Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


A private lesson in comedy writing


The person in the above photo is comic legend Shelley Berman. I don’t think I need to go into his credits, but just in case, here’s his bio from his website. Let’s just say that for more than 50 years, Shelley has been acknowledged as a comedy legend and now, unbelievably to someone who grew up watching him on television, I get to call him a colleague. We both teach in the Master of Professional Writing program at USC.

Shelley teaches humor writing. You wouldn’t think this could be taught, except the evidence is that maybe it can: Shelley is very, very funny, and so are several writer friends of mine who are former students of his. Shelley is effortlessly funny. Last month at a faculty luncheon he said, “I want to ask a question, and that is, ‘You call this a salad?'” Indeed, the “salad” consisted of two stalks of lettuce-like things. “Maybe a little tomato,” he went on, “or a cucumber?” His real problem at lunch was being serious. “I’m not joking now, I’m being serious,” he said when he was trying to be serious, but even then not all of us were sure.

Tonight, as I was standing at the copy machine violating Harold Pinter’s copyright (sorry, Hal — just a few pages, I promise), Shelley came by and started sharing the advice he gives his class. The essence is this: shorter sentences are funnier, and beware of actors who add extra words to your lines. Whether or not you already know these things to be true, they sound truer coming from the mouth of Shelley. For 10 minutes I felt that I was getting a private lesson in comedy writing from an expert. Some of us see Shelley every week and we don’t think twice, and I understand that. But just this once it occurred to me that I was talking to Shelley Berman.

Almost 20 years ago, I studied screenwriting with Robert Pirosh. The name won’t mean much to most people, but among other things, Bob was a writer on two Marx Brothers films, “A Night at the Opera” and “A Day at the Races.” I never got to meet the Marx Brothers, but I got to study with one of their screenwriters. It was a fleeting chance. At the end of the semester, he died.

The past few years, Shelley’s career has been back in bloom. It’s been a wonderful thing to watch. He was in “Meet the Fockers,” he’s a regular on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and he does numerous charity gigs. And, if you’re lucky, he does a private bit now and then on Monday nights.

One Response to “A private lesson in comedy writing”

  1. Rich Roesberg Says:

    I spent my formative years watching great comics on TV. Which might explain why I turned out a bit odd.

    It must be surreal to chum around with Mr. Berman. (I’m too in awe to call him Shelley). Next you’ll be running into Jonathan Winters in the hall and racing Don Rickles to the best parking space.

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