Sunday, September 3, 2017

Shelley Berman Passes On

Comedian and actor Shelley Berman died on September 1 2017 at the age of 92. The cause was complications from Alzheimer's disease. Among many other things he won the first Grammy Award for a spoken comedy recording in 1959.

Shelley Berman was born Sheldon Berman in Chicago, Illinois on February 3 1925. During World War II he enlisted in the United States Navy, but was released on a medical discharge due to his asthma. Afterwards he studied acting at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. He later joined the Woodstock Players theatre company based out of Woodstock, Illinois. There he acted alongside such people as Geraldine Page, Betsy Palmer, and Tom Bosley.

Mr. Berman and his wife Sarah then moved about the country where he worked jobs ranging from teaching at an Arthur Murray dance studio to working as a social director in a hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida. In New York City he worked as a  sketch writer on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show. He made his television debut as an actor in an episode of The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1954. He also appeared on the TV show Goodyear Playhouse and the movie Dementia in 1955. In 1956 he returned to Chicago to join the Compass Players, where he worked with the now legendary comedy team of  Mike Nicholas and Elaine May. It was in 1957 that he began his own career as a stand-up comic. He guest starred as comedian Danny Holland on the Peter Gunn episode "The Comic" in 1959 and that same year released his first comedy album, Inside Shelley Berman. It was followed by the comedy album Outside Shelley Berman that same year and The Edge of Shelley Berman in 1960. As a comedian he appeared on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Steve Allen Plymouth Show, The Lux Show Starring Rosemary Clooney, The George Gobel Show, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, and The Jack Paar Tonight Show. In 1959 he appeared on Broadway in the revue The Girls Against the Boys.

Shelley Berman began the Sixties as one of the most popular comedians in the United States. During the decade he would record more albums, including A Personal Appearance, New Sides, and Let Me Tell You a Funny Story. He recorded the album The Sex Life of The Primate (And Other Bits of Gossip) with the comedy team of Stiller and Meara and actress Lovelady Powell. He appeared on Broadway in the musical A Family Affair. He continued to appear frequently on television on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Merv Griffin Show, What's My Line?, The Judy Garland Show, and The Linkletter Show. He guest starred on such shows as The Twilight Zone; Car 54, Where Are You?, Rawhide, and Breaking Point.

Unfortunately it would be a television appearance that would very nearly end his career as a comic. In 1963 NBC-TV filmed a documentary that followed his life as a comic, "Comedian Backstage", for their programme The DuPont Show of the Week. It was during his monologue "Father and Son" that a phone rang backstage and Shelley Berman lost his temper. The documentary damaged his career as a comedian and it never quite recovered. While he continued to appear as a comic on various talk shows, he turned increasingly to acting as the Sixties progressed. He guest starred on such shows as Burke's Law, Bewitched, Mister Roberts, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, and Mary Tyler Moore. He had a recurring role on the short lived show That's Life. He appeared in the films The Best Man (1964), Divorce American Style (1967), and Every Home Should Have One (1970). He continued to appear on various talk shows, game shows, and variety shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Match Game, Hollywood Squares, The Dean Martin Show, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Joey Bishop Show, and The Hollywood Palace.

In the Seventies Shelley Berman guest starred on such shows as Adam-12; Love, American Style; Emergency!; Police Woman; Vega$; and CHiPs. He had a recurring role on Forever Fernwood. In the Seventies he appeared on such talk shows and variety shows as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show, and Dinah!. He appeared in the movie Beware! The Blob (1972). In 1980 he appeared in his own one man show, Insideoutsideandallaround with Shelley Berman, on Broadway.

In the Eighties he guest starred on such shows as Matt Houston, Hotel, Knight Rider, St. Elsewhere, Mike Hammer, Night Court, and The Munsters Today. He appeared in the movies Rented Lips (1988), Teen Witch (1989), and Elliot Fauman, Ph.D. (1990). 

In the Nineties Mr. Berman had a recurring role on L. A. Law. He was the voice of Alderman on The Blues Brothers Animated Series. He had a regular role on the short lived show Walter & Emily. He guest starred on the shows Monsters, MacGyver, Civil Wars, Friends, Providence, and Walker, Texas Ranger. He appeared in the films Motorama (1991), In God We Trust (2000), and The Last Producer (2000).  In 1995 he released his first comedy album in years, Live Again! Recorded at the Improv.

In the Naughts Shelley Berman had recurring roles on both Boston Legal and Curb Your Enthusiasm. He guest starred on such shows as King of Queens, Grey's Anatomy, Entourage, Pushing Daisies, and C.S.I.: NY. He appeared in the films Meet the Fockers (2004), The Holiday (2006), and You Don't Mess with the Zohan (2008) He provided a voice for the animated feature The Legend of Secret Pass (2010). His last appearance was on an episode of Hawaii Five-0 in 2012. Shelley Berman released two last comedy albums, To Laughter with Questions and When Jews Were Funny, both in 2013.

Shelley Berman was one of a group of revolutionary comics to emerge in the late Fifties and early Sixties, a a group that included Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, Nichols & May, Mort Sahl, and Stiller & Meara. Rather than simply telling jokes, many of these comedians told stories, created sketches, or simply made observations on everyday life. Indeed, in many ways Shelley Berman was not really a stand-up comedian at all. He did most of his act sitting on a stool. And his act did not consist of one gag after another, but instead it consisted of monologues on the vagaries of everyday life. His monologues involved everything from a man with a hangover who is reminded by his host of all the damage he caused the night before to an airline passenger trying to alert a seemingly oblivious flight attendant that the plane's wing is on fire. Shelley Berman's monologues were not only funny, but they also expressed much of the anxiety people had about the modern day world.

Of course, before he was a comic, Shelley Berman was an actor, and he would turn to that career when his career as a comedian faltered.  He was very good as an actor, and he did drama as well as he did comedy. He was impressive in The Twilight Zone episode "The Mind and the Matter", as a man who remakes the world in his own image through the sheer power of his own mind. He also did well as Judge Robert Sanders, the somewhat senile old judge on Boston Legal. In many respects it should come as no surprise that Shelley Berman would be a good actor. As a comedian he essentially played different roles in his monologues. Indeed, it was one of the many things that made him such a good comedian.

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