Shelley Berman, one of my comedy idols, died this week and will be mourned by many. He leaves a wonderful legacy filled with the echoes of laughter that will continue as long as we can listen to his recordings and remember his wonderful creativity.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure (on his birthday) of extolling his virtues. I recounted his influence on me, and the great thrill of making him laugh at an event in Las Vegas. We even got to have lunch, and I had an hour with him and his wonderful wife.
Important to me, I was able to tell him to his smiling, quick-to-laugh face, that hearing his comedy on records (33 RPMs) was a big part of the reason I became a comic. And him being at the convention was two-thirds of the reason I even attended. Making a lucky week even better, he later picked me out of a seminar audience for an improv practice, to demonstrate points from his lecture. I still treasure the photo of the two of us.
Eons past, in my long-ago youth, I discovered some Shelley Berman records belonging to my folks and although we never listened to his hilarious routines together, I like thinking that they went out and bought comedy records to listen to and laugh with. I still have those LPs.
I know comedy was different when Mr. Berman was performing and recording those now-classic routines. People used to dress up to see a live show, and then demonstrated a respectful attitude towards the performer. There was no combat in those recorded performances. Attention spans seemed longer.
A comic could take the time to set up a premise and the audience would wait patiently. The tension would build during the funny story which always ended in a comedic twist, or a solid laugh to button up a thought and there was always a surprise that wasn’t always a laugh.
Audiences—and I certainly—appreciated Shelley Berman’s beautifully guided tours into emotional journeys of people in everyday situations. And there was always a surprise ending. Awkward teenagers, frustrated parents, and other relatable situations were the were fodder for a scenario that certainly had laughs in it, but was also deeper somehow.
I don’t see the same vulnerability in much of today’s comedy. There’s some, but it’s often on a TV sitcom, rather than in a comedy routine, performed on stage. It’s just a different world. But knowing that so much laughter could be dug out of that beautiful mine, from that wonderful mind of Shelley Berman, well, it was one of the best introductions I’ve ever been given to an art form at which I still aspire to excel.
I don’t do what he did. I’m not sure anybody else can. But hearing it done so well affected me on a different level, pushed me in a great direction, allowed me to see a grand path, and there aren’t any words to adequately express my appreciation for people like the great Shelley Berman lighting that way.