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‘Overweight Sensation’ more than simple biography of Jewish entertainer

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“Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman” by Mark Cohen (Brandeis University Press, 353 pp. Also available in Kindle and Nook editions)

When I told people I was in the middle of reading a book about Allan Sherman, I was surprised how few people even recognized the name, including people from my own generation, who might be expected to remember this comic genius who was at one time one of the most popular entertainers in America, whose comedy albums, beginning with “My Son, the Folk Singer” rivalled the albums of the best-known singers of the era on Billboard’s charts. At best, some may remember “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” a song about a homesick boy at summer camp.

The old cliché about the clown crying on the inside was certainly true of Sherman, whose life is described in Mark Cohen’s fascinating study, “Overweight Sensation.” With a narcissistic mother and a neglectful father and two stepfathers, young Allan’s life might have been completely devoid of sustenance had he not been shipped off for long periods of time to live with his maternal grandparents, Esther and Leon Sherman. As Cohen tells it, “The whole Jewish world that Sherman’s mother rejected was now his to discover and enjoy, and he did.” He expressed his devotion to the Shermans by adopting their surname for his stage name. Unfortunately, their nurturing was apparently not enough to overcome the insecurity Allan felt as a child, and much of the narrative of his life concerns his numerous addictions — tobacco, alcohol, gambling, overeating and multiple sex partners — which destroyed both his family life and his health and probably contributed to his early death just short of age 49.

While Sherman had a varied career in the entertainment industry (he was the producer of various game shows, including “I’ve Got a Secret”), he is best remembered for his song parodies, many of which have stood the test of time. Anyone who works in this genre, whether they be professional singers such as Weird Al Yankovic or the Capitol Steps, or simply people writing a Purim spiel for their local synagogue, works in the shadow of Allan Sherman. Moreover, Cohen asserts, Sherman was a pioneer in the development of ethnic humor in general paving the way for Jewish comedians such as Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld, as well as comics in other ethnic groups, such as African-Americans.

If “Overweight Sensation” were simply a biography of one man, it would probably be of limited interest to all but a handful of nostalgia buffs. But it is much more than that. Mark Cohen has provided us with a brilliant analysis of Sherman’s work and its place in the development of Jewish humor and ethnic humor in general in American culture.

Whereas it is sometimes fashionable to refer to humor such as Sherman’s as self-deprecating, in Cohen’s view, Sherman’s parodies were meant as affirmation of Jewish ethnicity. When “How are Things in Glocca Morra” was changed to “How are Things With Uncle Morris,” it was an ironic call to Jewish composers to assert their own roots. As Sherman once commented sardonically, “How would it have been if all the great Broadway hits of the great Broadway shows had been written by Jewish people — which they were.”

One of the many strengths of Cohen’s study is his analysis of the way in which Sherman’s humor works. Speaking of the English of Yiddish immigrants, he says “The life it represents is simple, direct and unpretentious. With such qualities, the more serious the original material, the funnier the Jewish parody.” When Sir Greenbaum (in the “Greensleeves” parody) declares that knighthood is “no job for a boy who is Jewish,” he is not ridiculing the Jews so much as he is expressing Jewish skepticism of the whole concept of knighthood, similar to that expressed by Rebecca in Scott’s “Ivanhoe.” Cohen points out that another reason for Sherman’s popularity was his timeliness, as the first Jewish comedian to chronicle the Jews’ migration to the suburbs. When he resigns the knighthood, Sir Greenbaum moves not to Brooklyn but rather to Shaker Heights.

In short, “Overweight Sensation” is much more than the story of one man. It is rather an important analysis of American ethnic culture and our place in it. On this basis I give it my highest recommendation.