Butterfingers Irving — The 142nd Fastest Gun in the West

When You're in Love the Whole World Is Jewish - The Ballad of IrvingWhen I was a teen, I listened to The Dr Demento Show every Saturday night. I think it was a social thing: my closest friends all listened to it. I disliked a lot of the material that was played. And it was repetitive. Still, there were transcendent pieces like Doodles Weaver’s parody of “Eleanor Rigby.” But it was very rarely played. One song that was played quite a lot was “The Ballad of Irving.”

In order to understand “The Ballad of Irving,” we have to go back to 1964 and a surprising number one hit in the US by Lorne Greene. That’s right: Ben Cartwright (“Pa”) on Bonanza. It should not surprise you that this iconic American character was played by… a Canadian. But I digress.

Greene had a hit with the song “Ringo.” It’s about the drummer of a really famous band who has no detectable skill in anything at all. It’s about an outlaw in the old west. I rather like it. But then, I’m a sucker for this kind of sentimental drivel.

But the only part of the song that is sung is by a chorus that repeats, “Ringo! Ringo!” Otherwise, it is just Greene telling the story. Rather than recount it, you should just listen:

You can see why people would like it at the time. But you can also see why two years later, people would find it ripe for parody — especially since this kind of song became something of a thing.

Here Comes “The Ballad of Irving”

Those people were Frank Peppiatt, John Aylesworth, and Dick Williams. “The Ballad of Irving” tells the story of a Jewish gunman Irving: the 142nd fastest gun in the west. It was first released on the Bob Booker and George Foster comedy album When You’re in Love the Whole World Is Jewish and “sung” by Frank Gallop.

The song is basically one long Jewish joke.

I Don’t Want to Be Racist

What’s strange is that the people involved with that album, and it’s predecessor, You Don’t Have to Be Jewish, mostly don’t have classic Jewish names. I know some of them were Jewish. Probably they all were. In general, one gets Jewish humor from Jews.

I bring it up because (1) Jewish as a race has never made any sense to me and (2) I would feel slightly more comfortable about it if it were created by Jews. I probably shouldn’t worry. It’s hard to imagine a group of Baptists putting out You Don’t Have to Be Jewish and When You’re in Love the Whole World Is Jewish.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Butterfingers Irving

Regardless of my natural liberal guilt, I find this song extremely funny — as I suspect most American Jews would too. There’s something very likable about Irving. I’m not Jewish. (I’m Catholic, which a Jewish friend told me made me half Jewish — a thought I rather like.) But had I been a gunman in the old west, I would have acted very much like Irving, the 142nd fastest gun in the west.

Son of Irving

Shortly after the success of “The Ballad of Irving,” the same songwriters wrote “Son of Irving.” The song was not a success at the time. But worse is that it hasn’t aged well because, at least to me, it is implicitly homophobic. And I do mean “implicitly,” because there is nothing in the song that really signals this. It’s about a moma’s boy.

But there’s something about him being thin, tall, and good-looking that makes me think that they were implying homosexuality.

Regardless, even though the denouement is as strong as it is in “The Ballad of Irving,” the song doesn’t work nearly as well. Still, it’s worth a listen — but you will have to look for it because it isn’t consistently available online.

Dr Demento Days

Dr Demento is still around. There seem to be umpteen Dr Demonto CD collections. It’s nice to be reminded of him. But I doubt I would want to listen to his show — or any of his CDs. It’s all too uneven. But I’m glad to have been introduced to all those songs — even the ones I hate like Shaving Cream and Wet Dreams.

