Q & A with Samantha Pickette, Author of "Peak TV's Unapologetic Jewish Woman"
In late December 2022, Samantha Pickette published Peak TV’s Unapologetic Jewish Woman: Exploring Jewish Female Representation in Contemporary Television Comedy. The book analyzes the ways in which contemporary American television—with its unprecedented choice, diversity, and authenticity—is establishing a new version of the Jewish woman and a new take on American Jewish female identity that challenges the stereotypes of Jewish femininity that have persisted on TV.
Using case studies of comedy series from the past decade written and created by Jewish women, including Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, this book illustrates how the new Jewish woman has been given voice and agency by the bevy of Jewish female showrunners interested in telling stories about Jewish women for wider audiences.
JWA had the chance to speak with Pickette about the changing role of Jewish women in comedy, standup as a platform for transgression, and how we can move away from stereotypical portrayals of Jews as we enter this new age of television media.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
JWA: I wanted to start by talking a little bit about neurosis as a facet of Jewishness and how that intersects with gender performance, if you can speak to that.
Samantha Pickette: Historically, there has been this very clear connection between neuroses and Jewishness, both in representations of Jews that come from non-Jews, and in Jewish self-representation. And I talk about this a lot in relation to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, because that kind of case study really delves into that idea.
One of the things I find so interesting about that kind of Larry David/Woody Allen mode of Jewish representation is it seems to make the case that neuroticism is something that is a given in Jews, and that it actually makes us special. I don't necessarily know if I agree with that, but it is definitely something you see, leaning into this idea that Jews are somehow more intellectual, more cerebral, more neurotic, but also, in that way, more complicated and interesting.
In popular culture, we tend to think of Jews in terms of just Jewish men, and Jewish women are this other. They're women first, and then they're Jews. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend takes the whole Jewish, neurotic, Woody Allen-type paradigm and flips it on its head by introducing to us this woman, Rebecca Bunch, who in the beginning of the series totally buys into that paradigm and totally identifies herself through that lens. She sees what she thinks of as "mental health quirks" as manifestations both of this inherited Jewish trauma and also manifestations of her "main character energy." She sees herself as this romcom heroine, and all of these kinds of excuses are made for her behavior because she's seeing herself through these tropes. And then the series gradually breaks down those archetypes so that it becomes very clear that it's not just general "Jewish female craziness," it's actually something that's much deeper and more complex and real.
JWA: In the book, you define a difference between what's considered "Jewish humor" and what's considered "women's humor." Can you expand on that?
SP: Part of it has to do with the fact that, in general, we tend to think of the male point of view as universal. Jewish female comics aren't just representing a Jewish experience, they're representing a specifically Jewish female experience. If we think of comedy as something that's about people not only relating their own experiences but also punching up at systems of oppression, then Jewish women have two modes of othering. They're other because they're Jewish and they're other because they're women.
I think for a lot of especially contemporary Jewish female comics, but also historically, the response to misogyny and all of those struggles that come with being a loud, mouthy woman in a misogynistic world—that sometimes shines through a little bit more than the Jewish stuff. It's just added layers of otherness. Jewish men's comedy tends to revolve around making fun of and grappling with their Jewishness, because their Jewishness undermines their claims to "normal" American masculinity.
With Jewish female comics, it's much more about what being a woman means in a man's world. You see it a lot with Midge's comedy [in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel], which is very much rooted in traditional Jewish female humor—Joan Rivers, Jean Carroll. But also, because it's a contemporary series, it's very much reflected in the ethos of recent Jewish female comedians like Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson and Amy Schumer and Jenny Slate.
JWA: I'm really interested in this idea in the book of standup as a medium built for transgression. Could you talk a little bit about what has helped Jewish women succeed in that transgressive medium and how that's changed over time?
SP: Even from a narrative perspective, one of the reasons why Maisel works so well as a show is because standup as a medium gives you such a cool and rare opportunity to actually give insight into a character's interiority without doing voiceover narration, which can sometimes feel really artificial. We get really into the inner workings of Midge's head. We get that from male characters, but we don't necessarily get it from female characters, so the fact that standup becomes the mechanism through which that happens is really interesting.
