...The problem with exploitive entertainments like Jersey Shore or The Real Housewives of New Jersey is that if not for stereotypes, they wouldn’t be nearly as fun to watch. And that’s what drives anti-defamation watchdogs nuts. You can say the same thing about most stand-up comedy — it’s the rare comedian who can mine laughs without drawing on stereotypes.
Some stereotypes are worse than others. The general rule is that the closer they hint at the traits that led to the persecution of the ethnic or religious group in question, the more out of bounds they are. I’m okay with shows or jokes that depict Jews as neurotic, unathletic, and overly involved with their mothers. I’m less comfortable with jokes about cheapness, world domination, and deicide.Actually, I thought the F.G. name was so over-the-top, so obviously something a kooky Jew-hater might make up, that it was kind of funny. And whatever else Family Guy is (puerile, vulgar, witless, offensive, etc.) at least it's an equal-opportunity stereotyper.
Italians have it rough in this regard. The Mafia thing has inspired two of the greatest motion pictures and perhaps the single greatest television series in history, but that must seem cold comfort to Italians who are saddled with goomba jokes wherever they turn. Granted, some Italians embrace the wiseguys image, the ways some Jews take pride in “tough Jews” like Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. But it’s sad that the names Corleone and Soprano are better known than La Guardia, DeLillo, and Bertolucci.
And then there are the stereotypes that are hard to erase because they contain a grain of truth. I went to high school with about as many Italians as Jews. I recognize the “Guido” type, just as my Italian friends can name the Jewish American Princesses in our graduating class. I know, I know — I understand how the “JAP” stereotype demeans women and Jews, and traffics in ugly stereotypes about both. But even among my Jewish friends, the ability to spot distinctions was as fine-tuned as any ornithologist’s. At camp and Hebrew school, we could tell the difference between the pampered, spoiled kids and the crunchy, down-to-earth ones. JAP jokes exploited the stereotype, but didn’t invent it.
In a better world, our entertainment wouldn’t depend on stereotypes for laughs or titillation. In this world, however, the best we can hope for is that the purveyors of stereotypes do it with wit. It’s the difference between Goodbye, Columbus and The Nanny, between The Simpsons and Family Guy. The Simpsons transforms a coarse, Borscht Belt comedian into the weird and wonderful Krusty the Clown. A Jewish character in Family Guy has the last name “Hebrewbergmoneygrabber.”...