Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Accordion: Cabbage Rolls And Coffee

[purchase The Last Polka on VHS]

I’m old enough to remember seeing The Lawrence Welk Show on TV, featuring polka music which, of course, highlighted the accordion. Not that I ever watched it—but in those days, to change the channel, you had to turn a dial and pass through each channel, so sometimes I would see a snippet of the show which looked like it was from another time. It just seemed so incongruous that during the rock era, there was a show featuring polka music, on television, and that there were people who actually watched it. The concept just was, to my mind, farcical.

So, when Eugene Levy and John Candy at SCTV created the Shmenge Brothers, a pair of “Leutonian” musicians, one of whom (Stan) played the accordion, I got the joke.

I’m also old enough to remember when Saturday Night Live was a subversive, counterculture program that quickly became mainstream entertainment. And then discovering the lower budget, more anarchic SCTV, although it never seemed to be on at any regular time. I think that, at least initially, the fact that SCTV flew under the radar allowed it the freedom to display a more subtle and weird comedic sensibility than SNL. The premise of the show—that it all related to a fictional TV station/network, also gave the show a narrow focus, yet allowed it the freedom to do wide ranging parodies. And it is hard to argue that the SCTV cast members haven’t had incredible influence on comedy—we’re talking John Candy, Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Andrea Martin, Harold Ramis, Dave Thomas, Robin Duke, Joe Flaherty, and, of course, Martin Short, among others.

The Shmenge Brothers were just one of these parodies, and like so many of their skits, the humor was subtle and character based. Candy apparently based the characters on Gaby Haas, a Czechoslovakian native who had a polka-based show based in Edmonton—meaning that there was actually more than one polka-based TV show on the air. The brothers appeared on a few episodes of SCTV, starting in 1982 and ending in 1983, with an ill-fated attempt to cash in on the “New Wave” and music videos. Their retirement was chronicled in an hour-long mockumentary called The Last Polka, based, of course, on The Last Waltz. The clip above, of the Shmenges and the Happy Wanderers playing their “classic” “Cabbage Rolls And Coffee,” comes from the film. They also performed this song on Late Night With David Letterman and at Comic Relief.

Part of the humor of the sketch is the fact that polka music, and the accordion, was at that time considered a joke in itself. Of course, the accordion, and its related instruments, has a respected place in the music of many countries and cultures.  And as the roots music movement spread, more and more musicians proudly feature a squeezebox, so that when, say, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, picks up his accordion, no one laughs.

One last admission—for a brief time in my childhood, I tried to learn to play the accordion. It didn’t take.

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