Overweight Sensation: The Life And Comedy Of Allan Sherman - Macleans.ca

Overweight Sensation: The Life And Comedy Of Allan Sherman

Book by Mark Cohen


Overweight Sensation: The Life And Comedy Of Allan ShermanOf all the artists who rose to success in the 1960s comedy album boom, few were more unexpectedly successful than Allan Sherman—and few had a quicker downfall. In the first full-length biography of the influential song parodist, Cohen tells the story of how Sherman, a washed-up television producer, managed to record an album of his silly, Jewish-inflected spoofs like Glory, Glory, Harry Lewis and become not only a sensational bestseller, but a key figure in the mainstreaming of Jewish culture in North America. In his parodies, Cohen writes, he “stuffed Jews into non-Jewish songs and smuggled them into the national conversation like contraband.”

Sherman, now best remembered for his chart-topping summer camp song Hello, Muddah, Hello, Fadduh, was only really popular for two or three years; the rise of a new ’60s culture pushed his kind of comedy into oblivion. But in his brief prime, he created a comic persona Americans weren’t used to seeing or hearing: a well-off Jewish suburbanite, secure in his ethnic identity but also completely integrated into modern American culture. Cohen argues that Sherman was successful because he “found a way to comically defuse the once-taboo Jewish question,” reassuring Jewish and Gentile audiences alike by turning Hava Nagila into the story of two assimilated Jews named “Harvey and Sheila.”

Cohen’s evaluations of the songs can sometimes be a little lacking in humour (he tries to compare one parody to Saul Bellow’s Herzog), but his extensive research allows him to correct the omissions in Sherman’s autobiography A Gift of Laughter, and to provide the full, depressing details on Sherman’s self-destructive behaviour and early death after his career went downhill, including his disastrous decision to leave his wife and live a swinging ’60s lifestyle. But nothing can take away the achievement of that brilliant period in the early ’60s, when he made everyone want to be Jewish—even President Kennedy, who was reportedly overheard singing Sherman’s “Sarah Jackman, Sarah Jackman, how’s by you?”

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