Rick Moranis, Cooking With Brisket

With some kvetching and a healthy dose of nostalgia, the comedian’s just-released CD mines the Jewish tradition for laughs.

06/25/2013
Jewish Week Book Critic
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You can hear the rabbi whispering directions in the background.  To the melody of a haftorah, Rick Moranis chants a story about a red-diaper baby, now running his father-in-law’s auto parts business, who’s having his bar mitzvah at age 46.

“Well, here I am. I made it. Still can’t believe I did this,” he begins, in the familiar bar mitzvah boy singsong. Moranis is the boy/man in the new suit and he’s also the rabbi — and he’s having a good time up on the bima by the end of the blessings.

“Belated Haftorah” is one of 13 very funny songs that Moranis has written and sings on his just-released CD, “My Mother’s Brisket & Other Love Songs.” The music is an eclectic mix of klezmer, jazz and lounge music, with Latin, Asian and country rhythms and some schmaltz, too.

In an interview at the kitchen table of his Central Park West apartment, Moranis explains that the bar mitzvah song isn’t autobiographical — he had his bar mitzvah at 13 in Toronto. These are songs about aspects of Jewish life he knows more than a little about, the kinds of things that might have been deemed “too Jewish” for his earlier projects. I wonder if anyone has written a funny song about shiva before.

In the spectrum of how Jewish, Moranis is very Jewish. But it’s about culture and sensibility, not about going to shul. Some songs express a bit of nostalgia, some play the Jewish customs of his youth forward.

Now 60, he says that he’s noticed, in the last decade, that as friends have lost parents and their kids have come of age, they’re feeling a need to pass on certain values. “Specific language is creeping back into conversation,” he says.

“All these people are starting to sound like old Jews,” he says. “Is that nostalgia or is that Darwinian?”

“My sister, who’s 63, is saying ‘pu-pu-pu,’ whenever you say anything to her.” He defines that in his lively song, “Pu-Pu-Pu” with the refrain, “When it’s too good to be true.” He continues, “Call it what you like, a superstition/For me it’s just a logical position.”

He sings out about a Sunday night Chinese dinner that gets delivered to the wrong apartment (“Asian Confusion”) and a woman named Parve he meets in an all-night deli. In “Oy, The Mistakes I Made,” he does some fine kvetching. “Oy, the money I spent/Why’d I have to buy in Boynton/For three weeks I could rent.”

The title song is an ode to his mother’s signature dish. “The smell first hits me from five blocks away/It’s Friday and I can’t stay away.”

That song is also a tribute to his mother. His father died, but she is 87, still living in the Toronto house he grew up in, still making brisket. Moranis speaks to her every day. Sometimes, they talk about what they’re making for dinner. “You’re such a balabusta. Who knew?,” she’d tell her son, a widower raising two children. He’d then comment that his balabusta was coming in the next day, referring to the housekeeper. Those conversations inspired “My Wednesday Balabusta.”

The CD is more Catskills than Hollywood, another new direction for Moranis, who has had a varied and successful career beginning in the world of comedy. In 1980, he played in the sketch comedy show, “Second City Television.” He had memorable roles in films including “Ghostbusters,” “Spaceballs,” “Little Shop of Horrors” (playing Seymour) and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (and its sequels). He took a sabbatical from the movie world after his wife died of cancer in 1991, and he hasn’t gone back.

“I found that I didn’t miss what I had been doing,” he says.

In 2005, he released an album of funny country western songs, “The Agoraphobic Cowboy,” which was nominated for a Grammy.

Moranis, 60, grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Toronto, “in a tiny bungalow on a street of bungalows.” His father had a beverage room and held the liquor license in a small hotel, and then became a liquor salesman. While Moranis was growing up, his mother didn’t work, but was very active in Hadassah and Sisterhood.  Later on, she went back to work for Jewish Vocational Services in their placement office, helping Russian immigrants with resettlement.

“She’s pretty extraordinary,” he says of his mom, who is visible on the CD cover in her flowered duster that almost matches the tablecloth.

Moranis remembers the moment when he and all of his Toronto buddies put down their hockey sticks and took up electric guitars, aspiring to be like the Beatles. One of his friends, Gary Weinrib, went on to become the lead vocalist for the rock group Rush, Geddy Lee. He took on his childhood nickname, Geddy, which was the way his immigrant-accented mother pronounced Gary.

Moranis says that he has always been writing songs. Among the inspirations for this new CD are songs and prayers from the Zionist youth camp he attended in Canada, Camp Kvutsa on Lake Erie, along with lots of cousins. This was “the real deal, where Fridays you polished your own pair of sneakers and ate communal style. Saturday morning we’d sleep in, folk dance and have hot cinnamon sweet buns.

“The melodies started coming back, and the next thing, I had all these songs.”

During the creative process, he felt like he was writing songs for eight people — he didn’t expect to publish them commercially. But when he called a lawyer at Warner Brothers with questions, the lawyer (“he probably wanted to be a Beatle too”) urged him to publish it, and Warner took it on. Gary Schreiner produced and arranged the music.

In the 1960s, Moranis listened to Allan Sherman and the album “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish.” He says that comparing his songs to Sherman’s helps people locate what he is doing, but his songs are very different, not parodies. Perhaps the song that’s most in the best Sherman tradition is “The Seven Days of Shiva,” to the tune of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Here, like Sherman did, he has a way of combining and rhyming Jewish-sounding names and, in this case, food, in most original ways. 

Others have spoken about the connection of Jewish humor and pain. For Moranis, this doesn’t resonate.

He describes the routine of being in writing rooms with other writers, when someone throws out an idea, and someone else comes up with a gem.

“Jews tend to be pretty facile at that, disproportionately, like they are in many areas. I’m not a sociologist or behavioral scientist. I’ve written with Jewish partners, close friends who are Jewish comedy writers, and the conversations bring me to tears, they’re so funny.

“What I have discovered is that it’s logic — no different than music or mathematics or symbolic language. It’s about going through the possibilities and picking out the right one.

“Laughing is fantastic. People like to laugh. Is it because of growing up with pain? No. It’s a short form for getting the truth across.”

“Live Blogging The Himel Family Bris” is the most hora-danceable, as he sings “I’m posting, I’m hosting, I’m filing, I’m sharing/That Marky’s Uncle Manny smells a lot like herring.” Moranis can’t stand blogging and its invasion of privacy. Here, as the blogger describes the mohel, the table overflowing with “blintzes and bialys and cream cheese with chives,” he also violates the hosts, poking through their things.

His son and daughter, now in their 20s, had bar and bat mitzvahs at B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, but he ended his affiliation when they were done. “Synagogue didn’t matter to me. I knew they were being raised in a very culturally traditional Jewish household.”

“I took a left turn from that a long time ago,” he says. “I got sent to a little too much Hebrew school. I went to a little too much Conservative temple,” looking back at his childhood. “Now I can’t do it. You know that song ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon,’ how you’d turn the station when that came on the radio. That’s what I feel when I hear Adon Olam [referring to the synagogue prayer]. I can’t listen.”

When I ask Moranis if he’ll perform these songs in public, he says he is getting lots of requests and is intrigued by the idea. He hasn’t performed before a live audience since doing stand-up comedy in 1975. Stay tuned.

Moranis and the Warner folks have a hunch that this is the kind of CD that people will want to give out to friends and relatives. On his website (rickmoranis.com), they offer a Minyan Pack (10 copies) and L’Chaim pack (18 copies, “include the second cousins”), including a burgundy velvet kipa, inscribed with the name and date of the CD release. 

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