Shine on, Harvey Bloom: Why Allan Sherman Made Us Laugh
Kalfus, Ken, Commonweal
There was once a time in American life when being Jewish was, in itself, a funny thing. A Jewish name was enough to make its owner a comic figure in a joke, a story, a film, a television show, or a song; Jewish delicacies were funny; Jewish mannerisms were funny; Jewish ways of speaking were funny - well, enough already, you get my point.
The time I'm thinking about is the early 1960s, the formative years of my own Jewish childhood, around 1962, say, when I was eight and trying to learn what was funny and what was not. In October of that year an overweight, bespectacled, nasal-voiced comedian named Allan Sherman produced a record album that parodied popular American songs by making them about Jews and Jewish situations. It was funny. At the time the fastest-selling item in the history of the record industry, My Son, the Folk Singer ultimately sold 1,250,000 copies and supplied the soundtrack (or at least the lyrics) to my childhood and adolescence. Allan Sherman became a household name. A musical based on his song parodies recently enjoyed a seven-month run Off-Broadway.
Sherman, an out-of-work Hollywood television producer (he and a colleague developed the game show "I've Got a Secret"), had been entertaining his friends for years by setting comic Jewish-oriented lyrics to popular songs like "There Is Nothing Like a Dame":
We got herring sweet and sour,
We got pickles old and young,
We got corned beef and salami and a lot of tasty tongue,
We got Philadelphia cream cheese in a little wooden box.
What ain't we got?
We ain't got lox.
When he approached Warner Brothers in 1962 about recording these songs he was told that, because of copyright problems with composers who preferred the original lyrics, he should employ music in the public domain. It took him three weeks to turn the Harry Belafonte hit "Matilda" into "My Zelda," relocate the gunfight of "The Streets of Laredo" to "The Streets of Miami" ("I shot and Sam crumpled, just like a piece of halvah"), transform the "The Yellow Rose of Texas" into "I'm Melvin Rose of Texas," and, to the music of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," tell the story of garment cutter Harry Lewis, who died while "trampling through the warehouse where the drapes of Roth were stored."
The appeal of these songs was peculiar. For decades American Jewish comedians had been satirizing Jewish life, but their jokes had been directed to primarily Jewish audiences in New York City and the Catskills. Jewish writers and comedians like Sid Caesar and Milton Berle heavily populated the television industry, but the subjects of their wit were rarely Jewish. Sherman made Jewish humor about Jewish people mainstream humor.
At first glance it is not clear why an ethnic minority would enjoy humor that mocked it, and why it would want to share this humor with the majority group. Did the success of Sherman's lampoons of urban Jewish mores represent the emergence of Jewish self-hatred? Or was it a function of Jewish confidence and security in America? What were the conventions of the genre? Were Jews and non-Jews laughing at the same things? What was so funny? And why did I laugh? I didn't know half the songs on which Sherman's parodies were based until I was in my twenties.
In My Son, the Folk Singer and the seven albums that followed, Sherman won most of his laughs by putting Jews into unaccustomed roles as heroes: the Jewish astronaut ("Shine on, Harvey Bloom"), the Jewish gunslinger and the Jewish Don Juan ("The Kiss of Meyer." a tango). The lament of Sherman's knight, Sir Greenbaum, was sung to the music of "Greensleeves":
Said he: "Forsooth, 'tis a sorry plight
That engenders my attitude blue-ish."
Said he: "I don't want to be a knight
That's no job for a boy who is Jewish."
This is such a predictable lyric that the live album's concert audience began laughing after the second line. …