A ventriloquist’s cartoonish dummy can vocalize insults that would earn the ventriloquist himself a punch in the nose. In much the same way, on “harmless looking” adult animated comedy shows humorists can get away with things they never could on a live-action program.
As a rabbi with a lifelong passion for comedy, I often find myself torn between my love of a good (or even a bad!) joke, and reverence for my religious beliefs. The TV program that challenges my sensibilities the most is probably The Family Guy.
A recent episode of the notorious and unfailingly offensive show — called “Family Goy” — skewered a host of clichés with even more blatant disregard for propriety than usual.
In that episode, Lois, the mom on the show, discovers that her mother, Barbara Pewterschmidt, is a Holocaust survivor who had later renounced her Judaism — to help her husband get into country clubs. (“It was the right thing to do, dear,” says Mrs. Pewterschmidt ).
“So Grandma Hebrewberg is actually Jewish?!” exclaims Lois.
“Yes,” her mother explains. “When she moved to America, her family changed their name. It was originally Hebrewbergmoneygrabber.”
“Family Goy” includes the return of Jewish accountant Max Weinstein, the popular mensch character from a well-known earlier episode called “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein.”
The newer script, written by Mark Hentemann, takes a few dark, mean-spirited turns.
At first, Peter embraces his wife’s Jewish heritage, going so far as donning a tallit, kippah and Star of David necklace (chest hair included). He even adopts a Hebrew name that is nothing more than a long guttural “chchchchchch” sound.
When Lois objects, Peter kvetches: “Leave it to a Jew to take all the fun out of being a Jew.”
A dark, mean-spirited turn
Peter is then visited by the ghost of his father Francis, who warns him that he will go to hell for renouncing his (nominal) Catholicism. Sure enough, the next day, Peter turns anti-Semitic. That is, he attempts to shoot Lois with a sniper rifle!
Incredibly, Peter is purposely emulating Amon Leopold Göth, the Plaszów concentration camp commandant featured in Schindler’s List. Peter sits shirtless in his bedroom window with a rifle, shooting at his wife and the town’s only other well-known Jew, Mort.
After Lois apologizes for Peter’s violent behavior, Mort responds, “No problem, Lois. That’s just how people say hello to me.”
In the end, Peter and Lois apologize to each other, but are left wondering which religion to follow now, if any.
Needless to say, the “Family Goy” episode generated plenty of controversy. Dvir Abramovich, editor of the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies, complained that the show “dredged up age-old stereotypes about Jews and money and reinforced deeply embedded prejudices that still abound today”.
In my humble opinion, that is exactly the point.
While interfaith catastrophes and travesties abound in “Family Goy”, that’s what makes it so brutally honest. Why not get these stereotypes out in the open and mock them?
The Holocaust is “on limits”
By confronting our insecurities through cutting edge humor, and looking at them through the lens of comedy, we can start controlling those feelings instead of letting them control us.
Family Guy is a necessary counterpoint to the glossy veneer of Jewish-Gentile harmony that has become de rigueur in contemporary primetime comedy.
The world, after all, isn’t always a paradise of peace and harmony. Just last month, the world witnessed the theft of the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes you free”) sign that once hung over the gates of Auschwitz. Meanwhile, as its horrors recede into the distant past, the macabre phenomenon of Holocaust denial is growing. What does it tell us that at the same time, today’s generation of postmodern comedians, like Sarah Silverman, have declared the Holocaust “on limits” as a subject of humor.
As a rabbi, much of that humor makes me deeply uncomfortable. It certainly isn’t material for a Shabbat sermon. However, context and narrative point of view are everything, and can be the difference between a harsh but insightful gag and a tasteless joke. Family Guy uses absurdity to remind us of the gravity of the Holocaust, not make fun of it. By playing the character of a no-excuses bigot, Peter Griffin forces the audiences to confront their own prejudices.
In a final “shtick shift,” Lois actually is a Jew — voiced by Jewish actress Alex Borstein. So what’s my lesson for this latest member of the tribe? I will have to quote my namesake Max Weinstein from the “Family Goy” episode: “Becoming Jewish doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that involves spiritual education and good works.”