The Next Big Thing: Jewish New York and Punk Comedy

A few years ago, I had the distinct yet hardly unique pleasure of introducing my girlfriend at the time to the Fox animated series The Critic. For those unfamiliar, it was a side project of Al Jean and Mike Reiss, two of the guys who made The Simpsons into the best sitcom in history for those six blazing seasons in the mid-1990s. The Critic featured the voice of Jon Lovitz as Jay Sherman, a relentless, basic-cable film critic caught in a world of a megalomaniacal Ted Turner-like station owner (Duke Phillipps, perhaps the second-most consistently funny character on the show) and a revolving door of celebrities, both real-world and apocryphal. He is about as stereotypically Jewish as Fox would allow a character to be without banning it outright, as they did with one episode of ‘Family Guy’ (which, upon viewing, I didn’t see anything wrong with, convincing me the “banning” was a typical Seth MacFarlane publicity stunt). However, Sherman had been adopted as a baby by an extremely wealthy WASP family, including a father named Franklin who was once Governor of New York and is completely insane (not to mention the most consistently hilarious character on the show). He has a teenage half-sister who he loves dearly and provides a platform for perhaps my favorite cut-away joke in sitcom history (which MacFarlane has been trying, and failing, to match for years). The show was a brief, blazing cocktail of New York and Hollywood in-jokes that fell prey to an unfortunate fate split between ABC and Fox and ultimately the corporate cutting-room floor. My girlfriend, after about an episode and a half, turned to me and asked “so, why the hell did this get cancelled so quickly?” I hadn’t really read into it at that point, so I guessed, “I don’t know, maybe it was just too niche Jewish New York?”

In retrospect, I was only marginally right, but that phrase carries so much weight. I also couldn’t help but think about it when reading Steven Lee Beeber’s fun chapter in Sounds and the City (2014). It is entitled ‘Juidos n’ Decaf Italians: Irony, Blasphemy, and Jewish Schtick,’ and is a brief history of a band often credited with cranking the gears of punk rock in motion, The Dictators.

The flip side of the dust sleeve is the other members saying "YEAH!" while Handsome Dick Manitoba raises his arms victoriously in the background. The photo is identical and you can't make this stuff up.

The flip side of the dust sleeve is the other members saying “YEAH!” while Handsome Dick Manitoba raises his arms victoriously in the background. The photo is nearly identical and you can’t make this stuff up.

Who were the Dictators? Funny you should ask, me typing rhetorically! They were an incredibly Jewish predecessor to the Ramones whose brilliant debut album ‘Go Girl Crazy!’ hit shelves forty years ago this past spring. Beeber’s chapter inspired me to throw their record on as I was getting ready to leave the house one morning last week, and it reminded me how not only may “Go Girl Crazy!” be one of the funniest records ever recorded, but it truly did anticipate an entire generation of self-effacing, perpetually two-steps-ahead of the haters punk music (only, with one foot solidly in classic rock).  I’ll embed it here so you can listen while reading. It provides a stunningly (not stunningly) good accompaniment.

So, what is it about The Dictators that puts them into a class firmly their own, and kept them from achieving the household name status that fellow Long Island Jews Jeffrey Hyman and Tommy Erdelyi achieved? The credo that genius is rarely understood in its time applies, yes, but it’s pretty easy to look back four decades and realize that most of their jokes flew over the heads of the general populace. As Beeber (p. 83) writes:

Song titles like “Back to Africa,” “Teengenerate,” and “Master Race Rock” speak not only to a comic-ironic take on American culture that is inherently Jewish, but also to darker – equally Jewish – experiences like racism, anti-Semitism, and Nazis. As we supposed to laugh or be offended? Amused or disturbed? Is all this funny ha ha or funny strange?

