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Allan Sherman’s Last Laugh

A thorough new biography chronicles the rise and fall of the big, Jewish self-destructive funnyman

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Allan Sherman. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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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If that first album and those mostly unpublished Broadway parodies are what make Sherman worth remembering, what granted him immortality, for better or worse, were 174 seconds of goofball fun he called “Hello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.

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It astonishes me that you could write an entire piece about song parodies without once mentioning Stan Freberg.

James, I suppose I could have written, “Stan Freberg is a well-known song parodist but his stuff leaves me cold.” I couldn’t find a place for that. If I were to have discussed more musical comedians, I would’ve probably talked about the Smothers Brothers and the Lonely Island. But, hey, by all means, post a link to a Freberg song that’s hilarious–maybe I haven’t given him enough of a chance.

pkbrandon says:

“Too many moons we live this island, White Cloud”

Freberg was much more inventive. He and his collaborators wrote productions with original lyrics and melodies that were homages to other artists. He also had a bit of a bite — a social awareness unusual in the fifties.
“Take and Indian to lunch –this week– ” was a beautiful sendup of white liberal ‘tolerance’ tokenism.

Sherman was more of a proto Bob Dylan, adapting existing melodies for comic lyrics. Again, though, without Dylan’s social concerns. Sherman was definitely a product of the fifties, while Freburg foreshadowed the sixties.

irvingdog says:

“We ate the horses yesterday”

Scott Sperling says:

My college roommate and I idolized Sherman and during our senior year at UCLA (1971), we went to see him give a talk in the Student Center. He was, even taking into consideration a recollection that is 40+ years old, bloated, unhealthy-looking and clearly desperate for attention and affection. He doled out his formula for world peace and talked about his songs and such for most of an hour. It was just sad. Neither of us were surprised when he died just a few years later.

His humor appealed to me as an adolescent but I have to admit that my favorite way to complete a vocal warm up is still to sing, Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max, at the top of my voice. If I can sing, “My ma leans out the window and hollers, Here we are!” at full volume and on pitch…I am ready to sing anything. As for Stan Freberg…I think that age and cultural context mean a lot. I am obviously in my early ’60′s and Freberg, along with Alan Sherman, Mad Magazine, bootlegged copies of Lenny Bruce’s routines and many, many other comedians, formed much of my early appreciation for what many might think of as low-brow humor. That said, listen to Freberg’s opus magnum, The United States of America. It holds up well and is a real testament to his talent and humor. Thanks for this serious and well-written book review.

EllenFD says:

Those not familiar with “My Son the Folk Singer” might infer that Sherman pronounced the parodic take on Jacques (as in “Frere Jacque”) the same as the surname of Hugh Jackman. But be advised that on the recording it sounds like “Jockman,” not Jackman. Parody may be low comedy, but I love Sherman’s albums, which I’ve had since childhood.

I wonder why there is no mention of “Rape of the A.P.E.: . It was a worthy enterprise indeed.

In the mid-60′s I lived one year in LA (law clerk to Judge Walter Ely on US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit), but we had lots of friends in the entertainment business. Everett Greenbaum (who we knew through Dodie and David Westheimer (Von Ryan’s Express author), who wrote for Mr. Peepers, came over to the Westheimers acting chagrinned and embarassed “I just saw Allan Sherman. He said, ‘Remember I told you I was recording those parodies I used to sing at parties and you told me, ‘you gotta be nuts, who would buy it?’” “Yeah,” Everett said he said. “Well, my agent just called to tell me it is the number one selling album in the United States.”

Excuse the Jewish Geography, but were you related to Judy Sperling (OBM), Judge Ely’s wonderful and beautiful secretary?

George, I know. And it gets worse: I have a whole book coming out in the fall about Jews and obscenity in American culture (https://nyupress.org/books/book-details.aspx?bookid=11888), and I don’t even deal with “Rape of the APE” in there. It’ll devote an entire essay to it, sooner or later, I promise. (And Cohen’s biography does give it a decent amount of attention, though not as much as you might like.)

Scott Sperling says:

“They ate them…but I didn’t ”

FOTFL…quick story…my last year of rabbinic school, I was walking up some stairs and a cantorial student was walking down. For whatever the reason, when he asked me if I’d knocked on a particular professor’s door, I responded, “I like to bust my knuckles on your buffalo hide” and within seconds, we were dancing on the staircase singing, “Take an Indian to lunch this week…” People walked by us and were convinced that we’d completely lost our minds. There is a secret, underground society of those who know every lyric by heart…glad to meet another member, Irvingdog :)

Scott Sperling says:

Please see above…and I think that your comments re: Freberg are right on the money. Sadly, Freberg’s take on Mayor Pennypacker’s newly found liberalism is still right on target.

