You don't have to be Jewish to love comedian Allan Sherman. But if you are - and especially if you are a baby boomer - chances are he was a touchstone of your childhood.
For a brief and shining moment in the early 1960s, the bespectacled, corpulent and crew-cutted Sherman was one of popular music's most unlikely success stories with three albums of song parodies (a form of comedy ordinarily afforded about as much respect as a prop comic), achieving gold record status within a year. The songs, at once silly and sage, brought Jewish ethnicity into mainstream culture.
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This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Sherman's biggest crossover hit, "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh! (A Letter from Camp)," in which an unhappy camper pleads with his parents to "take me home" from the dread Camp Granada. This impending milestone was not the sole inspiration for Mark Cohen to write the lively and meticulously researched biography "Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman." But it didn't hurt, he said.
"I had been thinking about (writing the book) for a long time," he said in a phone interview. "About three, four years ago, I realized that the summer of 2013 would be the 50th anniversary, and if I didn't get the book written and out (by then), it was never going to happen."
Cohen's introduction to and embrace of Sherman was typical of his generation. A budding comedy buff growing up in Queens (he's 56), he discovered Sherman's recordings "My Son, the Folk Singer" (1962) and "My Son, the Nut" (1963) in his parents' record collection.
"I liked the clever writing on such songs as 'You Went the Wrong Way, Old King Louie' and the dialect humor of 'The Streets of Miami,'" (which refashioned "The Streets of Laredo" into a ballad about dueling Jewish business partners, one of whom is gunned down and crumbles "just like a piece halvah").
As with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks' iconic "The 2,000 Year-Old Man," these songs were first performed for friends at parties. In the case of Sherman, a TV producer credited with co-creating the game show "I've Got a Secret," these friends included Harpo Marx, who gave Sherman the opportunity to perform for his august circle and the likes of Jack Benny and George Burns.
Sherman's albums broke sales records, an indication that it wasn't just Jews who were buying them.
Sherman's is "a great American story," Cohen said, and Chicago played a crucial role in his unorthodox life. He was born there, but his parents divorced when he was a teenager, and he moved constantly. When his unstable mother, bent on assimilating, moved west, she sent Sherman back to Chicago to live with his grandparents.
"It was in Chicago that he experienced a real Jewish community in a real Jewish neighborhood," Cohen said. "He became attached to the Jewish world that his mother was running away from. He soaked up Jewish life in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. His grandfather took him to Jewish theater on Division Street."
Perhaps Sherman's most autobiographical song, Cohen noted, was "Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max," a parody of the Irish "Dear Old Donegal," in which a traveling salesman returns to the bosom of his very extended family ("Meet Meyerowitz Berowitz Handleman Shandleman Sperber and Gerber and Steiner and Stone").
Sherman rates several mentions in Gerald Nachman's "Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s." His contribution, Nachman said in an email, was that Sherman "transcended the usual song parody genre because his lyrics made cutting and incisive commentary on America's social and cultural trends of the time. He brought his Jewish sensibility and skepticism to bear on mainstream (i.e., goyish), fads and folkways."
To a child of the '60s, Sherman's deceptively subversive work is akin to the cartoon series "The Bullwinkle Show." As a kid, you laugh at silly-sounding songs set to familiar melodies such as "Frere Jacques" and "Alouette." But hearing the songs again as an adult, you discover Sherman's acute satiric sensibility.
"Sherman imposed on himself a very interesting challenge, which was to find a way to make acceptable the Jewish identity his mother found unacceptable, but that because of his attachment to his immigrant grandparents, he was not about to turn his back on," Cohen said.
Sherman, Cohen said, was the right comedian at the right time. "This kind of ethnic comedy was bubbling up," he said. "And for all ethnicities who spent the 1930s, '40s and '50s assimilating, it was saying that it was time, that Jews have as much right to tell their stories and not hide the original names, how they speak, and what they do for a living."
"Harvey and Sheila," included on Sherman's 1963 album "My Son, the Celebrity," is what Cohen calls "a biting and brilliant" parody of "Hava Nagila," in which a Jewish couple meets, marries and on their upwardly mobile American journey go from supporting JFK to joining the GOP ("That's the way things go").
Another Cohen favorite, "Here's to the Crabgrass" (on "Nut"), hilariously captures the love-hate relationship between living in the city and the suburbs. "It's a terrific song," Cohen said. "Sherman had the talent for identifying aspects of American life that were destined to become permanent."
But above all, Cohen said, he was compelled to tell Sherman's story because he thinks he deserves "a tip of the hat" and "respect," if for nothing else but the gift of laughter he gave the country in increasingly perilous times. Cohen opens his book with an anecdote in which, during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, then head of the Federal Communications Commission Newton Minow, sent Sherman a letter informing him that "My Son, the Folk Singer" had "brought brightness into our lives in some difficult hours here."
President Kennedy, too, was a self-professed fan.
Cohen further relates that no less than composer Richard Rodgers sought to collaborate with Sherman on a musical project.
That was then. And now? After years of being out of print, Sherman's entire oeuvre is available on CD. Check out the Internet, too, for two clips: One features "Curb Your Enthusiasm's" Larry David performing, of all things, "Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max" with the Boston Pops, and the other is an outtake from Jerry Seinfeld's web series "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," in which he and Joel Hodgson lament that Sherman had not turned up on the '60s-based series "Mad Men."
Alas, Sherman's story had an unhappy ending. Gambling, drinking and womanizing took a toll on his marriage and his health. He died at age 48 in 1973 of a heart attack.
But his catalog of songs is a time capsule that captures the fabric of what was going on in America, Cohen said. And Sherman helped pave the way for the empowerment of ethnicities to take control of their own stories.
"We've arrived at a place where there can be a show Off-Broadway called, 'Old Jews Telling Jokes' and TV series such as 'Seinfeld' and 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,'" Cohen said. "On the way to this moment, there were people like Sherman on the frontlines."
Donald Liebenson writes features with an emphasis on culture, community and entertainment.
Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman
By Mark Cohen, Brandeis, 320 pages, $29.95