Shelley Berman, Stand-Up Comic Who Skewered Modern Life, Dies at 92
By PETER KEEPNEWS September 1, 2017
Shelley Berman in an undated photo. He was in the vanguard of a movement that transformed the comedy monologue from a rapid-fire string of gags to something more subtle.
Shelley Berman, whose brittle persona and anxiety-ridden observations helped redefine stand-up comedy in the late 1950s and early ’60s, died early Friday morning at his home in Bell Canyon, Calif. He was 92.
His publicist, Glenn Schwartz, said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Mr. Berman, one of the first comedians to have as much success on records as in person or on television, was in the vanguard of a movement that transformed the comedy monologue from a rapid-fire string of gags to something more subtle, more thoughtful and more personal.
The comedians of the preceding generation, Gerald Nachman wrote in “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s” (2003), were “one-liner salesmen” for whom “a joke was a cheap and reusable commodity, easily bought and sold, not a worldview or a political stance.” Comedians like Mr. Berman, Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce had a different approach.
In 1959, Time magazine referred to this new breed as “sick” comics, and the term (which Mr. Berman hated) caught on. But they had little in common with one another besides a determination to remake stand-up comedy in their own image. Mr. Sahl was a wry political commentator; Mr. Bruce was a profane social satirist; Mr. Berman was a beleaguered observer of life’s frustrations and embarrassments.
Perched on a stool — unlike most stand-up comedians, he did his entire act sitting down — Mr. Berman focused on the little things. He talked about passionate kisses that miss the mark so that ‘‘you wind up with the tip of her nose in the corner of your mouth.” Or what to do when the person you are talking to accidentally spits in your face — do you wipe the spit off or make believe it didn’t happen?
Performing in upscale nightclubs and on concert stages, including Carnegie Hall at the height of his fame, he found humor in places where his borscht belt predecessors had never thought to look: ‘‘If you’ve never met a student from the University of Chicago, I’ll describe him to you. If you give him a glass of water, he says: ‘This is a glass of water. But is it a glass of water? And if it is a glass of water, why is it a glass of water?’ And eventually he dies of thirst.”
“Sometimes,” Mr. Berman told The New York Times in 1970, “I’m so oblique, even I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Like his fellow Chicago comedian Bob Newhart, Mr. Berman specialized in telephone monologues, in which the humor came from his reactions to the unheard voice on the other end of the line. (Mr. Berman often claimed that Mr. Newhart stole that idea from him. Mr. Newhart maintained that the idea did not originate with either of them, noting that comedians had been doing telephone monologues since at least the 1920s.)
In one classic routine, Mr. Berman, nursing a brutal hangover, listened with increasing horror as the host of the party he had attended the night before reminded him of the damage he had done: “How did I break a window? … Oh, I see. … Were you very fond of that cat?”
In another, he called a department store to report that a woman was hanging from a 10th-floor window ledge: “And I was just sitting, I was looking out my window, and I, uh, uh, noticed there’s a woman — there’s a woman hanging from a window ledge on your building about 10 flights up and she’s. … No, operator, you’re missing the point. I don’t wish to speak to the woman.”
His monologues were more like short plays than traditional comedy routines, and many of them — like the one in which he played his own father, trying to discourage young Sheldon from going into show business — had a poignant undertone. Mr. Berman was theatrically trained, and for most of his career he thought of himself more as an actor than as a comedian.
He was an actor both before and after he was a comedy star, and he continued acting well into his 80s, earning an Emmy Award nomination for his portrayal of Larry David’s father on the HBO comedy series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
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Shelley Berman, left, playing bingo with Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Doug Hyun / HBO
In the heady early days of his comedy career, he appeared on Broadway in “The Girls Against the Boys” (1959) and “A Family Affair” (1962), and on television shows, including “Peter Gunn,” “Rawhide,” and “The Twilight Zone” (on which he memorably played the misanthropic Archibald Beechcroft, who gains the power to remake the world to his own liking). Acting became Mr. Berman’s main source of income when the comedy bookings began to dry up not long after.
Sheldon Leonard Berman was born in Chicago on Feb. 3, 1925, the son of Nathan Berman, who owned a tavern on the West Side, and the former Irene Marks. He was a show-off as a child; his parents, he once said, told him, ‘‘With your mouth, you could be a lawyer.”
After an asthmatic condition forced him out of the Navy, he studied drama at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, where he met Sarah Herman, a fellow student, whom he married in 1947. He joined a stock company in Woodstock, Ill., in 1949, doing everything from playing lead roles to building scenery.
