iCarly, the Nickelodeon series about a popular web show run by three teenagers — Sam Puckett, Freddie Benson, and Carly Shay — was my entire childhood. By sheer luck of having the television tuned to Nickelodeon for inordinate amounts of time, I had seen every episode, seen them again, and could quote significant portions of dialogue by heart. It was the rare show that my parents would actually watch with me — my dad thought that Spencer, Carly’s older brother, was hilarious.
Though I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it, I immediately watched the entire show again when it was recently added to Netflix. Immediately isn’t an exaggeration — pretty sure I finished in a week.
And, while it was slightly less but almost as funny as my middle school self remembered, I noticed something more than pure nostalgia. There are a lot of Jewish jokes. A lot for any show, but especially for a show where none of the main actors are Jewish, and where the Jewish identity of the main characters is most likely nonexistent (though this is disputed in some episodes).
First, the Jewish jokes. It’s impossible to make a comprehensive list, because they’re truly everywhere, but here are seven notable ones.
1. Gibby! (extra short on iCarly.com)
While Gibby, a close friend to the main characters who is known for taking his shirt off at odd times, never discusses his Jewish identity, Gibby’s plastic head — not exactly sure where this came from, but an identical Gibby head is a running gag for the last few seasons of the show — is wearing a yarmulke and gets married in a fantasy wedding to Ariana Grande. The wedding is rabbi-officiated and, yes, Gibby’s head does indeed break the glass. So the most explicitly Jewish character on the show is… a mannequin head.
2. Is Freddie’s mom Jewish? (season 5, episode 3)
In a later episode, Freddie’s mom tears her blouse in what is seemingly a reference to the Jewish mourning tradition of keriah, or tearing clothing after the loss of a family member. Freddie separately makes a reference to “church pants,” so either this is an interfaith family or some sort of Jewish custom appropriation. If it turns out that the Bensons are Jewish, then we probably need to have a conversation surrounding Freddie’s mom, Mrs. Benson, and the hypochondriac, overbearing Jewish mother stereotype that she now embodies.
3. Rabbi Goldman (season 3, episode 10)
Sam paintballs a man who she thinks is Spencer in disguise; it turns out to be a rabbi named Rabbi Goldman (because of course) who, upon being shot, screams, “Oy!”
4. Bat mitzvah gifts (season 6, episode 12)
Sam: [The laptop] was a bat mitzvah gift from my grandmother.
Freddie: You’re not even Jewish.
Sam: You tell my grandma that and I will break you.
5. The Pirate Shalom (season 1, episode 20)
The store clerk: That’s a pirate word. It means “hello,” “goodbye,” “peace.” It’s like “shalom,” only for pirates.
6. The freaky rabbi who spotted Bigfoot (season 3, episode 16)
Carly: Since 2005, At least 56 people claim to have seen Bigfoot in or around the northern areas of Mount Baker National Forest.
Sam: Sure, 56 freaks and liars.
Carly: No, it says one was a girl scout and one was a rabbi.
Sam: So a lying little girl and a freaky rabbi.
Spencer: I once met a freaky rabbi in Vegas.
7. Psychologist and puns (season 4, episode 2)
Psychologist: No, Pam. It’s a new kind of therapy that’s a bit unorthodox.
Sam: That’s cool. We’re not Jewish.
In my opinion, none of the jokes are explicitly offensive and, on some level, I do like the fact that Judaism is so innocuously interwoven through a kid’s show. But it’s definitely jarring to have Judaism be a punchline and nothing more.
I don’t need, and I don’t want, someone’s Jewish identity to be the centerpiece of their personality in every television series, and it’s refreshing to see characters that are just Jewish sometimes. But when the only references to Judaism are caricatures with every trope in the book thrown together in one scene every season or so, that is not Jewish representation.
Children’s shows like iCarly are formative in shaping how younger generations perceive the world, so it’s unfortunate that what could have been a real opportunity to show interfaith and other multi-dimensional Jewish identities was squandered in favor of a few jokes and overused stereotypes.
My hypothesis is that Dan Schneider, the Jewish producer of iCarly (who left Nickelodeon amidst some troubling allegations of abuse), is responsible for the jokes. The evidence is nothing more than that none of the cast are Jewish — according to my internet sleuthing that mainly involved the “personal life” Wikipedia section — and that other shows he produced, such as Drake and Josh, have their own Jewish references sprinkled throughout as well. (Anyone else remember the iconic episode where Drake and Josh dress up as Irish rabbis in the theater to spy on Megan?)
With regard to Jewish jokes and representation in general, iCarly could have been so much better. Even so, is something better than nothing? I’m not quite sure. I guess I’ll just need to watch the whole series again…But is something better than nothing?