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


More about Shelley

Here’s the excellent obit for Shelley Berman, from today’s Los Angeles Times. Yesterday, I said that the infamous “Comedian Backstage” documentary had cost him a lot of money — note that here Shelley is quoted as saying it drove him into bankruptcy.

The piece also pays greater attention to his acting career, which was where his performing career began, than I did.

Reading this today also reminded me of something else, a side note of sorts about Shelley’s time at USC.

Eight or 10 years ago, in the graduate writing program where we were both teaching, USC transitioned Shelley into emeritus status. The university had gotten more than a few complaints from students in his humor writing course, and this would allow him to stay associated with the program and the university, and to participate in special events and seminars, while removing the rigors of an actual regular course. And, of course, it’d allow the university to stay associated with a legendary comedian.

But that left the question of who was going to teach humor writing. The dean running our program asked for a recommendation, and without hesitation, I said:  “Mark Evanier.”

At that point, Mark had been writing funny stuff for about 40 years already, and knew just about every comedy writer or comedian in LA and beyond; also, he was a generalist, which was important for a program that wanted you to write in many different disciplines. Mark had written sitcoms, jokes for standup comedians, variety shows, animation — and comic books. Many, many comic books. This was my opportunity to get a comic-book writer — someone who works with Sergio Aragones, no less! — onto the faculty. I reached out, he was interested — and he got hired. Mark proved popular with students,  just as quick on his feet as I promised he would be, and reliably entertaining for the dean.  He also had good taste:  He took immediate dislike to the new director of the writing program — who was later responsible for its collapse.

This is the same program where I got to study under Robert Pirosh, who wrote for the Marx Brothers on “A Night at the Opera” and “A Day at the Races,” and Jerome Lawrence, who co-worte “Inherit the Wind” and “Mame.”  It’s where I got to work with and socialize with Hubert Selby, Jr., the author of “Last Exit to Brooklyn” and “Requiem for a Dream.” And it’s where I got to know Shelley Berman. And it’s where I met the woman who started booking me as a teacher at writing conferences, and who talked me into starting a playwriting workshop.

For about 25 years of my life, that program was a good thing. Shame somebody had to come along and ruin it.

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