Thursday, November 27, 2014

Now more than ever!

In this time of unrest, indecision, civil rights violations, over-militarized police, governmental surveillance, and involvement in Middle Eastern quagmires, we look back to a simpler time. A time when a former TV star – not yet doing local legal TV ads around country – could try to read the constitution, and bored Macy's employees could gather around him, dressed as clowns, and wave to their relatives.

It wasn't so long ago, but America was a different place. No YouTube, no Internet at all. We had to turn to television for inspirational moments like this.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Great comedian, mediocre moviemaker: Deceased Artiste Mike Nichols

I come to praise one Mike Nichols. And bury another.

First, Nichols the comedian. As the male half of the Nichols and May team (the “she” being Elaine May), Mike Nichols was an imaginative, poker-faced, utterly brilliant, and wildly funny performer and writer.

Then came Nichols the film director. [Note: I will not write about his career as a theater director because that is not my specialty, nor is it my interest. Saw two of his theater productions, and although both were critically heralded, it seemed as if the shows could have been directed by anyone with any level of solid craftsmanship.] The first four films showed incredible promise and talent. He evoked superb performances and had an identity as a director. By 1973, all that identity went out the window and he became a mainstream mulch-meister. His films may have contained great performances (and some pretty lousy ones), but Mike Nichols the director wasn’t wretched. He was simply another Herbert Ross. Or Arthur Hiller. Or Gene Saks.

So let me first praise the inventive, imaginative, very original part of Nichols’ career. He was a founding member of the Compass troupe in Chicago, along with May and Shelley Berman. The Compass preceded the Second City — by the time that moniker came around, Berman and Mike & Elaine had decided to pursue separate comedy careers. 

Berman, of course, became one of the first great modern standups, while Nichols and May were the first modern comedy team (read: their material was not dependent on them playing the same characters over and over — in fact they never repeated the same characters, something that would be verboten in today’s franchise-friendly comedy universe).

Nichols and May were part of a wave of American comedy that also included Jonathan Winters, Mort Sahl, and the one and only Lenny Bruce. Together the group were dubbed “sick comics” because they regularly dealt with grim topics and they depicted homespun, “all-American” topics in a wry, knowing, utterly sarcastic and sardonic way. As with the utterly timeless “Mother and Son” sketch from N&M:

While Nichols and May explored the mechanics of male-female relationships beautifully, they didn’t only play couples (or family members). Some of their best-remembered bits focus on bureaucracy and (a theme also explored by Berman) the way that one clings to any ounce of humanity one can find when dealing with bureaucracy. This is best illustrated by their “telephone routine,” a bit that the book The Compass: Improvisational Theatre that Revolutionized American Comedy by Janet Coleman indicates was created by May and Berman, thus explaining why both acts did variations on it after leaving the Compass.

The bit is perfectly calculated, in that May’s female characters grow “warmer” as Nichols’ caller moves through the gauntlet of operators. The middle operator also is a definite precursor to Lily Tomlin’s “Ernestine” character.

Nichols and May were a giant success in their day, and radically different from all that had come before them — thus my noting that they deserve a Mark Twain Prize, as do Sahl, Dick Gregory, and the Smothers Brothers.

Their humor evoked laughs, but thoughtful ones (yes, theirs could be described as “egghead comedy”). For the most part, Mike and Elaine played incredibly quiet characters, so many of their routines — especially the ones on their Improvisations to Music LP and their appearances on the radio show Monitor — are master classes in deadpan humor.
Both were razor-sharp comedy writers when they were a team, but more importantly they were great ad-libbers. Those listening to their routines these days can hear their influence on everyone from Stiller and Meara (who wonderfully filled the void left when N&M broke up) to the Portlandia pair. They rewrote the rules of male-female byplay in comedy.

And then they broke up, with Elaine May first working as an actress and then a (talented but too indulgent) film director and playwright. Nichols turned to stage direction and then film, and never wrote a word of comedy again. Perhaps they both needed each other to be funny, but I know that I, as a major Nichols and May fan, would be willing to swap out even the best of Nichols’ films —yes, even The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge — to get some more of his comedy with Elaine. I would certainly be willing to trade the hours that I spent watching the indelibly mediocre Working Girl, Heartburn, Regarding Henry, Wolf, and on and on.

