Friday, August 16, 2013

Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh, Hello Allan

Allan Sherman was a TV producer who was the co-creator of the game show I've Got a Secret. He also wrote a couple of books and plays, but he is best remembered as a song parodist, like Weird Al Yankovic. Though he released several hit albums in the 60s, the one song us baby boomers know is "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh," a letter from a disgruntled kid at summer camp to his parents: "Camp is very/Entertaining/And they say we'll have some fun if it stops raining." Mark Cohen's biography Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman is interesting reading, despite its flaws. What Cohen does best is make a strong claim for Allan as not just a forerunner of Yankovic but as the godfather of a host of Jewish humorists, from Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld.

I remember "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" vividly from my childhood (I called it the Camp Grenada song); it was a funny song intended for adults but kids understood it, too, even Catholic suburban kids like me who never went to camp. (I remember hearing the song around the age of 9; it single-handedly implanted in me a fear that my parents would make me go to camp one summer.) Though the song doesn't get oldies radio play, it is still strong in my memory, partly because it was set to a memorably bouncy tune from Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours"--the fact that the original melody appears in Disney's Fantasia (the hippo ballerinas) isn't mentioned in the book but is probably a minor factor in the song's success.

Cohen does a nice job showing how Sherman was one of the first mainstream post-war comedians to work the rich mine of Jewish humor. One of his earliest works was a group of parodies called "Goldena Moments in Music" in which he took songs from hit musicals and gave them a Jewish slant. For example, Gershwin's "Summertime" becomes, "Summertime/Everybody is shvitzing/Schmaltz is melting/And the Catskills is high." In his intro to the bit, he says, "How would it have been if all the great Broadway hits had been written by Jewish people... which they were," noting that despite the songwriters' cultural backgrounds, there was very little content that would point to that.

His first big musical break was an album called "My Son, the Folk Singer" which rode the early 60s wave of folk-pop music, parodying songs like "The Streets of Laredo" and "Greensleeves." In "The Ballad of Harry Lewis," a song about a garment district worker set to the Battle Hymn of the Republic, we get this classic line: "He was trampling through the warehouse/Where the Drapes of Roth are stored." It also includes a song set to "Frère Jacques" called "Sarah Jackman," a phone call between the singer and his old friend Sarah which I have been singing to myself for days now:

"Sarah Jackman
Sarah Jackman
How's by you?
How's by you?
How's your brother Bernie?"
"He's a big attorney"
"He's nice, too
He's nice, too."

Sherman had three #1 albums in less than a year, climaxed by the radio hit "Hello Muddah." He made a few more albums and was successful taking his act on the road, as well as becoming a popular talk show guest. But soon the novelty ran dry, and, as Cohen notes, his Jewish references lessened over the run of albums so the songs lost their unique flavor. Always overweight and rarely in great health, he died in 1973 at the age of 48.

This book is the first biography of him that I know of. When the author sticks to the facts, it's an absorbing read. But he is on weaker ground when he attempts psychological analysis. The fact that Sherman was a womanizer seems to be common knowledge, but Cohen takes the word of someone who claims that he attended an orgy and tries to make that mean that Sherman was wicked and perverse. (Doesn't every California resident of the 60s have at least one orgy in their closet?) Cohen is also repetitive: the orgy gets mentioned (but, sadly, not described) several times throughout the book, as does the observation that Sherman drew away from his Jewish influences in his later career. But I was glad to have gained some background about this largely forgotten pioneer of comedy. As an added bonus, the author has posted several Sherman songs on YouTube--though most of the songs seem dated (often because the song being parodied is no longer familiar), and sometimes feel like they're getting laughs simply from the sheer amount of Jewish names and Yiddish phrases sprinkled throughout, they are fun to hear once.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Son of 2001?

When Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, some critics said it was a landmark film that would change the science fiction genre. It was certainly heavy on dazzling visuals and special effects, but instead of being filled with monsters or radiation poisoning, or featuring old-fashioned space opera battles, it was a slow, thoughtful mediation on space, religion, and human nature. The look and effects did go on to influence later sci-fi movies (not least of all, Star Wars), but most of the films that followed went in the opposite direction in terms of tone: cartoonish action rather than a thoughtful, enigmatic naturalism.

Every so often, a movie comes along that promises to be closer to 2001. Sunshine (from Danny Boyle in 2007) began with a tone of more quiet awe and cosmic mystery but it fell apart by the end. Duncan Jones' Moon (2009) also seemed to be influenced by the less bombastic elements of 2001, and it was a good movie but it was more about humanity than it was about the cosmos. Now there's Europa Report which is being marketed as a cross between 2001 (even taking place near Jupiter where the climax of 2001 is set, more or less) and The Blair Witch Project.

We are presented with "found footage" of a doomed spaceflight to Europa, a moon of Jupiter where there is a tantalizing promise of life under the ice. Unlike Blair Witch, in this film we have a strong sense of the outcome at the beginning, and the footage has been pieced together from a variety of sources--mostly ship cameras--by other hands, representatives of the private company that sponsored the flight. Along the way, the crew interacts in the usual fashion, sometimes friendly and jovial, sometimes bristly and tense, until they land on Europa and discover a strange light in the ice. Is it real or is it just the overactive imaginations of the crew?

One thing the movie has in its favor is its look: it is crisp, bright and colorful--I can't tell you how tired I am of movies in which the color is drained or artificially flattened. The actors are all fine, including Michael Nyvquist (the reporter in the original Swedish 'Dragon Tattoo' films) and District 9's Sharlto Copely (pictured). I have a problem with the construction of the narrative. A major character dies on the way to Europa, and we know he does, but the chronology of events is messed with so that his death isn't seen until later in the movie, for no apparent reason. It also doesn't feel like a found-footage movie--it's way too put together. Ultimately I liked the movie, though the climax is not as well handled as it should have been, leading to some lessening of tension right at the end. It doesn't head off into space warfare action, but it doesn't make it to 2001 awe either.