Allan Sherman’s Last Laugh
A thorough new biography chronicles the rise and fall of the big, Jewish self-destructive funnyman
Is there any lower form of comedy than song parody? Dirty limericks and knock-knock jokes may be worthless, but at least they have the decency to be brief. A parody song almost always lasts a chorus or two longer than necessary, and that’s just the beginning of the trouble.
Which makes the best work of Allan Sherman all the more astonishing. Fiddling with the lyrics of recognizable songs—transforming “Frère Jacques” into “Sarah Jackman” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” into “The Ballad of Harry Lewis”—the heavyset, bespectacled comic turned himself into a star, sold millions of albums, won a Grammy, and headlined concerts from Hollywood to Capitol Hill. (JFK was a fan.) He also managed to say something about the place of Jews in 1960s America.
That’s why Sherman merits as scrupulous a biography as Mark Cohen has just given him, the appropriately corny-pun-titled Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman. And it’s why the rise and fall of a big, self-destructive funnyman fits into a series of otherwise serious academic monographs from Brandeis University Press.
Sherman has been rediscovered as often as he has been forgotten, but Cohen’s book is exhaustively definitive, offering enough detail to satisfy even the most annoyingly punctilious comedy nerd. Cohen has dug up every scrap of Sherman’s writing, published or unpublished, going back to his eighth-grade compositions, as well as school report cards, yearbooks, divorce papers, and even dentist registration records. Cohen actually tracked down the 1937 and 1938 Birmingham, Ala., phone books, just to let his readers know that in the latter year, Sherman’s father’s auto parts company was listed “in boldface type, a more expensive option”—suggesting business may have been picking up.
Cohen also offers up every street address at which Sherman or his parents ever lived, and how much each house cost, by way of telling the tale of a broken, bizarre family. Sherman’s parents moved back and forth across the country; after they split up, Sherman’s mother hooked up with a con artist while his obese father did something even more self-punishing. On Aug. 27, 1949, he embarked on a 100-day fast in a tiny custom-built house hoisted atop a 20-foot metal pole in Tarrant City, Ala. This was national news of the wacky variety, until the stunt killed him.
Sherman had good reasons to be cynical about familial relationships and the promise of adulthood. But there can be upsides to having lunatic parents: While pawned off for months at a time on his grandparents in Chicago, Sherman learned Yiddish expressions and the behavioral patterns of immigrant Jews and their communities, and he drew from that well when he sat down to put together a quick album of public-domain song parodies in the summer of 1962. By then, Sherman was a veteran TV hack; he had produced game shows and award shows and buddied up with celebrities including Jack Benny, Harpo Marx, and Steve Allen while entertaining friends privately with his parodies. On Aug. 6, 1962, he gathered an audience, served them drinks, turned the microphones on, and started doing his shtick.
The result was My Son, the Folksinger, and it sold 400,000 copies in three weeks. Half a century later, the most striking aspect of the album is just how many of Sherman’s punch-lines are names. Just Jewish people’s names, sung fortissimo. On the tracks, you can hear the audience responding to this, laughing raucously, whistling, pounding the floor at times. On Sherman’s parody of the folksong “Greensleeves,” he gets a 10-second laughter break after introducing “a knight who was known as the righteous Sir Green”—pause—“baum.” That’s the joke. The song ends on another joke name in the same vein: The Jewish knight retires to marry “Guinevere Schwartz.” Hallelujah becomes Harry Lewis, Harry Belfonte’s “Matilda” becomes “My Zelda,” and in “Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max,” Sherman spins out a dizzying list of Jewish family names with irrepressible ebullience:
Merowitz, Berowitz, Handelman, Schandelman,
Sperber and Gerber and Steiner and Stone,
Boskowitz, Lubowitz, Aaronson, Baronson,
Kleinman and Feinman and Freidman and Cohen,
Smallowitz, Wallowitz, Tidelbaum, Mandelbaum,
Levin, Levinsky, Levine and Levi,
Brumburger, Schlumburger, Minkus and Pinkus,
And Stein with an E-I and Styne with a Y
This was a time when most Jewish comedians were still taking deracinated stage names (Allan Stewart Konigsberg, Melvin James Kaminsky, Jacob Rodney Cohen, and so on), but Sherman clearly had no shame. His own name came not from his father but from his maternal grandparents, who, he said admiringly, “were shamelessly unselfconscious about being Jewish.”
An ethnic revival had begun in America a few years earlier, and no one captured the moment better, in comedy, than Sherman. Cohen emphasizes, cannily, that what differentiated Sherman’s first albums from other Jewish song parodists, like the delightful Yiddish-and-klezmer fueled oeuvre of Mickey Katz, and from much midcentury Jewish culture in general, was that most of his humor rested not on descriptions of Jews as they had been in some imagined immigrant or old country past, but as what they were becoming in America: model suburbanites. Sarah Jackman and her relatives read John O’Hara, work for law firms and talent agencies, identify as Freedom Riders and “nonconforma”s. Sherman’s “Hava Nagila” parody, “Harvey and Sheila,” is a love story about an MIT-trained accountant and a girl who works in the clerical department of the advertising firm BBDO. If Cohen’s claim that Sherman anticipated the ethnic style of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm seems farfetched, consider that Jason Alexander blurbed the book, and both Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David have been heard lately singing Sherman’s tunes, or his praises.