“He helped to invent the American Jewish personality that we see everywhere today.”
by David Holzel
Mark Cohen is the author of the new biography “Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman.”
What follows is the full text of our interview.
David Holzel: How did you get started on this project?
Mark Cohen: I had read his autobiography years and years ago and in reading between the lines a little… He was fudging things a little bit about his parents, but it was clear that his parents were crazy. It was also clear that his attachment to his Jewish identity was lifelong and ongoing. And that he was trying to create a new Jewish persona, a new way to be Jewish in America. He had had a tremendous influence from his maternal grandparents, who were immigrants, who arrived in this country as older adults, and had all the immigrant paraphernalia that comes with it – the accent, the very, very strong Jewish identity, completely unamericanized despite decades in this country.
Sherman’s generation was faced with a new challenge, and that was, they were completely American, they were born in America. They went to public schools. The question was, what was going to happen to Jewishness? How was it going to manifest itself. How as it going to express itself in the public realm?
Sherman’s example from his own parents, who arrived in this country as children, was to completely ditch the whole Jewish problem, leave it behind and forget about it. That was both his mother and father’s take on the whole thing. And because they were also completely unbalanced – the two things were not unconnected. They were partly unbalanced by their problem with their Jewish identity that left them cockeyed their whole lives. Sherman rejected his parents’ approach, was inspired by his grandparents’ approach, but he couldn’t just pretend to be a European immigrant. So he did something very important, and I think we’re still living in the Allan Sherman moment. He helped to invent the American Jewish personality that we see everywhere today. The public persona of Jon Stewart, or shows like “Seinfeld.” It’s a normal regular part of everything about us. It’s not some special, hidden, weird part that we have to be embarrassed or ashamed about, or make excuses for.
I think that’s a really big story. Beyond that, Sherman’s tremendous success with the general public at large also anticipated the general acceptance of explicitly Jewish comedy, whether it was Mel Brooks or Woody Allen or today’s Old Jews Telling Jokes show.
You didn’t hear Jack Benny or George Burns come out and explain how their Jewish background made them think a certain way or what they were doing for Passover.
When I was a kid I didn’t even know Jack Benny was Jewish.
There’s no reason you should have. I didn’t either. Or George Burns. There was no reason anyone should have, and that was the whole point.
I thought Sherman’s story would be an interesting story. He had a troubled childhood. He had tremendous success. Then he had self-destructive tendencies that ended his life early. It was a dramatic story, and I thought a very interesting cultural story, when the Jews became sort of the poster boy for ethnic life in America. When Newsweek ran a story on Sherman in ’62 after the first album, and he was saying, “You know, if this had come from someone who was Chinese or Italian, it would have been just as big a hit.” And Newsweek wrote, “He should live so long.”
So there was an awareness that Jews were becoming specialists at packaging and presenting the projection of ethnic identity in America.
The ethnic identity without the immigrant identity.
As you said, the language of his ethnic identity was English.
Yeah. Now in his first album, “My Son, the Folk Singer,” Sherman did do the dialect humor Mel Brooks had done in 1960 in his “2000 Year Old Man” album. But there was no, or next to none of the Yiddish that you saw with Mickey Katz.
Where you had to know Yiddish to get it. Like Sam Levenson.
Right. And the settings of Sherman’s songs were current day America. There’s a very interesting difference with what Mel Brooks did with the 2000 Year Old Man. Most of the bits are, “I knew Shakespeare, I knew Jean of Arc.” The old days. Sherman’s Jews are living in contemporary 1962 America. Whether they’re speaking dialect English and working in the garment center or going down to Miami on a business trip in “The Streets of Miami.” Or they speak contemporary New York Jewish English in like “Sarah Jackman” – “How’s by you?” But placing Jews in their contemporary world.