That is why one can be delighted at the discovery of the many (many!) sketches Nicholas and May wrote and performed for the Monitor radio series. Here is one such bit — two twists in the course of a two-minute piece of comedy.

Onto Nichols the filmmaker. He had evident skill working at actors, while not demanding too much of them in the last three and half decades (with Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, and Julia Roberts, only so much can be given in the first place).

His experience staging plays obviously benefited his first film as a director, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). He and screenwriter Ernest Lehman did a little ill-advised "opening up" of the play, but for the most part Nichols just made sure to spotlight Burton's long-suffering husband and Elizabeth Taylor's career-changing turn as a shrill shrew (a great performance, but one she continued to give for the next 20 years). 

The Graduate (1967) remains a perfect time piece of its era, the kind that could be enjoyed by both young people and their parents (Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy it is not). It's a great film that reflects Nichols' awareness of the alienation techniques used by the iconic European filmmakers of the time, from Antonioni to Godard. Although it came after Virginia Woolf, it seemed to be Nichols' debut as a director, signifying that he was “going to do great things.” (Caution: Postcards from the Edge lies ahead.)

Nichols' next movie also captured the vibe of the Sixties very well, but bombed at the box office. Catch-22 (1970) was an excellent distillation of Joseph Heller's landmark anti-war masterpiece of “black comedy.” Nichols had a tight rein on the material and made sure to keep the picture moving while still presenting some of the troubling and touching repetition from Heller's original.

The cast was a scarily impressive round-up of comic (and dramatic) performers, but the film was trounced soundly by Robert Altman's M*A*S*H*, which derived from a much (much) lesser novel. Altman, however, was able to imbue the non-stellar material (that endless football game at the end!) with an even stronger Sixties vibe. It is time, however, to reappraise Catch-22.

Nichols' first two features are considered his most important, but Carnal Knowledge (1971) is probably his best film, as it combines a tight, character-driven script, razor-sharp performances, and a modern, identifiable visual style (an element missing from Nichols' work after this). The style can be readily identified as the play-to-the-camera, “conversations as interviews” approach used by Godard in Masculin-Feminin.

The other important thing about Carnal Knowledge is that it plays against the wistful nostalgia for the Fifties that was so prominent in Seventies culture in America. Jules Feiffer's screenplay (decades before Mad Men was a glimmer in anyone's eye) focuses on the sexist mindset that was at the forefront of the “good old days,” leading to the final play-acting scene that is the perfect resolution for the picture (and a sequence in which the POV quality of the visuals underscores the emptiness of Nicholson's character's sexist “script”).

After Carnal came The Day of the Dolphin (1973), which was (ouch) a watershed in Nichols' career. From that point on, his visual style is nondescript (barely there, just spotlight the actors and let 'em roll), the scripts are standard-issue Hollywood mulch, and the performances are a mixed bag of intensity with accents (Meryl Streep, who I do think is marvelous even in absolute crap like Heartburn and Postcards) and likeable nothingness (the aforementioned Ms. Roberts).

So Nichols shed his filmmaking identity in the early Seventies and never looked back. [Note: I have not seen Angels in America — someday, when my patience for Al's upper-register acting is stronger....]. Even the best of Nichols' post-Dolphin movies — say, a taut, meaningful drama like Silkwood (1983), which is superbly acted — could have been directed by any of the skilled Hollywood craftsmen who made such message dramas. For instance: James Bridges could've directed Silkwood and Nichols could've made China Syndrome, and the results would have very likely been the same. (At times, Nichols' films have seemed identical to those of Rob Reiner.)

Now that he's left us, I'll choose to remember and enthusiastically celebrate the Mike Nichols of Nichols and May, who broke new ground in comedy and was extremely versatile and inventive. Their routines might be dated in certain regards, but the majority of them (like all well-crafted humor) are timeless.

There are several Nichols and May TV commercials on YouTube. In this regard N&M were closest to Stan Freberg, in that they mocked the conventions of TV advertising while also hyping the product. Most of them are cartoons (for Jax and Narragansett beer). One of the most elaborate is this amazing piece trumpeting GE Refrigerators.

