Out filmmaking legend John Waters salutes the comedian who changed his life in new comedy record

John Waters arrives for the 2019 Film Independent Spirit Awards on February 23, 2019 in Santa Monica, CA
John Waters arrives for the 2019 Film Independent Spirit Awards on February 23, 2019 in Santa Monica, CA Photo: Shutterstock

In 1952, when he was six years old, gay writer and filmmaker John Waters heard a comedian on the radio dissect the nursery rhyme ‘Little Bo Peep’ and thought he was hilarious. Waters bought a copy of the record containing the routine, by comedian, actor and musician Johnny Standley, and played it over and over in his bedroom.

“I thought his monologue was the funniest thing I ever heard and still do,” Waters wrote in his 2019 book of essays, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder. “His droll, deadpan delivery awakened in me the first stirrings of ridiculously exaggerated comic intellectual superiority that I hopefully still bring to the stage with me when I do my spoken-word shows.”

Seventy years later, with that radio program in mind, Waters has released a recording that pays homage to Standley and the 1950s-era routine that helped spark his own career. In the process, he’s introducing a new audience to Standley and his work.

“It’s In The Book/Proud New Father” is the title of the recording Waters made with the Sub Pop record label of Seattle, Washington. Available digitally and on a seven-inch single pressed on gold vinyl, it features Waters covering two of Standley’s routines from the 1950s, including the one that first caught his attention.

“It’s In The Book” is the nursery rhyme rant that Waters considers “the funniest thing” he’s ever heard. The Sub Pop version is Waters’ attempt to portray, as he puts it, Standley’s “persnickety, droll, intellectually superior comic monologue” on the subject of Little Bo Peep. The original version was a surprise hit when it was released in 1952, rising to No. 1 on the Billboard chart and selling more than one million copies.

On the new record, Waters said hearing Standley’s routine “changed my sense of humor for life,” and that’s why he wanted to pay tribute with a cover version.

“I could never equal his amazing delivery from the original recording, or duplicate the ludicrous canned laughter added in later, but I’ll do my best to convey the archly haughty flavor of this early standup novelty hit,” Waters said. “ ‘It’s In The Book’ made me the man I am today.”

“Proud New Father,” released in 1953, is a nursery-rhyme-goes-wrong routine in which Standley breaks down the children’s lullaby, Rock-A-Bye-Baby. According to Sub Pop, it didn’t do as well commercially as the previous record, “perhaps due to its gory details.” Says Waters: “It may be the first sick joke I heard as a child.”

“It’s In The Book” lasts three minutes, and “Proud New Father” lasts three minutes and 15 seconds. What listeners get to hear is Waters covering Standley’s original routines, word for word.

“It’s John’s voice,” said Frank Nieto, Sub Pop’s publicity director. “The only thing he added was canned laughter,” mirroring the gratuitous laugh tracks on Standley’s recordings.

Born in Milwaukee in 1912, Standley toured the Midwest and Southwest for many years as an actor and comedian with his parents’ traveling tent show, called The Standley Players. During World War II, he served in the U. S. Army and entertained the troops with Red Skelton and Dave Brubeck in the USO.

According to The Los Angeles Times, Standley frequently worked with the bandleader Horace Heidt, touring with the band as a comedian and occasionally appearing on Heidt’s television show, “The Original Youth Opportunity Program.” It was the first televised, traveling talent show in America, a precursor of sorts to American Idol and America’s Got Talent.  Discoveries included Dean Jones, Johnny Carson, Florence Henderson and Al Hirt.

Standley’s big break came in 1952 when he and Art Thorsen wrote “It’s In the Book.” In the routine, Stanley evokes a revivalist preacher giving his (possibly inebriated) take on Little Bo Peep, as if he’s delivering a sermon or lecture. Throughout, he claims that every detail in the rhyme comes from the Bible, which is why he keeps repeating, “It’s In The Book.” On the B side, Standley sings the praises of Grandma’s Lye Soap – “the secret is in the scrubbing!” – while the audience cheers.

“It’s In The Book” was released by the small Magnolia label as a single in the fall of 1952. Then it got picked up by Capitol Records and got wider distribution. The routine first appeared on the Billboard charts in October of that year and, aided by radio airplay, hit Number One for the week ending November 22. As a Gold Record winner, it helped pave the way for comedy records by Redd Foxx, Bill Cosby and many others.

Standley released two more records, but neither matched the success of “It’s In the Book.” After “Proud New Father” with “Clap Your Hands” on the B side, he recorded “Get Out and Vote,” which came out in 1956 and was re-released by the California Republican Party.

Waters isn’t the first film director to be drawn to Standley’s work. In 1971, Peter Bogdanovich used “It’s In The Book” in his movie, The Last Picture Show, playing in the background in the final scene. Standley died of pneumonia in 1992, at age 79, in Los Angeles. A bachelor, he was survived by a sister, two nieces and two nephews.

Born 34 years after Standley, Waters said in an email message that he never met him or saw him perform. He said he learned from a relative that Standley wasn’t gay. But that was beside the point: “He was an idol to me for his wit,” Waters said.

In Mr. Know-It-All, Waters wrote that he was amused by the “theatrical voice” Standley used for “It’s In The Book” and his insertion in the record of “overdone canned laughter” designed to create the impression that he was speaking to a “nightclub audience of sophisticates.”

He also found humorous the imperious way that Standley addressed listeners, “as if everybody in the world but him were a stupid idiot” and he needed to explain every detail of the children’s rhyme, when it was all fairly obvious.

“‘It’s reasonable to assume if Little Bo Peep had lost her sheep, it’s only natural she wouldn’t know where to find them!’ Deadpan. Hilarious!” Waters wrote.

“‘Think for a moment, think!’ he’d lecture in full condescension to the public listener,” Waters said of Standley. “ ‘If the sheep were lost and you couldn’t find them, you’d have to leave them alone, wouldn’t you?’”

Standley interrupted his explanations by reminding his audience, country preacher style, that it’s all spelled out in The Bible, and that tickled Waters all the more.

“Just as I’d be rolling around the floor laughing in hysterics, he’d yell the title refrain, ‘It’s in the book,’ and the fake audience would join me in howling approval,” Waters wrote. “To hell with Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, Oscar Levant; to me, John Standley was the wittiest man on earth and I wanted to be him.”

Waters’ tribute to Standley was produced by Grammy-winner Ian Brennan and released on December 2.

That recordings of dead people prompt living people to laugh is one of the more surreal aspects of recorded medium,” Brennan said in a statement. “That often-identical canned laughter tracks have been used redundantly on countless albums and sitcoms for decades is all the eerier.”

Waters’s latest single follows the release of “Prayer to Pasolini,” his tribute to the legendary, controversial Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, which was recorded in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic by Waters and Brennan at Pasolini’s murder site on the outskirts of Rome. Sub Pop released that single on Waters’ 75th birthday, April 22, 2021.

Waters has twice been nominated for a Grammy award in the ‘Best Spoken Word Album’ category but he lost both times, first to the late Joan Rivers and then to Michelle Obama. He jokes that he chose to press the new single on gold (colored) vinyl so that he can at least be able to claim, “I’ve made a ‘Gold Record.’”

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