He really did make new folk music. When you listen to Sherman’s albums, you are getting a good journalistic report of life in ’62, ’63, which is largely the life we still live today, whether it’s “Here’s to the Crabgrass” about life in the suburbs and the love/hate affair between the suburbs and the cities. That’s still going on today. Whether it’s “Headaches” about television, “aspirin commercials give me headaches.” Television commercials today seem dominated by health remedies. The song is more relevant than ever.
You show a guy who wanted to entertain and make people laugh, practically from birth. And he had this enormous gift for wordplay. Could you talk a little bit about what his talents were.
I think they’re twofold. One is, he did have a wonderful gift for wordplay, that while he seems to have brought a lot of it with him, a lot of it was a natural talent that he kept building on. He loved the songwriting talents of the great songwriters, many of whom were Jewish, whether it was Irving Berlin or the Gershwin brothers. He listened to these songs over and over again. He studied how certain kinds of clever rhymes were made and this just appealed to him enormously. I wrote in the book that I found that early rhyme that he wrote in high school: “Humpty Dumpty sitting on a train” you have the whole story of his life right there. The fragility, the overweight and the happiness that comes through singing and Jewish material.
So he had a good talent for wordplay, but he also had something to say. And that’s really important, especially if you’re a parodist. You can make up clever rhymes to substitute for the originals, but that’s not going to go very far if you don’t have something to say. The greatness of his parodies, they work so well because they’re at such great odds with the original, but keeping the theme of the original, and turning it inside out, like “The Ballad of Harry Lewis,” a parody of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” He keeps, in mock fashion, the whole theme of heroism and martyrdom and death, but he turns the whole thing into a story of this poor shnook, Harry Lewis, who stood by his machine while the fire was raging. And the drapes of Roth. A New York Times writer cited the sneak attack brilliance of that.
So he had the wordplay. From his earliest days he had something to say. He knew he wanted to say something about Jewish life. He wanted to tell Jewish stories. He wanted to address this disjunction between being Jewish and having no Jewish content. He wanted to bridge that gap. And that’s why he was quote-unquote outing in the 1950s all the Jewish songwriters and composers of the Broadway stage by doing Jewish parodies of their songs and saying, “this is what the songs would be like if Jews wrote all the songs, which they did.”
And of course he was interested in American life, the suburb story, the camp story, were general American trends that were more widely experienced by the Jewish community than by the general community. The suburb experience. The Jews moved to the suburbs, in per capita numbers not absolute numbers, in greater numbers than the American community at large. They sent their children to summer camp in much greater percentages than the general community at large. So even the general songs, it’s no accident that they came from a Jewish entertainer, because they were trends in American life that were the most widely experienced by the Jewish community.
So being Jewish gave him a perch from which to observe American life and it gave him a darned good view of it, and he had something to say about it.
And he could say it in a memorable fun way. And he wasn’t bitter. His comedy was jovial, but it wasn’t pat. That’s a tough needle to thread. It wasn’t sweet and sentimental. It wasn’t biting satire. It struck a middle road, which is very tough to do.
It wasn’t judgmental.
It wasn’t judgmental, but it didn’t say everything you’re doing is fine. It was meant to point that this whole thing is ridiculous, but it wasn’t condescending. Maybe the one place in which he didn’t do that is in his parody of “Hava Nagila,” where you really feel Sherman’s point of view that this “Hava Nagila” song is really Jewish mush. Real sentimental hogwash. And my song is really about how Jews live. “Hava Nagila” is not a Jewish folk song, it has nothing to do with how we live. And I was pleased and astounded to discover when I saw these old tapes of the “Steve Allen Show,” that Sherman introduced the singing of that song, “Harvey and Sheila,” by saying that the Christian name of this song is “Hava Nagila.” I thought that was fascinating. And he’s doing what Lenny Bruce was partially doing in his famous bit about Count Basie is Jewish, Eddie Cantor is goyish. That there is certain behavior that was Jewish and that wasn’t Jewish. And Jews could engage in non-Jewish behavior, and he was going to call them on it. So being sweetly sentimental about “Hava Nagila” – give me a break, that’s not Jewish behavior. Give me some irony. Give me some insight. Give me some cleverness. Not this stuff. And, you know, in Saul Bellow’s “Herzog,” which came out in ’64, there’s the same theme. Certain characters are engaging in what the book judges as non-Jewish behavior. The character that says the word “delightful.” The other character thinks, You can’t get away with saying the word delightful. Who the hell do you think you are? Your father peddled apples. Delightful! If you were s German Jew who arrived in the 1870s, maybe you could say delightful.
