Jewish World Review June 20, 2000 / 17 Sivan, 5760

A Borscht Belt comic's response to the growing suburbs ... and Yiddish lounge lizards

By George Robinson

I WAS SPEAKING with a brilliant young student rabbi of my acquaintance last week and mentioned with great enthusiasm that I had been listening to the new CD re-release of "Mickey Katz's Greatest Shticks."

Blank incomprehension.

Imagine my shock.

(It got worse when I referred to Spike Jones and His City Slickers. More incomprehension. What are they teaching our children in the public schools these days?)

I knew better than to even mention the Barton Brothers.

Perhaps nothing is deader than last year's jokes.

Happily, with the advent of the compact disk era the record industry has become an all-devouring maw into which producers now pour an astonishing array of music from the ancient past (i.e. the Twentieth Century). So now, you should pardon the expression, l'dor va-dor, from generation to generation, you can teach your children about Mickey Katz -- they should know more than "he's Joel Grey's father" or G-d forbid, "he's Jennifer Grey's grandpa."

And a griner like yours truly can know from the Barton Brothers yet.

All kidding aside -- and trying to write straight-faced about "Mickey Katz's Greatest Shticks" and "Joe and Paul: The Best of the Barton Brothers" is nearly impossible -- you would have to be a Yiddish-speaking Jewish-American of a certain age to remember the Barton Brothers. They had their big break-out hit record, "Joe and Paul" in the mid-1940s, before the LP era; that record, with its apparently dead-on parody of WEVD (here given as WBVD) and its advertisers, is a throwback to an era of Yiddish-language radio that is as dead as the 78 RPM records the Barton Brothers cut.

There's something louche and a little fey about the Bartons. Their routines, with their mixture of radio adspeak and Yiddish off-color humor are almost preternaturally laid-back. Listening to them now, you feel like one of the band in a 50s strip joint, with Lenny Bruce telling all the jokes to you, pointedly ignoring the yokels in the audience. The result is funny, even to someone with my rudimentary Yiddish, but also more than a little creepy. These guys simply scream "lounge lizard."

By contrast, Katz is buoyant and out front in his giddy insanity like a fifth Marx Brother. (Yes, I know there were five, but who counts Gummo?) The musicianship is at a much higher level than that of the anonymous band backing the Bartons, with trumpeter Manny Klein (ex-Goodman, ex-Dorsey) particularly splendid. And the sound quality is brighter and more burnished (although that could just be the transfer).

Katz was inspired by the Bartons' success with "Joe and Paul" and a stint with Spike Jones to strike out on his own with Yiddishized parodies of contemporary hits. On "Greatest Shticks" "Wheel of Fortune" becomes "Shlemiel of Fortune," "Ghost Riders in the Sky" is transmuted into "Borsht Riders in the Sky," "Witch Doctor" is converted to "Knish Doctor," and "Purple People Eater" to "Purple Kishke Eater."

The material that Katz is parodying is, to put it bluntly, dreck. But it's dreck of a very specific sort -- the plastic detritus of 50s America, the musical equivalent of formica and tuna casseroles, of "Danish" modern and "French" provincial. In short, Katz is a Borscht Belt reply to the growing suburbs, an adamant refusal to surrender to the de-ethnicized homogeneity of Levittown and its hundreds of imitators, a matzah ball in the eye of popular culture. You think "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window" deserves better?

If Katz and the Bartons are occasionally vulgar (and what else could you call a song like "Cockeyed Jenny?"), that too is a reaction against the airbrushed post-WWII era, an era that gave us Playboy and Doris Day movies as its expression of male and female sexuality, respectively. In that respect, they are not so different from Eisenhower-era phenomena as diverse as Norman Mailer's The Deer Park, the gross-out violence of EC Comics and filmmaker Herschel Gordon Lewis, and the edgy hysteria of Jerry Lewis.

But in Katz's records, there is a double subversion going on. Whenever an American Jew addresses an mainstream audience, the audience really is two-fold: the American mainstream and the Jewish-American community. We write for one another as much as for the Other. Katz is no exception.

His humor is so specifically Jewish, so richly leavened with Yiddishe khametz that his primary audience must have been American Jews, and because the yeast he's using is Yiddish, it is an invitation, a provocation to retain a highly specific Jewish identity. It's as if Katz opened "Duvid Crockett," the first cut on "Greatest Shticks" with a deliberate invocation to his audience: Forget that Davy Crockett shmendrick, Yiden, speak Yiddish, think Yiddish, shpritz Yiddish.

And that invocation goes -- deliberately, I think -- against the Jewish-American grain of the 1950s. As Peter Novick has pointed out in his controversial book The Holocaust in American Life, major Jewish organizations actively participated in a process of "universalizing" the Holocaust as part of taking the threat out of Jewish Otherness.

Jewish-Americans were supposed to lose their accents, move to the suburbs like everybody else and accept the bizarre notion that Chanukah is the just like Christmas, Passover just like Easter and we all believe in National Brotherhood Week.

Which is where Katz comes in with his insistence to Jewish audiences (and to the non-Jews who overhear him) that you can't shuck off your skin as you would a cheap suit.

That is also, I think, why Katz's instrumental recordings are less satisfying than the parodies. Although "Music for Weddings, Bar Mitzvahes and Brisses" gets brownie points for the audacity of its title, hearing Katz play klezmer more or less straight lacks the thrill of the subversive, the forbidden acknowledgement of the tension between Jewish-American and American cultures. Katz would have had to be as great a clarinetist as Dave Tarras and Benny Goodman combined to make the change work.

But in "Greatest Shticks" and the other parody albums -- and in the Barton Brothers' sheer chutzpadike vulgarity -- we are allowed to relax a bit among family, loosen our belts and let out a sigh and just be who we are.

Or were.

JWR's George Robinson is a music reviewer whose work regularly appears in several American Jewish publications. To cooment, please click here.


© 2000, George Robinson.