The Yiddish Are Coming

It is said that on the night of November 22, 1963, Lenny Bruce went through with a previously scheduled club date. (Nobody seems to know exactly where.) He walked on stage, looked at the audience for a moment, and then said (again, nobody is precisely sure, but this is a cleaner version), “Poor Vaughn Meader.”

Meader was the voice actor famed for his John F. Kennedy impersonation, the star of two wildly successful comedy albums written and produced by Bob Booker and Earle Doud. Cadence Records nearly scrapped the planned release of The First Family in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but going ahead proved to be a wise decision. The album spent three weeks at #1 on Billboard‘s monaural album chart in December 1962 and won Album of the Year at the 1963 Grammys. The First Family Volume Two, recorded in March 1963 and rushed out to capitalize on the success of the first, went to #4. But after Kennedy was assassinated in November, the label pulled the First Family albums from stores, and even went so far as having the unsold copies destroyed out of respect for the Kennedy family.

Meader wasn’t the only person involved with the First Family project whose career was derailed by the assassination. Bob Booker was also left figuring out what to do next. In 1965, Booker and a writing partner, George Foster, hit upon You Don’t Have to Be Jewish. The cast included Jack Gilford and Lou Jacobi, whose faces you would likely recognize; Bob McFadden and Frank Gallop, whose voices might be familiar; Betty Walker, a character actor and comic who had released a couple of albums featuring a one-sided telephone routine; and Arlene Golonka, then a Broadway actress who would later appear on practically every famous TV comedy show, including a co-starring role as Millie on Mayberry RFD. Booker and Foster didn’t duck the fact that most of the routines were based on material that was ancient even in 1965. As puts it, “Those with a lowered tolerance for nagging-mother jokes should consider themselves warned.”

You Don’t Have to Be Jewish was a hit, going to #9 on the Billboard album chart in a 34-week chart run that started in September 1965. A sequel was inevitable: When You’re in Love the Whole World is Jewish reunited most of the cast of the first album with the exception of Gilford and Golonka, who recommended a young New Yorker named Valerie Harper to take her place. Phil Leeds also joined the cast, another character actor who did literally every TV comedy from the 50s to the 80s. When You’re in Love the Whole World is Jewish did not equal its predecessor’s performance but it did OK, making #22 in an 18-week run starting in April 1966. It also produced an actual hit single: Frank Gallop’s “The Ballad of Irving,” which is at the top of this post. It became a top-10 hit in Seattle and Denver, and it made #34 on the Hot 100 in May 1966. Valerie Harper got her own spot on the album on “A Call From Greenwich Village,” a telephone routine also featuring Betty Walker, which foreshadows the relationship between Rhoda Morgenstern and her mother (played by Nancy Walker) on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Much of the same cast went back to the well in the fall of 1967 for The Yiddish Are Coming, the Yiddish Are Coming. This one scraped up to #165. One last album, The Jewish-American Princess, with Jacobi, Gallop, McFadden, and a Broadway veteran named Bea Arthur, came out in the fall of 1971. It made #183, and after that, the Booker/Foster Jewish comedy boom was good and truly over.

Some comedy is timeless, and some is timebound. These Jewish comedy albums are definitely in the latter category. Even in 1965, the audience often seems to be laughing in recognition of a particular sort of reality and not because the stuff is straight-up funny. Even the “The Ballad of Irving” doesn’t have much going for it beyond the amusing premise of a Jewish gunfighter in the Old West. A listener in 2020 may wonder why people are laughing at all. But 50 years ago, in a time not far removed from Allan Sherman’s heyday, when a great deal of stand-up comedy was heavily Jewish in outlook and the Borscht Belt was still a thing, the You Don’t Have to Be Jewish Players were right on time.

8 thoughts on “The Yiddish Are Coming

  1. Two other comments on When You’re In Love…, neither of them based on actually listening to the record:
    – The back cover notes that the album was “recorded LIVE in mono and stereo at Columbia Recording Studios, New York City, January 24, 1966.” Seems like a curious boast for a comedy album. Who cares whether they did it live?
    – The recording engineer was Stanley Tonkel, who — perhaps as a reward for having to sit through this — later got to work on In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Get Up With It, Eli and The Thirteenth Confession, and Glenn Gould’s second cut of the Goldberg Variations.

    1. mikehagerty

      “Live” mattered in comedy albums. Nobody wanted to be accused of doing a laugh track the way TV did.

      Allan Sherman was doing his song parodies at private parties in L.A. George Burns heard him, called an executive he knew at Warner Bros. Records and got him signed. To record the first album, Warners rounded up a bunch of people they knew, invited them to Sherman’s HOME and recorded it there.

      That was 1962. Apart from Stan Freberg and Vaughn Meader, I can’t recall too many comedy albums from that era that weren’t recorded live. It changed with The Firesign Theater in ’68 and Cheech and Chong in ’71, but even so, George Carlin and Richard Pryor’s albums were recorded live.

  2. Gary Omaha

    Comedy is in the ears of the beholder (so to speak). kblumenau said above “…just not a cultural vein that speaks to me…” I can understand that. I remember “The Ballad of Irving” and liked it. A current popular streaming TV show, “The Marvelous Mrs. Masel,” is full of Jewish references and jokes. My background helps me enjoy it but it may not be as funny to everyone.

  3. Alvaro Leos

    Even in 1965, the audience often seems to be laughing in recognition of a particular sort of reality…
    That’s probably why the targeted audience liked it. This boom in Yiddish comedy happened as the language itself was passing out of day-to-day use, the Borscht Belt was losing ground to international tourism, and Jews were becoming more integrated (in every sense). It seems to be a recorded version of going back to your old hometown, even if you don’t want to stay there.

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  5. jeffmissinne

    To Charlie and kblumenau: “The First Family” in particular was topical humor, which doesn’t always age well. Go back to a Bob Hope monologue from the 50’s or a Fred Allen radio show from the 40’s and see if you even recognize who they’re talking about. James Farley? Jack Eigen?? Dorothy and Dick??? It wasn’t meant to have staying power. It was designed to be funny that day or that week, and disposable afterward. Johnny Carson’s monologues, or for that matter Stephen Colbert’s, will likely suffer a similar fate.

    Bob Newhart’s albums were recorded “live,” as were those of the Smothers Brothers, Bill Cosby, Shelley Berman and others. In Cosby’s case, his comedy material may have retained its appeal. but he sure hasn’t…

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