This Isn’t Funny THIS ISN’T FUNNY
Corporal Kaminsky was precariously perched atop a makeshift utility pole, forty feet above the frozen ground. In the dim light of a crescent moon, he squinted to complete his task and tried not to lose his battle with gravity.
As a member of the 1104th Engineer Combat Group, Kaminsky was used to such work. What he was not used to was doing it so close to the enemy. You see, the particular pole to which this particular corporal clung was planted in Belgium. Specifically, in the Ardennes Forest. Just through the trees, a big chunk of the German Army was preparing to launch an enormous offensive that would be remembered, forever, as the Battle of the Bulge.
They were so close Kaminsky could smell them: an odorous stew of gasoline, bratwurst, and boiled cabbage filled his nostrils. He could hear them, too. They’d been playing propaganda recordings all night long: an unholy mix of the German national anthem, the latest ravings of the mad Führer, and the sweet voice of Axis Sally, urging our boys to lay down their guns and surrender.
As he twisted the last wire around the last screw that would carry the current to a slightly different broadcast, he heard a harsh whisper from the sentry below him. “This isn’t funny, Kaminsky!” That made the young corporal smile. If there was one thing he’d learned growing up on the mean streets of Brooklyn, it was this: whenever anyone said “that’s not funny,” it was almost certain to be hilarious.
Kaminsky shimmied down the pole, took one last glance up at the enormous loudspeaker he’d just installed, and chuckled. The sentry shook his head as Kaminsky scurried back to battalion command. Along the way he stepped around numerous foxholes filled with exhausted and freezing GIs. Their spirits needed a lift, and by God, he was just the soldier to do the job.
Kaminsky searched through a small box of vinyl 78s, looking for the perfect selection for an occasion such as this. His eyes settled on a classic, and he chuckled again.
A switch was flipped, a dial was cranked, and the wall of sound that erupted from Kaminsky’s loudspeaker echoed through the frozen forest. In an instant, the racist rantings of Adolf Hitler were drowned out by the unmistakable refrain known to millions:
Toot, Toot, Tootsie, goodbye!
Toot, Toot, Tootsie, don’t cry!
For several glorious and confusing minutes, the only thing the soldiers on either side could hear were the dulcet tones of the one and only… Al Jolson. Who, like Corporal Kaminsky, just happened to be… very, very Jewish.
Kaminsky watched the war-torn boys poke their heads out of their foxholes like curious prairie dogs. The absurdity of the situation took a few moments to process, but soon the irony washed over the troops and laughter set in. Nazis, in the middle of a battlefield, driven by their insane hatred of Jews, were being serenaded by one. Now, that was funny!
I guess if you can make people laugh on the battlefields of Europe, you can make people laugh anywhere. And that had always been Corporal Kaminsky’s goal. After the war he found work as a writer and comedian. For the next twenty years, he made a name for himself in Tinseltown. Finally, he got a chance to do what he had been born to do: direct.
His first effort nearly gave the studio a heart attack. It was a screenplay he had written himself, but the suits were not amused. “That is not funny,” they said. But of course Kaminsky knew exactly what that meant: he had a winner! He stood by his guns. He dug in his heels. Before long, Americans were tapping their toes to catchy numbers like “Springtime for Hitler” and punchy lyrics like “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi Party!”
Maybe it was in bad taste. Maybe it was too soon. But all those put off by Kaminsky’s directorial debut were soon afforded more opportunities to be offended—on the big screen, the small screen, and of course the Great White Way. Because even though Melvin Kaminsky changed his name, he never changed his tune. In Belgium, he’d confronted hatred with a song and dance. In New York and Hollywood, he doubled down. Today, The Producers is considered to be one of the greatest comedies of all time. And the funniest corporal of all time? That’s easy. That would be the always improper, always tasteless, never appropriate… Mel Brooks.
Anyway, that’s the way I heard it.
I never played “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” in a forest filled with Nazis. But with the help of three high school pals, I did sing it, in four-part harmony, for a variety of captive audiences in Baltimore, Maryland. Nursing homes were our favorite venue, followed in no particular order by hospitals, bathrooms, VFW halls, prisons, elevators, stairwells, and crowded restaurants.
Why, you ask? Why were four teenage boys terrorizing an unsuspecting public in 1979 with songs written decades before we were born?
Two words: Fred King.
At Overlea High School in Baltimore, our larger-than-life music teacher, Mr. King, had introduced us to the mysterious pleasures of barbershop harmony. Mr. King himself had been a legendary baritone in a quartet called the Oriole Four; he was known, in the trade, as the “King of the Barbershoppers.” Under his tutelage, we amassed an impressive repertoire of chestnuts like “Margie,” “Lida Rose,” “The Sunshine of Your Smile,” and “Sweet Adeline”—unapologetically sentimental tunes that might have made other teenagers cringe. But we loved those songs, and we quickly formed our own group.
We called ourselves “Semi-Fourmal” because we wore tuxedos and tennis shoes. We misspelled “formal” intentionally, because there were four of us and we were terribly clever. Chuck sang lead. I sang bass. Bobby and Mike sang baritone and tenor, respectively. Soon we became the youngest members of the oldest men’s chorus in the country—the world champion Chorus of the Chesapeake, which Fred King also directed.
Every Tuesday night, a hundred men from all walks of life gathered in the old gymnasium at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Doctors, carpenters, lawyers, plumbers, accountants, dentists, teachers, Democrats, Republicans, Protestants, Catholics, Jews—a cross section of men whose deep love of four-part harmony was rivaled only by their deep love of God, country, and beer. I’ll never forget the first time I heard them sing. The Nazis might have been stunned by the sound of “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” blaring through the forest on that cold winter night, but the sound of a hundred men singing that same song in perfect harmony would have left them gobsmacked. It was a sound unlike anything I’d ever heard. A sound that filled the air with overtones that buzzed and crackled. A sound so rich and full and unmistakably masculine, it made the hairs on your arms stand on end.
Ultimately, it was the sound that pulled me into show business.
After rehearsal, we’d follow the men over to a Highlandtown bar called Johnny Jones for another kind of singing. They called it “woodshedding,” because a woodshed—far away from the ears of innocent civilians—was the only sensible place to do it. Improvisational harmonizing isn’t always pretty. But it’s fun to do and a fine way to learn the old songs. Johnny’s had a space crammed with square tables—just the right amount of room for four men to harmonize at point-blank range. Johnny himself would pour beer without thinking to ask for my age, pitch pipes would blow in various keys, and various quartets would sing various songs simultaneously. There were songs about mothers and flying machines and pals who would never let you down. There were patriotic songs, as well as songs about sweethearts, punctuated with bottomless pitchers of draft beer and Maryland crab cakes. It was a soundtrack from another time, and in between the cacophony, the men lit their pipes and told their stories. Oftentimes, war stories.
Kids today think they know everything. Back in 1979, we were no different. But after a few visits to Johnny’s, I began to think differently about the cost of freedom. That’ll happen, I guess, when you harmonize with men who actually fought in that terrible battle that began in Belgium on December 16, 1944. Along with the dead and the wounded, 23,000 US soldiers went missing in the Battle of the Bulge. That fact I learned from an old tenor named Gus, who for a time had been among the missing. He was just seventeen in 1944, the same age as me when we met in 1979—and he’d actually been there, in the Ardennes, doing things in that dark forest on my behalf that I would never be asked to do. Brave men like Gus had learned the hard way what I came to know simply by standing beside them and singing: You’re only as good as the man next to you.
But then, Mel Brooks would tell you that courage is a funny thing. You never know where you’ll find it. Or whether you’ll have it, on the day you need it the most.