Take a Bite Out of Horowitz & Spector

Photo: Stairway To Stardom

Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series “Underrated,” we chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choice that they think deserves more praise.

Julie Klausner has the YouTube algorithm to thank for her obsession with Horowitz & Spector. The Double Threat podcast host discovered them after scrolling through many other clips of legendary Staten Island public-access show Stairway to Stardom. The show, produced in the ’80s and circulated first on traded VHS tapes, then the internet, had musical acts that truly need to be seen to be believed. “I know the word ‘cult’ is overused,” Klausner says, “but it was a cult sensation.”

Horowitz & Spector appeared on Stairway to Stardom for two songs: “Boiled Chicken” and “Something’s Rotten in Transylvania.” Had this show not captured them in the ’80s, nobody outside the New York City cabaret scene would have heard of them. They are quintessentially New York, the type of people that inspire Saturday Night Live sketches and Broadway shows but rarely get to present their own work at that same level.

Horowitz & Spector sang about the things that really mattered to them — for example, the foods their dietician told them they couldn’t eat. “Boiled Chicken” is an irrepressible bop about giving into pleasure no matter what society says, like Troye Sivan’s “Rush.” Klausner talked about the New York specificity of Horowitz & Spector, the tyranny of diet culture, and her own single “Silence,” which Kate Bush–ifiles Silence of the Lambs.

First, we should talk about how when we were discussing what topic to pick, you were telling me that you actually kind of hate the term “underrated.”
I think I hate it because I’ve been on lists like “Ten Shows That You Should Be Watching But Aren’t” and “Five Criminally Underrated Writer-Performers Who Should Be Famous But Instead Are Eating Dinner in Bed, Crying Themselves to Sleep With Crumbs All Over Their Face.” It just hit home a little too hard.

Speaking from the critic side of things, I feel like people use “underrated” because it explains to an editor why you’re talking about the thing. Otherwise, it centers the critic too much. You have to be like, “This isn’t being talked about enough!” and not just “I want to talk about this!”
That’s a great point. I also think it’s an interesting prism for people to keep in mind as streamers continue to hide their ratings. It’s nice to remind people what incredible things weren’t hits at the time. For example, King of Comedy, the Scorsese movie that I think is one of his greatest masterpieces, was something he had to recover from. It didn’t do well. So I do think context is important, but when you’re living through it and you’re an overly sensitive big baby like me, it’s hard not to take everything — literally everything — personally. Even compliments.

So how did you discover Horowitz & Spector?
First of all, I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss Horowitz & Spector because I have run out of friends to introduce to them, and I love them so much. Stairway to Stardom was a Staten Island public-access show from the ’80s, and there are performances from it that have been making the rounds on VHS tape before the internet even existed. So naturally, when YouTube came into existence, it made perfect sense for them to exist and flourish there. They were made to be viral clips because they’re short performances of quirky people doing interesting things like interpretive dance.

It wasn’t until the YouTube algorithm suggested Horowitz & Spector to me, knowing that I had watched so many Stairway to Stardom clips, that I realized these were the women I had been waiting for my whole life.

What made them perfect for you? What did the algorithm see?
The algorithm saw a girl from Westchester who grew up with diet culture and cabaret and knew enough about both to be ready to laugh at how ridiculous they were. You have these Jan Hooks/Nora Dunn or Andrea Martin/Catherine O’Hara characters, in these marvelous sequin jumpsuits and matching headbands, singing about how they’re sick of dieting and using the most food specifics in a song since They Might Be Giants’ “Dinner Bell.”

These two women, they’re mad as hell, and they’re not gonna take it anymore. And the song ends with them burning their Jane Fonda workout tapes. The combination of ’80s-ness and East Coast specificities is intoxicating. At one point, they mention that they’re going to eat Charlotte Russe. I had to look that up. I was like, “Yeah, me too! What’s that?” I love it when they say … I don’t think they say they’re gonna kill their diet doctor, but they call him a skinny SOB. You know that there’s a reality in which that guy does end up dead. So there’s just all these specifics that are very resonant to me, having grown up a chubby Jewish girl in Westchester, alternately fascinated and horrified by musicals and cabaret.

I love how they call potatoes “taters.” At one point, they just decided that’s what potatoes were called.

It helps with the scansion, I’m sure.
The scansion is superb. Their pitch is superb, and it is very clear. I don’t want to speak on behalf of Miss Spector, but I will say Bobbie Horowitz appears to be calling the shots. And she’s really, really good at what she’s doing. The choreography is simple. It punctuates the jokes. I would also praise their diction. You understand every word. Their timing, I love it.

I showed this to my co-host, Tom Scharpling, and he was sort of joking that maybe they were a little high on something. I was like, “No, this is Diet Coked up.” If anything, this is Dexatrim. But they’re high on food; let’s be clear.

The way Spector’s like “Tofu!” — they say it as though tofu is the most disgusting thing in the world. And the truth is, it was just the ’80s. They weren’t afraid of carbs. They thought blandness was healthy. It’s actually connected to the Kellogg philosophy of, like, “Spicy food is gonna make you masturbate.”

Diet culture has always been a purity culture, which has always been tied into white supremacy: “I will be thin and pure and perfect, and then I can control everything and everyone.” 
And then it is also about morality and absent abstention and taking up as little space as possible. Submissiveness and obedience to this sort of patriarchal notion of, you know, the more time you spend counting calories, the less time you have to plot … if not a revolution, then at least to get some kind of degree.