This is fair enough. Put yourself in the shoes of a fan of Epic Records’ output at the time, but in a middle-American city with an underwhelming Jewish population. Let’s say… Knoxville, TN. You managed to call up the local record shop (Cat’s Records, at the time, I believe) and get this oddball release with that wacky cover. A bombastic, husky quote about his “vast financial holdings” confuses you before you hear a note of music. If the first track didn’t confuse you a bit, then their cover of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” at track two will certainly get you scratching your head and asking “what the hell…?” As funny as their version may seem now, it came off as weird and simply un-rock n’ roll in the mid-1970s. It’s times thinking about albums like these (critically revered years after their release) where I wish there had been a blogosphere, Facebook, or some kind of indexed record to see just who was actually on board with this band forty years ago. No matter how poorly the Dictators’ relationship with Epic went, not to mention how their relationship with their erstwhile singer went, it’s still remarkable (from a satirical standpoint) how they found comedic pay-dirt in Cher two decades before The Critic did.

When the Dictators formed, several decades had passed since Moses Horwitz, Louis Feinberg, and Jerome Horwitz needed to call themselves Howard, Fine, and Howard and tone down Yiddish references to succeed in Hollywood (albeit with rare, sly exceptions). In the 1970s, Woody Allen had brought Jewish New York to the big screen in a self-effacing, modern way, but Jewish culture was still not fool-proof. Despite how New York, at the time, had the largest Jewish population of any city in the world (Beeber 2014, 77), Jews still composed a severe minority on the scale of the United States. The subtleties of their humor hit too many cultural roadblocks on the roads leading out of places like Brooklyn, NY and Highland Park, IL.

The history still requires a much more complex look, particularly because it wasn’t really until the 1920s that Jewish people had gained an authoritative voice in the United States. As Jews began to carve a niche in American society, Vaudeville maintained a reliable set of tropes through which to lampoon them. The most straightforward frames through which to ridicule Jewish people came in the form of the places most adherent to tradition and ritual: weddings and funerals.  Many Hebrew dialect recordings revolve around Wedding gatherings (“At the Yiddish Wedding Jubilee,” in which our friend ‘Cohen’ makes a drunken cameo at the open bar) or a cultural preoccupation with marriage (“Marry a Yiddisher Boy”). Funerals did not provide as much fodder as weddings, despite how many Vaudeville comics joked that the two events were one in the same. Regardless, a funeral setting allowed “Cohen Owes Me $97” to turn in one of his finest performances as a stereotypical tightwad.

While none of these depictions of an (at the time) marginalized ethnicity are completely easy to stomach today, they are comprehensible within their historical context. One maxim that has remained true throughout the history of recording has been Taylor’s (2001) idea of how “the various media and technologies we use to disseminate and store information change our perceptions” (p. 29). Youtube has made a wide array of virulently racist old material readily available, so for an education institution dedicated to preservation and historical archivism to play down these antiquated discourses would be irresponsible and, as the UCSB site says “would deprive scholars and the public the opportunity to learn about the past and would present a distorted picture of popular culture and music making during this time period.” While racist imagery of black performers and non-black performers donning blackface, though firmly taboo, still persists, the image of the Jewish immigrant as buffoon has become folded into history. McLean (1965) expanded upon how “the minstrel show had emphatically relegated the figure of the Negro – a black intruder in a white world – to a role of comic inferiority,… an impotent and exotic creature in a land settled and governed by white stock” (p. 26).