11 thoughts on “Butterfingers Irving — The 142nd Fastest Gun in the West

  1. I agree with you about remembering Dr. Demento fondly, but being done with it. Shaving Cream always seemed like something a six year old would laugh at once. I never understood the enduring appeal. Wet Dreams I thought was slightly clever. But that’s probably because I like fish. I used to draw cartoon fish on the table paper when Monica and I would go to Macaroni Grill. But that’s also because we took a marine biology course together when we were dating because I needed another lab science credit for my degree. I still use the term haddock for headache, which I got from the song. The term, not the pain. The video for Fish Heads features Bill Paxton. I saw it on MTV long enough ago that MTV still played music videos. Bill Paxton plays Morgan Earp in Tombstone, alongside his Aliens and Terminator co star Michael Biehn. And Biehn plays Johnny Ringo, who I believe is the subject of your Ringo song. I think it was Dr Demento who introduced me to George Carlin. And there was a Bob Newhart bit called The Driving Instructor that my brother really liked. And barely anybody has heard of No Anchovies Please. So I stopped using “That’s no bowling ball. That’s my wife!” years ago. I found out recently that the J Giles Band made that. But you probably knew.

    • Remember when Paxton played the bully brother in Weird Science? I’ve always found him more believable as a bad guy.

      “Wet Dreams” is certainly better than “Shaving Cream.” There are a couple of reasons I don’t care for it. It was fine the first time. But the truth is, most of the puns are were really old when he was using them. So I certainly didn’t want to hear it again. The other was that some of my friends thought it was brilliant. It was, at best, okay. It doesn’t compare to “Existential Blues,” which I never tire of.

      As for “Ringo,” I suspect the writers were thinking of Johnny Ringo. But the song doesn’t have much relationship to his life — especially since it is generally believed that he killed himself (intentionally, not accidentally like Irving).

    • And don’t forget Tom Lehrer! Demento played him, years after Lehrer’d been (by his own choice) forgotten. Probably never anything as brilliant as “Send The Marines,” but I know for sure Demento played Lehrer’s “A Christmas Carol.” Which is witty as hell.

  2. Thanks for the songs, they were fun. I wouldn’t worry too much about not all of the creators having typical Jewish names, the humor doesn’t seem mean-spirited. And also, remember, a lot of American Jews changed their family surnames to avoid the truly hideous prejudice that we had here for a long time.

    The key joke for me was how Irving always had “two sets of plates.” (Which the audience howled at.) That’s not a specifically Jewish thing, that’s an up-from-poverty thing. My mom had special plates, which she never got to use to host guests, as we were always too despicably poor for anyone to visit. But man, did she value those plates. And she was not a vain nor shallow person in the slightest. She just had special guest plates, as her poor family did before her. Signifying what they were reaching for financially.

    For the people who got to some level of comfort after WWII, I suspect there was a little bit of rebellion going on against the embarrassing old ways of their poor parents’ generation. Both the poignant trappings of hoped-for social acceptance like those special plates, and the traditions/social standards that an older generation clung to. “Ringo” is wonderfully ridiculous, but openly rejecting that kind of romanticized American dreck is a sort of middle finger to the corny values one grew up with, and it takes some confidence that one’s “made it” to be quite as scabrously dismissive as, say, Lenny Bruce.

    “Irving” is kind of the middle ground, chuckling at the old cliches while not entirely throwing that part of oneself away. A lot of musical theater from the period is the same; think of “Music Man,” which is a very gentle satire of the Midwest. (And there’s nothing wrong with gentle satire! If I ever wrote anything as good as “Trouble In River City” I would lie on my deathbed a contented man.)

    So whether or not most of the creators were Jewish specifically, I suspect they were coming from a place of laughing-but-not-meanly at the American postwar experience, where quite a few people found themselves with the fiscal stability to chuckle at the more goofily sentimental “Ringo” background they’d grown up in.

