In 1989, Al Franken, now a U.S. senator representing Minnesota, and Tom Davis made public the Jewish pastime of guessing who is a member of the tribe. In their sketch, Jew, Not a Jew, with guest host Tom Hanks as the master of ceremonies, contestants had to do just that. “It took a few readings for Jew, Not a Jew to get on,” recalls Miller. “But the whole idea that a quiz show could be built around whether or not people were Jewish is just hilarious. It happens in everybody’s house. And they put it on TV.”
Two years later, as a loving homage to his then mother-in-law, Mike Myers created and played Linda Richman. With long lacquered nails, big hair, Barbra Streisand obsession and endearing Yiddishisms, sketches with Richman appeared regularly, making her America’s new favorite bubbe. “I’m all verklempt,” “talk amongst yourselves” and “like buttah” (a frequent reference to Streisand) quickly became part of the popular vernacular. “I’d vote for Mike Myers’ Coffee Talk as the most iconic SNL sketch, simply because it popularized the word verklempt,” says Slate’s TV critic Troy Patterson. “This was a great melting-pot moment. In terms of the deployment of the Yiddish language in Jewish-American comedy, it ranks up there with Philip Roth’s shiksas and the Oy! of Mel Brooks’ Moses accidentally dropping his third tablet of Commandments. It’s fantastic shtick.”
Israelis were not exempt from SNL scrutiny. The show parodied their reputation as pushy and loud when Tom Hanks took on the persona of salesman Uri Shulenson, host of Sabra Price Is Right in 1992. With his unbuttoned black shirt, a flashy gold Star of David and a spot-on Israeli accent complete with constant repetition of words (“come-on-come-on-come-on”), Shulenson haggles with customers who have no intention of buying his shoddy and overpriced electronics products.
Members of Generation X laughed along with Adam Sandler’s 1994 Hanukkah Song. The lyrics explain the advantages of Hanukkah over Christmas (“Hanukkah is the festival of lights/Instead of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights”) and famously plunged into a long list of Jewish celebrities: “Paul Newman’s half Jewish/ Goldie Hawn’s half, too/ Put them together—what a fine-lookin’ Jew!…Harrison Ford’s a quarter Jewish—not too shabby!” As Bernard Timberg, a communications professor at East Carolina University, puts it, “Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah Song made it hip to be Jewish. It was a bridge into the next generation.”
At times the show pushed too far for the comfort of the real Anti-Defamation League. In a 1999 episode about Hanukkah, Christina Ricci played Britney Spears alongside SNL regulars dressed as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. Ricci’s Spears says, “Okay, y’all…Hanukkah is a special holiday where we as Christians take time out to think about forgiving the Jews for killing our Lord,” and Celine Dion talks about how her mother explained that Hanukkah was a holiday “celebrated by the people who own the movie studio and the plane.” ADL National Director Abe Foxman was not amused and blasted the sketch for perpetuating “two canards [that] are the basis for anti-Semitism for which we’ve paid a very, very high price.”
Some argue that Jewish-themed humor has been less prevalent on the show over the past decade. While SNL continues to attract its share of Jewish talent, it has moved on to other subjects. Current cast members Andy Samberg and Seth Meyers haven’t focused on the Jewish experience to the extent that their predecessors did. “I don’t think I’ve ever done anything comedically where the joke had to do with Judaism and Jewishness, but a lot of my heroes were Jewish,” Samberg, who counts Mel Brooks and Adam Sandler as his influences, once told the magazine North by Northwestern. Andrew Steele, a SNL writer from 1995 to 2008, says the show has changed with the times. “In the past, when [the writers and cast at SNL] pushed religious or racial taboos, it was new,” he says. “But today, it’s not really a target.”