When this magazine was in its infancy, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, New Jersey was the national joke. You didn’t have to say much more than the words New Jersey and people laughed—even New Jerseyans, myself included. Traveling, North Jerseyans would tell people elsewhere that they were from greater New York. Mostly, our sense of inferiority emanated from New York, the big city that disparaged what it considered its benighted country cousin.
Saturday Night Live always put New Jersey down. John Belushi routinely referred to our state as “the armpit of America.” An issue of this magazine had SNL’s Gilda Radner on the cover using a catchphrase of her character, Roseanne Rosannadanna: “New Jersey? It makes me wanna die.” (Yours truly wrote the accompanying cover story, “How New Jersey Became a Joke.”) Certain accusations against him aside, Woody Allen never let New Jersey alone in his movies. In Sleeper, his character, cryogenically frozen for 200 years, is asked whether he learned anything while in that altered state. “Yes,” he answers. “I discovered that there is intelligent life in the universe—except in certain parts of New Jersey.”
But the Jersey joke has all but disappeared. Jokes generally grow tired and inconsequential, but more importantly, New Jersey has distinguished itself in myriad ways. Bruce Springsteen has been acclaimed as the world’s greatest rocker. The Sopranos is celebrated by many as perhaps the greatest show to ever appear on television. America’s finest actors come from New Jersey: Meryl Streep grew up in Bernardsville and Jack Nicholson in Neptune. The musical Jersey Boys was a hit on Broadway. Toni Morrison, teaching at Princeton University, won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and George Segal was widely celebrated as America’s greatest sculptor. It became cool to be from New Jersey.
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New Jerseyans began to realize how important their state was. It has the Turnpike, the world’s widest and most traveled road, and the George Washington Bridge, the world’s busiest. On its east side are fine beaches; on its west, the beautiful Delaware River. Every year, the Rutgers-Eagleton poll has shown increasing enthusiasm for the state among its residents. Jersey travelers no longer come from greater New York. Even SNL no longer makes Jersey jokes.
When the great French photographic artist Henri Cartier-Bresson was sent over to capture the essence of America in the 1970s, he restricted his work to New Jersey. Asked why, he said that New Jersey was the most varied and typical American state. Similarly, historian John Cunningham suggested in the subtitle of one of his books that New Jersey was “a mirror on America.”
New Jersey is now widely seen as the most representative American state. A small part of me misses the Jersey joke, though I’m perfectly happy to do without it.
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Michael Aaron Rockland is Professor of American Studies emeritus at Rutgers University. His latest book is The Other Jersey Shore, due out in May.