Annie’s Angle: How well are Jewish characters represented on TV?

By Annie Cohen Junior, Ladue High School

Name a Jewish character on TV.

If you’re like me, your mind automatically went to Rachel Berry from “Glee,” who is perhaps the most visible fictional Jew on TV screens today. Remember the episode where she contemplated getting a nose job? How about the one where she was completely fixated on raising her kids Jewish? Now, I’m not sure about you, but I have a lot of Jewish friends, and I can confidently say that we’ve never discussed the religion of our future children. Or our nose sizes, for that matter. So why is a mainstream television show creating the illusion that those are the issues we actually care about?


Flip on the TV, and there’s no shortage of Jewish characters. Off the top of my head, I can name Annie from “Community,” Howard from “The Big Bang Theory,” Ginsberg from “Mad Men,” and, if I’m in the mood for re-runs, almost any character from “Seinfeld.” We all watch these shows and know the characters all too well. They’re our friends; they entertain us and make us laugh.

Who hasn’t cracked up watching Adam Sandler perform the “Hanukkah Song” on ‘Saturday Night Live’? (If you haven’t, I urge you to put this article down immediately and watch the song on YouTube. It’s a must-see for any Jew.) The problem, however, is that although some Jewish characters have developed personalities and storylines, far too often, the Jewish aspect of their personalities is used for comic relief. In many situations, characters fall into an ugly Jewish stereotype, but because it’s played for laughs, these offensive portrayals slips under our radar.

For me, there is a simple test to decide whether or not comedy based on ethnicity is funny or distasteful. Think of a character from one of your favorite TV shows. Now, when you consider their background and personality, is their most prominent trait that they’re Jewish? Black? Asian? If so, that show has perhaps ventured into crass, unoriginal territory. That being said, if  ethnicity or religion simply plays a role in a character’s life, comedy drawn from that can be successful. There is a balance, and some Jewish humor is funny and acceptable. It’s when it defines the character that I see a problem.

But Jewish people, perhaps above all others, have a rich history in comedy, and not all Jewish humor is offensive. Whenever I’m watching TV, I laugh when a Jewish character says something relatable. For instance, don’t you just love it when a Yiddish word finds its way into one of your favorite TV shows? A character’s been “schlepping” around town? Somebody fell on her “tuchas?” I know a lot of Jews who slip Yiddish words into their everyday speech, but strangely enough, I don’t have a lot of Jewish friends who are preoccupied at all times with how their nose looks. So when a joke like that finds its way onto a television show, I’m not too impressed. Besides being borderline offensive, it’s just not that original, or for that matter, accurate. Real, quality humor is rooted in truth, not cheap stereotypes.

Television, especially for teenagers, plays a huge role in shaping our worldview. However, like anything else in life, you can’t believe everything you see or hear. That goes for any race or ethnicity, not just Jewish people, who find themselves the punch line of easy jokes on TV. Sometimes the jokes are hilarious and spot-on.

Sometimes, they’re crude and unfunny. I happen to prefer the hilarious ones.

So next time you’re watching TV and you see a Jewish character say something funny about his or her faith (most likely regarding an inability to eat pork), go ahead and laugh. But then think about it a little.

Consider how much of what we see on TV shapes the way we view things in real life, and the impact that a single joke can have.