One of their best ad campaigns was for the IRS. As with their other ads, they created tiny little sketches in which they embodied melodramatic stereotypes and put the pitch for the product directly in the dialogue (as here). In this regard you might call their ads “ironic,” but they did definitely offer a solid pitch.

A very peculiar IRS spot in which Mike can't stop shaving the couple's dog:

And a very suitable setting for a Nichols and May routine, the therapist’s couch.

Mike and Elaine only released three albums, but each one is a classic. The bits from the albums have been reissued in various permutations. Two of the records were “concept albums,” so it's best to hear all of the bits in a row. As with Nichols and May Examine Doctors:

The tracks from all three albums can be found on this YouTube poster's account. (Beware: there are all kinds of music tracks in the mix; it's probably the only place you'll hear “Gangnam Style” pop up amongst N&M routines.)

One of their best audio concept pieces is from the album Improvisations to Music. “Bach to Bach” finds them playing an utterly pretentious couple out on their first date, listening to classical music in his apartment. Their condemnation of their bourgeois families is wonderful, as is Mike's bit where he agrees with some feeble point that Elaine's character has made (“I know exactly what you mean... exactly!”):

As with a lot of TV rarities, the only access the public has had to some of the best Nichols and May clips was through documentaries, like this great American Masters tribute to the team. Thankfully, some of the best bits have been posted on YT independent of the talking heads (and in their entirety).

Here the pair play a dentist and his patient in a parody of hammy Hollywood romances:

A bit that has to be seen to be enjoyed (in fact, I don't think it's on any of the records). Mike tries to put the moves on Elaine, as the duo play teenagers on a date. This is one of their most physical bits, as the characters try to figure out how to make out and keep smoking.

The final quartet of bits that mock hypocrisy and bureaucracy are must-sees. In the first routine, they play coworkers at the water cooler discussing the current game show scandal that is being investigated by the government (this happened in 1959). The best thing about the bit is that even though it involves a very specific historical event it remains relevant because it addresses the things that politicians and the media deem “important” (namely, so-called moral issues) and those they ignore (freedom and the like).

The next clip, about the money-grubbing habits of funeral parlors, is part of a larger body of black comedy that addresses the funeral “industry” (from the novel and film The Loved One to the Python sketch about burning or eating one's relative). Again, the hypocrisy is addressed through characterization: May makes a perfect “sympathy lady” who is first and foremost a saleswoman:

A beautiful takedown of show-business bullshit, a sketch from the Emmy Awards in which Elaine, as a very deadpan version of herself, gives the “Total Mediocrity Award” to Mike, who plays a man who consciously makes “garbage” TV, listening to the sponsors and not producing anything of merit.

I wouldn't go so far as to accuse Nichols of becoming this character in his later life, but a quick scan of his filmography will show he made some films that could've qualified him for the award. The Garry Shandling comedy What Planet Are You From?, The Day of the Dolphin, and oh yeah, Wolf spring to mind immediately, although certain “prestige” items like Primary Colors and Postcards from the Edge are squarely in that “Total Mediocrity” range.

In any case, this bit is just brilliant:

I close out with a truly classic routine, which I am very grateful to have found on YT. For obvious reasons (read: dealings with hospitals) both my parents had described this bit frequently, but I've never seen it until now. It's a hospital sketch, in which Mike is a man whose arm has been broken and Elaine is the business-like reception-desk nurse who is checking him in.

This sort of bit became regular fare on TV sketch shows over the years, but seeing it done by “the originals” is startlingly refreshing. None of the broader strokes favored by SNL, none of the over-the-top acting that is characteristic of today's comedy vehicle movies. Just Elaine cracking gum and asking a stream of questions as Mike sighs and says, “Forgive me, I'm a troublemaker. I'm sorry.”

Nichols and May reunited a few times after their breakup, but their only major collaborations were the films The Birdcage and Primary Colors (she wrote the scripts, he directed the films). You're better off with the three albums.

Monday, November 17, 2014

One last farewell to Allan Sherman

I wanted to end my exploration of the works of Allan Sherman with two clips that I find fascinating — the first because it’s amusing, the second because it’s kinda sad (on purpose).