He and his wife then moved around the country — to Daytona Beach, Fla., where he worked as a social director at a hotel; to Los Angeles, where he taught at an acting school, worked in a clothing store and drove a taxi (he later recalled that he had three accidents in one month); to upstate New York, where he again acted in a stock company; to New York City, where he wrote sketches for Steve Allen’s TV show.
His career did not gain traction until he returned to Chicago in 1956 to join the Compass Players, an improvisational theater group that would evolve into the Second City. There, he began developing his comedic skills working with fellow performers like Mike Nichols and Elaine May.
A year later he ventured out on his own. He had a rough start; audiences were not sure what to make of his rather cerebral style, and he was not sure how to relate to them. “I was essentially a monologuist,” he once said. “I was not, in the strict sense of the word, a comedian. I was unable at first to cope with the atmosphere in a nightclub.”
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Mr. Berman as a misanthrope in a 1961 episode of “The Twilight Zone” in which, getting his wish, everyone ends up just like him.
CBS, via Photofest
Inspired by the success of the equally unorthodox Mort Sahl — “He showed that humor will sell, not stand-up jokes,” he told Gerald Nachman — Mr. Berman grew more comfortable onstage and had a triumphant run at the Chicago nightclub Mister Kelly’s. That led to work in New York, appearances on the TV shows of Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan and others, and, most important, a contract with Verve Records.
The first of his several albums, “Inside Shelley Berman” (1959), put both Mr. Berman and the phenomenon of long-playing comedy records on the map. There had been stand-up comedy albums before this, but none had made as much of a splash as this one. “Inside Shelley Berman” won a Grammy Award, reached No. 2 on the Billboard album chart and led the way for hit records by Mr. Newhart, Bill Cosby, Steve Martin and many others.
“I was nervous about that record, because I thought no one would want to see me anymore if they could just play it,” Mr. Berman told The Times in 2003. “Then, after it came out, I went to play a show on Sunset Boulevard, and there was a line around the block! I told my wife, ‘I can buy two suits now.’ ”
Shelley Berman - "Department Store"
Shelley Berman - "Department Store"
Video by baysvoice
In 1963, at the height of his success, Mr. Berman was the subject of an NBC-TV documentary, “Comedian Backstage,” which portrayed him as excitable and demanding and captured him losing his temper after a telephone rang backstage during his “Father and Son” monologue.
The reviews were mostly favorable (although Jack Gould of The Times called the documentary a “portrait of disagreeableness”), but Mr. Berman nonetheless said that the unflattering picture painted by “Comedian Backstage” made him a “pariah” in the industry, and that his comedy career never fully recovered.
In a 2005 Times profile of Mr. Berman, his wife played down that idea. While she acknowledged that he ended up filing for bankruptcy, she insisted, “The problem was not with the documentary but with the financial people we had in charge.” Whatever the reasons — changing tastes in comedy undoubtedly played a part as well — Mr. Berman was far less visible as a comedian after the mid-1960s.
His focus shifted back to acting. He appeared in numerous regional and summer-stock productions and played Tevye in a 1973 touring production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” In the 1960s he was in movies like “The Best Man” (1964) and “Divorce American Style” (1967); from the ’70s through the ’90s he was on numerous TV shows, including “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” “St. Elsewhere” and “L.A. Law.”
He briefly returned to Broadway with a one-man show in 1980. A few years later he began teaching a course in humor writing at the University of Southern California, which he continued to teach until 2013. He retired from performing the next year.
The acting work had slowed down by 2002, when Larry David cast Mr. Berman in the recurring role of his irascible and often oblivious father on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” With its emphasis on improvisation, the show gave Mr. Berman the chance to return to his Compass Players roots. It also, he told The Times in 2003, led to “so much attention, I can’t even describe it.”
He went on to play a judge on several episodes of “Boston Legal” and to appear on other TV shows and in the hit movies “Meet the Fockers” (2004) and “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” (2008).
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Mr. Berman performing in Chicago in 2009 in a 50th-anniversary celebration of the improvisational comedy troupe the Second City. He had been a member of the Compass Players, who evolved into the Second City.
Sally Ryan for The New York Times
Mr. Berman is survived by his wife; their daughter, Rachel Berman; and two grandsons. A son, Joshua, died of cancer in 1977.
In 2008 Mr. Berman was nominated for an Emmy as outstanding guest actor in a comedy series for his work in an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” It was the first Emmy nomination of his long career.
“I may get an Emmy, but I doubt very much that’s going to happen,” he said at a ceremony at U.S.C. shortly after the nominations were announced. “There’s a bunch of guys from ‘30 Rock’ who are going to get the Emmys. And I’m going to tell them how bad I feel when I lose.”
Mr. Berman’s fatalism was characteristic and, it turned out, justified. He did indeed lose — to Tim Conway, who won for a guest appearance on “30 Rock.”