Flaunting It: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s “Nice” Jewish (Bad) Boys

Editor's Note: The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from the book Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting published by The Jewish Museum and Princeton University Press. The complete essay will be published in four daily segments. J. Hoberman is co-programmer of the series Hollywood's "Jew Wave", which runs at the Walter Reade Theater from November 3 to 13.

Turn to any TV variety show, await the stand-up comic, and chances are good that he'll come on with accents and gestures and usages whose origins are directly traceable to the Borscht Belt by way of the East European shtetl and the corner grocery store...The Jewish style, with its heavy reliance upon Yiddish and Yiddishisms, has emerged not only as a comic style, but as the prevailing comic style.–Wallace Markfield, “The Yiddishization of American Humor,” Esquire (October 1965)

Walk into any New York bookstore today and probably the first beckoning display you encounter will be the Jewish fun books. Stacked in revolving metal racks are the James Bond Spoofs, Oy Oy Seven, Loxfinger, Matzoball; the “How-to” books, How to Be a Jewish Mother, A Jewish President, A Jewish Madam; and many other shrugged-shoulder versions of standard entertainment genres... Just a little less prominently displayed are the latest works of the American Jewish comic novelists. These range in style from the Pop Art of Wallace Markfield's To an Early Grave to the show-biz fantasy of Bruce Jay Friedman's A Mother's Kisses; from the Aristophanic farce of Saul Bellow's The Last Analysis to the subtle social comedy of Philip Roth's Letting Go.–Albert Goldman, “Boy-Man Schlemiel: The Jewish Element in American Humor,” Explorations (1967)

         Duck into any cinema. For a time, there were movies too—crazy comedies, most set in New York, many directed by or featuring stand-up comics. Among other self-consciously broken show-biz commandments governing permissible jokes and acceptable sexual (or filial) behavior, these films featured a hitherto unspeakable degree of Jewish content.

         In particular, such Jewish comedies were predicated on the spectacle of nice boys acting out, fooling around, and even going berserk. Were these urban, middle-class professionals, “the Jewish bad guys” who the comedian Lenny Bruce maintained were never shown on screen? Anticipating the so-called blaxploitation and Italian-American films of the 1970s, the movies of this kind thrived on the sort of ethnic stereotyping that had largely disappeared from Hollywood films 30 years before. The image, however, was something new.

Funny Girl
Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. Image courtesy of the Kobal Collection.

         Hollywood's Jewish “new wave” (a subset of the larger new wave that refreshed Hollywood content and personnel in the late Sixties) had its moment between 1967 and 1973, roughly between Israel's Six Day and Yom Kippur wars or Barbara Streisand's appearances in Funny Girl (Columbia, 1968) and The Way We Were (Columbia, 1973). These seven years not only brought Streisand's apotheosis as an openly ethnic, unreconstructed Jewish diva, but also saw the appearance of several male counterparts –including Dustin Hoffman, Elliott Gould, George Segal, and Richard Benjamin –as well as the emergence of the comic auteurs Woody Allen and Mel Brooks.

         During this period, Jewish humor reigned confidently supreme. The paperback original How to Be a Jewish Mother went through 15 editions and sold three million copies. Stand-up comedian Bruce, repeatedly busted for his vulgar language and sexually explicit routines, was canonized as a counterculture martyr (and was eventually the subject of a Hollywood bio-pic starring Hoffman); Jewish comics were ubiquitous on late-night TV. Even television ads had jokingly appropriated a measure of Jewish ethnicity, most famously in the campaign that used Asian- and African-American models to demonstrate that, “You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's real Jewish Rye.” As suggested by the “mad rushin’ to mama-lushen [mother tongue]” noted among American humorists by Wallace Markfield in 1965, Yiddish, as the funkiest manifestation of Jewishness, was understood to be hip. Indeed, in his 1966 review of a novel by Jewish-American writer Irvin Faust, Stanley Kauffmann identified a “Lenny Bruce syndrome” based on the assumption that “anyone who doesn't understand Yiddish references is not just Gentile but square.”

         This presupposition of a new Jewish-American cultural visibility informs the dozen or so movies—all characterized by their insolent black humor and social satire—that featured (mainly) young, (sometimes) neurotic, and (by and large) not altogether admirable Jewish male protagonists cut off from their roots but disdainful of a white-bread America. Self-hatred merged with self-absorption, narcissism seemed indistinguishable from personal liberation, and alienation was a function of identity. Released to increasing critical displeasure among both Jews and Gentiles, these films were considered offensive in their representation of Jewish (and sometimes non-Jewish) ethnicity as well as Jewish (and Gentile) women.