Scott Sperling says:

No, sorry, Marc…btw, I love Jewish geography and always happy to play it ;-)

Scott Sperling says:

And you too, pkbrandon…

perot junk says:

BELLE BARTH ?? DIRTY SONG PARODIST…AND JEWISH, TOO.

earlganz says:

Allen Sherman and Mickey Katz practiced what is called in English Deparments, Macaronic Humor, that is, puns in more than one language. Mickey Katz was also Joel Grey’s father. But the best example I can give of Macaronic humor is am old NY Daily News headline when the BMT broke down one Monday morning.

“Sic Transit Gloria Mundi”

irvingdog says:

The album came out the year of my bar mitzvah, 1963, and with “Hello Muddah,…” on the radio all the time, I spent what seemed like a fortune, maybe $3, on the album. My brother and I listened to it so many times that, to this day, we cite lines at random from it and break into laughter. “You cooked the national bird?!”

Alan Sherman’s memoir (“A Gift of Laughter”) is still in print (available at Amazon) and is hysterically funny. I wore out my copy years ago…

For the record, I *love* Belle Barth; I teach her albums to my students all the time. Her song parodies aren’t exactly brilliant, but they’re wonderful, yes.

Allan Sherman was one of my favorite entertainers during my teens. In the summer of 1976 I saw him perform in person at a hotel in Hawaii. Years later my daughter was studying French History and I sang his song about Louis the 16th to her. she instantly became a fan and insisted that I buy CD s of his songs on Amazon. For months we listened to them on the car CD player and learned them all. A couple years ago I was on a cruise and one of the entertainers belted out “Good Advice” without any attribution. I gently gave him a piece of my mind.

Shocked Shocked Shocked! says:

MAD Magazine’s Frank Jacobs wrote a mountain of smart, witty song parodies for decades (“sung to the tune of”).

The author’s dismissal of song parodies in general, and Sherman’s work in particular, strike me as unfair, and representative of selective intellectual snobbism.

As an example, Sherman’s version of the Mexican Hat Dance includes,
“there’s a fellow in West Acapulco, the most elegant man you could meet
he does sambas on Homburgs to tunes of Sig Romberg’s and sometimes the Nutcracker Suite
So take care – so beware
or they’ll put castanets on and ruin your Stetson ’cause they all think they’re Fred Astaire”

(typed from memory, by the way)

I would say that there are plenty of forms of comedy beneath that – not to mention plenty of forms of popular musical expression.

Sherman’s work survives 50 years on, despite its humble format and ‘current events’ context, because it’s clever, funny, entertaining, articulate and often insightful. Would that more than 5% of today’s “entertainment” be equally valuable.

marjorie says:

What a fascinating piece! I bookmarked a whole bunch of the songs to listen to later; the only one I knew before reading this was Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah. (I very much liked the line “Sherman has been rediscovered as often as he has been forgotten.”)

kotzk1 says:

The author is too dismissive of Sherman, and of clever song parodies.
Just thinking of ‘Hello Muddah’ brings a smile to my face.

disqus_SVWf2av5z7 says:

My computer is sitting in my small home art studio…on the floor is a sampling of albums from the 1960′s & ’70′s….and there sitting is “ALLAN SHERMAN’s MOTHER PRESENTS… “My son, the folk singer”…the original 1962 album. I’ve just put it on….Alan’s voice is at perfect pitch for this Schtick…Each song is a very funny scenario in the best tradition of the amazing Mel Brooks. The back of the album states “Recorded live at a big expensive HollywoodParty” which includes a live laugh track…the liner notes consist of blurbs by Steve Allen, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis & Harpo Marx…I remember Allen all over the tube in the 1960′s…he was plain Funny/Wonderful!!!

Stormin’Norm

But he died in 1973.

pkbrandon says:

There’s a difference between comedy and slapstick.
Sherman (who I do also enjoy, BTW) is more verbal slapstick.

No one (that I know) pretended that Stan Freberg was hilarious; he amused you and made you think. Rather than direct parodies, his songs/schticks made you wonder ‘now what does that remind me of?’.
His sort of comedy was more that of Shakespeare or Aristophanes, as opposed to the Three Stooges.

