A Reboot of Comedy Classics

Host, Dave Schwensen, and his friends Kelly, Tom, and Logan listen to comedy albums from the 1950s, ‘60s, or ‘70s. They take a look at the life of the comedian as well as the cultural relevance of the album then and now. Sit back, relax, and get ready to laugh!

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Spotify Listen on Pandora

The Unstoppable Shelley Berman

| S:2 E:8

Our final episode of the season features the one, the only, Shelley Berman and his album “Inside Shelley Berman!” Before becoming a comedian Shelley worked quite a few odd jobs, but he didn’t let that stop him from becoming the comedian we know of today! Today Shelley is most known for his role on Curb Your Enthusiasm but, he was one of the premiere comics of his time. He worked along side Nichols and May, was good friends with Mort Sahl, and was awarded the Grammy in 1959 for Best Comedy Performance- Spoken Word. Listen in to find out what makes Shelley Berman unstoppable!

The album we're listening to today is: Inside Shelley Berman, written and performed by Shelley Berman, Verve Records 1959

Follow our hosts!

Dave Twitter: @thecomedybook, How To Be A Working Comic Facebook

Kelly: Instagram: @kellythewlis, Twitter: @kellythewlis, Facebook

Tom: Website Facebook Youtube LinkedIn

Logan: Instagram: @loganrishaw, Twitter: @logansaidthis

Announcer:
Welcome to What's So Funny, a comedy podcast where we talk about some of the most influential and controversial comedy albums from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. Sit back, relax, and get ready to laugh. Here's your host Dave Schwensen.

Dave Schwensen:
Hi. I'm Dave Schwensen, your host, and today I'm joined by Logan Rishaw.

Logan Rishaw:
Hi, Dave.

Dave Schwensen:
And we're going to stay busy today, because we're going to be talking about another legendary comedian, Shelley Berman.

Logan Rishaw:
And this is a perfect way to wrap up our season here because Shelley mirrors Mort Sahl, our first episode, quite well.

Dave Schwensen:
Wow, you're very good at this.

Logan Rishaw:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Done it about three times now.

Dave Schwensen:
I going to say, I'll take a seat and let you go on this. But yeah, you're right. This is the end of this season. And a Shelley Berman's a good one to close on because he is such an interesting guy.

Logan Rishaw:
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, Mort Sahl was the person who made him want to get into standup.

Dave Schwensen:
And it's funny because they're like just 100% different from each other. Mort Sahl is the fast talker.

Logan Rishaw:
And Shelley Berman's very slow.

Dave Schwensen:
Very slow.

Logan Rishaw:
Very specific with how he talks.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes. And even when it came time to record an album, Shelley was reluctant to do that. He thought if he put his comedy material in an album that people could listen to all the time, no one would come see him.

Logan Rishaw:
Right. And it was Mort who was like, "You have to put this out there. You need to have more people listening to what you're doing." And convinced him to record an album on the same label that he was on, Verve Records. And even this album was at the same exact venue that Mort's first album was, the hungry i.

Dave Schwensen:
Well, you know what, let's get into a little bit of this right now with Shelley Berman. I want to play the first clip, and it's from his album Inside Shelley Berman, which, now I correct me if I'm wrong, Logan, because you're a good historian about this, this was the first gold record for a comedy album.

Logan Rishaw:
It was the first gold record for a spoken word comedy album. So before I think there were musical comedy and sketch that probably did about as well. And it's also the first spoken word Grammy Award winning comedy album.

Dave Schwensen:
I'm so glad you're here because I would've gone rambling off on all kinds of stuff. It might've been wrong, because we have it clear there. Okay, so this is from that award winning comedy album, Inside Shelley Berman.

Shelley Berman:
(Comedy Clip) Directed and dedicated to the parents in our audience. Hello. Hello? Ah, okay. Hello there. I'm fine, thank you. And how are you? Fine. Fine. Thank you very much. Is your mother there? I'm fine. Thank you. Fine. Fine. Is your mommy home? I'm fine, sweetheart. Fine. Fine. Listen, honey, listen, where is your mommy? Oh, we'll tell her when she's through I'd like to talk to her please. You don't have to tell me what, dear, that's all right, sweetheart. I'm fine. Listen, what are you? A little boy or a little girl? Oh, well, why don't you ask your mommy. She'll tell you. I'm fine. Listen, sweetheart, go call mommy to the telephone, honey. Oh, and listen, honey, listen, don't put the telephone on the hook now, baby. Put it on the table, sweetheart. Because if you put it on the hook, you ...

