- Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman by Mark Cohen
Allan Sherman, the self-destructive roly-poly song parodist, perfectly represents a brief but crucial moment in American Jewish cultural history. Mark Cohen, indefatigable in his research, shrewd, generous, and balanced in his selection of detail, and armed with a fan’s dedication and a critic’s eye, has written a valuable biography of a frequently overlooked subject. We are along for every stop on Sherman’s subway ride to fame.
Sherman’s moment was between two American Jewish eras. The first one was rife with such potent anti-Jewish sentiment and discrimination that it frequently led to many American Jews feeling as though their Jewishness was a burden that could reduce their worth in the eyes of gentiles. The second era was one that celebrated Jewish ethnicity, that spoke proudly of an unparalleled heritage, a revived nation in Israel, and a wondrous future in America.
Sherman achieved a delicate balance between these eras. There was a growing hunger for more Jewishness brought on by an increased social tolerance, guilt over the death of millions of Jews in Europe, a sense of a new America ushered in by the Kennedys, a more prosperous country, a frustration with the conformity of the 1950s, and other factors. There were signs of such a hunger before Sherman. Herman Wouk published Marjorie Morningstar in 1955. Leon Uris published the sensational bestseller Exodus in 1958. Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner introduced a 2,000-year old man speaking with a Yiddish accent in 1961. Judaism was becoming attractive. In 1956 Marilyn Monroe converted to Judaism, as did Elizabeth Taylor in 1959.
As Cohen tellingly points out, what Sherman did in the fall of 1962 when his album My Son, the Folk Singer was released was to make Jewishness a pleasure. Sherman was at ease in his identity. Seemingly, at least, he did not struggle with assimilation. He was enjoying being Jewish too much to worry. In song parody after song parody (including many forgotten ones reproduced in the book), he enjoyed witty puns often centered on Jewish names. One famous example was in “The Ballad of Harry Lewis,” a parody of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The line “His name was Harry Lewis, and he worked for Irving Roth/ He died [End Page 77] while cutting velvet on a hot July the Fourth,” was eventually followed by “Oh Harry Lewis perished/ In the service of his lord/ He was trampling through the warehouse/ Where the drapes of Roth are stored.”
This is clever stuff, and it was appropriately appreciated by President Kennedy, many comedians, and both Jewish and gentile audiences. Perhaps the height of Sherman’s fame came in the summer of 1963 when he released the sensational hit, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp).”
But note the date. President Kennedy was assassinated a few months later. Among the cultural consequences of this tragedy was that Sherman’s comedy of a funny Jewish immigrant generation struggling with assimilation suddenly seemed outdated. Jewish humor became darker and more profane. In music, the arrival of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, made Sherman’s musical style (and the style of many other singers) irrelevant.
Sherman wrote musical parodies, humorous imitations of serious songs. He did not write satire, which attacked social conventions. Jews were not in a position to attack American society. Sherman’s unqualified acceptance of America’s iconic music was his plea for acceptance and his announcement that Jews could contribute humor to that accepted society. Everyone could accept such a message. But it was too easy. America deserved some attack for its treatment of Jews and other minority groups including women. Sherman did not want to do that. His music, therefore, is limited to his time and does not serve a contemporary audience.
But Jews remained too fragile to engage in outright cultural attacks. They found one answer in Mel Brooks, who developed the spoof, which mocked...