Bad Girls of Jewish Comedy off print - LITJCS206p188-214:LITJCS02p058-084 16:44 Page 188 s i x From the Nightclub to the Living Room Gender Ethnicity

Bad Girls of Jewish Comedy off print -...

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From the Nightclub to the Living Room: Gender, Ethnicity, and Upward Mobility in the 1950s Party Records of Three Jewish Women Comics g i o v a n n a p. d e l n e g r o This essay explores the bawdy humour of Belle Barth, Pearl Williams, and Patsy Abbott, three working-class, Jewish, stand-up comics who were hugely popular in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Largely forgotten or dismissed today, they released best-selling LPs known at the time as ‘party records’, which, though intended for respectable, middle-class consumers, were often sold under the counter and banned from airplay. The records were therefore typically enjoyed in the privacy of one’s home, and, by most accounts, the primary consumer was likely to be Jewish. The period in which these comics flourished was one in which many working-class Jews experienced upward mobility and suburbanization, the beginnings of the redefinition of Jews as racial whites, and substantial pressures to assimilate into mainstream American culture. Jewish identity was central to the routines of these comics, as was a highly sexual subject matter. Here I explore how this group of entertainers positioned themselves at the intersection of gender, Jewish ethnicity, class, and whiteness in the 1950s, as well as the significance that their humour had for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. With their earthy, shtetl sensibility and their smatterings of Yiddish, these performers, who attained their greatest popularity in their middle years, railed against societal mores that told them to be quiet, well-behaved, and sexually passive. Both in the means by which it was disseminated (LP records) and in its con- tent, the trio’s comedy illustrated the importance of the home in negotiating Jew- ish identity in 1950s America. Their party records pierced the boundaries of ethnic privacy by bringing the decidedly public setting of stand-up comedy per- formance into the living room. As these records were often played during cocktail parties or more intimate gatherings in suburban Jewish homes, they created a semi-public context of performance in the heart of the domestic sphere. Cheaply s i x LITJCS206p188-214:LITJCS02p058-084 18/2/10 16:44 Page 188
made and affordable, the party record fitted in perfectly with the more geographi- cally dispersed suburban lifestyle of 1950s America that increasingly relied on mediated forms of leisure such as television. Unlike that more mainstream form, though, the party record was marked as transgressive. Often labelled ‘for adults only’ or ‘not for radio broadcast’, these ribald performances were as far from the television routines of Jewish but ethnically unmarked comics like Milton Berle or Jack Benny as they were from the ethnically marked but non-threatening per- formance of Jewishness found in the suburb-era version of The Goldbergs , a popu- lar sitcom about a Jewish American family.

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