There’s a maxim amongst American TV sitcom writers:
“Write gay, cast female.
Write Jewish, cast gentile.
Write black, cast white.”
Looked at objectively this makes sense.
The standard WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) world is pretty dull.
Everyone is formal, no one ever says anything outrageous, the main purpose of life is to follow protocol.
Pretty much the opposite of comedy, if you wrote like that there wouldn’t be many laughs.
But that’s the majority of the middle class and they want to see themselves on screen, not what they consider a niche demographic they don’t recognise.
So it makes sense to take something fun and wrap it around something ordinary, like putting seasoning on an otherwise plain meal.
This was the thinking behind one of the biggest TV series ever, ‘Sex and the City’.
Darren Star, the creator, was gay so the writing was witty, the sex outrageous, the shopping glamorous, but mainstream America would never watch a show about gay men.
if only there was a way to make gay humour acceptable to a wider audience.
And there was, they made it about four young, career WOMEN living in Manhattan.
Suddenly all the witty, sexy, glamorous writing was acceptable to a mainstream audience.
That was a great example of ‘write gay, cast female’.
A great example of ‘write black, cast white’ was Elvis Presley.
Blues music had existed for decades in the US, but mainstream white audiences weren’t even allowed to hear it on mainstream radio, because it was black.
Then a good-looking white boy began singing it and it was the birth of rock & roll, and it changed the world.
Lieber and Stoller wrote ‘Hound Dog’ for Big Mama Thornton, but it hardly sold any copies until Elvis recorded it.
Then Jerry Lieber said: “I hated Elvis’s version until the cheques started rolling in, then I decided I liked it.”
That’s a great example of ‘write black, cast white’.
A great example of ‘write Jewish, cast gentile’ is Hollywood and Television.
Most of the powerful people that owned the film studios were Jewish, all the best and funniest writers were Jewish, but all the actors they cast were gentiles because that was acceptable to a mainstream audience.
In 1970, Time magazine estimated that 2% of the US population were Jewish but 80% of US comedians were Jewish.
Jews were better writers, but to become performers they had to change their names: Daniel Kaminsky became Danny Kaye, Nathan Birnbaum became George Burns, Benjamin Kubelsky became Jack Benny, Joseph Levitch became Jerry Lewis, Joan Molinsky became Joan Rivers, Melvin Kaminsky became Mel Brooks, Allen Konigsberg became Woody Allen, and so on.
It was even true in music, the only musician to get a Nobel Prize for their lyrics was Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan).
In the great days of New York advertising it was a cliché for the best teams to be an Italian art director and a Jewish copywriter.
(Because, as they said at the time, the Italians got the style and the Jews got the brains.)
So to Brits, New York Jewish names sounded exotic and creative.
Ron Collins told me he and Alan Parker wanted to start a creative consultancy, but Parker & Collins didn’t sound very creative.
So they got a Jewish cookbook and went through it, and eventually named their company after a dish: Kreplach & Kniedlach, which sounded much more creative.
Nowadays of course, in advertising we’ve got it the wrong way round.
All the interesting diversity is in the casting, none of it is in the writing.
We’ve got people of every race and every sexual orientation performing safe, boring, white middle-class scripts.
The new maxim is ‘Write dull, cast interesting’.