‘Santa Inc.’, ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ and Jewish education
There will always be Jews in the entertainment industry who will go for the easy laughs, without respect for self or others. But Jewish educators must think about ways to produce at least some future Jewish entertainers whose humor will cultivate empathy, good taste, respect for others and for other religions (and for one’s own!), reverence, understanding and insight.
Self-entitlement slid to the utmost depths of vulgarity in the animated eight-part HBO series, “Santa Inc.,” concocted by Alexandra Rushfield with the help of Sarah Silverman, Seth Rogen and others. Here, Silverman is the voice of Candy Smalls, a female Jewish elf who is the most capable manager of Santa’s enterprise, and believes that she is the best candidate to succeed St. Nick upon his retirement—religion, character and image notwithstanding. But the worst presumptuousness here is the conceit of a largely Jewish production, writing and acting crew that it is their privilege to parody Christmas in the most tasteless manner possible.
By what right do Rushfield, Silverman, Rogen et al reduce the theology of Christmas to the day, in Candy’s words, “on which you get presents just for being you,” when the “world smiles down and says, ‘You matter, kiddo’”? (Episode 8)
Like every other character, Candy fills each sentence with foul language, especially when referring to the Christmas holiday Jesus, and children in general. In all of the sexual and scatological “humor” (with a lot of puking and feces jokes), place is made, as well, for Holocaust “humor” and for political sermons directed to Santa Claus (voiced by Seth Rogen) himself: “More people believe in you than in vaccines or the Holocaust.” At one point a speech is described as boring “like a Holocaust documentary.” The episodes even make room for an Osama bin Laden joke.
The series is patently anti-child. Anyone with concern for children potentially seeing this would not package such vulgarity in cartoon form, particularly when the one scene highlighting the cuteness of a baby is of that baby cooing to Candy’s trashy language. Sure, the show pays lip-service in the end to a mother’s decision to stay at home with her child, but only by suggesting that the child will otherwise become a serial killer.
There is a lot in this series that even the most moderate Christians and Jews would reasonably find blasphemous, even in the 21st century. It also makes a point of mocking Evangelicals and concerns about abortion. Santa is, by the way, depicted as a frat boy at heart, a stereotyped “old white man.” Yet he wants to be the “coolest, dopest Santa ever,” and fully intends to push for the first woman Santa, even if she is Jewish, just as he pushed for the first black male successor, who decided to leave the company, and is not depicted sympathetically.
This Santa has been exploiting his workers, elves and all, and annually feeds meth chocolate bars to the reindeer in order to improve their performance. His goal is to keep Christmas crass and materialistic in order to satisfy the old white men on the “board of directors,” which includes a cardinal. He also manages to ignore and to alienate Mrs. Santa Claus, who is rooting for Candy to succeed her husband. Yet Candy becomes increasingly competitive and aggressive for the job, ignoring her friends, crushing her rivals and capable of betrayal and even, so it seems, of murder.
The third episode ups the horrid ante of blasphemy by depicting the underworld of the Easter business, which tries to lure Candy away from Santa’s enterprises. The rabbit CEO pretends to have been impressed with Candy’s article on global warming. He wants to be the new Jesus, dismisses the resurrection, and promises his son that he will be “Jesus’ son.” The rabbit wants to destroy Santa because he made Easter a lesser holiday, resolving: “Easter will be as important as one of those dog**** Jewish holidays.” In the fifth episode we are reassured that the Tooth Fairy is the “only self-made woman in all the holiday industry.”
And so “Santa Inc” continues from one revolting scenario to the next. Seeing this series was excruciating and nauseating. There was no guilty pleasure here. But I realized that I had to watch it through because it is an education in what might be called the “new Jewish humor,” particularly its treatment of Christians, taken to its extreme, as only HBO would allow. And the tropes of this series (hardly Torah tropes) were familiar themes and motifs that I have seen in other series restrained by the rules of other networks.
THIS “COMEDY” GENRE
The trend or genre of “new” Jewish humor as it has manifested itself, mostly on television, is usually a Jewish daughter genre, with a Jewish mother and a Jewish grandfather. Candy’s grandfather is depicted here as lecherous. This is, of course, reminiscent of the grandfather on “The Goldbergs,” played by the late George Segal, except that the grandfather in Rushfield’s series is also into porn.
This trend usually trashes Jewish mothers, such as the irredeemable Jewish mother on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and the slightly more redeemable Jewish mother on “Santa Inc.,” or the “smothering” but loving and scary Jewish mother on “The Goldbergs.” In the first two series, the daughters’ career ambitions lead them to pimp out their all-too-willing mothers. In “Santa Inc.,” mom wants to be “recommended to the board as a mistress” (Episode 7). Somehow, such depiction of Jewish mothers is tolerable because the ambitious daughters are self-proclaimed feminists.
