Why do we not have our own version of Freitag Nacht Jews?

The answer lies in the longstanding misguided and racist assumption by TV commissioners that the only people who would be interested in a show about Jews would be other Jews

May 12, 2022 13:01

I sometimes play a game called Least Jewish. The rules are quite simple: you have to choose, in a random category, the least Jewish thing or person. So least Jewish sport: curling. Least Jewish pop star: Ed Sheeran. Least Jewish writer: Barbara Cartland. Least Jewish Christians: Quakers. Least Jewish haircut: mullet (although I had one in the 80s).

All of these are of course debatable. That’s the point. But if you were to ask me just to go big on this and say: who’s the least Jewish person ever? There or thereabouts might be Princess Diana’s former lover, ex former Calvary officer, James Lifford Hewitt (I’ve put in his middle name because it’s so very un-Jewish). And yet James is being played on the next series of The Crown by a German-Russian Jew, the brilliant actor Daniel Donskoy.

So before you get worried, this isn’t another piece on the issue of Jewface, on the casting of non-Jews as Jews, or in this case, the vice-versa. It’s just a way in to talking about Daniel, and principally, the TV show that Daniel hosts on the German broadcaster WDR, which I recorded an episode of last month: Freitag Nacht Jews. Freitag Nacht Jews is a late night comedy talk show in which Daniel makes food, on a Friday night, for two or three other Jews. And they talk. About Jews. That’s kind of it. There are regular bits in the talk. They play games, similar in fact to my own Least Jewish, such as: Jew or Not? about celebrities, or, as on the episode I was on, one where Daniel plays guitar and sings (he’s also a very successful pop star in Germany — if I was a smaller man, I might say at this point, I hate him, or some such other ironic marker of envy) a series of songs and the others have to guess whether the artist and songwriter is or was Jewish.

A sidebar about Freitag Nacht Jews, in case you’re wondering, is, Ja, it is called Freitag Nacht Jews, not Freitag Nacht Juden. This interests me, having written extensively here and elsewhere about the word Jew, about how it is both a word that can contain all the toxic hate piled upon our ethnicity in its tiny single syllable but can also be used effectively, by Jews, as a very useful comic shorthand to overturn that toxicity. The reason that Daniel and his team stuck with the English version is that that secondary feature — the overturning ability — doesn’t quite work with Juden. I think there might be historical reasons for that.

But those historical reasons play interestingly into the fact that I can’t think of anywhere in the English-speaking world where there is a similar show. Yes, we’ve had a couple of sitcoms, Friday Night Abendessen, of course, and Grandma’s House, but neither of these shows directly addressed issues around being Jewish. There’s been Goodness Gracious Me and Famalam, but never a Jewish Sketch Show (to be fair, my brother Ivor did develop one once — one possible reason why it never got commissioned is that its working title was Fawlty Showers — please don’t write in to complain, Jews are meant to have gallows humour about all that).

There are all sorts of Jews Don’t Count-y reasons for the absence of such a show here, but the one that I imagine TV commissioners here would put forward is that there just aren’t enough Jews in the UK to create an audience. Well. There are — and you know what, it’s the same old historical reasons I’ve mentioned twice earlier for this too — less Jews in Germany. Yet Freitag Nacht Jews is one of the most successful shows on German TV. In September 2021 it won the German TV Prize, the equivalent of the BAFTAs, for Best Comedy/Late Night show. It’s been described in the Deutschlandfunk Kultur — I do like writing German titles — as “really brilliant television” and in the Suddeustsche Zeitung as “the gem of WDR”. And WDR is the second largest broadcaster in Europe after the BBC.

This is because, when non-Jewish TV commissioners imagine that a show about Jews would just appeal to Jews, they’re as wrong (and as racist) as someone who imagines that only Asians would find Goodness Gracious Me funny. Jews are good — this is why Fiddler On The Roof is performed all over the world — at finding, in their own particular, the universal.
Jews talking about Jews, even when they get down to incredible specifics, aren’t really talking about Jews. They’re talking through the lens of Jewishness about the condition of being human. Which is why one needs to be careful playing my Least Jewish game, as it turns out almost any of the things you at first imagine occupying that space — German TV comedy, for example — may surprise you.

May 12, 2022 13:01

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