Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Sherman's March

Mark Evanier reports that the complete recordings of Allan Sherman are finally due to come to CD, in a limited-edition box set entitled, of course, "My Son, the Box."

Evanier also maintains a terrific Sherman annotated discography, listing all his recordings, and providing an excellent overview of his rise and fall.

I've always thought of Sherman as one of those entertainers whose popularity couldn't survive the Kennedy assassination. I don't really have any proof of this; it's not like he was Vaughan Meader or somebody. And Sherman had some hits after 1963, like his hilarious single "Crazy Downtown" ("Every time we ask you what you're doing after dark there/You just say that you were frugging to Petula Clark there"). But Sherman's humor just seems to me to have the flavour of the early '60s, the era of the Great Consensus. His Jewish-themed humor was the humor of integration, of assimilation, of ethnic groups becoming a part of that consensus. The post-assassination era in ethnic humor would belong to those who emphasized the difference, not the similarity, of ethnic groups; the most influential Jewish comic of the era, Lenny Bruce, and most influential Jewish humor writer, Philip Roth, emphasized the degree to which Jews are not assimilated into American culture. (I've written about this before.) And apart from the ethnic-humor angle, Sherman represented the middle-aged middle-class guy who loved show tunes and was suspsicious of rock music and youth fads in general; that's what some of his funniest songs, like "Crazy Downtown," are about. Up until around 1964 you could make a living by making records for that audience; by the late '60s, that audience had either disappeared or fragmented.

Sherman didn't help himself with his attempts to "mainstream" his appeal, to abandon the ethnic humor in favor of a more generalized appeal; this approach brought him his biggest hit, "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh," but it prevented him from really establishing a clear identity as a performer.

One other thing about Sherman: kids love him. I mean, love him. I was introduced to his records as a child and I thought they were the funniest things I'd ever heard; I made cassette tapes of them and played them in the car for the kids in my carpool, and they thought they were hilarious. A few years later I went to babysit the next-door-neighbor's kids, and found that they loved listening to, yes, their parents' Allan Sherman records. I'm not really sure what it is that makes his songs so appealing to kids -- not just "Hello Muddah," but all of them. It's a tribute, I think, to how simple and direct his comedy is. Sherman's lyrics may not be brillantly crafted (as he admitted in his autobiography, he wasn't writing according to rules of craftsmanship: "I was writing by feel"), but they are full of clear, well-timed jokes that sit perfectly on the music; he had an instinct for using rhyme and rhythm to sell a joke, and that's what you need for a good comedy song.

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