Jewish people, being a vast majority Caucasian, did not face the same levels of ridicule. Many Jewish performers could pass themselves off as secular just as many secular performers could pass themselves off as Jewish for Dialect comedy purposes. Because of this, to determine who among dialect comics was Jewish and who was not presents a challenge. Maurice Burkhart is one example of a performer who could easily have been Jewish and lampooning his own culture to climb a ladder of success. Others, like Julian Rose, were less ambiguously documented as goys, and were coincidentally less fortunate. As Merwin (2006) wrote, “over time, many of these extreme forms of ethnic parody began to seem less funny, as immigrant groups became more accepted in American society… the Immigration Acts of the 1920s prevented new immigrants from arriving – providing fewer examples of unassimilated Jews for American culture to parody” (p. 22). This coincided with the slowing down of immigration after World War I. Shellac records and radios began to appear en masse during this era as well. Julian Rose, like many other Hebrew Dialect comedians, did not survive this windfall, at least not in the United States, where Travis Stewart (2013) says “the act wore out its welcome” (Travalanche) by the end of the 1920s. As radio exploded and changed the nature of telephony within music and theater, the second generation of American Jews emerged and changed the world. While several of them grew to fame using goyish stage names, a slew of Jewish entertainers (George Burns, Jack Benny, George Jessel being three on top of a very long list) were integral in radio’s arrival as what Timothy Taylor (2005) called “blurring [of] the distinction between public and private in America in the twentieth century” (p. 259).

This is not to say that Jews had not already experienced a steady, increasing flow of acceptance within the entertainment field prior. Jewish musical traditions were among the first elements of Eastern European culture that infiltrated the American mainstream. The ending of “Under the Matzos Tree” skillfully incorporated a couple bars of the traditional Jewish wedding song “Mazel Tov,” and “Marry a Yiddisher Boy” fit perfectly within the established framework of the Barbershop quartet. This was unsurprising, as many Hebrew performers, whether they were Jewish or not, adopted pieces that descended primarily from the New York City / Tin Pan Alley tradition.

Citing author Michael G. Corenthal, Merwin (2006) credits the millions of records sold by Jewish comedians (and comedians doing Jewish routines) during the early days of the record industry forged an integration with Christian America, bringing Jewish life into non-Jewish homes the continent over (p. 10). Even as a ridiculed, persecuted minority, the American Jew had, as McLean (1965) put it, “paradoxically, come to speak, through its rich tradition of humor, for the plight of mass man” (p. 114).

Generations later, certain programming that could be referred to as “quintessentially Jewish” such as ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ succeeded, but largely through modulating more British arcs of awkward interactions and hellishly antisocial scenarios into American settings. Imagine Ricky Gervais in “The Office,” and ultimately Steve Carell reinventing that character archetype on our side of the pond. I would argue this, rather than “Jewish” humor was what made Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David into household names. If you want to split hairs, Seinfeld was probably the least entertaining character on his show.

Regardless, is this a matter of sociology, geography, or just some sick academic specialty in “comedy?” Beeber (p. 83) continues…

Hard to say. But, in combining their talents with [Andy] Shernoff’s and using Handsome Dick as their mouthpiece, [Rock critics and early promoters of The Dictators] Sandy Pearlman and [Richard] Meltzer just may have creating the missing link between pre-punk and punk – the Italian-acting, Nazi-referencing, Jewish tough guy, a wiseass and holy fool who’s 100 per cent New York.

One of Beeber’s major points here was the cultural hybridity of the Jews and the Italians, using the term “Juido” (admitting that there are plenty of people who may have issues with the portmanteau). This was a reality I grew up with; my grandfather’s best friend in the world was a first-generation Italian-American named Biagio (“Billy” to his friends). The Hartford where they grew up was obviously no New York or Philadelphia, but the natural inclination the Jews and Italians had to run together was just as strong. One group had flocked to Ellis Island from Eastern Europe and the other from Southern Europe, one group read the Torah and the other read whatever the Pope had to say. However, both Jews and Italians came into their own as Americans around the same time and grew up with guilt-tripping mothers. Even when I was in college, the Jews and Italian-Americans in my communications classes found themselves sharing countless “Oh man, me too!” moments. They have long provided valuable foils for one another both on-screen and off, for reasons that those belonging to neither group can understand but never truly get. 

