|JewishJournal.com, 25-02-2013. By Rob Eshman
Seth MacFarlane: Not an anti-Semite
No one sends out press releases to announce that something is not anti-semitic.
That’s why this morning’s media is full of reports that host Seth MacFarlane’s
Oscar performance last night was just shy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s U.N. speech.
The Anti-Defamation League was first out of the gate, calling MacFarlane,
“offensive and not remotely funny” — which in and of itself is funny, the idea
that the ADL is not just the arbiter of anti-semitism, but of humor.
Then came a press release from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, seeing the ADL’s
umbrage and raising it to world-historical levels.
“It is unfortunate that at a time when anti-Semitism is so prevalent throughout
the world,” said the Center, “that Seth MacFarlane used the pulpit of the
Oscars, before an audience of more than a billion people to contribute to the
myth that Jews own Hollywood.”
I found these reactions more annoying than MacFarlane’s comments, which varied
from the very funny to the remotely funny, but never came close to anti-semitism.
Seth MacFarlane was joking. He was poking fun. He was mocking the widespread
understanding that Jews are disproportionately represented in the entertainment
business. This fact comes as a shock to exactly no one, and the idea that joking
about it “feeds” anti-semitism misunderstands both the nature of humor and of
One thing humor does well, even better than press releases, is difuse prejudice.
It does that through mockery, exaggeration and sometimes by just bringing
prejudice to light. That explains everything from Charlie Chaplain in “The Great
Dictator” to Sascha Barron Cohen’s character of Borat, who got hundreds of
Arizonans at a rodeo to sing the “famous” Kazhakstan folksong, “Throw the Jew
Down the Well.” Cohen wasn’t out to whip up Jew-hatred, he was out to expose
human — hmm, what’s the word? — stupidity.
MacFarlane doesn’t really believe you have to change your name or give to Israel
to make it in Hollywood, he was riffing on the simplistic belief that that’s all
Billy Crystal could make a dozen Jewish references at the Oscars and no one
would do anything but kvell. Granted, MacFarlane’s humor is more in-your-face —
but it goes nowhere that Crystal, or Adam Sandler in his "Chanuka Song," or
Lenny Bruce in his Jewish/Gentile rift, or a hundred other comedians, haven’t
So why the outrage? Maybe because against the backdrop of increasing
anti-semitism in Europe and elsewhere, Jews are extra sensitive. Maybe because
an older generation of Jews is unfamiliar with a newer brand of Family Guy/South
Park humor. Even Amy Davidson, writing on the New Yorker blog, took offense —
this from a magazine whose editor David Remnick once wrote a much-deserved,
flattering profile of Howard Stern. Stern's brand of satire paved the way for
comedians like MacFarlane.
Or maybe the outrage arises because Jews are still uncomfortable with the notion
of being powerful. But here's the fact: Jews are disproportionately represented
in Hollywood. The Jewish state has over 200 nuclear weapons and a hegemony of
power in the Middle East. Jews are also disproportionately represented in
government, finance, law, publishing and medicine. Only Jews can read these
factual statements and think, Oy! I often wonder if our instinct to cringe and
keep quiet, to not publicly own our power, as a self-help guru might put it, is
also a way of avoiding having to think about what the responsibilities of that
power are, what our true potential is, and what it means to be both Jewish and
The ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center not only miss the humor, they are
missing the opportunity. MacFarlane’s jokes, like all good comedy can get people
thinking, can open a conversation: Why are Jews so prevalent in Hollywood? How
does their Jewish identity inform their creative choices? How would Hollywood
look if it were composed, disproportionately, of WASPs, or Thais, or
Hollywood is one of the Jews' greatest gifts to the world — why else would 2
billion people tune in to see “Lincoln” get robbed of Best Picture? There is
nothing to hide, and plenty to joke about.
Rob Eshman is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Journal. You can
follow him on Twitter @foodaism.
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