The first clip features one of the great comedy writer/performers of today, a certain Larry David, singing (yes, that’s right, singing) one of Allan’s more tongue-twisting lyrics, “Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max” from My Son the Folk Singer. Larry does “pretty, pretty, pretty good” in this odd public appearance with the Boston Pops in August of 2011.

Here’s something I uploaded myself: a variant version of “Sarah Jackman” sung by Allan and Christine Nelson on a 1966 TV special. For whatever reason, Allan changed the lyrics (after the first identical verse) to have Sarah rejecting Jerry Bockman, in excruciating detail. I was pretty amazed when I first saw this clip in the Nineties — this was before I had read anything about Sherman’s private life. (He was, in case you haven’t read my preceding entries, a depressive.)

Allan’s clever wordplay is still front and center, but here it’s not used to describe a large Jewish family, but instead to depict an overweight boy being mocked and rejected by the object of his affection. JFK reportedly was heard humming and singing the original “Sarah Jackman” in a hotel lobby once. I doubt he would’ve dug this version, ladies’ man that he was.

I’m not thrilled to end this series of posts about Sherman on a “downer,” but the rarity of this clip makes it a must-see (plus, it has Allan once he’d ditched the glasses and was trying to lose weight).

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Too Jewish? The Allan Sherman bio ‘Overweight Sensation’

To close off my discussion of Allan Sherman, I need to review the book that set the Sherman “renaissance” in motion, Mark Cohen’s biography Overweight Sensation: the Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman. In my last entries on Sherman, I disagreed with Cohen’s verdict on Allan’s two books — his biography, however, is a fine one that addresses Sherman’s life and work from a number of different angles.

Cohen’s research is impeccable. In the first portion of the book, he successfully untangles Sherman’s quite tangled familial relationships, to the extent of charting where Allan’s family “disappeared” to when his criminal stepfather had to quickly flee Los Angeles for getting caught passing bad checks. He does a similarly excellent job conveying the relationships that fostered and cultivated Allan’s talent (most prominently, his unashamedly Jewish maternal grandparents) and those he struggled with even after the person was long dead (his mother, who did her best to assimilate, and sublimate her Jewishness).

The book clearly breaks down into three sections: Allan’s childhood and pre-fame adulthood; his sudden, massive stardom; and his sad “fall from grace” in show business. The most interesting aspect of the book is the way that Cohen analyzes Sherman’s lyrics with the sober-minded intensity of an academic, while he also displays a fanboy-like affection for this work, providing us diehard fans with a trove of previously unheard lyrics that qualify as some of Sherman’s funniest, silliest, and (not surprisingly) most Jewish songs. Cohen's unearthing of these lost gems resulted in the first “new” Sherman CD in years, There Is Nothing Like a Lox.

The childhood portion of the book finds Cohen taking on the role of storyteller, occasionally making jokes about the subject matter. When Allan becomes a sudden superstar, Cohen includes essays about Sherman’s most famous songs, discussing them in some depth as cultural artifacts and landmarks of American Jewish culture.

At these points he vaunts Sherman as perhaps the seminal Jewish humorist of the mid-20th century, studying his lyrics and designating them as important works of social satire. This could be seen as taking it a bit too far, were it not for the fact that Sherman’s lyrics (which Cohen delightfully quotes at length) were, and are, damned funny and clever.

Like any good fan, Cohen’s emotional proximity to his subject is communicated throughout the book. He seems positively outraged when he recounts the many times that Sherman showed his childish side in public. Allan declared to journalist Nora Ephron that “My parents divorced when I was 6 and I spent the rest of my life at Fred Astaire and Dick Powell movies. This caused me to lose my grip on reality.”

