"Try the whitefish…I’ll be here all week!"Posted: July 1, 2011
“This horse walks into a bar,” I respond, attempting to affect the simultaneously nonchalant and manic delivery of Sheckey Greene and failing utterly. “Bartender says, ‘Heya pal, whats with the long face?’ Bud-ump-bump-tish!”
“Never gets old, does it?” she responds, having heard that tired joke many times before.
“Try the whitefish,” I repond, “I’ll be here all week!”
“Why did they say that?” she wonders aloud. “Were they trying to get rid of it?” (it=whitefish)
“I have no idea,” I reply. As a midwestern kid, we all told jokes with all of these Borscht-belt references… and I doubt we even knew where the Catskills were. Annie grew up in Denville, just outside N.Y.C., but, even if she were Jewish, she would have been too young to know about the Jewish supper clubs in the Catskills. By the time she came on the scene I’m guessing those clubs were long gone. And I grew up in Missouri; pretty far from Milton Berle’s stage. I guess we grew up listening to commedians who admired the work of Berle, Greene and the other commedians of that time and place. “Try the whitefish,” is something we say after having repeated an old joke. Growing up, my friends and I repeated it endlessly, as well as cribbing lines from Marxs or the Howards/Fines (“If you moved any slower, you would be walkin’ backwards,” or, “Roy Rogers never met you, did he?” and the like). We admired the unflappable wise guys who were never at a loss for words.
It wasn’t ‘our’ culture any more than ‘Gangsta Rap’ is really the culture of my 13 year old solidly middle class private schooled nephew… but we sucked up and regurgitated those jokes from Three Stooges routines the same way he soaks up Grand Theft Auto and we dropped references to trying the whitefish like he mentions ‘loading the nine.’ We also watched Looney Tunes cartoons, many of which dated back to The Second World War, so we had access to references to coupon books, rationing, blackout regulations and Carmen Miranda without really understanding those things. It’s really strange when you think about it.
In an interview, Robert Crumb says he thinks he internalized all kinds of ‘cultural junk’ when he was a kid — like ‘Little Rascals’ serials, Bazooka Joe cartoons and the like. Recently I’ve been thinking of all the crap I’ve absorbed (or steeped myself in) over the years, and wonder how it ‘comes out’ in how I view the world and what I do.