No Escaping the Cliché: The Legacy of Allan Sherman – By Stephen J. Whitfield

Stephen J. Whitfield on Mark Cohen’s Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman

Overweight Sensation
Mark Cohen, Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman, Brandeis University Press, 2013, 320 pp., $29.95

In the early 1960s Allan Sherman turned a minor comic art — the song parody — into a showbiz phenomenon. Between the fall of 1962 and the summer of 1963, he released three long-playing albums: My Son, The Folk Singer; then My Son, The Celebrity; and finally My Son, The Nut. All three went gold (the highest standard in the recording industry), racking up total sales of over three million copies. A 45 rpm single, told as a child’s lament and entitled, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh! (A Letter from Camp),” earned Sherman a Grammy. Dozens of appearances on national television burnished his reputation, with Johnny Carson inviting him to appear ten times on the Tonight show. One journalist reported that, in the lobby of New York’s Carlyle Hotel, President Kennedy was heard singing Sherman’s hit “Sarah Jackman” to himself; further evidence suggests that he listened to Sherman in the White House, and not just the more famous original cast album of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot (1960).

Sherman’s decline in popularity proved to be as sudden and as stunning as his rise. Indeed, the arc of his success coincided roughly with the duration of the Presidential administration that was retrospectively named Camelot. It is therefore fitting that Sherman parodied the signature song of that musical, called “Ollavood!,” which opens: “The movie stars all sit around the pool there / The food at Nate ‘n’ Al’s is very good / And Sammy Davis Jr. goes to shul there / In Ollavood!” Among the charms of Mark Cohen’s vivid and scrupulous biography — Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman — is his retrieval of Sherman’s early and generally unfamiliar work. For example, he mocked “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific: “We got herring, sweet and sour / We got pickles, old and young / We got corned beef and salami and a lot of tasty tongue. / We got Philadelphia Cream Cheese in a little wooden box / What ain’t we got? / We ain’t got lox!” Or take Sherman’s rendition of the immortal lullaby from Porgy and Bess, “Summertime”: “Summertime / Everybody is shvitzing. / Schmaltz is melting / And the Catskills is high […]. ” Such lyrics do not aspire to the aesthetic heights of, say, the Gesamtkunstwerk. But Sherman had demonstrated that what were once in-jokes could enjoy mass appeal.

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Born in Chicago in 1924, the drop-out from the University of Illinois drifted into television in the 1950s. Sherman became the co-creator of a very popular game show, I’ve Got a Secret, and later served as a producer for the laid-back crooner Perry Como. But Sherman was not satisfied to bask in modest success as a purveyor of middlebrow, mainstream entertainment. He also spent the 1950s writing the lyrics to Jewish-inflected versions of popular songs, which he performed at parties for friends and relatives. Soon after getting canned from The Steve Allen Show, Sherman recorded some of those songs on his first album. Billboard was stunned, for example, by how well My Son, The Folk Singer did — in Atlanta. Popular culture had become more receptive to ethnicity with a certain edge, and Sherman joined the roster of a new generation of Jewish comedians that included Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Mort Sahl, Shelly Berman, and Lenny Bruce. 2000 Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks was released in 1960, even though its triumphant status as a classic would be affirmed only much later. The song parodies of Mickey Katz undoubtedly influenced Sherman as well. But that Katz exploited far more fully than Sherman the brash comic possibilities of the Yiddish vocabulary also meant he had a smaller impact. Katz’s audience was confined almost entirely to Jews.

