The Comic Genius of Allan Sherman

Mark Cohen on his new Sherman biography and what it means to be funny in America

Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" seared its way into the national consciousness in 1963, a hit comedy song parody that marked the high point of an amazing career. Within a 10-month period, Sherman released three gold records ("My Son the Folksinger," "My Son the Celebrity" and "My Son the Nut"), featuring songs that famously parodied "Frere Jacques" ("Sarah Jackman, Sarah Jackman"), "Down By the Riverside" ("Don't Buy the Liverwust") and "Hava Nagila" ("Harvey and Sheila)."

In "Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman," Mark Cohen uncovers the comedian's checkered childhood, meteoric rise and unbridled appetites, as well as his inability to be a husband or parent, and his swift decline, all while making the case for Sherman's brilliance and influence. A conversation with Cohen is excerpted below.

What initially drew you to writing about Allan Sherman?

I always enjoyed his songs, his comedy. I thought he was good and was unfairly overlooked. The more I looked into his life, the more I found the story touched on things that I always thought were fascinating and important ... the story of assimilation turning into a story of ethnic affirmation that traces the path that Jews have traveled over the last 75 years in America.

Do you have a favorite Sherman song?

I have three: "The Ballad of Harry Lewis" (a parody of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"), "Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max" ("Dear Old Donegal") and "Harvey and Sheila" ("Hava Nagila"). It's hard to choose among them.

"Harry Lewis" contains your favorite line of his.

Yes: Oh Harry Lewis perished in the service of his Lord / he was trampling through the warehouse / where the drapes of Roth are stored.

... Which I think is one of the most terrific puns ever made.

You also uncovered a lot of previously unreleased material.

I had heard rumors and had seen mentions on fan sites that there were recordings, but I was able to find what Sherman called, "The Goldeneh Moments from Broadway." Sherman introduced these songs saying, "This is what all the songs would be like if they were written by Jews — which, of course, they were!" As I wrote somewhere else, the Jews handed over all this great material to Tin Pan Alley without ever asking for a receipt. It took Sherman and others to point this out. Here's the opening to "Seventy-Six Sol Cohens" (to the tune of "Seventy-Six Trombones" from "The Music Man"):

Seventy-six Sol Cohens in the country club!

And a hundred and ten nice men named Levine

And there's more than a thousand Finks

Who parade around the links

It's a sight that really must be seen ….

You also chronicle his downward spiral and early death, which were truly tragic. (Editor's note: Sherman died of a heart attack the day before his 49th birthday.)

He had every opportunity to be saved. He found a wonderful woman for his wife who was enormously patient. He got everything he wanted in life. Sherman, with all of his appetites, his heedless embrace of every pleasure he could allow himself, when he was given fame and money, it was a cocktail mixture that was inevitably going to do him in.

Where do you see Sherman's influence today?

I see it in Jon Stewart, Seinfeld ... in fact, you can find Seinfeld himself, Jason Alexander and Larry David openly embracing Sherman. There's a video of Larry David singing "Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max" with the Boston Pops. People in their 40s, 50s and 60s, who grew up listening to Sherman as teenagers, were enormously influenced by him and they still love him today.

Let's give the last word to Sherman himself.

My mind immediately hops to "Harvey and Sheila" where he sings at the end: This could be … Only in the U.S.A!

For more vintage Sherman video and exclusive recordings, visit allanshermanbiography.com.

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