I think that’s why it’s so joyful to see these two older, bigger, Jewish women go, “No, I will take pleasure.”
“I’d rather be a happy foodaholic” is a very liberating notion to me.

Have you followed Horowitz & Spector beyond their Stairway to Stardom appearances?
Bobbie Horowitz is a cabaret legend, I learned. I did some googling, and she is not very consistent on her Instagram or her Twitter, but she is around. As recently as 2019, she was doing live shows. She’s a fixture in New York cabaret. She wrote a book about life over 50 — fabulous. Just one of those terrific New York City Jewish women that you’re just so glad to see. She seems like somebody who would bring the party wherever she went.

I saw some of her later solo shows that are up on YouTube. There’s an entire one-hour set of hers up.
Yeah, I watched a few of those during the pandemic. She’s really beautiful and super-talented, fun, and funny.

I don’t know if you watched “Something’s Rotten in Transylvania,” but that is probably the funniest thumbnail image on YouTube. I don’t think there’s a world in which you don’t click on that. Unless you are like, you know, allergic to joy.

That song is not as clear. I think “Boiled Chicken” is definitely more linear. “Something’s Rotten in Transylvania,” I think, is about someone who married a vampire that’s not a vampire anymore?

He’s having a midlife crisis.
There’s the midlife crisis, and also, “Is the spark gone in our relationship?” stuff. But what I think is most important about it is that it’s two women wearing the same costume. That is funnier than I think most people know. They are basically presenting as a two-headed monster, and they’re complaining that their baby doesn’t give them fang anymore.

I’d love to see more of their double act. In one of her cabaret shows, she intros a song like, “I did this with Spector back in the day,” called “No Pork, No Pork.”
I don’t know that one. Is it about being kosher?

It’s about a kosher Chinese restaurant opening up in Manhattan called No Pork, No Pork.
I mean, the universality. Who among us cannot relate to that experience? This is patriotism, what I’m feeling. I’m so proud to be related to that specific kind of Jewish person. It’s so funny.

It’s that type of New York person that I think the rest of the country only is exposed to as SNL characters — the parody version rather than the real deal.
Or the Oh Hello! fellows. The people who write the stuff that folks see have aunts like that, but generally, the aunts don’t get to be front and center. That is what is so special about seeing those two women at the center of everything. They’re not Carole Bayer Sager providing material for someone else. They’re under the spotlight and thank God.

You recently released a song and music video, “Silence.” How do you choose the topics for your music?
I actually wrote a song that would be a good B-side for “Boiled Chicken” called “40 Carrots.” It’s about the health-food restaurant at Bloomingdale’s. I did it at my live show, and it was kind of like “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” but about this ’80s cafe that served health food — but, you know, ’80s health food. Melba toast and raisins and everything. For me, the subject matter meets the format. For that, I was like, Okay, I want that to be a folk song, but it would be fun if it were about something very specifically from a different era and personal.

“Silence” really just came to me. I was walking, and I was thinking how stupid it would be to do a parody of “Wuthering Heights” where she’s like “Hannibal, It’s me, Clarice. Tell me all about freaking Buffalo Bill.” I just thought that would be really stupid. So I called my friend Eli Bolin, who’s a composer, and he’s brilliant. I said, “Do you want to write this fake Kate Bush song with me?” It became, conceptually, “What if Kate Bush had written a Silence of The Lambs musical?”

So I went back and looked at all of her lyrics. I’m a big Kate Bush fan, so it wasn’t a chore to do that. But I realized that she sings a lot about body functions. She has this song called “Breathing.” And she has a song called “Moving.” And there’s a lot of like … When she’s breathing, like, she’s just like “In, out” and kind of guiding you through things that you should know how to do. Dancers love breathing, I’ll tell you that.

I did very much appreciate the Kate Bush choreo choices that you made.
Thank you so much. That is my friend Jeremy Laverdure, who’s an incredibly talented dancer, as my cartwheel stand-in. Someone complimented me on my cartwheel today, and I did not correct them. He did one cartwheel in the studio, and then the guy who owned the studio came out and was like, “You’re not gonna do any more cartwheels, are you?” He was really worried. Anyway, that’s not me. That’s the Vulture scoop.

Thank you. I pride myself on my gotcha journalism. 
I know. But I did everything else. I did all the spins and stuff.

Speaking of the format needing to meet the topic, while I was watching the video, I found myself thinking Kate Bush did write a lot of songs about books. What was that about?
Kate Bush, love her. She’s got body functions and mother. Mother is huge for Kate.

She’s got that song combining the two from the perspective of a baby in the womb.
That’s one of the many things I love about Kate Bush: She is so famously, fabulously female. Her falsetto is almost like drag in its pitch. It’s the performative, femme, operatic, Pre-Raphaelite prog masterpiece. She is like nobody else. The audacity of her coming out with these traditionally female forms, like modern dance, like singing in that soprano — it’s just so punk to me. She choreographed all of those early videos. She worked with that mime who worked with Bowie. There’s just so much fascinating, cool stuff about her. I really think she’s a sorceress.

And I was hoping when all of a sudden people got into clowning, that mime would be next. But I don’t feel like it’s coming.
People won’t shut the fuck up. That’s the problem.

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Take a Bite Out of Horowitz & Spector