I grew up relatively close to New York, but didn’t spend as much time there as I would have liked at the time. By the time I was old enough to hang out there on my own, much of the city was getting freakishly safe and expensive. The last time I was there, in 2012, I met up with my friend Tor, who was in the states from Oslo. He brought me to Manitoba’s, the erstwhile frontman’s dive bar in Alphabet City. We stepped inside, and in some strange way, it felt slightly like the New York of the 1970s had been stuffed into this (admittedly sanitized) time capsule. I’ll never forget seeing Blum himself sitting on a bench, holding court with a group of like-minded individuals in a corner. His wife was tending the bar and their young son rode around on a razor scooter. Most memorably, Blum just looked happy. He looked at home. No matter how much his city had changed, his humor and attitude never could.

It is still curious yet not completely unsurprisingly how readily the Dictators are minimized in discussions about the first wave of punk in light of New York counterparts like The New York Dolls, The Ramones, and Blondie. In October 2007, a friend and I went to see Beeber doing a JCC-sponsored appearance at the Black Cat Backstage to promote his book The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGBs. I remember most of the conversation revolving around the Ramones (for obvious reasons) as well as later-wave Jewish-led/influenced New York bands like Reagan Youth. I’m sure the Dictators came up once or twice, but I don’t remember them dominating the conversation like they could have. They were not the most famous “Jewish” punk band to rise from that era, but they were undeniably the most Jewish. Take that for what it’s worth. Handsome Dick Manitoba, Ross “The Boss” Funicello, Scott Kempner, Stu Boy King, and Andy Shernoff were, cumulatively, a wonderful, bombastic proto-punk Jay Sherman. Beloved in retrospect, given the shaft by corporate interests and history. Too bad the Dictators were never able to work out a brilliant crossover episode on ‘The Simpsons.’ I would love it if the “Flaming Moes” episode featured them rather than Aerosmith.

LINER NOTES

This entry features pieces of a paper I previously wrote for a course on Music and Technoculture, which would have done well to include The Dictators within the pantheon of New York/Jewish humor. Here are the works I cited above:

  • Benjamin, W. (1968). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In Illuminations (pp. 219-253). New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc.
  • Beeber, S. L. (2014). Juidos ‘n’ Decaf Italians: Irony, Blasphemy, and Jewish Shtick. In (Lashua, B., Spracklen, K., & Wagg, S., eds.) Sounds and the City: Popular Music, Place and Globalization. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 76-91.
  • Burns, G. (1989). All my best friends. New York: GP Putnam’s Sons.
  • Gay Jr., L. C. (2003). Before the deluge: The technoculture of song sheet publishing viewed from late 19th-century Galveston. In R. T. A. Lysloff & L. C. Gay Jr. (Eds.), Music and   technoculture (pp. 204-232). Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.
  • Gilbert, D. (1940). American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times. New York: Whittlesey House.
  • Katz, M. (2010). Capturing sound: How technology has changed music (Rev. ed.).   Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Lysloff, R. T. A., & Gay Jr., L. C. (2003). Introduction: Ethnomusicology in the twenty-first century. In R. T. A. Lysloff & L. C. Gay Jr. (Eds.), Music and technoculture (pp. 1-22). Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
  • McLean, A. (1965). American Vaudeville as Ritual. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.
  • Merwin, T. (2006). In their own image: New York Jews in jazz age popular culture. New   Brunswick: Rutgers University press.
  • Stewart, T. D. (2005). No Applause – Just Throw Money, or The Book that Made Vaudeville Famous. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc.
  • Stewart, T. D. (2013). Stars of Vaudeville #572: Julian Rose. Travalanche Weblog. 17 Jan 2013. Accessed 4 Apr 2015 here.
  • Taylor, T. D. (2001). Strange sounds: Music, technology & culture. New York: Routledge.
  • Taylor, T. D. (2005). Music and the rise of radio in twenties America: Technological   imperialism, socialization, and the transformation of intimacy. In P. D. Greene & T.     Porcello (Eds.), Wired for sound: Engineering and technologies in sonic cultures (pp. 245-268). Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.
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