I think one of the things that has benefitted Jewish women—perhaps why Jewish women gravitate towards standup comedy—is this idea of standup as an art form that allows for you to have control over the way that a story is being told, over the way your perspective is being represented and perceived.
When you really think about the role that Jewish women have played within popular culture, most of the time it's in not only unflattering ways, but in ways that take away the humanity and the voice of a Jewish female character. I'm thinking about all of the Jewish American Princesses, and Jewish mothers whose humanity is diminished and whose voices are filtered through the perspectives of the tortured men around them. The gravitation of Jewish women towards standup makes sense because how do you counteract that kind of image? By getting up onstage and actually telling your own side of the story.
JWA: Building on that, something about me is I'm the world's biggest Gilmore Girls fan and I also hate it.
JWA: For reasons you describe in the book! There's that sense that the main characters are in some way exceptional, and they're a part of this community of kooky characters, but you're also denying the humanity of those kooky characters by framing them in opposition to these exceptional women who are "normal." Could you speak to how we can start to move away from depicting Jewishness as an obstacle to likability or "being normal"?
SP: It's something that I grappled with the entire time that I was researching and writing this book. It's very frustrating. Like, I'm sure you can get a sense in the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Mrs. Maisel chapters, I have a very love-hate relationship with both of those shows. On the one hand, you have protagonists in Rebecca and in Midge who are so multifaceted and nuanced and they're doing something new, and they're well-written, and they're funny. And, in both shows, you have these side characters who are dripping in old, lazy stereotypes that really do make a distinction where there's a right kind of way of being Jewish and a wrong kind of way. What Jewish means here is, obviously, loud, and unacceptable, and not able to fit into polite society. All of these really ugly, old archetypes.
Millennial Jewish showrunners continue to be a little bit less interested in those kinds of stereotypes. The CW is a traditional television network, so Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was working within a traditional network framework. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel comes from Amy Sherman-Palladino, who has been working in television since the writers' room for Roseanne. There's different patterns of representation that they're drawing from.
When you look at something like Broad City, for example, it was first developed as a web series and then bankrolled into a Comedy Central series with these two young, up-and-coming comics. One of the things I love about that show is the characters are all incredibly Jewish, but you don't really see that same binary where there are Jews who are better or more assimilated or somehow more acceptable versus Jews who are more visible, less assimilated, and therefore made fun of.
You get a sense of intergenerational Jewish femininity. Ilana's not sitting there, like, "Oh my God, I've become my mother." She wants to be like her mother! It's such a loving, wonderful depiction of Jewish women of multiple generations and different backgrounds.
I think maybe that's a potential avenue, where if we start to question why it is our perception of Jewishness is so wrapped up in these ideas of rendering ourselves too visible, or in some way, shape, or form being too much, and instead embrace those qualities and reframe them, I think that might be a possible step in the right direction.
JWA: Where do you think we're headed in terms of Jewish female representation on TV? What excites you?
SP: I hope that where we're headed is just a greater proliferation of series featuring smart Jewish female protagonists. But also, just increasing diversity—of background, of perspective. One of the things I find particularly heartening is that in series that are still ongoing, we're seeing so many gains made in terms of normalizing things that have existed in Jewish community forever, but haven't made their way into pop culture. Like, Russian Doll is a series I find really exciting and great. I love that its entire conception of Jewishness doesn't have anything to do with American cultural stereotypes and is instead situated around deeply Kabbalistic, Jewish mysticism-related ideas that expand the possibility for what American television can do with Judaism. Even something like Orange is the New Black, you have a burgeoning introduction of Jews of color into the Jewish television landscape.
One of the things I'm excited to see more of is more shows created by Jewish women that offer different viewpoints and give us even more insight into how Jewishness can be represented on television in terms of practice, in terms of Jews making their own way into Judaism, in defining their own practices. I hope that, with the structure of television being what it is with so many streaming services and an embarrassment of options, I hope that means there will be even more platforms and opportunities for up-and-coming Jewish women showrunners to tell their stories.