But the original Get Smart comes from a time when Jewish identity, and Jewish humor, were tickled by a very different set of issues in the West. It was an era when Jews in the U.S. were still struggling to be seen as anything other than mouth-breathing nerds or commie spies. Maxwell Smart is a Jew from that era: He’s a total dork who struggles to be a super-agent. In fact, he’s not even openly a Jew, though every Jew who watched that show knew what was up. (Jewish pranksters Mel Brooks and Buck Henry created the show, and a ton of Jewish guys worked on it as writers.) What’s jarring about the movie remake is how little the writers tried to update the humor.
The new Get Smart film’s references to nudniks, and Alan Arkin’s hilarious hand-wavey schtick, seem retro because they are still the covert Jewish jokes of the 1960s. They are straight from an era when Hollywood Jews were closety about their ethnic backgrounds. Despite the fact that the Get Smart TV show featured a robot named Hymie and was packed with Yiddish references, you can bet that most of its audience had no idea they were giggling at Jewish humor. To update Get Smart for a new generation, the writers needed to make all that old-school covert Jewishness into something hilariously overt, or just get rid of it.