Shelley Berman:
(Comedy Clip) Hello there. I'm fine. Thank you. Fine Listen, you hung up on me. You little. Now, see, I told you to put the telephone on the table and you put it on the hook. No, honey. You see what happens. You see ... oh, goddammit. Hello? Now, listen, kid, don't put the telephone down. You understand me? You hold the telephone in your hand. You know what I'm saying to you? In your fat little claw you hold the phone. I'm warning you now, if you put the telephone down lightning will strike you and you'll die. I'm God.

Shelley Berman:
(Comedy Clip) I'm fine. Thank you. Fine. Now stand still and scream, "Mommy." What are you crying for? I didn't scare you. I can't help it if I'm God. Call your mommy. Hello, mommy? [Marge 00:05:25]. It's me, Syd. I'm fine. Thank you. I'm not screaming. It seems to me your household has a morbid interest in my health. Your kid acts like a beneficiary of my insurance policy. Do me a favor. Tell my nephew he's a boy, will you? He doesn't know. He doesn't know. I asked him before, he didn't know what the hell I was talking about. What do you mean he's a baby? Now is when he showed know. Now, during his formative years. Don't wait until he grows up and makes an arbitrary decision.

Dave Schwensen:
That was called Dedicated to Parents by a Shelley Berman. It really is like a time capsule when we listened to some of these older comedy albums. That was recorded, I think, in 1959.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah, and I think for a lot of people today, the idea of how a telephone worked then is surprising.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes. Back then they didn't have cell phones, they didn't have voicemail.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. It's a beautiful way to show off what family life was like back then.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes. Yes. And it's also a great example of Shelley Berman's style. Because he was known for talking on the phone during his comment. They were one way conversations. They were actually conversations between two people. It was just his side of it. Talking and reacting to what, assuming, he was hearing.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. The style was what he was most known for. And it's something he developed as an improv actor. Because a lot of scenes in improv are you with a partner, and sometimes he wouldn't get a partner so he had to find ways to match whatever the improv challenge was by himself.

Dave Schwensen:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes.

Logan Rishaw:
And this is where all his acting experience really comes into play too. He's been acting for seven years, so you can hear it in the way he tells these routines, the way his voice changes for different characters, and how well he is at playing both parts, in a way.

Dave Schwensen:
It's interesting too that he went to ... he studied improvisation with Nichols and May.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. He was-

Dave Schwensen:
Who we featured on What's So Funny not too long ago.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. He was one of the Compass Players.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes.

Logan Rishaw:
And another person who was in that group was a Del Close, who was kind of like the main improv guy. He wrote Truth in Comedy, which is like the improv performers Bible.

Dave Schwensen:
Sure. Well, here's the inside information for you. I studied one class with Del Close.

Logan Rishaw:
Did you?

Dave Schwensen:
Yes. Many years ago.

Logan Rishaw:
That's why you're so good at this.

Dave Schwensen:
No. That's why I'm not ... I should have stayed in the class longer, I guess. It was only once.

Logan Rishaw:
That's incredible.

Dave Schwensen:
But I went through it once, and it's kind of like a little claim to fame kind of thing I might have with the improvisers.

Logan Rishaw:
Right. Absolutely. That's something to be proud of.

Dave Schwensen:
I took one class with Del Close in New York city, so there you go. But I brought up Nichols and May because they also did telephone bits. It was kind of a standard thing with a lot of the comics back then. It was a ... how can I put it? It was way back to there's recordings from 1913 with the comedians talking on the telephone. One sided conversations. But Shelley Berman really took it to be his own.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. He went for more than just a sketch. He built his routine around that over time.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes. Yes.

Logan Rishaw:
And I think that's why he's really kind of claimed that style for himself.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. And that's what he is really known for. If our listeners go up and they look back on say YouTube, or even check out some of his comedy album covers and everything, he's got his hand up to his ear because he's talking on the phone.

