It was a letter from camp--a camp song that introduced the world to a parodist extraordinaire. “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh, Here I am at Camp Granada, Camp is very entertaining, And they say we’ll have some fun when it stops raining...”
If you know the song’s lyrics and you can sing it in its entirety, then you know a tiny bit of the parody success of Allen Sherman. But until you read an impressive new biography by Mark Cohen titled “Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allen Sherman” you may not know the powerfully star-studded yet confusingly sad, rest of the story.
Over the past few decades, there have been a number of Jewish comedy legendary names: Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld., Woody Allen, Alan King, Robert Klein, Adam Sandler, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Jackie Mason to name a few. But only one, took his Jewish upbringing and put the formula together to, in the words of author Cohen, “turn ethnic Jewish comedy into musical mainstream entertainment.” Here’s an example: “Sarah Jackman, Sarah Jackman, How’s by you? How’s by you? How’s by you the family? How’s your sister Emily? She’s nice too. She’s nice, too...”
Forty appearances on CBS TV’s Ed Sullivan (during and around The Beatles American takeover) helped deliver his style of song parody to the country (“Every time I fly away, People cry and they say, Bye, Bye Bloomberg...Once I took a trip with Irving Cohen, No one even noticed he was goin’...”). Over a decade ago, I saw the non-successful off-Broadway musical revue based on his song parodies, agreeing with The New York Times review that said “He was an extraordinarily skillful parodist that deserved to be remembered.”
Sadly, he died suddenly ten days before his forty-ninth birthday. The short but challenging life of Sherman was filled with a multitude of attempts to raise the level of Jewish comedy entertainment. The Cohen book goes into great detail--textbook-style--including delving quite deeply into the historical generational past of Allen Sherman’s (born Allen Copelon) family. All of which seems quite appropriate coming from a book publisher (Brandeis University Press) that has in the past heavily focused on an extensive series of American Jewish history, culture and life. The story of Allen Sherman fits right into their collection. Going into detail of the influences that led to Sherman’s parodies, it was interesting to note that his inspiration for songs and lyrics often came from his maternal immigrant grandparents, the Yiddish speaking Esther and Leon Sherman. “We got herring, sweet and sour, We got pickles, old and young, We got corned beef and salami, and a lot of tasty tongue We’ve got Philadelphia Cream Cheese in little wooden box, What ain’t we got? We ain’t got lox.”
To a nation of immigrants, it was remarkable how Sherman’s musical parodies translated so well into mass market acceptance. One of the best examples of America’s embracing of Jewish ethnic identity cited in the biography is a story of how President John F. Kennedy was overheard singing Sherman’s “Sarah Jackman” to himself. JFK and Sherman met during a Washington D.C. event with the President telling him “I have your record and I like it very much.” What Sherman also seemed to accomplish was making a general audience more accepting of Jewish material. The bio remarks how two years after a new Sherman Jewish parody album with universal appeal was successfully released, the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof opened. Cohen writes that critics attacked Fiddler. “Instead of being “too Jewish” as its creators feared, “Fiddler was Jewish material with universal appeal,” Cohen adds, just like the acceptance of Sherman’s album.
One thing that came from devouring this Cohen biography was finding myself again singing some of the familiar and not-so familiar Allen Sherman parodies that even today maintain their Jewish humor so well as well as listening to his songs. Want to join in?
“Summertime Everybody is shvitzing Schmaltz is melting And the Catskills is high...
That was to the tune of “Summertime.” This is to the tune of “Seventy-six Trombones:”
Seventy-six Sol Cohens in the country club And a hundred and ten nice men named Levine And there’s more than a thousand Fines Who parade around the links It’s a sight that really must be seen.
And to the tune of “You’ll Never Walk Alone:” “When you walk through the Bronx, Hold your head up high,And look for a sign, Fordham Road...”
To the tune of How are Things in Glocca Morra: How are things with Uncle Morris? Does he still work in the candy store...”
It’s difficult to now sing the Hebrew song “Hava Nagila” without remembering the popular Sherman version: “Harvey and Sheila, Harvey and Sheila, Harvey and Sheila, Moved to West L.A. They bought a house one day, Financed by FHA...” Nor can one think of the tune “Moon River” without singing this version: “Chopped liver, Rolled up in a ball, Too much cholesterol they say...” “You heart breaker, you fat maker, From now on I’m going the safflower way...”
Fact is, as you read Mark Cohen’s bio, you can find yourself singing your way through many pages of the book, while also admiring the persistence, struggles and ongoing challenges faced by talent who never wanted to stop proving to the world that he could successfully make his mark. He found success difficult to deal with, and often kept his family out of reach.
Overcoming the challenges, Allen Sherman single-handedly took Jewish humor to a parodical level. And that’s a wonderfully witty way, and entertaining place to be.