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Shelley Berman

Born: February 3, 1926
Death: September 1, 2017
AKA: Sheldon Berman
BlueMeter: Tame

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2007 Live at the Improv
2006 Shelley Berman on Comedy
1995 Live Again!
1965 Let Me Tell You a Funny Story
1962 A Personal Appearance
1960 The Edge of Shelley Berman
1959 Outside Shelley Berman
1959 Inside Shelley Berman

Won 1959 Grammy Award for Best Comedy Performance - Spoken Word

Specials (and other video)

1984 The Young at Heart Comedians Special
1977 On Location with Shelley Berman

Books (by and about)

2002 The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America
1986 Up in the Air With Shelley Berman
1972 A Hotel Is a Place...
1966 Cleans & Dirtys


His albums were titled "Inside," "Outside" and "The Edge," and they were drawn from his heart, soul and mind. Trained as an actor, Shelley Berman's monologues often resembled one-act plays, artistic and theatrical. Some of them were intense and dark, others sentimental and poignant. He was one of the first stand-up comedians whose work was intended as "art" and received on just those terms. He performed "concerts," not nightclub "gigs."

The Chicago-born performer had always strived for an acting career. An early trip to New York was a disaster. He "froze" at auditions. He wrote comedy for Steve Allen's show but ultimately returned home to work as a cab driver and later a drug store manager. In the summers he performed with local stock companies. In 1955 he replaced Severn Darden in Chicago's Compass Players improv group: "At first I thought the idea was to go up and ad-lib funny. It took me at least a month, I think, to learn that you don't go up with the intention of being funny. You go up with the intention of playing out an action…the funny will happen."

Other members of the group included Nichols and May, the only performers of the era who, like Berman, were successfully experimenting with "serious" comedy. Berman actually hoped to join Nichols and May as a comedy trio, but they refused, exacerbating the "love-hate" rivalry between Berman and Nichols. Ironically it was after Elaine May refused to join him in acting out an improv suggestion from the audience that he created, alone, his first important routine, "The Morning After The Night Before."

The bit was about a man suffering through a hangover and learning, in a grossly embarrassing phone call from the party host, that he made a complete fool of himself and worse: "How did I break a window? I see. Were you very fond of that cat? It's lucky the only thing I threw through the window was a cat! Oh…she's a very good sport, your mother…"

Berman's monologue device—the phone call—would be copied by many other comedians. No one, however, could copy the kind of routines Berman did with it. His other classics included "Franz Kafka On the Telephone" (a modern nightmare of trying to get information from a phone operator), "The Hotel Room" (a stark drama of hysteria as a hotel guest discovers himself in a black room with no windows or even a door to get out again), and "The Cut Finger," (where a man alone in a strange city telephones everyone from a vet to a gynecologist while wondering if he'll eventually bleed to death). His comedy often had life or death emotions, such as his call as a man trying to get help for a woman dangling from a building ledge.

Experimenting with all types of stand-up, Berman could as easily ad-lib (he did a bit as a child psychiatrist fielding questions from the audience), put together a frenzied ten minute tirade on airlines, or indulge in intimate, neurotic confessionals such as his famous complaint against buttermilk or his sudden psycho-sexual need to pull the case off the pillow he nuzzled the night before. For such bleak and offbeat routines Time magazine lumped him in with Lenny Bruce and Tom Lehrer as one of the "sick" comedians of the day. And adding insult to the injury, the magazine wrote that he had a face "like a hastily sculpted meatball."

Mostly critics praised Berman as a virtuoso satirist of modern angst and anxiety; an intellectual performer.

Berman's sensitivity was well known. At a time when nightclubs were raucous places and comics were supposed to machine-gun jokes, he demanded an end to such distractions as the drone of blenders mixing drinks at the bar. Berman's reputation for being "difficult" seemed to be proven in 1963 when he appeared in an NBC documentary "Comedian Backstage." During one of his best routines, the sentimental "Father and Son," a phone rang offstage. The cameras followed him when, after the show ended, he stormed around complaining about the ringing phone. Irritated and piqued, he deliberately grabbed the phone and dumped it off the hook, showing how it should look when he was on stage.

For decades Berman insisted that his fall from popularity was caused by reaction to the TV special. Back in the 60's this extremely minor incident was indeed a cause celebre. Standards for star behavior were rather strict. Another problem was that Berman had begun to run out of new material, having created so many brilliant ones over the past several years. Bob Newhart was now doing phone bits and Woody Allen was creating neurotic one-liners. The year after "Comedian Backstage," Berman recorded his last concert album.

Berman's enthusiasm for stand-up waned. He found other pursuits. He wrote a few novelty books, including 1966's "Cleans and Dirtys," a dissection of language. He discovered: "A big boob is a clean. Two big boobs is a dirty…Zelda is a clean. Fanny is a dirty…Sailboat is a clean. Frigate is a dirty…Desk is a clean. Drawers is a dirty…Vertical is a clean. Horizontal is a dirty…Comma is a clean. Period is a dirty. Giggle is a clean .Titter is a dirty."

Through the years Berman accelerated his acting career, appearing in films and in stock productions of such shows as "Fiddler on the Roof," "The Rothschilds" and "The Odd Couple." Berman's luck was mixed in television. He recalled being offered the part of Lou Grant on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." He said, "My management made a very big mistake and said there wasn't enough money." Moore, a great fan of Berman's, eventually hired him for a guest spot. He later turned up as "Mel Beach" on the series "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." In 1989 Berman completed "First is Supper," a play for the National Jewish Theater about life in Chicago in the late 20's. Occasionally Berman mounted a comeback tour with stand-up comedy, or appeared on a "comedy club" TV show. For short Tv appearances he usually offered a re-working of his "embarrassing moments" routine from years earlier; instantly accessible to all.