Also, this trend or genre lacks conviction. It does not affirm Jewish belief in the face of competing beliefs, but only assaults the latter. Nor is there ever a word in defense of the State of Israel against unfair onslaughts. On “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Rachel Bloom’s four-year comedy series on CW, attorney Rebbeca Bunch gives up a stellar New York career to stalk Josh Chan, her Filipino-American childhood day camp boyfriend, who lives in West Covina, Calif. She constantly protests that she is not religious and, at one point, when her best friend says she is going to mass, Rachel says: “Tell God I say—well, He knows how I feel.”
Even so, characters like Rebecca Bunch and Candy Smalls appropriate aspects of Christianity for their own ambitions, revenge, convenience, or acting out. Taking a stab at officiating at a wedding (10-26-18), Rebecca borrows New Testament verses on love (I Corinthians 13:4-7) and adds: “I love fairytales. And this is from the greatest fairytale of all, the Bible. I’ve made some changes because there is always room for improvement.”
In one episode of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Halloween replaces both Yom Kippur and the Catholic purgatory doctrine. In a séance that upsets a Catholic friend who knows that such a practice is a betrayal of her faith, Rebecca kneels in front of the grave of a crime victim haunting her home. “You have to move on from the purgatory of your past. You can’t change what happened, but you can change what will happen,” Rebecca tells the gravestone—that, apparently, she can change the Catholic meaning of purgatory.
In “Crazy”’s most bizarre scene, Rebecca barges into a church wearing a wedding dress after Josh has left her at the altar and has decided to become a priest. She confronts him in front of a Catholic congregation, calling him out for hiding because he’s a coward, considering the priesthood not because of a divine calling but out of fear of calling her. Then she unintentionally and publicly confesses her stalking (later telling herself, “O my God, I told him everything”): “All the things you made me do that I didn’t ask for. I’m the one who should be up on that cross.” Her deranged behavior prods Josh to realize: “No reason why I should feel guilty. Thank you, Lord.”
Rebecca’s breakdown gave new meaning to Catholic confession. Whether Bloom knows it or not, she chose to revive an old Jewish custom of protesting a wrong before the congregation, but in this case by insanely disrupting a Catholic congregation.
But there is nothing courageous about this scene, or any of them in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Indeed, this whole genre of “Jewish comedy” lacks courage of conviction or any other kind of courage. By the third season, the producers and writers had revealed that Rebecca’s amorality, bad behavior and deprecation of Jewish life may have been all in her head, the result of mental illness. So were they suggesting that the nasty portrayal of a Jewish mother, the glorification of (interfaith) stalking and the mockery of Jewish life should be shrugged off as a clever, artistic tease? And if so, was all of Rebecca’s bad behavior to be laughed off? How does that improve understanding of mental illness and of Jews? It seems a rather convenient and cowardly contrivance to justify bad taste.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” did the same with stupidity. The writers could depict the Holy Ghost as Caspar-like in Josh’s mind because, after all, Josh is not too bright or sophisticated, theologically or in any other way—himself a stereotype of “the other.”
These comedies also exploit addictions, like gambling, in order to make their characters as outrageous as possible. In “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” the young Catholic priest quips, “I just talked to Jesus and he said that [it] is cool” to bet on which date Rebecca will choose. (10-3-17) In “Santa Inc.,” Grandpa uses a betting pool as retirement plan and places another significant bet before the series ends. Yet in the last episode, Candy pledges: “This year we’re fixing the sins of the past. As God as my witness, as long as I live, there will be no meth addiction at Santa, Inc. ever again.” (Episode 8) Did Silverman misread the line, “as God is my witness,” or was everyone just ignorant of the proper expression? And was everyone oblivious to the exploitation of addiction in the series itself, including frat drinking?
These comedies are obsessed with (addicted to?) bad taste, particularly as regards the Holocaust. As noted above, this happens at least a few times in “Santa Inc.”; and in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” there was banter (10-19-18) about whether to describe a personal retreat as “death camping” or with the “less offensive” (?) phrase, “concentration camping.”
HIJACKING JEWISH RITUALS AND EDUCATION
Both “Santa Inc.” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” regarded it as the duty of the lead character to instruct Gentiles in Hebrew or Yiddish vocabulary words. Candy teaches words like beshert (“meant to be”) and “shalom.” Rebecca has successfully taught her friends to say “mazal tov” and “shalom.” Yet in “Santa Inc.” Candy’s gentile friends, feeling betrayed, resent her assumption that “Jewish phrases of joy” will make everyone happy (Episode 6), while in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Rebecca’s friends (11-9-18) attribute their success and relationships to her whether because or in spite of her mental illness.
