Over­weight Sen­sa­tion: The Life and Com­e­dy of Allan Sherman

  • Review
By – May 13, 2013

Most Amer­i­cans old enough to remem­ber where they were when John F. Kennedy was assas­si­nat­ed are also like­ly to remem­ber the advent of Allan Sher­man, the pop cul­ture phe­nom­e­non who appeared, seem­ing­ly out of nowhere, in 1962 with the release of his album of song par­o­dies, My Son, the Folk Singer.

Mark Cohen’s lucid and illu­mi­nat­ing biog­ra­phy gives sat­is­fy­ing answers to the most crit­i­cal ques­tions about Sher­man: Where did he come from? What made him tick? What was his effect on Amer­i­can cul­ture? And what hap­pened to him after he fell from pub­lic view, almost as quick­ly as he rose?

Fit­ting­ly, Cohen’s account of Sherman’s fam­i­ly ori­gins is dif­fi­cult to fol­low, as Sher­man’s ear­ly years could most char­i­ta­bly be described as chaot­ic. He went through numer­ous step­par­ents, last names, and home­towns before the age of sev­en­teen, gain­ing a sense of self-doubt that would trig­ger sub­se­quent bouts of binge drink­ing and eating.

Two things Sher­man nev­er doubt­ed about him­self were his com­ic tal­ent and his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, which he embraced with infec­tious ease and affec­tion. When he merged these two traits, in his break­out album and its fol­low-up, My Son, the Celebri­ty, the results were both bril­liant and cul­tur­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant, giv­ing a major boost to the grow­ing sense in Amer­i­ca as a whole that being Jew­ish was cool.”

In Sherman’s comedic world, Jews and Jew­ish cul­ture are ubiq­ui­tous, but in an open and endear­ing way that defangs the tradition­ally anti-Semit­ic view of a world manip­u­lat­ed by sin­is­ter, con­spir­a­to­r­i­al Jews lurk­ing in the shad­ows. Sher­man­land is pop­u­lat­ed not by Machi­avel­lian financiers but famil­iar and lov­able deli own­ers, gar­ment work­ers, and CPA’s. Medieval Sher­wood For­est, replete with knights and drag­ons, is seam­less­ly joined with con­tem­po­rary Shak­er Heights; a Gar­ment Dis­trict cut­ter named Har­ry Lewis is laud­ed (“Glo­ry, glo­ry Har­ry Lewis!”) for his hero­ism in the ser­vice of the drapes of Roth”; a gun­fight breaks out in the streets of Mia­mi between two busi­ness part­ners at odds over whether the firm should pay for one’s stay at the Fontainebleau; Hava Nag­i­la” becomes a bal­lad chron­i­cling the upward mobil­i­ty of an Amer­i­can cou­ple named Har­vey and Sheila.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Sherman’s own suc­cess had a less than salu­tary effect on him. His career reached its peak with the release, in 1963, of Hel­lo Mud­dah, Hel­lo Fad­duh!” This sin­gle became Sherman’s best-known work, but it also sug­gest­ed that the rich­ly wit­ty vein he had mined pre­vi­ous­ly was rapid­ly becom­ing played out. While amus­ing and touch­ing, the song is devoid of Jew­ish ref­er­ences, and because it is set to an orches­tral piece (Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours”), it lacks the mul­ti­lay­ered word-play that dri­ves such pieces as My Zel­da,” which riffs on Har­ry Belafonte’s Matil­da.”

More trag­i­cal­ly, Sherman’s suc­cess enabled him to indulge in increas­ing­ly self-destruc­tive behav­ior, as he lit­er­al­ly spent, drank, and ate him­self into obliv­ion over the remain­ing years of his life and died, of a mas­sive heart attack, ten days shy of his forty-ninth birthday.

Any­one curi­ous about Sher­man and the era in which he lived should pick up this book.


Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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