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How 'Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah' Singer Allan Sherman Became the Unlikeliest Pop Star: Book Review

Overweight Sensation by Mark Cohen Book Cover - P 2013

"Overweight Sensation" tracks the meteoric rise and tragic fall of the humorist whose song parodies have influenced generations.

In the fall of 1962, if an album sold 10,000 copies, Warner Bros. Records considered it a success.

Then Allan Sherman released My Son The Folk Singer, an album of Jewish themed parody songs that sold close to 400,000 copies in three weeks on the way to over one million sales.

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This unprecedented success ignited an era of blockbuster pop culture best-sellers and marked the meteoric rise of an unlikely musical phenomenon: a pudgy 38-year-old game show producer (he created and produced the long-running  I’ve Got A Secret) who had turned into a singer-songwriter.

Seemingly overnight, Sherman became a recording star, a popular live entertainer, a fixture on talk and variety TV and an international celebrity.

In the process he brought about a cultural shift that changed the view of the Jew and Jewish humor in Hollywood and across America.

The story of his surprising rise, his heartfelt comic art form, his impact on the image of Jews in media as well as his rapid fall from grace -- leading up to his death only a decade later at age 48 -- is told with intimate details, an affectionate touch of humanity and lots of his parody lyrics in the well-researched book Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman by Mark Cohen.

Even today, Sherman's life stands as an object lesson in how fast an entertainer can rise and how even more quickly that person can fall.

“If ever I saw success ruin a guy, it was Allan,” his musical arranger, Lou Busch, told a Warner Bros. executive after his death in 1973. “He blew the wife, the kids and eventually the money, too.”

In the 40 years since his death, interest in Sherman and his music has declined, although there have been occasional revivals.

His best parodiespop up on eclectic radio shows like Dr. Demento, in the occasional record collection or as cultural references.

Who hasn’t heard the opening refrain to "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp)," the novelty number Sherman wrote with Busch that debuted in August 1963, based on letters his son sent from camp:

Hello Muddah,
Hello Fadduh.
Here I am at
Camp Grenada.
Camp is very
entertaining.
And they say we'll have some fun if it stops raining.

Until Sherman, Hollywood was full of Jews who didn’t want to stand out as Jews. There were numerous directors, producers, writers and executives who wouldn’t make a point of their Jewishness or even work on movies or TV shows that portrayed Jews.

Oddly, Sherman didn’t come from a religious Jewish background. He had a hard life and was moved around often. His mother remarried a man with criminal connections and she become a Christian for a time -- so Sherman went to live with his Jewish grandparents, and it was their legacy he carried on.

Sherman told The Washington Post at the time he was “Jewish oriented,” adding: “I can’t help it. That’s the way I was born.”

For years before he became a hit, Sherman wrote, re-wrote and performed his parodies in living rooms for friends and relatives. By the time he began working professionally, he had more than 20 Jewish parodies, including Mirth Of A Nation and The Golden Touch, which he later turned into an unsuccessful musical for Broadway.

It turned out after the conformist 1950s, there was a huge untapped appetite for more colorful ethnic entertainment, especially Jewish lore -- and not just among Jews. Sherman was the first to tap into it, illuminating a path for many other singers and comics and even writers. Among the cultural landmarks of the era were Herman Wouk’s 1955 novel Marjorie Morningstar, Leon Uris’ 1958 novel Exodus and even Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s 1961 skit, "The 2,000-Year-Old Man." 

“Sherman seized this neglected opportunity,” writes Cohen. “The country was changing. Sherman’s generation of Jews were now adults, and the ‘fine balancing act’ of being a Jew and an American was tipping away from the early 20th century ideal of the Melting Pot toward a new hybrid formula that allowed for Jewishness.”

In short order Sherman put out a stream of albums and songs, usually doing his best work under insane time constraints. As soon as his career was established, Sherman branched out to more general song parodies, often satirizing the burgeoning folk music scene and the rise of suburban life.

He was so cool, President John F. Kennedy was heard singing his songs.

But his success was painfully short-lived. Along with the amusing lyrics, there is his personal story, which ultimately is a tragedy.

Not long after Sherman hit, The Beatles arrived along with rock 'n' roll and stole the show.

But that alone would not be enough to knock the prolific, energetic Sherman off his media crown after 40 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and numerous other TV shows.

Sherman became a victim of his own ego and self-indulgence. He had a lifelong addiction to food that made him fat and brought with it health problems. He also had an addition to sex that his money and fame allowed him to pursue in embarrassing and self-destructive ways.

Sherman gave his last performance May 10, 1973, when Warner Bros. recorded his routine about the game of golf, Hallowed Be Thy Game: The Gospel According to St. Andrews.

Days later, Sherman had a sound engineer bring a recording of his performance to his home on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles, where they spent about three hours listening and discussing the material.

At 5 p.m. that afternoon, Sherman suffered a heart attack, and despite rescue efforts died 10 days before his 49th birthday.

Cohen makes the case that while Sherman all but disappeared from mainstream pop culture, his influence continues to be felt through the generations. He cites, among others, Seinfeld as a TV show that captured a similar spirit and, writes the author, “follows the path of the more assimilated but still recognizably Jewish entertainment Sherman pioneered.”

“The Seinfeld television show, starring a ‘Jewish male who spoke of personal lives rather than social problems, who made small observations and not large pronouncements’ was virtually a television version of Sherman’s My Son record. It cast its comic eye on the trivial events that fill most of life, and characters (that) could have been lifted from (Sherman’s 1962 song) 'Sarah Jackman' which cataloged the Jewish-American types that populated Seinfeld.

A sample from "Sarah Jackman":

Sarah Jackman, Sarah Jackman, How's by you?
How's by you?
How's your brother Bernie?
He's a big attorney.
How's your sister Doris?
Still with William Morris.

Even The New York Times, which in Sherman’s lifetime and beyond often wrote negatively of his work, reevaluated his legacy in 2010: “Not long ago it would have been inconceivable that Allan Sherman would ever seem timely or topical again,” but then eight of his Warner albums were reissued in the midst of the excitement around the TV show Mad Men.

In the ending to the book, Cohen credits Sherman with making Jews -- who often feel at home in America only as outsiders -- more comfortable with their success. He quotes Sherman’s 1962 lyrics from "Harvey and Sheila" (to the music of "Havah Nagila") to make his point:

Oh, that Harvey he was really smart
He used his noodle
Sheila bought a white French poodle
Went to Europe with a visa
Harvey’s rich they say he’s a V.I.P.
This could be
Only in the U.S.A.