And while there is certainly a Jewish flavor to his humor (see Lenny Bruce on being Jewish), he didn’t exploit his heritage the way Sherman did.

To give Sherman some credit, as a former folk singer myself, I much preferred him to the Smothered Brothers, who were more ‘laugh at’ than ‘laugh with’.

I don’t know Sherman’s TV producing generally, but if this “Painless Dentist” spot of his is any example, then labelling him a hack in this medium seems harsh. http://www.youtube.com/all_comments?v=K1phr_MLnIM

plus15 says:

“Writer” Josh Lambert ends his writing here with “One can hope that, thanks to Cohen, his legacy is now safe.” well certainly nobody can or will thank Lambert. I can sum up my review of your work here by pointing out that you are a shit head. Your summations of your reading is asinine and you know little to nothing about comedy, parody or the guy you have the chutzpah to call a “hack”. The editors of The Tablet bear responsibility for allowing this hit job to be printed/posted on your rag.

plus15 says:

Holy Shit! You have students?

plus15 says:

Rarely to you find a “reviewer” having to defend his “writing” as much as Lambert finds necessary here.

MAD Mag also introduced a lot of Yiddish to the American lexicon, at about the same time Allan Sherman’s star was shining. Plenty of Jews amongst “the ususl gang of idiots”.

ivygar says:

My parents had several of Alan Sherman’s records and I loved playing them as a kid. When I was in high school some of my friends were Beatles fans and begged me to play “Pop Hates the Beatles” over and over: this was in the early 1980s. Every year I play Dr Demento’s Holidays in Dementia and love Sherman’s “The 12 days of Christmas”. Sherman expertly caught the spirit of life in America in the latter 20 century, not just Jewish life.
My favourite Alan Sherman song is his recording of “Sue Me” on Frank Sinatra’s version of the Guys and Dolls soundtrack.(http://www.4shared.com/mp3/cxfeAdzW/allan_sherman__debbie_renolds-.html) Debbie Reynolds sounds like nails screeching on a blackboard but Sherman is heartbreaking. He would have been fantastic on Broadway. What a shame he didn’t appear in more musicals.

John Efron says:

Dismissiveness and contempt are not the equivalent of reasoned critique. One reads this review but still comes away from it not knowing what is materially, structurally, and substantively wrong with song parodies. Surely if a reviewer feels that way, it is his obligation to explain and convince readers that he is right. Lambert’s personal likes and dislikes are utterly immaterial in the context of a review. Then there is the tone. Everytime he praises the author for his meticulous work it is followed by a nasty aside. Again, negative books reviews, even nasty ones, are a dime-a-dozen. But in
a review, even nastiness has to be backed up with substance. On that score too, Lambert fails miserably.

Perhaps the problem lies with the fact that Lambert appears uneasy with Sherman’s
default position–declaring his Jewishness not only over and over again but earning a healthy living doing so. More pointedly, Lambert seems uncomfortable with Sherman’s lack of discomfort at being Jewish. That’s why he references Jewish comedians who changed their names, praising them in spite of or perhaps because of their ambivalence about their Jewishness. He mentions the likes of Jack Benny, Harpo Marx, and Jacob Rodney Cohen a.k.a. Dangerfield. They were Jewish but did no Jewish humor. Does that inoculate them for Lambert? I would add that Harpo performed wordless song parodies. Are they too to be dismissed or is it only the song parodies with overtly Jewish content?

Lambert would have a hard time justifying his contempt for the genre of song parody, especially Jewish song parody to some Sherman’s greatest admirers. Among them are some of the greatest names in the history of American entertainment: Harpo Marx, Jack Benny, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander and the great Broadway composer, Richard Rogers. Does Lambert really believe that men of such superior talent would sing Sherman’s praises if he really was the “hack” Lambert said he was?

Lambert should take a look at my recently published article on two of the most exquisite Jewish comedians, the Yiddish team of Dzigan and Shumacher, [“From Lodz to Tel Aviv: The Yiddish Political Satire of Shimen Dzigan,” Jewish Quarterly
Review, 102, 1 (Winter 2012): 50–79]. He’ll learn that writing about Jewish humor is no laughing matter and nor are Jewish comedians and humorists like Allan Sherman to be so cavalierly dismissed, for they are uniquely modern Jewish types, with forbears—the lets and the badkhn—but no real direct ancestors. Modernity saw the first appearance of these important producers of secular Jewish culture. This is something that Mark Cohen, Sherman’s biographer, has well understood. It is a pity that someone who identifies himself as “academic director of the Yiddish Book Center” doesn’t

I agree Stevie, thanks for posting!