So there was that thing going on in the culture at that time 50 years ago, when the generation of the 1920s, Allan Sherman’s generation, were in their 30s, and they were the first large native born group, and that group found itself in a new position historically. They were the first Jewish Americans. The American part was guaranteed. Society was doing its work on them at every minute of every day. The question was, what was the Jewish part going to look like? And Sherman gave us a decent part of the answer that we have today. I think we’re still living in the moment he helped invent. I don’t want to overrate him, I don’t want to make him into our savior, but he was an important figure. He helped create this moment where the acceptance of saying you’re Jewish, of being unembarrassed about it, having flagrantly Jewish names – and that great song, “Shake Hands with your Uncle Max,” where he rattles off all those Jewish names, in ’62, that was a real taking a stand. Why not Lupowitz and Moskowitz? Why not?
We should talk about “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” since it’s its 50th anniversary. That song always made me anxious when I was a kid. If ever I had wanted to go to sleepaway camp, which I never did, this song would have talked me out of it.
That’s interesting that you say that, because one of the great things about that song is that it introduces cringeworthy kind of pathetic yearnings of a child and captures it, saves it at the last minute with humor. Those lines like, “I promise I will not make noise / or mess the house with other boys,” anyone who has children knows that when things go bad, kids get like that. And it’s heartbreaking to hear that line and then we’re rescued at the last minute by “I’ve been here one whole day.”
Sherman was always attuned to childhood fears because of his own experience with his parents divorce when he was 7 or 8 years old and his father leaving and never coming back. And his mother remarrying, and having first a boyfriend and then a husband. And he got sent back and forth across the country. So he found in summer camp stories a way to channel all of this and to defuse it. But like all humor, fist you get the pain and then you get the laughter. That’s the release. That’s the deal. That’s the bargain.
It’s been heard too often. It’s been played too much. And I know a lot of people who know Sherman’s work and this is their least favorite song. And I think that’s just over exposure. Because the song really is terrific. And it’s probably one of his most personal songs. And of course his love of making people laugh. Comedy was the antidote to everything that ailed him.
When I finished the book I was so sad. I laughed a lot through it and at the end I was so sad at how his life wound down and out.
He was formed under terribly adverse conditions. He managed to escape it as one of the greatest decisions he ever made – he was helped to make it by his mother, who urged him to marry his girlfriend, Dee. That was a very important step in the direction of sanity and health. Then he became famous, and when he had the opportunity through fame and money, when he was going on tour, to indulge all his vices, drinking, smoking, whoring around, gambling, it became the best thing that ever happened to him and the worst thing that ever happened to him.
In a way he’d momentarily forgotten how fragile he was, how Humpty Dumpty he really was, and he thought he had the strength and the reserves to do this. But he didn’t. He couldn’t survive that kind of massive break with his family that he had thrust upon him as a kid and now he put himself through it on his own. But these were the conditions under which he was formed and in his later life he kind of returned to them. That’s what he knew. He knew family dysfunction. Isolation. Heartbreak, the whole thing. That’s how his life turned out at the end.
One of the inspiring things through this terrible downfall, he kept producing pieces of work, some of which were very good. I read most of “The Trip to the Perfectly Fair” and some of the rhymes I quote in the book are really terrific. But he worked real hard to get to the cemetery early. And he made it. To die simply because you wore your body out at 49. Wow.
[email protected] Twitter: @davidholzel
See also: Nothing to be ashamed of