“Live from New York, It’s Saturday Night’s Jews!”
To see the sketches mentioned in this article, click here
The year was 1975. A country torn apart by Vietnam, Watergate and civil unrest tuned in to NBC’s Saturday Night, a subversive new comedy show that smashed every societal taboo as it rocketed to the top. “When I watched with friends, we felt that the show was addressed to us in ways that no one had done before,” remembers James Bloom, author of Gravity Fails: The Comic Jewish Shaping of Modern America. “It was dorm room or drinking humor gone public.” No political, class, gender, racial or ethnic stereotype was off-limits.
The show, later renamed Saturday Night Live (SNL), was created by Toronto comedy writer and producer Lorne Michaels, born Lorne David Lipowitz. As a modern-day incubator of talent on a par with the Borscht Belt and Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, it has launched the careers of numerous comedians and actors: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Jon Lovitz, Gilda Radner, Alan Zweibel, Al Franken, Tim Meadows, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Tina Fey, Will Ferrell and many more.
From the very start, Jews and Jewish humor figured prominently. “Saturday Night Live waved the wand and said ‘Let there be Jews,’ and there were Jews, on the network, on the show, openly discussing their lives in sketches, as writers and actors,” says Marilyn Suzanne Miller, one of the show’s original writers.
By now, the show’s 35th year, its archives are overflowing with Jewish sketches. One of the most talked about was the infamous Jewess Jeans “ad,” which aired in October of 1980 and cast political correctness aside to parody a popular Jordache jeans commercial. Written by Miller, it featured “Rhonda Weiss,” SNL’s resident “Jewish American Princess,” played by the late Gilda Radner. The faux-mercial featured a curly-haired Radner in tight jeans and rouged lips, smacking her gum and leading a wannabe, hip-swaying chorus with lyrics like “She’s got a lifestyle that’s uniquely hers, Europe, Nassau and wholesale furs…She’s got that Jewish look/She shops the sales for designer clothes/She’s got designer nails/And a designer nose.”
The sketch was radical for its time. “There was something kind of naughty about the Jewess Jeans sketch…Can you do this kind of thing on TV?” says Robert Thompson, the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “There were plenty of people who thought it was offensive. Even the word ‘Jewess’ was a contested thing.” Slightly less controversial was Hanukkah Harry, a recurring character played by Jon Lovitz in the 1980s. The sketches—the fictional credits said they were sponsored by “Hallmark in Association with the Jewish Anti-Defamation League”—featured Hanukkah Harry rescuing Santa, the Easter Bunny and other gentiles in distress on his reindeer Moishe, Herschel and Shlomo. The good-humored Hasid’s gifts (socks!) were not always a hit with the gentile children but his goodness always shone through. In The Night Hanukkah Harry Saved Christmas, one unlucky gift recipient concludes, “If Hanukkah Harry is helping Santa, maybe that means that Christians and Jews, deep down, are pretty much the same. Maybe that’s the true meaning of Christmas!”