Logan Rishaw:
Even though a lot of people did it I think he was probably one of the best at it.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes. Yeah. Well, he's known for that. But let's continue with this because we have another clip coming up from this award winning gold comedy album Inside Shelley Berman. And our second clip today is called Buttermilk, which I found to be very interesting because it's such a ... the topic is just what it says, it's buttermilk.

Logan Rishaw:
It's so completely silly and such a fun over-analysis on such a little concept.

Dave Schwensen:
Exactly. Let's take a listen to this one.

Shelley Berman:
(Comedy Clip) I discovered this afternoon why I don't like buttermilk. Now, I'm going to get into that because first of all, I'm not the kind of a guy who forms a snap judgment about some white, innocent fluid. And again, it seems to me that people who do like buttermilk, love buttermilk beyond anything in existence. They have a thing over buttermilk, which I won't go into detail about. It's a little pornographic. I have seen people drinking buttermilk in a way that makes me feel that I just shouldn't be watching. So naturally I thought about this for a couple of years, and you can imagine how desperate a man has to be to think about buttermilk for a prolonged period. Anything over 10 minutes has got to be paranoid.

Shelley Berman:
(Comedy Clip) Anyway, this afternoon for some in explicable reason, I saw the light. I had a revelation. I'll tell you what I had. I had a satori. That's for those of you who believe in Zen, and I have a feeling the room is loaded with Zen people tonight. I'll tell you what Zen is. Zen is a kind of philosophical, metaphysical thought thing. You have it so far? It's a kind of offshoot of Buddhism in which through concentration you arrive at certain levels of existence, and you are capable of answering certain very tricky questions. One of the questions is this, you know the sound of two hands clapping, but what is the sound of one hand clapping?

Shelley Berman:
(Comedy Clip) Well, I know that sound. I've heard it frequently enough, God knows. And I'm not going to dwell on it because I'll cry, and a comedian has got to be jolly. Anyway, I was telling you about buttermilk, why I don't like it. I found out today, and I'm going to tell it to you. It is not the buttermilk that bothers me. It's the way the glass looks when you're through drinking it that makes me sick. That ugly white map inside of that, two more seconds and I'll throw up. I know it. Anyway, thank you so much for listening to this catharsis. Yes. It was something I had to get off my chest. I'm glad you were here to hear it.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. That's just a great example, again from Shelley Berman, how he can get on a mundane topic. Buttermilk. I mean, it didn't mean anything. He really is like, could it be someone's nickname? Could that be the name of a sports team? Could that be whatever? No. It's just what it is, buttermilk. But he goes off on it.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. Just starting from the one word, just building a three minute set out of it. Also, while we're kind of comparing him to Mort Sahl, this is a good way to show how Mort was very focused on politics and things going on in his life. And Shelley Berman could just talk about a mundane topic and create an amazing bit out of it.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. And the thing too with Mort Sahl, when we listened to him on an earlier episode, he talked a mile a minute. He was just talking like real fast. Everything was going real fast.

Logan Rishaw:
And Shelley's got that slower delivery.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes.

Logan Rishaw:
He takes his time, and it feels like every word has been picked for a purpose. Whereas Mort Sahl is just kind of going rapid fire off the top of his head.

Dave Schwensen:
And what's interesting about this bit too, buttermilk, is he's not talking on the phone.

Logan Rishaw:
No, this is before that became his sort of entire act. He had more conversations with the audience themselves.

Dave Schwensen:
It's just something that bothered him, and he wanted to talk to the audience and explain it. And then-

Logan Rishaw:
It's a nice little break, a good change of pace.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes. I like that.

Logan Rishaw:
Now that we've kind of gotten an idea of his style, we're going to look at a topic that a lot of comedians cover, airlines.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes.

Logan Rishaw:
I think a good way to judge comedians is how good is their airline material. Because everybody's got something about traveling or the airport.

Dave Schwensen:
You're right.

Logan Rishaw:
So this third clip we've got from Shelley Berman's album is called Airlines.

Dave Schwensen:
Well, let's take a listen.

