Parodist Allan Sherman helped invent the American Jew of today, says biographer Mark Cohen.
by David Holzel
Fifty years ago, a bittersweet novelty song about a boy at summer camp hit the airwaves and caught fire across the globe. Just two weeks after its release, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” had sold 300,000 copies. But its writer and singer, Allan Sherman, was no one-hit wonder. Over the previous year he had become stratospherically famous.
Sherman’s 1962 Jewish-inflected albums of song parodies, “My Son, the Folk Singer” and “My Son, the Celebrity,” were back-to-back comedy hits. In a world that had not yet met the Beatles, mania for Sherman’s comedy was unprecedented. Now, in 1963, he was turning his talent for finely tuned wordplay to the new obsessions of the American middle class, which happened to be the new obsessions of Jews: suburbia, lawns, television commercials and technology. In “Hello Muddah,” he defined summer camp anxiety for at least a generation.
Sherman was a self-destructive talent, with a huge appetite for food, alcohol, cigarettes, sex and gambling. Yet he maintained a philosophy that childlike innocence was the best way to approach the world. By the time he died in 1973, days before his 49th birthday, both his talent and bank account were tapped out.
Mark Cohen tries to make sense of this funny, talented and troubled man and his meteoric rise and sad fall in his new biography, “Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman.” With his deceptively simple parodies of well-know songs, Sherman was at the head of a new generation of American Jewish entertainers, born in this country and American in every way. Their task, according to Cohen, was to figure out what it meant to be a Jew in a society that was quickly dropping its barriers to them.
“Sherman helped to invent the American Jewish personality that we see everywhere today,” Cohen says by phone from New York, consciously Jewish, yet not self-conscious about being Jewish. “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.”
But Sherman never would have succeeded beyond what Variety called “the Miami-Catskills axis” if there hadn’t been a mass market for Jewish-inflected humor. “My Son, the Folk Singer” debuted at the exact moment that America was developing an acceptance of and appetite for ethnic culture. In its first two months, the album sold more than a million copies.
“[My Son, the Folk Singer] revealed that when no one was looking, the line between Jews and everyone else had blurred,” Cohen writes.
“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,” says Cohen, whose books include “Missing a Beat: The Rants and Regrets of Seymour Krim” and “Last Century of a Sephardic Community.”
Sherman’s medium was the finely balanced parody of a popular song. “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,” Cohen says.
Take “The Ballad of Harry Lewis.” In it, Sherman tells the story of a garment worker who perishes in a fire, heroically remaining at his machine cutting velvet for his employer, Irving Roth. Sherman set his lyrics to “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 schnook Harry Lewis, who stood by his machine while the fire was raging.”
The song contains what may be Sherman’s finest pun:
Oh Harry Lewis perished
In the service of his lord
He was trampling through the warehouse
Where the drapes of Roth are stored
“It was a personal challenge to Sherman,” Cohen writes, “to discover a song parody hiding within the original…so that the original lyrics are transformed into straight lines for his punch line.”
‘His parents were crazy’
Sherman’s explosion into popular culture was so big that he appeared fully formed. But “Overweight Sensation” describes the influences, both malign and salutary, that went into making Sherman.
“It was clear that his parents were crazy,” Cohen says. Sherman’s mother, Rose, had multiple marriages, and seemed particularly drawn to con men. His father, Percy Copelon, left his wife and son when Allan was 8. To determine custody, they asked the boy to decide which of the two he would prefer to live with. As Cohen writes, it was a trauma Sherman never recovered from.
He found refuge with his grandparents, who had immigrated to the United States as adults and never quite left Eastern Europe behind. “They had all the immigrant paraphernalia – the accent, the very, very strong Jewish identity, completely un-Americanized despite decades in this country,” Cohen says.
In contrast to his parents – who immigrated as children and wanted to put as much distance between them and Judaism as possible – Sherman’s grandparents were at home in their Jewish skin.
Unlike all of them, Sherman – and the generation to which he belonged (he was born in 1924) – was American to his bones. So what kind of Jew would he, and by extension his generation, be?
“Sherman rejected his parents’ approach, was inspired by his grandparents’ approach, but he couldn’t just pretend to be a European immigrant,” Cohen says. “So his did something very important, and I think we’re still living in the Allan Sherman moment.”
This is the moment of the hyphenated Jew, in which each part of the identity struggles with and enriches the other – and the wider culture. Sherman’s Jewish personality was free of sentimentality and saccharine, Cohen says, and thoroughly contemporary.
“Sherman’s Jews are living in contemporary 1962 America. Whether they’re speaking dialect English and working in the garment center [‘Harry Lewis’] 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?’ ”
Sherman also took aim at suburbia (“Here’s to the Crabgrass”) and what Cohen calls “the love/hate affair between the suburbs and the cities. That’s still going on today.”
‘I’ve been here one whole day’
Parodies and puns have a reputation as the lowest form of humor, but Cohen suggests that may be because they’re so often used as wordplay for its own sake. Through the 1950s, Sherman, who was then a TV game show producer, entertained at parties with parodies of current Broadway musicals.
To “On the Street Where You Live,” from the 1956 stage show “My Fair Lady,” Sherman sang about the Jewish move to the suburbs:
We’ve got Scarsdale men
We’ve got Great Neck men
And just lately we’ve been sneaking into Darien,
Strange new noses there
Friends of Moses there
Near the goys on the streets where they live
The show’s composers, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, were Jews. And that was Sherman’s larger point.
“He wanted to address this disjunction between being Jewish and having no Jewish content,” Cohen says. “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 do.’ ”
And now it’s time for camp:
Hello Muddah, hello Faddah,
Here I am at Camp Granada
Camp is very entertaining
and they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining.
It’s downhill from there: alligators in the lake, a rash of ptomaine poisoning, a bullying head coach who “wants no sissies” and other horrors, which Sherman sings in his rough tenor to the sprightly melody of Italian composer Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours. The single garnered Sherman the Grammy Award for comedy in 1964.
Describing the song as “part Perils of Pauline and part Battle of Iwo Jima,” Cohen writes that Sherman wove enough ambiguity into “Hello Muddah” “that allows it to work for their children and their parents.”
“It introduces a cringeworthy kind of pathetic yearning of a child and saves it at the last minute with humor,” he says. “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.’ ”
There was nothing overtly Jewish about the camper or Camp Granada. But “Hello Muddah” reflected an experience widely shared by Jews at the time, Cohen says.
“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. These were trends in American life that were the most widely experienced by the Jewish community.”
Sherman was the man of his moment, Cohen says. “Being Jewish gave him a perch from which to observe American life, and it gave him a darned good view of it.”