Along with the parsing of Oscars host Seth MacFarlane’s performance has come the question of whether his jokes—about topics as cutting as presidential assassination, bulimia and sexual assault—were better off not being said. With edgy humor one is always left to decide whether the jokes serve to raise awareness of social issues or whether they compound the very problems they mocking. Writing in the Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber tackles the question with an earnest pronouncement: “Humor, after all, can be an incredible weapon for social progress, but it can also be regressive: The more we pass off old stereotypes, rooted in hate, as normal—as MacFarlane did again and again last night—the longer those stereotypes, and their ability to harm people, will be in place." Andrew Sullivan was even more pointed, noting that "brutally unfunny ‘cunt’ puns are to humor what sponsor content is to journalism.”
The most technically impressive feat in last night’s telecast was also the most troubling for the Jewish community in particular: the repartee between Ted, the CGI stuffed bear of MacFarlane’s R-rated comedy from last summer, and his co-star, Mark Wahlberg. After asking Wahlberg whether the “berg” in his surname suggests that he’s Jewish (he’s not), Ted announces that he himself has the right ethnic credentials to succeed in the movie industry: “I was born Theodore Shapiro and I would like to donate money to Israel and continue to work in Hollywood forever,” he pledges, breathlessly. While viewers steeped in Jewish literature might recall Mordecai Richler’s protagonist of the same last name in Joshua Then and Now, Ted conjures up a crude portrait of a Hollywood mogul who walks in lockstep with mainstream community predilections and has a “private plane” presented to him at a “secret synagogue meeting.”
The old anti-Semitic canards about Jews controlling Hollywood, cavorting in secret cabals and beset by dual loyalties are so shopworn as to no longer be funny. And the jokes are all the more risky coming from someone who isn’t himself part of the given community (though in Lenny Bruce’s comedic parlance, perhaps teddy bears, are, indeed, intrinsically Jewish). Not surprisingly, Anti-Defamation League director Abraham H. Foxman expressed grave concern over how the joke would be interpreted: “While we have come to expect inappropriate ‘Jews control Hollywood’ jokes from Seth MacFarlane, what he did at the Oscars was offensive and not remotely funny,” adding that “It only reinforces stereotypes which legitimize anti-Semitism."
What commentators like Foxman naturally leave out, though, is another casualty of the kind of humor that trades on anti-Semitic tropes. That is, the chill factor on open and collective self-critique that comes from decades of being worn down by prejudice. In light of the past several months where Defense Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel was raked over the coals for not being “pro-Israel” enough, and in light of decades where “sending money to Israel” meant both supporting Israel’s West Bank occupation and dubious exclusionary land policies such as those engineered by fundraising behemoths like the Jewish National Fund, the Jewish community, now, more than ever, needs to have deep and broad conversations about its collective relationship to Israel.
But anti-Semitic stereotypes spilling out of the mouths of bears won’t help us have these kinds of conversations. Ethnic jabs broadcast in primetime stifle the kind of healthy self-critique that most communities need to have from time to time, particularly when it comes to issues surrounding identity politics. Instead, they are much more likely to give rise to siege mentalities steeped in fear.