At times, Cohen sounds like a disappointed parent lamenting the puerile behavior of his beloved child. The thing that becomes clear, though, from a close reading of both Sherman’s autobio A Gift of Laughter and Overweight Sensation (and a close listening to his songs) is that his childish behavior was directly linked to his childlike sense of wonder at the insanity of the world. His corny pronouncements about the blissful nature of children’s innocence were the flip side of his ability to write through the eyes of a youngster (the fact that his biggest hit was “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” was not a surprise). Here Allen comments on the song (in a video posted by Cohen):

Allan’s childishly simple view of the world also seems to have allowed him to have the balls... er, chutzpah to write dozens of song parodies, perform them at parties, and then carve out a musical career, when he possessed neither a Greek physique nor a great singing voice. He was clearly a man driven by his instincts — his best albums were written in a matter of weeks before they were recorded.

Allen with the cast of I've Got a Secret.
Sherman, in fact, suffered from the classic performer’s dilemma: a mixture of self-loathing and rampant egomania. Cohen chronicles how he indulged in his addictions — gambling, smoking, and most especially eating — while he was a young man and then a producer of game shows in both NYC and LA (the most important one being I’ve Got a Secret, which he co-created).

Once he hit it big with his first LP, My Son the Folk Singer, he plunged even deeper into these addictions and was finally able to indulge in a fourth that had always been his main obsession growing up (as recounted in his autobiography A Gift of Laughter and his chronicle of the sexual revolution, The Rape of the A*P*E*), namely sex. Cohen was told by the classical pianist Leonid Hambro, a good friend of Sherman’s, about the orgies he and Allan attended (whose habituees also included George Plimpton — those lucky ladies!).

Like many comedians, Sherman was clearly a major depressive. Despite his chutzpah, he also suffered from severe self-loathing and a realistic viewpoint about the vagaries of fame. He never felt comfortable with his success, noting in Daily Variety “If you can get this lucky all of a sudden, you can get that unlucky, too.” He added to a reporter at the New York Journal-American in regard to his premonitions that his fame would go away, “I'm pledged not to get desperate.”

Much of the final portion of Overweight Sensation is given over to the ways in which Sherman undermined his own efforts in show business with self-destructive and exceptionally naïve behavior. Ultimately, though, he left us a legacy of brilliant, infernally catchy comedy songs, which Cohen celebrates throughout the book.

In the final chapter, Cohen goes past Allan’s death to discuss how Sherman’s music went out of and back into popular favor. Although at points Cohen seems to be giving Sherman credit for all modern Jewish-American comedy, it is very true that Allan’s albums remain masterworks of both wordplay and ethnic “belonging.” Allan once said to an interviewer, “everyone is part Jewish.” He wasn’t wrong.

Cohen devotes several pages in the book to an ongoing set of songs that Allan called “Goldeneh Moments from Broadway.” Most of the tunes are available on the There Is Nothing Like a Lox CD, but Cohen also has uploaded several to YouTube. Sherman introduced the concept at the parties he performed at in this way: “It occurred to me, what if all of the great hit songs from all of the great Broadway shows had actually been written by Jewish people? Which they were.”

On occasional, though, of course, there was a song that was easily parodied that was written by a gentile. In this case, Meredith Wilson's “Seventy-six Trombones” from the smash musical The Music Man was transformed by Allan into “Seventy-six Sol Cohens” (all of the following postings are from Cohen's YT account):

“Over the Rainbow” becomes “Overweight People”:

A parody of “Summertime” from Sherman's Porgy and Bess rewrite “Solly and Shirl”:

Another song by a gentile, “You're the Top” by Cole Porter, gets the Sherman treatment:

“There Is Nothing Like a Lox” came from Sherman's Rodgers and Hammerstein variation, “South Passaic”:

His stirring and very silly “You'll Never Walk Alone” spoof “When You Walk Through the Bronx”:

Finally, one of the best songs from Sherman's first LP, one that Cohen talks about for a few pages, Allan's tongue-twisting rewrite of the already pretty tongue-twisted Irish tune “Dear Old Donegal,” “Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max”:

Note: Some of the pictures in this blog entry come from Mark Cohen's website about Overweight Sensation, which can be found at

Friday, November 7, 2014

What We Think About When We Think About Sex: the out-of-print writings of Allan Sherman (part 2 of two)

Now I move on to the moment where Allan Sherman truly became “My Son, the Author.” While his 1965 autobiography A Gift of Laughter was reportedly ghostwritten – yet many sections are clearly Sherman's own opinions and wording – his second, and sadly last, book, The Rape of A*P*E* (American Puritan Ethic), The Official History of the Sex Revolution 1945-1973, subtitled “The Obscening of America, An R*S*V*P* Document (Redeeming Social Value Pornography)” (1973), was his own work from start to finish.