Shelley Berman:
(Comedy Clip) I got to thinking about that, because I fly an awful lot. I'm a performer and we're always hopping around the country. And we're at the mercy of these people, because we need them so much. And you know how airlines are always bragging about their safety records. You know, flying is the safest way to fly. Or what they actually say is this, "Statistics prove that flying is the safest way to travel." I don't know how much consideration they've give them to walking. However, the propaganda efforts on the part of the commercial airlines is terribly, terribly convincing so that I, frankly, haven't the slightest doubts whatsoever about my safety in a plane. Until I walk into an airport terminal. And I realize that there's a thriving industry in this building selling life insurance policies, you see. Good for one flight, which is very cautious.

Shelley Berman:
(Comedy Clip) And there are booths all over the place selling life insurance and slot machines dispensing life insurance. And the whole thing seems to convey this one message to me, that I may be confident about landing safely, but there's a serious doubt in somebody's mind as to whether I'm going to make it, you see. And because I happen to be a little chicken to begin with this power of suggestion plants a seed of doubt, gives me a negative attitude toward the flight. Incidentally, if you do buy one of these policies, for God sakes don't read it. Pay for it, sign it, send it off to somebody you want to worry. But if you read this, you'll never fly.

Shelley Berman:
(Comedy Clip) What it does on these policies, it itemizes very carefully everything that can happen to you in that plane. And there is one word which I think should be stricken from the English language immediately anyway. The word is maimed. It's a horrible, horrible word. Injured conveys the point, but maim sounds so permanent and ugly. Well, this power of suggestion works progressively, you see. The first thing you do, for example, when you get into the plane, you strap yourself into the seat. Which as far as I'm concerned is another very ominous gesture. You may stop there, but I take it a step further. I say to myself, "Well, I'm strapping myself into the seat, because if I wasn't strapped into this seat there's a very good chance that I will fall out of this seat, you see. Say, if the plane came to a sudden stop, like against a mountain."

Shelley Berman:
(Comedy Clip) I visualize myself flying right through the plane and right out through the front, right through the area where the crew and the girls have their parties. That is what I find that most terrifying of all. And because I happened to be, as I say, I'd rather devout coward, I really strap myself into that seat, people, to a point, say, if I flew for over 20 minutes I'd get gangrene. I think to myself, "With this little belt around me if the plane stops quickly perhaps only the top half of me will fly through the front of the plane. And the rest of me will remain seated where I am, with my legs crossed." It's such a macabre.

Dave Schwensen:
All right. That was called Airlines from Shelley Berman's gold album Inside Shelley Berman.

Logan Rishaw:
And it's a fantastic airline bit.

Dave Schwensen:
It really is.

Logan Rishaw:
It's great. It shows off a lot of his acting talents. Even though he wasn't using the telephone there, he still used a speaker system to play the pilot.

Dave Schwensen:
I'm glad you brought that up, Logan, because his acting experience ... again, we talked in the beginning about he was an actor. He studied drama at the prestigious Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, and also in New York City. And what I enjoy so much, and I can't do this, I'm not demonstrating about what I'm going to say right here, I can understand everything he says, every word. Even with his different voices. And he's doing these little ... they're little performance art pieces to me. Yes. It's stand up comedy, but no, it's a little scenes that's going on. And sometimes when we listen to other comedians they hurry up, they talk too fast. Sometimes you'd be like, "What did they say?" Or they're not clear enough, enunciating correctly, whatever you want to call it. Shelley Berman, I'm understanding everything. And he's really taking me there through his dramatic flare, if that's what you want to call it, his acting ability.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. His theater chops show through in every routine that he does.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes.

Logan Rishaw:
I mean, he builds a lot of the routines through improv. Just coming up with an idea and working through it himself.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes.

Logan Rishaw:
But once he's got it hammered in, he's got all sorts of different parts that he's playing different roles for, given different voices to, and making everything clear. Not just his words, but what he's trying to say with them. So his sarcasm comes through perfectly. Anything that's supposed to be sort of a punchline that written out wouldn't seem funny, he's nailing it with how he's delivering.

Dave Schwensen:
Right, right. It's his performance ability, and the training that he had. I mean, drama and improvisation and comedy. And he originally broke into the comedy industry as a writer.

Logan Rishaw:
Oh, is that so?

