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


Shelley Berman, R.I.P.



I was sorry to learn just now of the passing of my former colleague Shelley Berman. Sorry, and not sorry.

Sorry because he was a terrific comedian and comic writer — a very clever and entertaining man who made me laugh a lot, in person, and on TV.

Sorry because he was struggling with Alzheimer’s and had stopped performing about three years ago. To the extent that I knew Shelley, he was all about performing, so I can only imagine how it felt to him to stop.

Just hanging around in our department at USC, you could pick up great writing tips from other writers. Shelley’s weren’t exactly revelations, but they sounded especially good to a playwright like me, because we knew Shelley worked in the spoken word, as we do. Here’s something I posted on this blog 10 years ago:

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.

I had that feeling because, of course, I grew up seeing Shelley Berman on The Merv Griffin Show or the Mike Douglas Show, doing his telephone bit or some other bit of standup, and laughing my teenage butt off.

Later that year, I flew to Las Vegas to catch Shelley’s act in a casino lounge, which I wrote about here. Two things that I didn’t put in that brief profile:

One was his extraordinary anxiety. At one point, he called out from the stage for a drink. It looked to me like, at age 82, he’d lost his place (which, of course, all of us do — but we’re not on stage) — so he called out to a waitress to bring him a drink. About one nanosecond later he followed that up with, “Is it coming? Is anybody bringing it??!?!?” And I caught a flash of extreme dislike from the bartender and the wait staff that told me this wasn’t the first time this had happened. He got his drink, recovered and carried on, and finished very very well — but I at least didn’t forget the earlier moment. Which also called to mind this episode, tactfully summed up in today’s Variety obit:

In 1962, Berman participated in NBC’s documentary-style television show “Comedian Backstage,” where cameras followed him as he prepared for and performed his nightclub act. The cameras caught Berman becoming angry when a telephone backstage started ringing during his act, which dimmed his popularity for a time.

Yeah, that’s one way to put it. The way he put it — to me and to many other people, for 30 or more years — was that it was unfair treatment, that the club had been expressly told to turn off all phones (of course), and that this (temporarily) ruined his career and cost him a lot of money.

The other thing that I didn’t put into my piece here 10 years ago — and I’m surprised I didn’t — was this. I said that Shelley very kindly seated me next to his wife, Sarah, for his act. If you are an artist of any sort, the very best thing you can do in life is this:  Get an adoring spouse. An adoring spouse will make all the difference. She (or he) doesn’t always need to adore  you, but if she can adore your work, you’ve got it made. I say this from experience. Throughout the show, Sarah roared with laughter at everything Shelley said — not to shill, but genuinely. She absolutely loved his work, and loved him. Sarah and Shelley were together for 60 years, and I have no doubt that she is a very big reason he had such a long, and large, career.



4 Responses to “Shelley Berman, R.I.P.”

  1. Joe Stafford Says:

    “…shorter sentences are funnier…” – I would add they’re more factual. Loved Shelly, my loss it not as acutely felt, but its as heartfelt.

  2. Uncle Rich Says:

    I too have fond memories of watching him perform on TV when I was growing up. It always caught my attention, when he was doing his phone bits, how well he timed his responses to the imaginary person on the other end of the line, and how involved he appeared to be with the conversation. Also I thought he was a hoot in a quirky little movie, BEWARE THE BLOB, in which his performance appeared to be largely improvised.

  3. Don Randall Says:

    Anyhow, made my day,thanksWhat a wonderful tribute to Shelly Berman…so many slipping away….the world of comedy now is edgier and sharp…quite brilliant and self referential …..and it is how it should be I suppose but I miss the raucous ba dum bump….and the quiet insight.
    Anyhow, made my day,thanks

  4. Dan Says:

    Touching tribute… nice work, Lee, you done him proud.

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