The first thing that distinguishes the book is its length. Rarely does a “new” humorist come up with a nearly 500-page book that tries to both chronicle and mock the history of mankind. Toward the end of the book, Allan notes that he's been writing it for two and a half years. This isn't surprising, given that he clearly assembled (perhaps aided by interns or assistants?) mountains of info that he could use as fodder for sharp points and jokes about American hypocrisy.

By the late Sixties, Sherman's musical career was at a dead end. He had relationship and health problems, and was undergoing an identity crisis. He shed his trademark glasses and attempted to lose weight (the former worked out better than the latter). He grew a beard and was attempting to reinvent himself as a social satirist. A*P*E* indicates that he was a very talented humor writer, but his health problems got the better of him – he died two months after its publication at the age of 49.

The book charts the progress of Western civilization from the caveman (a simple, primal being that Allan calls “Sap,” short for “homo sapiens”) to the sexual revolution that Sherman dates as having occurred from 1945-'73. His introduction to the concept is terrific: 

[pp. 8-9, paperback edition] If anything is fun, Thou Shalt Not;

If anything feels good, Thou Shalt Not;

If anything is natural, or promises to give pleasure, or even relief,

Thou Shalt Not. Thou Shalt Not. Thou Shalt Not.

Thus the APE turned us all into liars and hypocrites.

The APE made us ashamed of our bodies, our thoughts, our feelings.

The APE robbed us of certain inalienable rights, and among these rights were sex, nudity and the pursuit of horniness.

The APE was always with us — in the street, in the office, in the living room; it haunted every bedroom and hovered in every toilet. The APE’s most effective work was done inside our very souls, in those dark unexplored places we still call by mystical icon-names like id and libido and superego, and other such mumbo-jumbo. Deep down there, each American came to believe that he or she was dirty and worse — that everyone else was clean and wholesome.....

[p. 12] And so in the quest of human intercourse, it became necessary to overthrow the APE.

What followed was the American Sex Revolution, certainly the most lunatic episode since man crawled out of the primeval ooze. Legions of Lolitas joined the battle with battalions of Babbitts and platoons of Portnoys. Manners and moral and great institutions bit the dust. Waterbeds splashed and vibrators jiggled. And when the air was cleared, people were calling it The Great Fire-Happening, because the world was never going to be the same again. No one knew exactly how, but Western civilization had been caught with its pants down. This book documents the whole ridiculous experience in a hurry — before we all wake up and start denying it really happened.

The youth culture of the late Sixties and early Seventies stirred Allan. He clearly responded to its honesty and also its sexual freedom (he had discussed his obsession with sex in his autobiography). The Vietnam War was so repellent to him that he felt motivated to speak directly to college students around the country (see below).

He also reveled in the fact that he was freed from the constraints that ruled his novelty-music career. A*P*E finds him discussing the sex act quite openly as “fucking.” He remained conservative in one regard, though – he clearly loathed rock music. On the other hand, he embraced the changes in comedy that were brought about by Lenny Bruce.

Two pages from A*P*E* scanned by the Enso On blog.
A*P*E isn't a “dirty book,” it's a well-structured, intelligent, and resolutely moral satire of American hypocrisy. Interestingly Mark Cohen, the author of the new Sherman bio Overweight Sensation, claims that “the middle section of the book is funny," but that the opening and closing portions are full of “hot air.”

I would argue that the sentimental and Utopian passages that Cohen dislikes are of a piece with the rest of the book – if you're imagining the world through the view of a caveman, it's not inconsistent to then be wistful about the possibility of love in sex, however corny it may sound.

The bulk of the book is concerned with sex, but Allan also tackles war, religion, education, the devaluation of women, parents putting down the youth culture, and (my favorite) the American addiction to “things”: 

[pp. 226-227] American technology produces trillions of odds and ends, curios, whatnots, gadgets, bric-a-brac, trinkets, notions, gewgaws. There is no scientific name for this incredible conglomeration of unrelated objects, except — Things. 

