Posts Tagged ‘The Catskills’

The Funny Men of My Youth

June 27, 2016
Jan Murray

Jan Murray

Sometimes I like to do the Grumpy Old Man routine with my students: “When I was your age, Sonny, I had to walk barefoot to school in the snow, and the long, arduous journey was uphill—both ways.”

None of this is true, of course. My parents always provided me with good shoes and it’s only snowed once in Claremont in the last fifty years. I stole that joke from one of my childhood heroes, Bill Cosby. I still love to tell that joke, but I no longer attribute it to Cosby.  Once the most avuncular man in America, Cosby is now, allegedly, nothing but a sick old creep.

Bill Cosby’s fall pains me; I spent so much time with his comedy LPs as a kid, and it really felt like I knew him. One of my favorite Cosby albums was called I Started Out as a Child. It took me over a decade to get the joke in the title. Another Cosby album title was also quite funny: To my brother Russell, Whom I Slept With (but I still haven’t completely worked out its implications).

The comedy albums of Cosby and The Smothers Brothers were a big part of my childhood.   (For you younger readers, albums, also called records, were large flat black petroleum-based disks that created marvelous sounds when played on something called a turntable.  Albums were very fragile, which may have accentuated the reverence we had for them).   In junior high school I discovered the more “mature” comedy records of George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Cheech and Chong.

When I was a kid, back in the dark ages before VCRs, HBO, and Comedy Central, in order to see the great comedians, you had to watch the three major talk show hosts: Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, and Johnny Carson. I would rush home to see Mike Douglas in the afternoons and Merv was on in the evening, but Carson, the King of Comedy, was on after my bedtime, so I would listen to The Tonight Show through the slats in the hall door while my parents thought I was asleep.  If I laughed too loud my mom would shout, “Go to bed.”

The old-timer comedians like Buddy Hackett, Jack Benny, and Henny Youngman that I loved to watch on tv when I was a kid frequently spoke about something called “working the Catskills.” Since there was no google back then, I asked my dad what the Catskills were. He said that they were mountains in upstate New York (hills really, by California standards) where people from New York City used to go on vacation.

Decades later I was watching a PBS documentary on the history of Jewish Comedy in America which went into great detail about the Catskills (also known as the Borsch Belt). One of the people featured in the documentary was Jan Murray. I thought, “Jan Murray is Jewish. Who knew?” Then it dawned on me–the overwhelming majority of the comedians I revered as a kid were Jewish. And as I think about it now, the non-Jewish comedians from my youth like Cosby, Bob Hope, George Carlin, Red Skelton, Flip Wilson, Danny Thomas, and Johnny Carson are really the exceptions.

by Richard W. Bray