Interview: Mark Cohen, Author Of 'Overweight Sensation' Sherman worked a tight niche: classic songs rewritten to tickle a Jewish audience's funny bone. A new biography, Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman, explains how the performer's 1960s crossover fell in line with a collective awakening to ethnic identity in America.
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Hello Muddah, Hello Drama: The Brief Bloom Of Parodist Allan Sherman

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Hello Muddah, Hello Drama: The Brief Bloom Of Parodist Allan Sherman

Hello Muddah, Hello Drama: The Brief Bloom Of Parodist Allan Sherman

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. This summertime novelty tune has been pouring out of radios now for 50 years.


SIEGEL: In late July of 1963, Billboard magazine reported that fans were, and I quote, "actually breaking down doors," unquote, of record stores to buy the song about the pains of summer camp. The man behind this sensation was a short, plump guy with a crew cut, big glasses and a surprisingly small nose. He had it fixed. Allan Sherman had been a TV producer who had entertained his friends with song parodies for years. He then collected them on an L.P. record called "My Son, the Folksinger." Old favorites were rewritten with a contemporary suburban Jewish audience in mind. It was never expected to appeal to the general public.


SIEGEL: To everyone's surprise, by August of 1963, three Sherman albums were on Billboard's Top 100 chart. Mark Cohen has written a book about the short-lived success of the musical satirist. It's called, somewhat cruelly, "Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman." And Mark Cohen joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

MARK COHEN: Thank you. Glad to be here.

SIEGEL: Allan Sherman was funny, and at the time, he was a very big success. But an almost scholarly book about him? I mean, what can we learn from this man's story?

COHEN: Well, I think Sherman was a very interesting pop-culture figure, at a moment when ethnic identity was first blossoming in America in the postwar period. We had had a long period of Americanization, and Sherman appeared just at the moment when that was beginning to end.

SIEGEL: And it's a real moment certainly in the life of the American Jewish community, not just pop culture, Leonard Bernstein, the novelist Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. There was a more frank depiction of what it was to be Jewish in America and often a funny depiction.

COHEN: Right. And that was one of Sherman's big themes, was trying to own some of the Jewish cultural products that Jews offered to America without, as I jokingly say, asking for a receipt.

SIEGEL: I remember the Allan Sherman days, and this is part of my favorite Allan Sherman song called "Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max."


SIEGEL: You know, the problem for people who are not of a certain age is they don't know the Irish tune that this was satirizing.

COHEN: That's true, but I also remember hearing the song before I understood that it was a parody of an earlier Irish tune. That didn't diminish my enjoyment of the song. But once I did learn it, it became even more brilliant.

SIEGEL: The story of Allan Sherman apart from his great success, he'd already been successful as a television producer. When he became a huge success - this is the classic did success ruin Allan Sherman. The answer is absolutely, totally, fatally. He had a heart attack at a fairly early age.

COHEN: He died before he turned 49, but, of course, the year of extraordinary fame that he enjoyed when his three "My Son" albums all went gold made his life a success for him at any rate before things went fatally wrong.

SIEGEL: So what went wrong?

COHEN: Well, where do I begin? Sherman was an extraordinarily hungry man for all sorts of experiences, and that included drink, lots of food, lots of women, lots of gambling. I'm forgetting all the vices because he covered them all.

SIEGEL: Here's the great irony or perhaps it's more predictable than that about Allan Sherman, which is he ends up becoming this guy who makes jokes about being Jewish in America in the 1960s. In his own family, his parents were terrible to him, ran from their Jewishness. He was ultimately raised by his much more happily Jewish grandparents.

COHEN: He was born as Allan Copelon, and his mother, her maiden name was Rose Sherman. His father was Percy Copelon. His mother raised in Chicago. His father raised in Birmingham, Alabama. They were very unstable people who were really not capable of raising a child. And so his mother had to send him to her parents. And in his grandparents' home, he discovered the world that his mother left behind. And he decided: This is what I want in life.

SIEGEL: In my very small sample of people under 40 that I've checked, Allan Sherman's humor is not all that accessible. You'd have to transport yourself back to 1963. For example, this parody which has, I think, one of his funniest lines ever written.


SIEGEL: You have to assume that Jews in New York are deeply involved in employment in the garment industry - cutting, sewing, selling - that this is what employed the better part of a huge Jewish community.


SIEGEL: He worked awfully hard for that joke.

COHEN: That was a pretty darn good pun.

SIEGEL: There are people from those days, like Mel Brooks, who went on, who survived, who became bigger than they were in the early 1960s. Allan Sherman, I don't know that, you know, that people remember him or know that much about him these days.

COHEN: No. That's very true. Sherman was much more greatly damaged. I often think about that wonderful little poem I discovered that he wrote when he was in junior high school: Humpty Dumpty sat on a train, happily singing Bei Mir Bistu Shein. He was a damaged, fragile Humpty Dumpty, who could be made happy by singing Jewish-oriented songs.


COHEN: He said the Christian name of this song is "Hava Nagila." He felt Harvey and Sheila was really closer to the truth about American Jewish life than "Hava Nagila" itself.

SIEGEL: Mark Cohen, author of "Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman," thank you very much for talking with us about him today.

COHEN: Robert, thank you very much for having me.


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