The Game consisted of making, buying, selling, and/or consuming Things. Things were never out of the American mind, even in the ceremonial greeting, “Hello, How are Things?”

Children were imbued from infancy with a lifetime goal: Try to get all the Things. Adults realized this was impossible; to them, it was important to be first to acquire a new Thing. If a family was successful in acquiring at least one of each Thing, its members turned to collecting the most of one Thing.

Some Americans collected only brand-new Things, discarding them at the first sign of wear. Others preferred old Things, used for 100 year or more, with enough cracks and bruises to be called “distressed.” To some Americans it was important to possess big Things; others took special pride in owning miniature Things….

A big portion of the book follows the Everyman caveman “Sap” and his mate “Lala.” This part of the book is much, much better than it sounds, since it allows Allan to ridicule our most sacred institutions by viewing them from the perspective of a simple, uncomplicated individual.

In the best section of the story of “Sap,” the caveman encounters a figured named “Dawg-muh” who outlines to him the different kinds of actions that humans undertake (“dassendooz” “shoodnadunnits” “fessups”) that require them to confess and pledge allegiance to the dubious moral code that is religion.

After he becomes acquainted with religion, “Sap” learns about the ways that countries must fight to the death over a plot of land, and how one can “own” property but there are many things one can't get away with on one's property: 

[p. 180-81] Fuck on your private front porch.

Walk around naked on your private lawn.

Plant marijuana in your private garden.

Sell or rent your private property to any of the following:

A hippie commune, an abortion clinic, a Methadone treatment center, a branch of Alcoholics Anonymous or Synanon, the Church of Satan, a black family, a mixed (black and white) family, a Spanish-speaking family.

Make a gift of your property to Fidel Castro, to do with as he wishes.

Try to give it to a friendly government like England.

When the tax assessor comes around, tell him you're starting your own country on your land and that from now he'll have to pay you taxes.

The book is a very funny one, but Sherman clearly also had a serious purpose. At one point, in talking about “the new violence” in the U.S., he discusses battered children. Here he uses his old friend from A Gift of Laughter, italics. He notes that his editor didn't like the “sudden complete change of tone. It isn't funny.” Allan's answer is that “life was still funny, but a different kind of funny. On November 22, 1963, America entered the What-the-Hell era, and real life became indistinguishable from black humor.

A few pages earlier, before discussing the American love of guns, he offers the formula that begat the Warren Commission: “When confused, try to bring everybody else to your level of confusion. Appoint a commission and while they study the problem for a year, make sure everybody will forget the whole thing. Then, to make sure nobody gets too clear a picture of what happened, arrange for the most important evidence to be locked up for 75 years.”

The most interesting thing about the book is the way that Sherman (who was 46-49 at the time he was writing the book) indicts his age group and sides with the youth culture. Early on in A*P*E*, he coincidentally uses the later Tom Brokaw encomium about those who served in WWII by calling that same group “the greatest generation of hypocrites.” He maintains that the hypocrisy existed for the most part because “we were jealous of our own children.”

He refers to attending school as “your daily penance for being a child.” He also wryly notes how kids wise up to the lies told in advertisements: “ABSOLUTELY FREE, the coupon says – but the small print says you have to spend four dollars to get the 'free' prize. The 'giant' malts at the drugstore are served in glasses with fake bottoms. The candy bars made to look an inch longer by the cardboard inside the wrapping.” He begins the section: “By the time you're a teenager you've been had a thousand times.”

He zeroes in on one mythic figure of the post-war period, Sonny Wisecarver, a teenager who had a series of sexual affairs (and marriages) with older wives/moms who left their husbands for him. Allan includes a quote from the judge who was examining the 16-year-old Wisecarver's records before he married him to a 25-year-old who left her husband for him. The judge called him “an incorrigible sexual delinquent,” but added, “You've won your spurs as a man.”

I've been emphasizing the more serious side of Sherman's social criticism in this review, because A*P*E* does indeed stand as a fascinating reflection of the time in which it was written (and the thoughts of a comedian who was striking out in a new direction).

