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I was too young to understand at the time, but Sherman was radically tweaking postwar American Jewish life while paving the way for a whole slew of Jewish-flavored American comedy — from Mel Brooks to Woody Allen to Robert Klein and David Brenner, all the way through to Jerry Seinfeld and the Larry David of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” as Mark Cohen convincingly argues in his exhaustive and gripping new biography, “Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman.”
I was also too young to appreciate that for one brief year or so, Sherman was a huge star. In 1963 he was a pop sensation with three No. 1 consecutive comedy albums selling millions apiece — more than even Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley ever sold in such a short span of time. He was a guest on all the major TV talk and entertainment shows; he sold out concerts around the country, and he even counted among his fans President John F. Kennedy, who was known to break out into a verse of “Sarah Jackman,” Sherman’s parody of “Frere Jacques.”
And then, like everyone else who was popular before 1964, Sherman got swept aside by the Beatles, who utterly changed the notion of what was cool and hip. Instantly Sherman became something of a square, and weakly aimed his satirical muscles against the youth culture of the 1960s — even the Beatles themselves in “Pop Hates the Beatles.”
To many today, Sherman may seem like a novelty act, a one-hit wonder (for his Grammy Award-winning single, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!”) or a pop-culture footnote. But as Cohen makes clear, it’s too easy to overlook the subversive nature of his work: He was a kind of precursor to the radical Jewish culture of Heeb magazine or the music of John Zorn. Parody was Sherman’s form.
He took the products of mainstream American culture — folk songs, Broadway show tunes, pop music — and mined or reimagined them for their latent or possible Jewish content. In this manner, he was doing something very traditional, and very Jewish, engaging in a kind of pop-culture version of midrash, filling the gaps in the story (particularly the Jewish gaps) that were only hinted at in their original versions.
Cohen quotes Sherman asking the rhetorical question, “What would have happened, how would it have been, if all of the great Broadway hits of the great Broadway shows had been written by Jewish people?” Of course they were, and he knew it. Just asking the question itself was his most provocative, radical act.
Seth Rogovoy is the author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet” (Scribner, 2009) and is a frequent contributor to the Forward’s arts and culture section.