In Jerry Stiller, the Rage of Jewish Fathers Found a Hilarious OutletBreaking News
tags: Jewish Americans, popular culture, television, Comedy
There’s a glorious tradition of Jewish comics’ making fun of their parents and grandparents, particularly the generation that immigrated to the United States. Woody Allen, Elaine May and Larry David have all done it, turning these people into shouting caricatures, guilt givers and nabobs of neuroses. These jokes emerged from the perspective of young people like me, who saw something alien about these beloved family members. They had thick accents, old-world ideas and funny-sounding jobs. I had a grandfather who sold eggs (he looked more like Seinfeld’s dad than like Frank Costanza). And yet, we also knew that these elders had it tougher than we did. They struggled in ways we didn’t entirely understand. They had to hustle and scrap. They raised their voices because it was the only way to get heard. And also, well, they were a bit deaf.
All these elements were in Jerry Stiller’s portrait. He was ridiculous but also proud, nervy and passionate about the dumbest things. His sparring with his wife, wonderfully played by Estelle Harris, with equal force and a much higher voice, were formidable fights but benign ones.
The anger of fathers can be scary. And sitcoms have a way of sanding off its edges in cheap ways. But Stiller has a comic rage that was consistently endearing: plucky, ineffectual with hints of warmth. That was critical. The younger people on the show didn’t cower so much as roll their eyes at his temper. He made you laugh at the things that made our forefathers strange and even embarrassing, but also reminded us of why we love them.
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