paced urban patois halfway between a shout and a shrug.
We seem to be the only culture who never minded cultural appropriation. Hell, we loved it, but after Seinfeld ended, even the Jews seemed like goyim. Entertainment sucked dry what we had to offer and moved on to other hosts, leaving us behind with the shrug we taught them to use. As Jews in Pikesville grow older, their only contact with the outside world is what they see on TV, and they all wonder where the Jews went. Soon they will be gone too, and poor Jackie Mason will outlive his audience, kept alive by a mixture of hatred and unicorn blood.
Jackie’s an emissary from 1964, the year Ed Sullivan banned him from television and Baby Boomers took over a culture they won’t relinquish. Jackie was too angry and Jewish for network TV, even then, and for 20 years, his most reliable gig has been Fox News. But Don Rickles was an emissary from 1962, flourishing while Mason floundered, because he reminded viewers of Camelot’s proud reign. While Frank Sinatra sent goons to beat Jackie up, he gave Don entrance into every penthouse in America where he’d be Camelot’s court jester, saying aloud what everyone thinks to themselves.
The Counterculture insisted on Civil Rights and tolerance, but Rickles was mainstream culture’s rageful id personified in a Jew. Rickles prided himself on being an equal opportunity offender, and he went after Jews with at least as much relish as everybody else. If we find his routines offensive today, the problem is us, not him. Any sentiment people refuse to laugh at begs to be mocked, and how harmless Rickles seems next to George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock and Louis CK. Hell, how tame his routines seem next to Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl.
Rickles was pure rage, but he never burrowed into your brain and unsettled any secure assumption you have. His appeal was to say aloud what people already believed. He was the angriest comedian ever, his popularity a sure sign of a culture about to eat itself alive, but he was still a Borschtbelt song and dance man whose prime directive was to delight.
Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, George Burns, Jack Benny, Ernie Kovacs, Henny Youngman, Larry Gelbart … these are all names whose allure dimmed nearly to pitch. Of all the Jewish comedic giants of the pre-boomer era, there’s only Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Neil Simon left. Only Brooks’s star gets brighter with age. Today, these stars are just autographed pictures at Sardi’s. Everything their comedy was — the willingness to try anything, the manic desire to entertain, the sense that nothing mattered but pleasing the audience — are almost completely gone from modern comedy. Most today would not only find them unfunny, they’d be unaware that people once found them funny.
The difference in age between Billy Crystal and Jon Stewart is only 14 years. And yet those 14 years bespeak a yawning gulf in Jewish life Crystal looks backward with nostalgia to an era when Jews dictated what was funny. Stewart looks forward to a potential era when Jews are an equal voice among many, our place among nations secure. The Billy Crystals of America pine for a world that will never be again, and perhaps never was. The Jon Stewarts of the world realize how little is gained by turning back the clock. Jewish comedy wouldn’t even mean anything today. Without the Yiddish, the Biblical learning, the panic that America won’t accept us, there’s no source to draw from. Jews of talent have long since accrued the rewards of goyisher life, and Jews who choose to live only among Jews swim in a gene pool that’s lost its deep end.
Rickles would have appreciated that one.