Shelley Berman, the wildly popular “sit-down” comic of the late 1950s and ’60s who, after his career came unhinged following an outburst caught on camera, concentrated on acting and played Larry David’s father on Curb Your Enthusiasm, has died. He was 92.
A standout in a golden era of comedy that included other observational masters like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and Bob Newhart, Berman died early Friday morning at his home in Bell Canyon, Calf., according to a post on his official Facebook page. He had a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Inside Shelley Berman, his live record released in 1959, became the first comedy album to go gold (reaching sales of 500,000 units) and was the first non-musical recording to win a Grammy Award.
The Chicago native trained as a serious actor before jumping into comedy as a nightclub performer. His signature bit was to sit cross-legged on a bar stool, act as if he were on the telephone and improvise long, complicated, one-sided conversations.
Inside Shelley Berman featured a classic seven-minute riff on drunken regret, “The Morning After the Night Before” (“My tongue is asleep and my teeth itch. Where is my Alka-Seltzer?”), and another routine about people’s pornographic-level love of buttermilk.
He “typified the everyman who regularly cracked under social pressures and couldn’t quite stay ‘normal,’” Ethan Thompson wrote in the 2010 book, Parody and Taste in Postwar American Television Culture.
As an actor, Berman was memorable as a guy who has some dirt on presidential candidate Cliff Robertson in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (1964); as the misanthropic Archibald Beechcroft, who wills everyone in the world to be just like him (to his eventual dismay), in a 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone; and as a hilariously senile judge on Boston Legal.
Berman received an Emmy Award nomination in 2008 for playing Nat David on Curb. He auditioned for the role minutes after Shecky Greene, another top-notch 1960s comic, tried out for the part. To get the job, Berman had to agree to be seen without his hairpiece.
Born in Chicago on Feb. 3, 1925, Berman trained with legendary acting teacher Uta Hagen in New York and then enrolled as a drama student at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.
While appearing in a production of Winterset, he met Sarah Herman, a seamstress who was in charge of costumes and wardrobe. At the time, he wasn’t wearing pants (someone had mistakenly taken them away to be pressed). They were married in 1947, and she survives him.
He graduated from the Goodman Theatre, then joined the Woodstock (Ill.) Players theater company, where he performed with Geraldine Page, Betsy Palmer and Tom Bosley.
After working a series of jobs that included driving a cab and teaching at an Arthur Murray dance studio, Berman wrote sketches as a freelancer for Steve Allen’s Tonight Show in New York.
Chicago beckoned again, and he accepted a spot with the improvisational troupe the Compass Players, a forerunner of the fabled Second City. He collaborated with Mike Nichols, Elaine May and others, honing his improvisation skills and developing the routine that employed an imaginary telephone to take the place of an onstage partner.
He then auditioned for a gig at Mister Kelly’s, a Chicago nightclub on Rush Street.
“When developing my routines doing improvs with Compass,” he said in an interview in 2000, “I had always sat in a chair to talk on [his imaginary] phone. But when I went to audition at Mr. Kelly’s, I realized that on the very low stage I’d be invisible beyond the front tables. I requested a bar stool to sit on. I would become identified with that prop and the mimed phone. Needless to say, I won my first comedian job at this very club.” ?
Sahl, who in 1955 had a live album of comedy recorded at the hungry i in San Francisco, convinced Berman to record what would become Inside Shelley Berman at that North Beach venue. It was the No. 2 album on the Billboard album chart for five weeks.
“I was nervous about that record, because I thought no one would want to see me anymore if they could just play it,” Berman told The New York 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.’ ”
He would eventually record six albums for Verve Records, including Outside Shelley Berman and The Edge of Shelley Berman, both of which also went gold.
“I was a passionate fan of [Sahl]. I went to see him before even dreaming of being a comedian,” Berman told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2010. “I thought, ‘Wow, we don’t have to stand there and do ‘set up, joke, set up, joke.’ I watched him, and there weren’t any jokes. It was just all things to laugh at.”
Berman became a national sensation, doing his act on The Ed Sullivan Show more than 20 times as well as performing on programs hosted by Allen, Jack Paar, Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Andy Williams, Dean Martin and others.
In March 1963, NBC trailed him for a month for a documentary titled Comedian Backstage. When a ringing telephone backstage disrupted one of his phone routines — this one a tearjerker about his father — the camera was there to capture his outburst. “I’ll pull the damn phones out of the wall!” he said.
“I got a reputation for causing trouble, maybe because I am passionate about things,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “But I did not deserve the things that were said about me. I was never just a troublemaker.”
In Gerald Nachman’s Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Berman said he was set up, that producers arranged for the phone to ring just to get him to react. “These people wanted an exciting program,” he said.
A review in the New York Herald Tribune said Comedian Backstage revealed Berman to be “a spoiled child with a nasty temper, a petty disposition, a taste for tyranny and a blind insensitivity to others.”
Berman had trouble finding work after the incident and eventually filed for bankruptcy. He turned to acting, though his career would never be the same.
In addition to The Best Man, Berman appeared in such films as Divorce American Style (1967) opposite Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds; Every Home Should Have One (1970) with Marty Feldman; Teen Witch (1989); The Last Producer (2000); Meet the Fockers (2004); The Aristocrats (2005); The Holiday (2006); and, as Adam Sandler’s father, in You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008).
On television, Berman could be spotted on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (as a member of The Better Luck Next Time Club, an organization for divorced people); on L.A. Law as a Hollywood mogul who takes Arnie Becker (Corbin Bernsen) under his wing; and on Friends as Rachel’s (Jennifer Aniston) boss at Fortunata Fashions.
He also showed up on episodes of Peter Gunn, Bewitched, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Night Court, MacGyver, The King of Queens, The Bernie Mac Show, Grey’s Anatomy, Entourage and Hawaii Five-0.
Berman starred on Broadway in 1962 in the Chicago-set musical comedy A Family Affair, directed by Harold Prince, and in 1980 headlined a one-man show, Insideoutsideandallaround With Shelley Berman.
For more than 20 years, Berman taught humor writing at USC. In 2013, his collection of poetry, To Laughter With Questions, was published.
His son Joshua, months shy of his 13th birthday, died in the mid-1970s from brain cancer.
This article was originally published on The Hollywood Reporter