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. For the Steve Allen show. I think he was the Steve Allen's Tonight Show. He was hired as a writer, I think before that he was in New York City. He was driving a cab. He was a dance instructor.

Logan Rishaw:
No.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes. At what is that, Fred Astaire? Is that the dance studios?

Logan Rishaw:
Oh, that's crazy.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. Because he was having a hard time getting acting jobs. I mean, that's a tough career too. But he got hired then by Steve Allen to write for The Tonight Show. And after that success, he went back to Chicago and started studying improvisation with the ... what was that? You told me it was the name of the ... the Compass Players.

Logan Rishaw:
The Compass Players.

Dave Schwensen:
Which eventually became second city.

Logan Rishaw:
Right. And it's through that, that he built a lot of this material too. So I've heard him say he spent about seven or eight years trying to work as an actor. And then once he decided to be a comedian, he was a working comic within a year just because he had all this material built up from different improv sketches he had worked on.

Dave Schwensen:
Right. And his career went on. He never stopped creating. He was a writer. I know he wrote scripts for television shows. He wrote a few plays. He wrote a couple of books, I think on poetry.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. He had a wide range of sort of later life careers.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah.

Logan Rishaw:
And he got back into acting for a while too.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. He used to appear in all the sitcoms and dramadies, if that's you call them, that were back in the '60s, '70s. I mean, right up through, I mean, with Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm. But let's continue here because we ... I'm really getting into this, I mean with Shelley Berman. It's very interesting to listen to what he was talking about. And again, this was 1959 and he was talking about airline. I mean, how safe was it to fly on an airplane in 1959? I don't know. They say it's the safest mode of transportation. Well, if I had a time machine, I'm not going to get on an airplane in 1959 knowing everything I know now.

Logan Rishaw:
Oh, absolutely. And I think a lot of this stuff still holds up today. I mean, they still tell us the same statistics about airlines and people are just as afraid of them.

Dave Schwensen:
Anyway, do you want to talk about ... to introduce this next clip?

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah, I'll introduce this next clip. As we said before Shelley's-

Dave Schwensen:
I put you on the spot. Didn't I?

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. As we said before, Shelley Berman has kind of been showing us what life was like in the '60s. And I think this is a great picture of what family life was like. This next clip is called Child Psychologist.

Speaker 5:
(Comedy Clip) Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Shelley Berman.

Shelley Berman:
(Comedy Clip) About a month ago ... or maybe it was, I don't know, maybe it was two months ago. It could very easily have been the last week, actually. Yesterday it was a day in which I did absolutely nothing. Not a thing. If anybody asked me what I was doing, I would've said creating, which is a hell of an easy out. And I was just recalling things, having a sort of an eclectic experience. Anything that fell into my head, I dealt with it for a few minutes and then threw it away. And I was recalling a radio show or a television show which I had seen, or heard, I'm not sure which.

Shelley Berman:
(Comedy Clip) And on this show there was a child psychologist. And he was answering questions which had been submitted by mail from worried, distraught, harried, frightened, hysterical, and insane parents. You know the degrees to which they get. And one of the questions which had been submitted was from a mother who was very concerned about her very young daughter, whom she claimed was taking things which didn't belong to her. And she wanted to know what was wrong with her. Well, the child psychologist diagnosis was that the kid was a thief.

Shelley Berman:
(Comedy Clip) He said, "Don't worry about it." It wasn't his kid. And he said, "Two things will happen. Either she'll grow out of it or she'll become more proficient. So one way or the other, she will have to benefit. Don't be too concerned." He said, "Don't discourage the little crook because you'll give her a trauma and she will grow up unable to adjust herself to society and all sorts of problems." And so he said, "If the girl cheats, let her cheat, ignore it." And then he spoke out in a rather peculiar fashion about lying. As I recall, he said something to this effect. "I know many liars doing very well these days making out airline schedules." And-

Logan Rishaw:
That was Child Psychologist by Shelley Berman.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah, it was based on ... a lot of ... you look back on a lot of comedians, like their lives, when they were children and what they grew up in, and he was talking about a child psychiatrist because the girl was stealing or whatever. But it was basically a lot of his own life that came into this, what you talked about.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. He was definitely putting a lot of his own personal experiences in there.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. Because he grew up in a crowded household, and you had to do something to bring attention to yourself.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. So what I was seeing was he was not only raised in a crowded household, but the way that they made ends meet was his grandmother would buy pure alcohol and then resell it as homemade whiskey.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah, there you go. Was that the Prohibition they were doing that?

