(Above: Yet another #1 album for Allan Sherman.)
I always enjoyed comedy and parody. The earliest radio projects that I did (the ones I wrote about from sixth grade) involved taking something established and turning it on its ear in some way. When I got my own college radio morning show I sprinkled in liberal doses of parody from Weird Al Yankovic and odd recitations from William Shatner and Sebastian Cabot. But it wasn’t until a little later that I circled back and explored the work of a man who was a true master of the artform: Allan Sherman.
Sherman had a formula that worked. He conspired with bandleader Lou Busch, who crafted perfect musical soundtracks for the laughs that were to follow. Sherman knew that he was a lousy singer, but that was part of the act. He once explained, “I am indeed the worst singer in the world, and that’s why the chorus should be beautiful… The effect is something like this: You’re looking into Tiffany’s most elegant show window, and in the window is a black velvet pillow, and in the middle of the pillow is an onion. That’s me.”
The net result was that even if you could figure out the joke, it was still funny. Often, though, you didn’t know exactly where the joke was going to go – especially if you were a kid from the suburbs. I was thinking this morning about an adult neighbor of mine growing up who once tried to explain to me that Mel Brooks wasn’t funny “because everything in his jokes is Jewish.” (You get an idea now of how despite being so close to Chicago I grew up in a sort of cultural desert.) That didn’t change the fact that they were still funny in my mind. The same could be said of Sherman: he relied heavily on Jewish humor, but it was funny even if you didn’t necessarily get every reference. Try and tell me that “There is Nothing Like a Lox” isn’t hilarious, despite limited time spent in a proper Jewish delicatessen.
Sherman was a shrewd observer of what was popular, and spun it for an older audience. The early-to-mid 1960s was a time of vast social change, and there were laughs to be obtained from it. Note what Sherman did in “Crazy Downtown,” his parody of Petula Clark’s #1 record that preceded it. The tale of “The Rebel” is still resonant today, as yesterday’s revolutionaries settle down in the suburbs with 2.3 children and conform. Some of what he wrote was worth it just for the warped way of looking at things. As an example, I submit a favorite: Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” with the punctuation added.
How big was Allan Sherman? His album My Son the Folk Singer hit #1 on the Billboard LP chart in December of 1962. The follow-up, My Son the Celebrity, hit #1 three months later. And five months after that, My Son the Nut topped the LP charts for two months, buoyed by the inclusion of “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” the song that Sherman is probably best known for. JFK himself was heard walking through the White House singing “Sarah Jackman” on one occasion.
When the comedy LP craze dried up at the end of the decade, Sherman’s career did likewise. Once the albums failed to chart, Warner Brothers dropped him from the label. He had one more claim to fame after his recording days – narrating and playing the title role in the animated version of The Cat In the Hat. I can’t tell you how many times I watched this as a kid, and had no idea who I was listening to. Alcoholism and weight gain – possibly fueled by the frustration of losing his career and his family – led Sherman to an early grave. He resided at the Motion Picture Country Home, a facility for destitute artists, for a time shortly before his death at the age of 49.
So why think of him today? All is made clear at the end of the medley of songs he included at the end of My Son the Celebrity, “Shticks of One and a Half Dozen of the Other.” (Sherman ended LPs with these medleys in the same manner that Weird Al did polka medleys on his.) Instead of encouraging you to go down by the riverside, he extols you not to buy the liverwurst. “That big hunk of liverwurst/has been there since October first/And today is the 23rd of May.”