Nobody got worked up about dialect humour 120 years ago. America was a land of newcomers from Europe and they all laughed at each other’s accented mangling of English. They laughed at themselves. Stereotypes were considered funny exaggerations. No one took it seriously. Staying out of poverty, that was to be taken seriously.
Dialecticians were big on the vaudeville stage and then appeared on radio when it replaced vaudeville. With new generations came new attitudes. Dialect humour was not only old and tired, it offended people who saw it as ridicule, not good-natured fun.
Jack Benny’s radio show had a bit of dialect humour, certainly in the ‘30s. Jewish accents a specialty. Ralph Ashe played Schlepper. Later, Sam Hearn was Schlepperman, who became so popular he decided to go off on his own. Pat C. Flick played a variety of characters, including Jewish ones. Benny was Jewish. His writer Harry Conn was Jewish. Neither saw anything demeaning.
Things changed after the war. Most of Benny’s stable of characters—Rochester being a notable exception—could be suburban WASPs for all anyone knew. Even the New York accented phone operators played by Bea Benaderet and Sara Berner (later Shirley Mitchell) didn’t sound like they belonged to an ethnic minority. About the only ethnic characters who made somewhat regular appearances were Mel Blanc as Sy the Mexican and Artie Auerbach as Mr. Kitzel. Sy existed simply for wordplay. Kitzel sounded like a short, nice, older Jewish man who liked to pay a friendly visit.
VIGNETTE—Artie Auerbach, the popular "Kitzel" on the Jack Benny radio shows who passed recently, was a comic find by Phil Baker, who howled at Artie's dialect humor. . . . Baker met Artie when the latter starred as a news-photographer. He introduced him to Lew Brown, who was casting a revue named "Calling All Stars." Brown was also convulsed by Auerbach's Yiddish accent. . . . He immediately signed him for that Broadway show. . . . as a hill-billy.
Auerbach had been employed by papers including New York Graphic and covered the Lindbergh kidnapping case. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of October 25, 1934 revealed Auerbach’s turn in “Calling All Stars” was to begin “soon.”
His career with Baker didn’t last long. In October 1936, it was revealed that Auerbach had been stolen by the Thief of Bad Gags, Milton Berle, for his show. The following April, he was on Eddie Cantor’s show, then took his Jewish accent to Jack Haley’s show for the 1937-38 and 1938-39 seasons, the latter called “The Wonder Show.” It included Lucille Ball and Lucy’s cousin Cleo Manning in the cast (Gale Gordon was the announcer). Artie and Cleo got married and Lucy signed the marriage certificate as a witness. By this time, Kitzel (he wasn’t “Mr.” at this point) had developed the catchphrase “Could be!” which found its way into untolled Warner Bros cartoons.
Well, maybe the accent wasn’t Jewish. The Buffalo Courier-Express of March 13, 1940, had this item in its entertainment section:
Artie Auerbach, dialectician on the Al Pearce programs, came by his stock in trade in a curious way. While serving as a photographer with a New York daily, he dropped into a Bronx candy store to phone his City Desk. The photographer's "singing" dialect intrigued Artie so much that he spent the whole afternoon listening to it--and many more afternoons and evenings thereafter, finally mastering the jargon himself. Most listeners would consider it as Jewish in origin, but Artie claims that the dialect comes from a combination of several Balkan tongues.
But there was someone, a long-time friend of Benny’s, who wasn’t happy with the Kitzel character, someone who had been known for years for dialect humour, beginning in vaudeville. Here’s the story from a syndicated column dated March 2, 1963.
Rubin In First Jewish Part
By HAL HUMPHREY
Hollywood—A relatively small but nonetheless significant event took place on ABC's “77 Sunset Strip” series last night.
Benny Rubin, one of the great dialect comedians in show business, played his first Jewish character part since 1938.
You’re nuts, somebody will say. We see him on Jack Benny’s show all the time. But on Jack’s show, Benny Rubin does not play Jewish characters.
Three weeks ago, he was an Arab in a commercial with Don Wilson.
On Tuesday of this week, he was a stagehand on Jack’s show, but just a mug type with no particular ancestral identification.
“I quit doing Jewish characters because the movie producers in 1938 banned them from all pictures," Benny recalls.
“A campaign by Walter Winchell started it. He and the movie moguls decided that because of Hitler and his treatment of the Jews, it was better not to play up Jewish accents. The funny part of it was that Winchell in the next paragraph would quote his favorite character, ‘Mefoosky.’”
A score or more of Jewish dialect comedians suddenly had no work, says Benny. The late Fanny Brice went into radio and became the non-Jewish “Baby Snooks.” Bert Gordon went to Eddie Cantor's radio show to become the "Mad Russian.”
Benny Rubin opened a dress shop. When it didn't go, he began peddling barbecue barrels. Later, he got into radio as host of a show called “Best of the Week.” Benny's salary was $23 per show.
Since then, Benny has managed to do all right, although nothing like his days as a vaudeville headliner and movie character actor. TV, radio and movies still shy-away from Jewish and Negro dialects.
“I’d rather not do the Jewish characters they do have, the way they are written,” says Benny. He was about to turn down the one on Friday’s “77 Sunset Strip.”
“When I saw the script, I almost cried. One line had this Jewish clothier asking, ‘Would you like your pants I should matching by the coat?’ Can you imagine gibberish like that? I went to the director and he told me to say the lines the way I wanted.”
Benny never liked the way the late Artie Auerbach did his Kittzel character for Jack’s show.
“I thought it was phony. There are ways to do these things so that the character is made warm,” says Benny.
Could Rubin’s comments be a case of bitterness? He was a vaudeville headliner who had been reduced to doing bit parts. Mr. Kitzel wasn’t as over-the-top as Sam Hearn’s Jewish Schlepperman 10 to 20 years earlier. Kitzel was, if nothing else, fairly benign, though the Judaic switching of names (ie. Nat King Cohen for Nat King Cole) and his “hoo-hoo-HOO!” might have become tiresome for some fans. Still, the fact he remained on the show for 11 years until his death shows that there weren’t really any objections to him. He never would have stayed otherwise.