The Boundaries of American Jewishness with Stephen Colbert

In this clip, irreverent comedian Stephen Colbert is caught off guard by a family sitting in the front row who have mistakenly ended up at his Late Show instead of at Fiddler on the Roof (or so we’re led to believe). In an effort to appease his guests, Colbert starts to sing the opening lines to “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” when he is joined on stage—without warning—by the cast of the 2015-2016 Broadway revival of Fiddler. The sketch elicits a laugh for many reasons: the absurd element of surprise, Colbert’s over-the-top expressions, and, perhaps most importantly, for the playful crossing of boundaries throughout the scene. Colbert, who often over-emphasizes his WASPy non-Jewishness for comedic effect, is somehow both totally out of place and yet equally at home on stage with the most Jewish of American musicals. In this scene, Fiddler has become a stand-in for Jewishness itself. The idea that Stephen Colbert could be a “Papa” in Fiddler’s chorus of bearded, forelocked men is seen as a hilarious proposition. And yet, as the clip suggests, anything is possible on the Broadway stage. That the reaction to this border-crossing is good-natured laughter rather than discomfort further signals that, although Jews remain in many respects a distinct and separate people, they are nevertheless at the core of American life.