Shocked Shocked Shocked! says:

I was offering up Frank Jacobs not as a Jewish example, but as another counterargument to the premise that song parody is fundamentally (in Lambert’s words) “the default gesture for lame radio DJs, high-school talent shows, and viral videos.” Lame DJs, school reviews and YouTube are also safe havens for bad dialects and impressions, bad topical humor, and bad character-driven performances; would Lambert declare those comedic forms and styles to also be near-worthless? How many crappy poems, films, paintings and symphonies are there?

Anyone who could read a decent sampling of Frank Jacobs’ lyrical parody work and come away declaring that he was slumming is not someone I would go to for comedy lessons.

Timeline: MAD was already doing Yiddishisms in 1952 and thereafter, a decade before Sherman’s breakthrough as a performer.

BigGuy says:

The Rape of the APE, Allan Sherman’s autobiography, is a very funny book.

BigGuy says:

http://savethemusic.com/bin/archives.cgi?q=songs&search=performer&id=Shimon+Dzigan

Above is a link to some of the Yiddish songs and skits of Dzigan and Shumacher.

And everybody reading here will really enjoy Marc Maron’s podcasts with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.

http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episodes/episode_358_-_mel_brooks

http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episodes/episode_359_-_carl_reiner

RE: Tom Lehrer, he was NOT a song parodist, but rather, a satirist. Except for his song THE ELEMENTS, which is barely a parody, conceptually, but does use a pre-existing Gilbert & Sullivan melody (“Major-General’s Song” from THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE) on which to hang its “lyrics” of the 103 chemical elements that were known at the time, Tom Lehrer wrote ORIGINAL music and lyrics. I have always loved Sherman and always will, but he and Tom Lehrer did two separate things, and each man did his thing superbly well.

Btw, having been a life-long Three Stooges fan, I long ago learned to let apologists apologize for whatever reason — perhaps the need to elevate oneself above the hoi polloi — while the rest of us recognize that funny is funny.

Agreed that the vast majority of Lehrer’s output was in a different generic category than Sherman’s. I was of course thinking primarily of “The Elements” when I mentioned Lehrer’s song parodies. Lehrer did make a couple other similar brief forays into Sherman- or Yankovic-style parody (in which he took recognizable melodies and set new words to them): “The Subway Song” (which is more or less a direct parody of a popular song, “M-O-T-H-E-R”), “A Liter and a Gram,” and some brief treatments of Christmas carols (which, in this small subcategory of Lehrer material, I like most).

I remember playing My Son the Folk Singer and Camp Grenada on the phonograph. This article brought back memories and gave some nice background into Sherman’s roots.

StringTix says:

Possibly the 1976 performance wasn’t his best.

BarryChamplain says:

Josh: to my mind, Stan Freberg;’s oft-cited “genius” was really his ability to parody advertising, his own stock-in-trade. Clients who essentially had nothing to lose would hire him, even if establishment corporations found him too off the beaten path for their safely-defined tastes and painfully cliched ad output.

These maverick clients got their exposure, but that was also all the exposure Freberg needed for his legend to grow. He would launch devastating broadsides against the form itself, thus making the assembly-line glut of America’s advertising product look like one big, sad joke.

Here is what I believe to be the single best example of that: “The 1966 Chun King”. Automobile ads (automobiles? Wait, aren’t we talking about chow mein, here???) had devolved into these blatant panderings to the macho male lifestyle: leering announcers, sexual imagery, jazz from the “Route 66″ school of Playboy-era men’s fantasies. So, with a little help from Billy May, he took a chow mein product that you might never even notice, and lobbed a missile at the world of car advertising. In the process of seeing the art form eviscerated… you noticed the chow mein product. Mission accomplished, at the expense of the well-heeled advertising industry. Which, I’m sure, by and large hated his guts.

If you are not on the floor dying of laughter while listening to this, it’s forgivable… after all, this is 2013. Only if you’d heard every single car commercial of the time, repeatedly and incessantly in the 1960′s, would this spot reach out and smack you in the funnybone. Just trust me, they all sounded EXACTLY like this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDSrTtzBsME

2000

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Allan Sherman’s Last Laugh

A thorough new biography chronicles the rise and fall of the big, Jewish self-destructive funnyman

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