         The movies of the Jewish new wave, many adapted from recent novels, could never be made in the old Hollywood, and indeed, a significant minority of these was produced by non-major studios, usually Joseph E. Levine's Embassy Pictures and Avco Embassy Pictures. In the beginning was The Graduate (Embassy), which opened a few days before Christmas 1967 and went on to become the sensation of the season and, ultimately, the decade's second highest grossing Hollywood release. Directed by onetime improvisational stand-up Mike Nichols, The Graduate seemed –like Arthur Penn's nearly contemporaneous Bonnie and Clyde (Warner Brothers., 1967)--to be the harbinger of a Hollywood New Wave. This was in part due to Nichols's showy filmmaking, which was replete with references to and cribs from fashionable European directors Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and François Truffaut, and in part because of his (mildly) rebellious antihero. Recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) is seduced into an affair with one of his parents' friends, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), before eloping with her daughter—his true love—the Berkeley student Elaine (Katharine Ross), whom he rescues from the church where she has just married a medical student.

         Was young Benjamin of Beverly Hills a Jew or was this vaguely critical, comically maladroit youth just a little Jewish? Certainly, there was no mistaking Hoffman's ethnicity. In any case, The Graduate was cited as an example of an ascendant Jewishness. Pointing out that the movie's hero “bore an uncanny resemblance to a ubiquitous character in Jewish folk and literary imagination—the schlemiel,” Esther Romeyn and Jack Kugelmass maintain that the movie “signaled the return of the anti-hero, and with it, representations of Jews suddenly burst upon the screen.”

         If the schlemiel was a new American everyman, so the Jewish condition was understood to be universal. The prime ideologue of this sentimental myth was literary critic Leslie Fiedler. In an appreciation of Saul Below, written in 1957, a few years after the publication of The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Fielder made the arrogant declaration that current American literature was now, at all levels, a Jewish province: “What Saul Bellow is for highbrow literature, [J.D.] Salinger is for upper middlebrow, Irwin Shaw for middle highbrow and Herman Wouk for lower middlebrow...The acceptance of Bellow as the leading novelist of his generation must be paired off with the appearance of Marjorie Morningstar on the front cover of Time. On all levels, the Jew is in the process of being mythologized into the representative American.”

         Hollywood had long denied it, but Albert Goldman expanded on Fiedler's idea by declaring that the American Jew was now the representative modern man. By the mid-sixties, Goldman stated: “The Jew was raised from his traditional role of underdog or invisible man to the glory of being the most fascinating authority in America. Benefiting from universal guilt over the murders by the Nazis, stiffening with fresh pride over the achievements of the State of Israel, reaping the harvest in America of generations of hard work and sacrifice for the sake of the 'children,' the Jews burst suddenly into prominence in a dozen different areas of national life.” The more “Jewish” Jews appeared, the more universal they became. Or so Goldman decreed in this essay, “Boy-Man Schlemiel: The Jewish Element in American Humor,” an analysis of Jewish novelists and those mainly Jewish “sick” comedians—Mort Sahl, Shelly Berman, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Tom Lehrer, and especially Lenny Bruce—who made much of psychoanalytic jargon in treating such apparently unfunny subjects as mental illness, racial prejudice, religion, sexual pathology, and nuclear fallout.

         This development was read both as evidence of Jewish-American cultural confidence and as proof of Jewish-American insecurity. Some made a specific connection to Israel's victory in the June 1967 Six Day War. In her monograph The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth R. Wisse noted that “alongside chest-thumping accounts” of the war, New York bookstores stocked “Irving of Arabia: An Unorthodox Interpretation of the Israeli-Arab War, which shows a soldier going off to battle with his mother in the background, pleading 'Marvin, please take your galoshes'” and a “poster of a shrunken Hasid emerging from a telephone booth in a familiar cape bearing the inscription 'Super-Jew.'” For Wisse, “the tenacious hold of the schlemiel on the American Jewish consciousness” was less a Jewish refiguration of a universal type than a reflexive self-protective instinct that had gripped certain elements of the Jewish-American public in the war's aftermath. Perhaps American Jews deemed it safer to identify with the “schlemiel-loser” than the victorious Israeli soldier, or perhaps Israel's martial proficiency served to reinforce the American Jew's negative self-perception.

         Others more committed to the transformation of Jewish life in America saw writers such as Philip Roth and performers like Bruce, Mel Brooks, and the team of Nichols and May as anything but afraid. For Goldman, these artists seemed fearlessly honest in articulating “feelings shared by tens of thousands of young American Jews.” The “anger and self-pity” expressed in this “potent new humor” was a factor of newfound security. “No longer persecuted, [Jews] were progressing triumphantly toward their goals of social and cultural achievement.” Israel's victory contributed to this new confidence, but so did the tolerant atmosphere of postwar America: “The traditionally conformist tendencies of American Jewry changed. The old feeling of shame was transformed into one of pride and, in some cases, of arrogance.” Among other things, Jewish comedians openly riffed on the Jewish role in American show business.

Next: A Post-Graduate Cinema

©J. Hoberman
Originally published with notes and illustrations in J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler's, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting (Jewish Museum/Princeton University Press, 2003).

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