I noted when talking about Sherman's autobiography A Gift of Laughter that he identified with sad and lonely people. Here he discusses the honesty and strangeness of personal ads (“I am a male who is female and I want a female who is male. No men. Tom. PO Box XXX, Pasadena Calif.”). He concludes this section by declaring “Now at last we could gauge the range of the American Dirty Mind – and estimate the unfathomable depth of loneliness in America.”

I will close out with perhaps my favorite concept in the book, one that Allan calls “thinkery-fuckery.” in his first discussion of it he emphasizes “how difficult it is to stop thinking.” He asks the reader to set aside the book and try for ten seconds not to think of a zebra. He then says that that will be all we will think about, in an effort to show how impossible it is to stop thinking while having sex.

Much later in the book he returns to “thinkery-fuckery” to examine the “subtle gradations” of what we think about while we're having sex. Naturally the notion of specific tastes come into play: 

[pp. 314-315] If you are on the receiving end of one of these specialized fucks, you have to suddenly ask yourself: “Why is he/she fucking me? Is it my tits, my money, my membership in the Bel-Air Golf Club?” Whatever it is, it isn't you. Once you begin to realize that people find your tits attractive, you react in one of two ways: Either you go around pushing your tits in everybody's face, or you try to hide them, hoping that someone will see some of your other marvelous qualities. 

Unfortunately specialization has a way of becoming even more specialized. Soon people will fall in love with you because of your left nostril, or the fact that you own a 1913 Liberty-head nickel, or because you can sing “I Wish I Was in Dixie” in perfect Swahili.

He then offers a list of “specialists” who can't stop thinking about the type of people they're fucking. One of the best entries is called “statisticians”: 

[p. 316] Some people enjoy measurements; their pleasure comes from the arithmetic of fucking: the size of partner's sex organs, the precise timing, the angle of entry. I know an attractive young woman who is a member of Mensa, an organization restricted to people in the top two percent of intelligence. One night she ran in all excited and said, 'Last night I laid a man who made 302 strokes!' Another Mensa looked at her and said, 'You weren't fucking, darling. You were counting.'"

A*P*E* is both a fascinating time capsule and a very funny – and, yes, sorta wistful – history of attitudes towards sex in the post-war period. It is indeed sad that Allan kicked off just as a second career seemed to be opening up for him.

Here are a few great related videos. Although Sherman's comedic songs were all “rated G,” some of them jibe perfectly with his views in A*P*E*. For instance, the tale of an ex-urbanite couple, “Harvey and Sheila” (especially the line about the moment the couple “switched to the GOP/that’s the way things go…”). The song starts at 13:49.

This is the most pertinent clip, but sadly it's also the least funny. It's audio of Allan speaking at UCLA in late 1970. He speaks about the Vietnam War and gets into a rather lengthy routine about “Agnew-grams” – short statements that reflect the narrow views of then-Vice-Pres Spiro Agnew (presumably the funny part is that Allan is switching around letters on a screen to make the words... but we can't see that...):

A much sillier and shorter clip, Sherman on a variety show doing “Secret Code” (his variation on “Secret Love”):

Even snappier, here he is on The Hollywood Palace singing “Crazy Downtown” and dueting with host Tony Randall on “One Hippopotami”:

There are a few other pertinent clips, including Sherman doing a campaign song for Lyndon Johnson at a rally – one assumes that, like many others, he felt sold out by LBJ. Also, a tune from a later album by Allan, his spoof of “Spanish Flea” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (as I noted above, he couldn't deal with rock, since he disliked it so much).

The piece of music he released that has the most to do with the opinions he expresses in A*P*E* is his variation on “Peter and the Wolf,” Peter and the Commissar. This album is not included in the big Rhino box set of Sherman's music, because it was recorded for a different label (RCA Red Seal). Recorded with the Boston Pops, the piece expresses his loathing for bureaucracy and conformity. It's a charming piece, mostly because it is so unabashedly emotional (according to his autobiography, he took its creation very seriously).

Note: this blog entry is intended as a enthusiastic review of a book that has been out of print for four decades at the time of writing. If the Sherman family or other rights holders have any objections, contact me at the Media Funhouse site.