Mark Cohen on His New Allan Sherman Biography

Overweight Sensation: The Life & Comedy of Allan Sherman
Overweight Sensation: The Life & Comedy of Allan Sherman

This year marks the 50th anniversary of American comedy writer and entertainer Allan Sherman’s hit, Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!  For years, Sherman had been someone that had fascinated Mark Cohen, enough that he had researched Sherman a great deal. But with the anniversary fast approaching, Cohen realized he wanted to write a Sherman biography, Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman. To mark the release of his book, I conducted an email interview with Cohen about Sherman. Enjoy.

Tim O’Shea: The timing of this book was perfect in at least one way, given that the book benefited from your extensive interviews with Sherman’s ex-wife, Dolores “Dee” Golden–who sadly passed away in 2012. Was she reticent to talk to you at first?

Mark Cohen: Just the opposite. I heard from the Sherman children, Robert and Nancy, that their mother was eager to talk with me. I perhaps foolishly delayed calling her because I wanted to make sure I was fully educated from other interviews before we spoke. And when we did speak we found we had a rapport and enjoyed each other. I interviewed Dee almost every day for a month, and we had sporadic conversations after that initial in-depth period. Her contribution was crucially important. There were only a few things she did not want me to print and I honored her wishes. The story was complete without them, anyway, and no biography is ever truly comprehensive. You can only include the scraps of the life you gather up from what’s left over after decades have passed. There are always things you never find out.

Sherman’s two children also were instrumental in your research for this book. What has been their reaction to the final product?

Well, the other day Nancy posted on Facebook that she just started reading the book and was enjoying it, though she had trepidations. Sherman was not a Father Knows Best kind of father. He was a creative guy, a damaged guy, a man who had tremendous needs to express himself and communicate his sense of being in the world. That I think is common to all comedians. They are preachers of their own visions of the world. Sherman once told an interviewer that comedy is fundamentally a very serious thing. “It’s a way you and the audience agree on the truth of something.” Of course, the something is the comedian’s something. The comedian, through laughter, forces the audience to admit  the truth of his view.

How is it that Tom Smothers owns the rights to Sherman’s unpublished manuscript, Every 600 Years, on a Tuesday–and do you think he will ever arrange for it to be published?

I hope it is published. It is very good. It contains wonderful lines and puns, such as “My kopf runneth over,” which is a wonderful play on the Yiddish word for head or brain. Smothers had read the work in the early 1970s, when Sherman was in the midst of writing it. They both lived in the same apartment building in Los Angeles and Sherman was pretty isolated at that time of his life. His show business connections had largely dried up. So he asked Smothers to read it, and Smothers loved it. Many years later, in 1997, Smothers decided to purchase the film and publishing rights to the work.

Before the book was even published you were able to get beneficial blurbs of support from he likes of Jason Alexander, Theodore Bikel, Bill Cosby, Dr. Demento and Weird Al Yankovic. How challenging were those to acquire?

I was terrified of asking these people for their help. I wasn’t used to doing it, and I felt a little like a schnorrer, a Yiddish term for a beggar with nerve, chutzpah. But I underrated how many people still loved Sherman and were happy to contribute a blurb about one of their favorite performers. It was the same surprise I had when I learned that at the height of his fame Sherman was congratulated by Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer, and that the great composer Richard Rodgers considered teaming up with Sherman to create a Broadway musical. Sherman was a real talent, and through his albums he contributed a lot of joy to millions of fans. They did not forget it and were still grateful and appreciative.

How did you first come to be interested in writing about Jewish American culture? How pleased are you to have been able to inform folks about Allan Sherman’s impact on Jewish American culture?

Oh, boy. That is a big question. American Jewish life has been an interest of mine for decades, though for most of that time it was more of an intuition, a half-understood bias than an interest. It grew out of a rejection, I think, of what I didn’t like about the American Jewish life I saw around me growing up in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the skittishness Jews felt about expressing any intelligent curiosity about their own lives and backgrounds and the way that Jewish historical experiences and religious practices may have shaped them. Us. But as I said, for many years I didn’t know what I was after and pursued my search for it haphazardly, even chaotically. The benefit of that approach was that nothing interfered with my singular undertaking and I accumulated an eccentric reading list and set of cultural reference points, including obscure characters such as Jewish jazz musician and self-declared black man Mezz Mezzrow, and authors such as Charles Reznikoff, David Fuchs, and Seymour Krim, in addition to an obsessive involvement with the works of Saul Bellow. The downside of that approach was that nothing interfered with my singular undertaking.

