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That's Funny, You Do Look Jewish

By Ron Lux, National Jewish News

When he was writing one of the scripts for the sitcom he had created, "The War at Home," Rob Lotterstein got a call from a studio executive, saying he was coming over to see him. "You know it's something serious when they want to come to your office to talk," Lotterstein recalled, while participating in a panel discussion, "They'd Love Us if They Knew Us: Jewish Character on TV." Sponsored by the MorningStar Commission, a group of professional women in the entertainment industry, the panel was held on December 9 at the Skirball Center's main theater. Moderated by Lara Berman (host of the TV talk show CU@USC), the panel included the actress Caroline Aaron ("Grey's Anatomy") and television writers, Greg Berlanti ("Brothers and Sisters"), Jenji Kohan ("Weeds"), Doug Lieblein ("Hanna Montana") and Lotterstein.

When the studio executive finally showed up at Lotterstein's office, he asked him about one of the lead characters, "Does he have to be Jewish? Have you thought about this?" This surprised Lotterstein since the studio executive was also Jewish and they both knew that the network was okay with a lead Jewish character. Lotterstein answered, "It's easier to write about what I know and I'm Jewish, so that's my experience. Yeah, he's going to be Jewish."

Using her own experience for a script, Jenji Kohan said she had once thought about being a Rabbi but she noted, "I was considered ineligible because my husband wasn't Jewish. That became a storyline on 'Weeds.'"

The panel discussion was not about personal anecdotes and life histories, at least not according to plan. It was about Jewish characters and how "they'd love us if they knew us." It was not clear if they just don't know us or they don't like us but might if they knew us better. And, was "they" the studio executives or the home audience? The answer is all of the above since the panel, for the most part, saw the topic as a suggestion, not a commandment. The conversation bounced around like a pinball but the panel was consistently entertaining; it was like visiting the writers' room during lunch. Everyone tried to be the funniest and the center of attention and, thankfully, they all succeeded.

For example, Caroline Aaron said, "Mike Nichols wanted to do a show called 'Jews.' He thought, let's just get it over with and put it out there." While this probably would have put Lotterstein's executive into a coma, she added did that, "I often ask my friends who would be elected to President first, a Jew, a Black or a woman?" She said, "Everyone considers the Jew as the least likely to be elected." Perhaps "they" know us and don't like us?

Doug Lieblein, a writer for the fabulously popular show, "Hannah Montana," features a Jewish character as one of Hannah's friends, believes that "Stereotypes of any group begins with a negative impact on society, but we try to get the message out that being anything is okay. If everyone can laugh together (and not at someone), then you've succeeded."

Lotterstein noted that, "The network was scared about having Rhoda on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. But people embraced her! She was so well-liked that they had to give her her own show!" He added, "My first credit was on "The Nanny." She (Fran Drescher) was every stereotype, but she was hilarious."

Addressing the problem of executives' objections, Greg Berlanti believed, "There is an element of self-loathing present. Why do I have to fight with three Jewish executives for a Jewish character?"

Berlanti added that he "was always looking for ways for my characters to explore their own faith." Paradoxically, he noted that, "Because I'm not Jewish, when I bring up a Jewish theme (for a script), people don't think I'm doing it because I'm Jewish. Being gay, if I propose a gay storyline, they might say, 'Oh, you're just saying that because you're gay.'" He added, "Mel Brooks said, 'Gays are the new Jews in Hollywood.'"

Aaron, the lone actress on the panel, said, "It's the clichˇs that identify Jews. The full variety of Jewishness hasn't been explored. The 'Sopranos' put an Italian family on TV, we haven't done that. At least, not since 'The Goldbergs,' one of the first sitcoms on TV, a show that was originally created for radio."

Speaking of Jewish families on TV, Lotterstein observed that, "Every Jewish character (on TV) has a non-Jewish spouse." He wondered if "Jewishness had to be diluted?" but Jenji Kohan countered, "Intermarriage is a reality and TV reflects reality."

When the panel was asked if there had been progress and if not, what could they do, Berlanti said, "I'd like to think there has been some. Cable has allowed for more specificity. In a way, it has leveled the playing field."

Suggesting what could be done, Aaron said, "There is no such thing as the Jewish character. If there is only one Jew (in a show), he stands for all Jews. The solution is to have more Jews on TV."

Who knows? Maybe Jerry Seinfield has some ideas for a new show, about something. Couldn't hurt.