By Gene Sculatti
You know what I miss from the past? Sure, Moxie and men’s spats, The Old Philosopher, pre-surgery Kris Kardashian, etc. But what I really miss the most is comedians who made fun of rock ’n’ roll and pop music.
I was reminded of this by a clip I just came across on YouTube, from a Lloyd Thaxton TV show ca. 1965, in which Steve Allen and Milton Berle satirize the then-current fad of protest singers. In long-hair wigs and the fakest of beards, “Monty Mad” and “Billy Bitter” send up folk-rock with silly songs (“Grown-ups are old, youngsters are kid-ish/ If it wasn’t for George Washington we’d all be British”) and typically Allen-style cheap jokes (Thaxton: “You play piano, but you have a guitar around your neck. Why is that?” Allen: “Man, that’s because the piano’s too heavy!”).
The beauty part is that their deliberate stoopidity in making fun of a form they despise is only a couple of feet removed from the stoopidity of the real deal, like Sonny Bono’s “Laugh at Me” and “The Revolution Kind.” I mean, they’re practically brothers in bearskin. And it’s a hoot, even if they were coming from what we might think of as a square place.
Back then, as the new kid on the block, rock had to endure the slurs of the ageing, but still dominant, Greatest Generation (the most cited example being Dean Martin’s unsubtle dissing of the Stones on Hollywood Palace). But why shouldn’t pop be able to take a few sucker punches, especially when the punchers don’t really get it that the Showmen were absolutely right when they proclaimed, in 1961, “It Will Stand”?
And that’s the sad part. ‘We’ won. Our music (everything since the pre-rock Fifties) stood, and still stands, as the undisputed champ genre that itself is now above criticism. Where once Steve Allen had Elvis sing “Hound Dog” to a sad-eyed basset on national TV and Stan Freberg’s “Sh-Boom” deliciously spoofed doowop’s goofy syllable-stretching (check YouTube for both), now the New Yorker ponders “The Meaning of Michael Jackson” and asks, “What to Make of Rihanna?” Yeah, what?
Sure, TMZ and catty blogs and awards-show emcees dish the stars, but implicit in the very attention they pay them is the notion that pop culture, above all, matters and means something. And that’s an assumption the old-school rock-knockers, bless ’em, never made. It’s what allowed them to use it as just more joke fuel—like mother-in-laws, Gunsmoke and drive-in banks—and, in some cases, like Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner and Howie Morris’ Three Haircuts satires (YouTube), grab some of the very juice and crazed energy of their target itself. The Haircuts and hams like Freddie Cannon are almost brothers in Butch Wax.
One of the hippest comics ever is Pete Barbutti. Fans of first-rate rock-knocking should track down a copy of his VeeJay LP Here’s Pete Barbutti. Like Allen and Berle’s protest skit, it’s from 1965, just about the last time anyone really effectively skewered pop (outside of Mark Shipper’s 1978 book Paperback Writer). In front of a club audience, Pete takes on “Disc Jockeys,” explaining that “One of the reasons for the poor state of music in this day and age is that, no matter where you live, there’s at least one radio station that plays nothing but rock ’n’ roll music, song after song…” Thereafter follows his impersonation of motor-mouth Top-40 jocks and the music they play: each song sounds like the next, Pete’s screeching vocals attacking caveman-dumb lyrics as he counts down the hits by “Mary & the Knee-Knockers,” “Theresa & the Tree-Thumpers” and the rest. It’s priceless.