I learned this morning that Shelley Berman, a longtime comedian, has died at the age of 92. Folowing a brief obit, I share my own thoughts of emailing with the late comedian.
A statement on his fan page says that he died “at his home in Bell Canyon, CA, due to complications from Alzheimer’s.”
A Chicago native, Berman performed back in the day with the Compass Players, a predecessor to The Second City. With the Compass Players, Berman would work with the likes of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. It was there that he would perform one-sided phone conversations with a partner nobody could see or here. This became one of his trademarks when performing stand-up comedy.
In 1959, his debut album, Inside Shelley Berman, would go on to win a Grammy for best comedy album.
Berman may be best known for his work on Emmy-nominated work on Curb Your Enthusiasm, where he played Larry David’s father.
I discovered Shelley Berman in 2005. This was when I was knew for sure that i would be moving to Chicago to take classes at Second City but in addition to improv/sketch comedy, I also had an interest in stand-up, too. Here’s some of Berman’s comments for aspiring comedians in response to an email in 2007:
Everything happening is a lesson. Go onstage with knowledge to support you. Read. Get the news. Get the history, the geography, the humanity. Whatever you feel, everybody feels. Whatever stupid things you’ve done, everybody’s done. Whatever lies you’ve told, the same. You are the last word, not Second City. Be better than your jokes, better than a standup. And for Christ’s sake, don’t wear the contemporary comedian’s uniform: jeans, t-shirt with faded lettering, rotten gym shoes. And DON’T go out there and say to the audience, “Hey! How y’all doin? Anybody here from Wisconsin?” Get out there with an attitude, with who you are, not as the last comic you saw.
In late 2007, I asked him about his role in the upcoming Adam Sandler film, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.
My role in Zohan is not a big one. As his father I do have a couple of very nice scenes. I enjoyed the filming. Adam is a peach of a guy, very easy and pleasant to work with.
In 2009, I caught Berman on the CBS series, CSI: NY, when I was in between classes at Second City.
Second City is an important step for any good actor. I hope you get all you can out of it.
If your hope is purely to be comedic you might miss the real advantages of improv, how it offers you the gift of yourself; of not missing anything that brushes across your knowledge or your view or your hearing or your feeling, and you get your opportunity to respond. It’s not at all about being the guy who tells the big joke.
Shelley Berman will be missed. He is survived by his wife, Sarah.