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

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