What a novelty!
Some songs make you laugh even though they were not intended to. But some songs were meant to, and we call those "novelty songs."
Jews are known to be great songwriters, and we're known to be great comedy writers. So it stands to reason that we would be among those known for novelty songs, right? Well, would I be writing about this, otherwise? As to why I'm writing about it now, well, you might want to borrow some of these for your Purim-shpiel.
One of the first maestros of novelty song was a very Jewish one indeed: He took popular songs and substituted Yiddish words and Jewish themes; he set them to Jewish klezmer music; he even had a rather Jewish last name. His full name was Mickey Katz, and here is his spin on the classic work song "16 Tons." Mickey was the father of Joel Grey and grandfather of Jennifer Grey. And here she is, singing one of her zaide's songs, his version of the theme song to the TV show Davy Crockett.
While we know them as movie stars, the Marx Brothers usually worked their vaudevillian songs into their films as well. See if you can catch the Yiddish word Groucho slips into "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" from Animal Crackers. (It starts at the 1:44 mark, but "Hello, I Must Be Going" which leads into it, is worth watching, too.)
Other Jewish comic performers, like Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar, Eddie Cantor, and later Mel Brooks would work novelty songs into their live acts, radio and TV shows, and movies, too. Many of the earlier ones written by the kings of Tin Pan Alley, but Mel wrote his own.
The next Jewish songwriters to write novelty songs for their own sake were probably the team of Lieber and Stoller. They did write for Elvis—including one he borrowed from Big Mama Thornton, "Hound Dog"—and other solo acts. But mostly they wrote romantic songs for The Drifters… and novelty songs for The Coasters. One of the most famous of these is the parent-mocking "Yakety Yak."
The most successful novelty songwriter of the 1960s harked back to the Mickey Katz idea of parodying current and traditional songs. Allan Sherman's sensibilities and delivery were quite Jewish, and so were some of his lyrics. His biggest hit was Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah, but even more Jewish were Sarah Jockman, Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max, The Ballad of Harry Lewis… and his most Jewish work: Harvey and Sheila. How big was Allan? He even sang with these guys.
Speaking of the Rat Pack, we should mention that its Jewish member, Sammy Davis, Jr., sang some novelty songs as well… although they could also be considered simply children's songs, since they were from movies like Willy Wonka and Dr. Dolittle.
Allan was somewhat political, but nowhere near as much as Tom Lehrer, who parodied song styles and genres more than specific tunes. Some of his songs are a bit dated, but many survive, especially his setting of the Periodic Table of Elements to the tune of "A Modern Major General." Lehrer's humor is quite arch, and often somewhat R-rated, and he shares a fan base with Monty Python. His most Jewish song is one about where to spend the Jewish holidays: "Hanukkah in Santa Monica."
Chicago's own Shel Silverstein is known for his children's books of poems, stories, and doodles. But if he had done none of that, he would still be known for his adult work, mostly novelty songs. He is in the Country Music Hall of Fame for "A Boy Named Sue," a hit for Johnny Cash, and but he wrote albums' worth of other novelty songs. Another famous one is about some animals that missed Noah's Ark. A band called The Irish Rovers picked it up, and now every St. Patrick's Day, you'll hear "The Unicorn Song" for no reason.
One songwriter often uses humor to make a point, and is sometimes so pointed that many miss the point. Randy Newman's sardonic songs include his own "Short People," and a few hits for Three Dog Night. Everyone from Judy Collins to Wilson Pickett has done his songs. One was picked up by The Muppets, and now he brings his sentimentality and sarcasm to Pixar movies.
Tom Glazer's biggest hit was "On Top of Spaghetti," a parody of "On Top of Old Smokey," and like him, most novelty-song writers are one-hit wonders. This includes comic actor Adam Sandler, who had a hit with one song three times- because he keep re-working his (inaccurate!) "Chanukah Song." You've heard him do it enough, so the link is to Neil Diamond's cover.
Even with the explosion of novelty songs and parodies brought on by YouTube these days, one man dominates: Andy Samberg. After his breakout video, "Lazy Sunday," he and his Lonely Island bandmates have put out one hysterical original video after another. And, once Justin Timberlake guest-starred on one track, everyone from singers like Michael Bolton to Rihanna to comic actors like Seth Rogen and Jack Black has performed on one of their mostly R-rated songs. Their latest, "You Only Live Once (YOLO)" features Maroon 5's Adam Levine.
Speaking of Jack Black, he is the singer of the duo Tenacious D, and probably the first heavy-metal parody songwriter… since the members of Spinal Tap, of course, including Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest.
True, not every single novelty songwriter has been Jewish. Not Shirley Temple, Tom Paxton, Mark Russell, Rodney Carrington, The Capitol Steps, The Bobs, Ray Stevens, Loudon Wainwright III, or even Stan Freberg (his dad was a Baptist minister). Nor are the members of Monty Python or Flight of the Conchords.
But even the major non-Jewish ones like "Weird" Al Yankovic and Spike Jones have recorded Jewish-related material. And it's hard not to see that Jewish talent is over-represented in this area, compared to how many Jews there are altogether.
To get many of the best Jewish novelty songs in one place, the CD Now That Sounds Kosher! is a good start. However, it contains too many new songs written just for it, which seems unnecessary, given the wealth of material- almost a century's worth- from which to draw. For example, the vintage tracks collected on From Avenue A to the Great White Way and the mid-century work compiled by The Idelsohn Society.
Now stop reading and get busy on your own Purim-shpiel. The tradition of Jewish novelty song is waiting for its next Mickey Katz!