The Genesis:3 Project
And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. Genesis 21:3
Alan Sherman was a song parodist and comedy writer who entertained a generation of post-war grownups and inspired at least one generation of pre-adolescent boys. Weird Al Yankovic acknowledges Sherman as master of the oeuvre, and maybe just maybe I committed the entirety of “My Son the Folksinger” and “My Son the Nut” to memory. At 11 years old, neither “St. James Infirmary” nor “You Came a Long Way from St. Louis” were part of my musical repertoire, but I could sing the Alan Sherman versions as if they were.
Even if the genre was not to your liking (or if Alan Sherman’s untimely demise preceded your birth), you have been unable to escape his most commercially successful parody, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.” The lyrics are set to the delicate “Dance of the Hours” by Amilcare Ponchielli. The composer died in 1886, so we have no way of knowing if he would have been delighted or horrified to know that his lilting melody was better known as a paean to ptomaine poisoning than it was as a ballet. Then again, its previous popular iteration was an animated ballet of hippopotami in Disney’s “Fantasia.” (Alan Sherman also wrote a parody of “What Kind of Fool Am I” entitled “One Hippopotami.”)
If you went to sleep-away camp in 1963 or later, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” was part of your life.
Alan Sherman was a writer whose talent was much more sophisticated even than his puns and politics in his music. His memoir, A Gift of Laughter, is a wonderful read. The stories he tells are not always happy, but they are touching and very well-told. He was a fat kid who was teased about his body, and he was a fat adult who was expected, ironically because of his success, to be the jolly fat man. The gift of laughter helped him through.
Laughter became important to Sherman because it contrasted with so much of his life. In a lot of ways, he lived an unhappy version of what his contemporary Sam Levinson experienced. Family and neighborhood provided Levinson with abundant material to turn him into a “humorist.” Family and neighborhood were inconsistent in Sherman’s life and his ability to laugh and to make others laugh became his redemption.
We place a lot of value on laughter in our time. Comedy is an industry, one of the very few that Jews don’t mind being accused of dominating. The vaunted “Jewish sense of humor” is one of those things that non-Jews admire most about the Jewish people, and it is often cited as our best defense against persecution. “As long as you can laugh…” begins and ends lots of anecdotes about the equally universal belief that it’s hard to be a Jew.
The fact is that the Jewish sense of humor is something read back into our culture. Bilaam’s talking donkey, Queen Esther’s melodramatic, “If I die, I die,” Jonah’s description of the animals of Nineveh dressed in sackcloth are funny only because we have decided they are. They are not included for entertainment value; if there is laughter associated with them in the original, it is rueful, not hilarious.
Back in the day, Jews weren’t any funnier than anyone else. Maybe Sarah had a bit of sense of humor about herself, but Abraham, our founder and mentor? Only one laugh – and it’s not funny.
Isaac’s name in Hebrew (Yitz’chak) is usually associated with laughter. That’s entirely accurate, and in the context of the story of his conception and birth it makes sense. When Sarah is told that she would bear a son long after the evidence of her fertility was just a memory, she laughed (inside). Maybe she told Abraham and maybe she didn’t, but he gives his son a name that makes his heritage something of a joke. If it were a vaudeville routine, “What’s your name, friend?” would be answered, “You’re gonna laugh.”
And Isaac did not live a life filled with laughter. He was neither Alan Sherman nor Sam Levinson.
I love comedy and I love laughter. Every now and then I even produce a funny comment of my own. But I have learned that while I love to laugh and to make people laugh, sometimes (and maybe usually) that laughter comes at someone’s expense.
Alan Sherman made fun of his weight for the sake of humor, including a signature monologue, “Hail to Thee, Fat Person,” but he died young from conditions connected with obesity and poor health habits. I saw him perform it on the TV special he hosted in 1965. It led him to a semi-serious conclusion that as a fat person he appreciated the word “ubiquitous.” He explained that it meant everywhere, unavoidable, all over. “This show is ubiquitous,” he concluded. “It’s all over.”
So is this column.