Allan Sherman’s story allowed me to work out some of these questions. They were questions that also interested Sherman. He was determined to broaden the common notion of what constituted American Jewish culture, and also what constituted American culture. They were two sides of the same coin. With his “Goldeneh Moments From Broadway” song parodies of the Broadway musical, he drew attention to the enormous role Jews played in creating one of the great forms of American popular culture. He would introduce songs such as “There Is Nothing Like A Lox” and “Seventy-six Sol Cohens” by saying, “What would it have been like if all the great Broadway hits from the Broadway musicals had been written by Jewish people — which they were.” Again, comedy was a way to get people to admit to the truth of something. And his great parodies on My Son, The Folk Singer, such as “Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max,” brought Jewish life into the American public square.

You are also the author of the liner notes for My Son, The Box–did that come about in conjunction with the research for your book, or how did it come to pass?

I began researching Sherman’s life for the biography a long time ago. In 2003, actually. And around that time I contacted Warner/Rhino to see what Sherman papers I could find. Turned out they were looking for someone to write the liner notes for the boxed set they were planning, so we found each other. But after I wrote the liner notes and My Son, The Box appeared in late 2005, and published an academic article on Sherman that appeared in 2007, I put Sherman aside for three or four years. In 2010, I published Missing A Beat, an edited collection of writings by the forgotten Beat writer Seymour Krim. And then I realized that 2013 was going to be the 50th anniversary of Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!” and that if I didn’t find an agent and publisher I would miss that once-in-a-lifetime anniversary and biography news hook. So I got to work.

The book includes the lyrics to 20 long lost Sherman Broadway parodies, how early in the research did you discover these gems?

I knew about many of these as early as 2005. I met Sherman’s son, Robert, in 2003 or 2004, and he gave me lyric sheets to his father’s unreleased songs, which I wrote about in the liner notes and the academic article. Also, My Son, The Box included Sherman’s previously unreleased parodies of My Fair Lady, with parodies such as “I’ve Got The Customers To Face,” which by itself is a brilliant reworking of “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face.” Further research led me to Mark Rosengarden, son of Allan Sherman’s friend Bobby Rosengarden, who in the late 1950s in Great Neck, NY, recorded some of Sherman’s early parodies. One of these is Sherman’s parody of Gershwin’s “Summertime.”

You clearly admire Sherman’s work, but I am curious was it more maddening or saddening to learn how just self-destructive and excessive he was?

It was not maddening. I have a lot of tolerance for bad behavior from my cultural heroes. When James Atlas’ biography of Saul Bellow appeared someone said to me, a big Bellow fan, that Bellow seems to have been a son-of-a-bitch. That doesn’t bother me. The gangster Mickey Cohen once told an interviewer that he didn’t consider a man a son-of-a-bitch if he was in a line of work that demanded he act like a son-of-a-bitch. Hah! Well, if your fate is to make a living in America as a novelist or a singer of song parodies, I can’t blame you for acting like a son-of-a-bitch. It’s way easier and more sensible to go to law school. But that’s not how life worked out for Sherman. As for his self-destructiveness, that was very sad, but I don’t side with the people who view it as a strange and bewildering choice. Many, many people are self-destructive. Many millions of people in America are terribly obese. Isn’t that self-destructive? Politicians that live under a microscope of public scrutiny engage in sexual escapades that practically guarantee disgrace and condemnation. Isn’t that self-destructive? And how many of us have made choices in work or marriage or business that seem in hindsight to have been plainly crazy? Self-destructiveness is not uncommon. But I’ll grant you that Sherman took it to extremes.

How deep were you into the research of the book before you felt you fully understood what made Sherman tick?

The discovery of his sexual shenanigans was key. Before I learned of his visit to an orgy and his participation in group sex parties I did not fully grasp how much he tried to escape himself through intoxicating experiences. What Bellow called allowing yourself to be kidnapped by the strangeness of life. Normal life held no interest for Sherman. Normal life was misery. That was the legacy of his childhood, of his parents’ awful and violent fights and arguments, of his mother’s life of lies, of the madness of his father and step-father and an uncle, too. In a great song John Lennon sings that he doesn’t believe in Buddah, etc. Well, Sherman’s song would have been I don’t believe in marriage, don’t believe in family, don’t believe in suburbs, don’t believe in television, don’t believe in consumerism. He believed in comedy, which is a form of disbelief in everything else.

What do you hope people who read this book take away from reading it?

A fascinating story of an American life, with every major theme that entails: self-creation, the search for fame and success, and the arrival of  failure.