Allan Sherman’s Last Laugh
A thorough new biography chronicles the rise and fall of the big, Jewish self-destructive funnyman
Songs that Sherman couldn’t record, for fear of getting sued, went a step further. Introducing what he called his “Goldeneh Moments from Broadway,” Sherman would explain that his Jewish versions of show tunes had been inspired by the thought, “What would have happened, how would it have been, if all of the great Broadway hits of the great Broadway shows had been written by Jewish people—which they were.” The joke was that the great Jewish Broadway composers and lyricists had rarely, if ever, written shows about Jews. Sherman presided over the return of the repressed, turning the Gershwins’ “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess into a Catskills lament, and deforming a song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific into a paean to smoked salmon. Bootleg recordings of some of these, including a whole set of songs from My Fair Lady, survive, but others remain only as lyrics in an appendix to Cohen’s book, where they wait for some sympathetic young performer to rediscover them.
If that first album and those mostly unpublished Broadway parodies are what make Sherman worth remembering, what granted him immortality, for better or worse, were 174 seconds of goofball fun he called “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah! (A Letter From Camp)” and released as a single in the summer of 1963 and then on his third album in a year, My Son, the Nut. It was a massive hit, climbing to the #2 spot on the Billboard charts, inspiring sequels, a board game, and even a sitcom. Seemingly no talent show at any English-speaking summer camp since 1963 has ever omitted some localized version of this chestnut.
Because Cohen seems to have scoured high and low for every available snippet of Sherman’s biographical record, it seems odd that he neglects to mention one crucial source of “Hello Muddah.” Surely the song was inspired, as Cohen notes, by Sherman’s son’s unpleasant experience at a summer camp in upstate New York, but it seems equally likely that it was also Sherman’s riff on a Tonight Show bit that Jack Paar called “Letters From Camp.” In the memoir Penny Marshall published last year, she recalls that she and her brother Garry went to “a kosher camp for rich Jewish kids” despite being “neither,” and that was whence her brother derived the material—including a joke about “Camp Nehoc” being “Cohen” spelled backward—that he later wrote for Paar. Which makes “Hello Muddah” an excellent illustration of the strange place Sherman occupied. When a Jew borrows material from a show that Lenny Bruce called “very goyish,” maybe written by an Italian who got it at a kosher summer camp, and then turns it into a hit by adding a tune from Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” and singing it badly—that’s America.
Given the variety of Sherman’s achievements—he discovered Bill Cosby, voiced the Cat in the Hat, guest-hosted Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show—the speed of his slide into oblivion is shocking. Sherman was never exactly a rock star, but he managed to flare out like one, killing himself over the course of a decade with food, drink, drugs, sex, and heartbreak. He walked out on his wife and kids. His creative output turned to junk. His Jewish material was outshined by the work of less self-destructive talents—Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks—and his nonsectarian material turned out to be mostly cliché, pap, or grumpiness. His later albums flopped, his TV appearances floundered, concert opportunities dried up, and the Broadway musical he wrote closed after four performances and a withering New York Times pan. Sherman died of a heart attack at 48, in 1973, with all his albums out of print.
Cohen details the attempts to rehabilitate Sherman’s reputation with obituaries, Best Of collections, an Off-Broadway revue, etc. But the truth he won’t quite acknowledge is that Sherman was never a great comic genius, and the form he worked in—the song parody—didn’t give him a chance to be one. The reason people enjoy parody songs at all is that they’re so accessible. When you hear a song over and over, you can’t help but substitute new lyrics. A 3-year-old will do it. And can do it. That’s why parody songs are a default gesture for lame radio DJs, high-school talent shows, and viral videos, which means that a song parodist has to be truly brilliant to escape being thought of as an excited 11-year-old.
A handful of “Weird Al” Yankovic parody songs clear this bar, and a few by Tom Lehrer. If Sherman was no better, he wasn’t much worse. Along with a whole lot of forgettable silliness and a grim personal life, he left a few treasures worth preserving—and he did as much as anyone to bring Jews out of the American pop-culture closet. One can hope that, thanks to Cohen, his legacy is now safe.
For more of Josh Lambert’s ongoing Tablet series on Jews and comedy, click here.