    • Yeah, I understand that. I’m just a little shy about the matter because my teens were filled with books by authors who were Jewish without my realizing it. (Revisiting them later in life, I was amazed that I could be so obtuse.) To me, the idea of a Jewish race has always been weird — probably because pretty much every Jew I knew was secular and just looked to me like another pasty white person. I’m sure that if I took one of those subconscious bias tests I would have a bias against whites. Given that, it would be particularly crushing if my generally dim view of Israel ever caused me to be called antisemitic. And I certainly know that there are some (generally very conservative) people who equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. So I tend to worry about this when it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

      • Sure. I’ve seen the defenders of all Israeli government actions online, and they get pretty angry pretty fast. But I think you’ve published other stuff that would anger those folks more than an appreciation of a period-piece novelty record.

        Still, because ridiculous prejudices are never far from the surface in America (if under the surface at all!) it’s never unwise to be cautious when praising something based somewhat on dated ethnic stereotypes. For example, Cheech & Chong are really just slacker/stoner humor, it’s not meant to be dismissive of any ethnicity, but I’m sure if one went back to their old records some of the jokes would be a little cringeworthy by today’s standards. As some jokes today will seem in 40-odd years.

        • You are right about other things annoying the “Israel can do no wrong” crowd. I’m just lucky that my cunning plan to remain unknown has worked!

          When I was a kid, I loved Cheech and Chong records — the first 4 albums anyway. I never thought of them as anything but really silly comedians. They were, however, equal-opportunity offenders. This was one of my favorites:

          • That was a fun record. You don’t even have to be baked to get it.

            At its best — which is not often — our country does a good job of commingling, some would say appropriating, influences from all makes & matches around the globe. Cheech Marin is a terrific example, as are the folks behind “Irving.”

            Mrs. James had a great assessment of George Bush, II. Mr. not-granddaddy-and-not-poppa, whose obvious insecurity was clearly the source of what we once thought was the worst administration in US history.

            She said, “he’s completely a schmuck.” That is precisely the right word. And thank you, Jewish immigrants, for bringing that excellent word with you.

            Really, it’s only the later immigrants who have contributed anything worth keeping in America. The Pilgrims were a ferociously dull lot.

            • I always liked Garrison Keillor’s claim that his ancestors came here because they were looking for less religious freedom. It’s funny because most people think the Pilgrims wanted more religious freedom. It’s not the case, of course.

              It is interesting that the worst Republican president always seems to be the most recent one. On the other hand, after Democratic presidents are out of power, Republicans always seem to claim that they were pretty good, even though they were shouting “Socialist!” all the time they were in power (it might have something to do with being told to by Fox News and hate radio and all their Facebook friends).

              • The hate media thing is a huge problem. It reminds me of something Dr. Noam once said, that he was constantly approached by conspiracy theorists, and didn’t know why.

                Of course, he would be! His lifelong pursuit as an activist has been to point out that the media lies about our wars. So it’s easy to progress from realizing the media always lies about our wars (true) to believing they’re lying about everything else (untrue).

                I’m not 100% sure why people buy into hate media. It’s all outrage at liberal elitists, all the time, mostly based on white Christian presumption of inherent superiority, although that demographic is by no means the only one addicted to this stuff. You’d think the constant fury would be tiresome after awhile, yet it never seems to be. (I’m a huge fan of Democracy Now, I cannot listen to it daily, it’s too depressing.)

                I have my theories why this is so, but they’re very tentative.

                • I’ve written many times that I have a certain admiration for people who are into conspiracy theories. But I think I’ve turned around on it. My reason was that they at least took the first step toward enlightenment: not believing everything they were told. But they are so easily captured by con men like Alex Jones that I think something else must be going on. They don’t decide that the mainstream media should be questioned; they decide that the mainstream media is lying about everything. And then, they just believe an even less dependable source. The fact that conspiracy theorists almost always become conservative cliches shows that they aren’t very bright. But even if they did take the first step toward a more truthful view of the world, I don’t see that it matters. They’ve taken one step, but before they can plant their feet, they are turned around and run a mile in the opposite direction. I even know one leftist who is into this stuff, but she doesn’t see how all the nonsense she listens to is poisoning her. Before long, she too will be conservative (with carve-outs for things she remembers believing).

Leave a Reply