Berg, not easily deterred, reinvented herself in the late 1950s as a serious actress and continued to write, switching gears to the Broadway stage. She won a Tony Award in 1959 for her performance in the drama A Majority of One, about a Jewish-American woman who falls in love with a Japanese man on a cruise ship while grieving the death of her son in World War Two. Berg died of heart failure in 1966 at the age of 66. She had two more plays in the works at the time.
There wouldn’t be another Jewish main character on television until 1972’s Bridget Loves Bernie, a sitcom about a marriage between a Catholic woman and a Jewish man. Even that was short-lived, and “too Jewish” became a standard rejection note in the decades to come. In 1969, when producers James L Brooks and Allan Burns pitched CBS the idea of making the main character of their creation, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, divorced, they somehow got a dose of this anti-Semitism, too: “Our research says American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a lead of a series any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York,” the researchers told them. Twenty years later, there it was again, this time with NBC executives’ premature dismissal of Seinfeld’s 1989 pilot: “Too New York, too Jewish.”
We can thank Gertrude Berg for nonetheless smoothing the way for The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s very Jewish and very New York character Rhoda Morgenstern, for Seinfeld and The Nanny, for Transparent and The Marvelous Mrs Maisel.
In fact, the character of Sophie Lennon on Maisel, played by Jane Lynch, could be seen as a bit of an homage to Berg. Sophie is a comedian who presents as a frumpy, accented housewife on stage (catchphrase: “Put that on your plate!”), but, in fact, lives in a posh home, dresses impeccably, and speaks like the highest-class New Yorker when she’s not performing. “Do you understand who I am, what I am, to this business?” she snaps in a third-season episode. It’s time that we recognise Gertrude Berg for what she was to the TV business – and the legacy of her comedy that still endures.
When Women Invented Television is published on 23 March.
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