Daily Show reflects Jewish comfort level

Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” is, in many ways, a barometer of contemporary American society and its evolution. Jon Stewart, host since 1999, has been a significant source of “news” for millennials and others for the better part of a generation and a reflection of the zeitgeist.

Reviewing broadcasts for the past two decades offers a pretty good summary of trends, issues and personalities that have shaped America over that period. Responses to the show and what it does have also been a marker, at least for this observer, of trends in how American Jews view themselves in the broader American polity.

In the mid-1990s, even before Stewart began hosting, “The Daily Show” aired a segment about the Orthodox tradition of kaparot — the pre-Yom Kippur ritual of grasping a live chicken and moving it around one’s head three times, symbolically transferring sins to the chicken. The “news” item — broadcast a day or two before Yom Kippur — showed the ritual taking place in Jerusalem with a young Hassid swinging the chicken over his head and explaining the symbolism. The host (Craig Kilborn) then commented: “Jews used to swing young Christians, instead of chickens, before they got too expensive.”

There were isolated complaints about the humor, a few irate callers — no groundswell, no wave of indignation, no fear that anti-Semitism might result from the oddly timed humor.

At the time, I was with the Anti-Defamation League and handled most media-related complaints — both local and national. I ordered a videotape of the show, which I had never seen, and watched the broadcast. It was transparently clear that the nature of the show was to poke fun at everyone — politicians, celebrities, newsmakers, religious and ethnic groups. No one was spared the writers’ barbs.

I decided not to complain to Comedy Central about the segment. It may not have been the most sophisticated humor ever written, but I was fairly certain that those who weren’t predisposed would suddenly believe in the “blood libel” — the myth that Jews need the blood of young Christians for ritual purposes — after watching the segment. ADL was not in the reviewing business, so we didn’t have to grapple with whether the segment was high, low or mediocre humor; anti-Semitism was a salient issue, and the segment didn’t qualify.

I later gave several talks at ADL meetings where I pointed out that 15 or 20 years earlier, there is no doubt that ADL would have complained and invoked the imagery of an anti-Semitic backlash that might ensue from invoking the blood libel.

In fact, I lived through an earlier experience in the 1970s, when ADL did exactly that.

At the time, the hit soap opera parody “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” provided a lighthearted look at a beleaguered heroine and her daily travails in the fictional town of Fernwood, Ohio. In one episode, a young friend of Mary’s, who is pursuing a career in entertainment, gets a big break and is flown to Hollywood to appear on Dinah Shore’s show.

comedycentral.com Jon Stewart with “senior Purim correspondent” Jessica Williams in 2013, one of many ways the “Daily Show” host injects the program with Jewish humor.

While being interviewed, the young woman expresses surprise that her manager, her press agent and others whom she has met in the course of her trip (all named Goldberg, Cohen or Shapiro) are so nice: “It’s hard to believe that they’s [sic] the people who crucified our Lord.” This particular segment was broadcast nationally on, of all days, Good Friday.

The following Monday the calls came in to ADL fast and furious across the country — the community was up in arms both about the invocation of the deicide charge and the timing of the broadcast during Holy Week. The fear — expressed and implicit — was that reminding Americans of the deicide charge, especially at Easter time, could result in hate and violence directed at Jews. I can’t recall many incidents in my career in the Jewish community that provoked such a tidal wave of phone calls.

We met with the producers of the show following a screening of the episode (which was, incidentally, hilarious), and voiced our concerns about “an anti-Semitic backlash during Easter.” The producers were polite and listened but didn’t buy it — they didn’t think watching a TV show was going to generate a wave (or even a single) incident of bigotry. They were right.

By the mid-1990s, America had changed enough so that there was no groundswell of outrage when “The Daily Show” broadcast its kaparot segment, and even ADL didn’t think it appropriate to register a complaint with the producers.

In some respects, the Jewish community had come of age. In America, it had achieved sufficient security to absorb the kind of humor that was being dished out to other groups — majority and minority. Jews didn’t need special protection, pogroms weren’t afoot. The local ADL leadership agreed, an attitude that would have been unthinkable two decades earlier.

I was reminded of these two incidents this past week when Abe Foxman, ADL’s national director, treaded lightly when commenting on the tweets of Stewart’s soon-to-be successor on “The Daily Show,” Trevor Noah. The script could have been very different.

Sure enough, a couple of tweets surfaced relating to Jews that were, for the most part, neither particularly funny nor offensive, but could have easily generated condemnations and “outrage.” Mercifully, Foxman offered a measured response, commenting that “comedians often use humor to poke fun at stereotypes and to push the envelope of political correctness.” Exactly! Great humor, no; testing limits, yes; worthy of outrage, absolutely not.

The reflexive response would have been to criticize Noah for insensitive humor. But the times have changed, humor has changed, the Jewish community’s sense of belonging has matured and “The Daily Show” prevents anyone from taking themselves too seriously.

David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles–based human relations organization