“Santa Inc.” invents a ritual by offering a standing joke: Candy’s brother making a tasteless music video for their coal miner father’s yahrzeit. But usually the “Jewish education” steals into unrelated dialogue. When Candy protests to Santa, “I’d rather be an unpaid intern at Passover than work for your stupid company,” the passive aggressive Mr. Claus retorts: “Good, go have some roaring horseradish, and get lost.” (Episode 7)
Sometimes the “Jewish education” is inaccurate. “Santa Inc.” has Grandpa observe: “In the Jewish religion a true gift of charity is anonymous, it’s called zedakah. But in the Smalls family tradition, do you want to know how much we had to fork out to spring you?” (Episode 8) Actually, zedakah is a mitzvah whether done anonymously or not, even whether done graciously or not. And pidyon shvuyim, redeeming prisoners, is another mitzvah altogether.
Indeed, the only wise observation from Grandpa summarizes the pointlessness of Candy’s campaign (and of the whole TV series): “You put up a good fight but you can’t beat tradition, baby. That’s Christmas.”
Both “Santa Inc.” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”offer a new rule of kashrut or the dietary laws—that they are to be violated only for a special dish. When Candy visits Easter land she resists all the ham because “I’m not going to eat tref unless it’s shrimp cocktail or real good [seafood] sushi.” Salivating for her favorite rib place, Rebecca urges (11-16-18): “Let’s go get some tref.” So much for the sanctifying restraint of ritual.
Common to these series is a lack of restraint and of self-respect on the part of Jewish characters, especially Jewish women, and of most if not all of the other characters. The shows exult in the diversity of characters—race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, learning disabilities—but remove basic human dignity from those characters as if to say that politically correct representation of types (even stereotypes) is more important than inherent human dignity. Needless to say, this kind of approach is itself a political indoctrination in the notion that the individual is no more valuable than what he or she represents, and that any individual who questions the dominant social justice agenda is eminently cancellable. “Santa Inc.” cannot decide whether it is mocking or laying the ground for cancel culture.
Both series exploit cancel culture for plot reasons. Candy arranges it so that one rival for the Santa position comes across as a Neo-Nazi and another is exposed for a heinous sexual affair. In the process, the series has fun parodying the excesses of the press (Episodes 5 and 6), mocking correspondents like Rivka Spinster (from Jerusalem with a “mazal tov”) and politically opposed panelists. In “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Rebecca takes revenge on her ex-boyfriend Josh by spreading rumors on social media that Josh is a “homophobic Holocaust denier.”
Both “Santa Inc.” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” toy with social justice. In the former series signs threaten: “No Justice, No Christmas.” For all its cries for “justice,” there is not one likable or admirable character in “Santa Inc.: (including angels and pigeons), with the exception of a snowman who is trying to liberate himself from a snow globe. That might have made for an imaginative and even sweet kid-friendly story about justice.
There have been prominent stories in the Jewish press that some of the actors and producers and writers mentioned in this article received good Jewish education and attended Jewish summer camps, some of whom recalling fondly these formal and informal learning experiences. And yet they have purveyed projects which are not only tasteless, but which bespeak a mean-spirited appropriation of Christian religious traditions. This certainly should give pause to Jewish religious educators as they plan their curricula going forward.
There are enough TV episodes and movies which are age appropriate from elementary to high school years which depict Jewish characters of conviction and courage, and which show respect to Gentiles interested in Jewish practices. One thinks of “The Craftsman” episode on “Little House on the Prairie,” or the film “A Stranger among Us,” or the bar mitzvah episode of the “Dick Van Dyke Show” or the rabbi in “The Frisco Kid.”
And then there are Jewish teachings about derekh eretz, upright, decent, socially beneficial behavior, right conduct, toward both Jews and non-Jews. There is the ancient Rabbinic saying: “Derekh eretz kodmah latorah—Courtesy, decency, social responsibility must precede even Torah for Torah to be applied honorably, wisely, graciously.” And there are ancient tractates on Derekh Eretz in the broader Talmudic literature.
Some years back, when a boy in my Hebrew School class did a pratfall for attention, I told him not to go for the easy laughs. He (a nice and thoughtful kid, by the way) and the rest of the class asked me what I meant, and I explained to them that the best humor has serious, or at least good, decent points to make.
There will always be Jews in the entertainment industry who will go for the easy laughs, without respect for self or others. But Jewish educators must think about ways to produce at least some future Jewish entertainers whose humor will cultivate empathy, good taste, respect for others and for other religions (and for one’s own!), reverence, understanding and insight. We need Jewish education that will counter cancel culture with teachings about kavod haberiot, respect for the God-given potential of all rising-and-falling human creatures.
Elliot B. Gertel is Rabbi emeritus of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago. He has been film and television reviewer of the “National Jewish Post and Opinion” since 1979. His books include What Jews Know About Salvation and Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television.