Instead, Sherman showed a distinctive comic gift for exhausting the range of recognizable features of American Jewry. Despite the vulnerability of communal habits to ridicule, he was not a satirist. (Vladimir Nabokov once explained the difference by asserting that “satire is a lesson; parody is a game.”) Sherman located the signs by which Jews identified themselves to one another and made these markers rhyme. His songs were sprinkled with Yiddish, but not too much, since few second- and third-generation American Jews were fluent in the language. (Later in the decade, Philip Roth’s famed character Alex Portnoy would admit to knowing only a couple of dozen Yiddish words, nearly all of them off-color.) The Jewish religious calendar had lost its sanctity, so Sherman could casually allude to holidays like Tisha B’av — ones that were so rarely observed in the United States — that merely mentioning them seemed clever. He enlisted Jewish names (family and given, shortened and altered) that served not only as familiar badges of identity but as somewhat exotic alternatives to the Anglo-Saxon contribution to onomastics. Perhaps most frequently, Sherman mentioned food, as when he converted Johnny Mercer’s inescapable hit, “Moon River,” into “Chopped Liver.” Sherman could not compose music, so he depended for comic effect upon melodies that would be familiar, such as Broadway show tunes, or upon folk songs that were already in the public domain, so he did not need to pay royalties.

But after the smashing success of Sherman’s first three albums, he largely abandoned Jewish themes, and his hit single, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!,” lacked any suggestion of ethnic coding. In the corpus of Allan Sherman, “Sarah Jackman” is unusual in portraying the distinctive features of minority life, with Bernie as “a big attorney,” with Ida as “a Freedom Rida,” with Esther having “skipped a whole semester.” “Harvey and Sheila” should also be counted as something of an anomaly — a concise portrayal of the texture of social ascent, though without displaying a critical attitude toward the allrightniks themselves. By sticking mostly to the obvious signs of peoplehood, Sherman may simply have run out of material. Though his work does not date in the way that Mort Sahl’s political satire does, Sherman lacked the brilliance of social observation that characterizes virtually all of the records of Nichols and May, and at least some of Lenny Bruce. Soon, Sherman was co-producing the first two comedy albums of Bill Cosby, who punctured the virtual monopoly that Jews exercised in the genre of the LP comedy album. Artistically, Sherman had reached a dead-end.

Jewishness itself did not evaporate from the comic precincts of popular culture. The number one bestseller on the nonfiction list in 1965 was Dan Greenburg’s How to Be a Jewish Mother. In that same year Sherman decided to spoof Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” from which he managed to extract another hit. But in a decade that exalted youthful idealism and energy as good, Sherman had chosen to occupy the wrong side of that generation gap (that of the parents) and was losing his flair for gauging popular taste. He nevertheless did eight albums for Warner Brothers, which Rhino re-released in 2005 as a six-CD boxed set entitled My Son, the Box. Cohen supplied the fifty-page liner notes. Even so, by the mid-1960s, the narrow vein that he had so fully tapped could no longer be mined. It is easy to dismiss him as a minor talent, perhaps akin to the patrimony of light versifiers like Ogden Nash. But Sherman did have talent, even if he could not cultivate or adapt it into the second act that so few American lives contrive to enjoy.

The most revelatory feature of Overweight Sensation is the case its author makes to support his generalization that “a cliché in the telling of a humorist’s life is a trauma, sadness, or despair that comedy never assuages, and there is no escaping that cliché here.” Sherman’s commitment to self-destruction was boundless. Vices that were noticeable among Jewish men of his era were gambling and gluttony, in which he fully indulged. He added the habit of excessive drinking usually ascribed to Gentiles. Sherman was an asthmatic who smoked heavily, a product of the Great Depression who spent recklessly. Casual affairs helped to destroy his marriage to Dee Golden; they were divorced in 1966. (They had two children.)

The title of Cohen’s compelling book is cruel, but apt. Sherman stood 5’6” and, at the height of his fame in the early 1960s, he already weighed 225 pounds. By 1973, his obesity had become so awful that he could no longer squeeze into the driver’s seat of a car, so friends had to schlep him everywhere. That year he died, at the age of 49, in Los Angeles. A eulogy might well highlight the evanescence of Sherman’s art, however endearing, because it lacked depth. What he did in the recording studio did not address the emotional pain that is endemic to life. Instead, he assigned the actualities of misery to himself.