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. So that's a great way to support the family, and I'm sure that gives you a different life experience than most people in the neighborhood.

Dave Schwensen:
It certainly does. And when you to look back on it some of those guys like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, and those people that grew up in that era, including Shelley Berman, before that the comics were doing their, what I called, shtick. They had pretty much the same acts. They toured Vaudeville and they had jokes and some of that stuff was pretty corny. And the comedy teams with Shelley Berman, and again Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, these guys started talking about their real lives, what they felt about things, their opinions and how they saw things. Comedians didn't do that-

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah, they were coming-

Dave Schwensen:
... before these guys. These were the first generations of comedy as we know it today.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. People with original material. They weren't just playing the hits. And they were more off the cuff with the audience.

Dave Schwensen:
Right, right. Well, we are coming close to the end here. I know we have another clip to play before we leave. And I do want to say something else about Shelley Berman's career. Shelley went on with all his original material and things like that that were really changing it, he wound up recording six comedy albums, which were all pretty successful, and he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show more than 20 times. And that was a big deal in the '50s, '60s, and even '70s.

Logan Rishaw:
It's a huge deal. People would kill to be on there once.

Dave Schwensen:
That's right. Elvis, the Beatles, Shelley Berman.

Logan Rishaw:
That's where stars were made.

Dave Schwensen:
That's it. Well, let's go into the final clip we're going to play tonight from Shelley Berman. It's called Embarrassing Moments. And that's just going to speak for itself. Let's just get into this.

Shelley Berman:
(Comedy Clip) All right. I don't have too much time. I've taken away too much time. So I just have a second left so I'm going to take this second and I'm discuss the world. This is of course on the assumption that it lasts that long. We're going to discuss right now a rather peculiar phenomenon, which is all too frequently ignored. That is the very small type of embarrassing moment. And we're not talking now about the large embarrassing moments, the big fat juicy egregious embarrassing moments that everybody notices and everybody remembers. We're talking now about the little itsy bitsy embarrassing moments, the kind which occur in thousands throughout a single day, and we never noticed them because they're so small and they're fleeting, they pass us too quickly.

Shelley Berman:
(Comedy Clip) The cigarette is a great cause for the small type of embarrassing moment. This will prove to you, I think, that if you're not looking for these things, you are very out to miss them. Oh, goddammit. All right. That's the kind I'm talking about, people. Here is one now that I particularly like to see happen to a guy who has been putting me down all evening, one of these superior types, you know the kind I mean. For example, a man who has read something by James Joyce and understands it. Him, I despise. Especially when I'm the guy who thinks James Joyce wrote Trees. And what is worse, I say so, you see. Usually in a large crowd. Or else he's one of these immaculate creatures who after dinner at the dinner table, the table cloth in front of him, you may still see the crease in it. While in front of me, it appears as if I'd been passing the food up through the table, you see. It's as if I brought along my own beet juice and scattered it around in my spot.

Shelley Berman:
(Comedy Clip) Anyway, after I've made my James Joyce faux pas, he invariably gives me an indulgent chuckled. "Oh my. James Joyce didn't write Trees. Trees was written by Joyce Kilmer." Of course I ask, "Who is she?" And I destroy myself completely. Anyway, his embarrassing moment occurs at the peak of his smugness when he's so cocksure and confident and he's busily expounding on the virtues of Ulysses. Or something else I don't know anything about that. It happens very quickly with his cigarette when he least expects it. "I don't know what you're trying to say there at all, Shelley, lad. I hear what he's trying to say all along, kid." Kind of does your heart good, doesn't it? Huh?

Shelley Berman:
(Comedy Clip) There is one other embarrassing moment that occurs with a cigarette, which I can't show you because it's injurious. However, I'll tell you about it. It's when the cigarette sticks to your lips and your fingers slide and grab the flames. There we go. Oh, that usually happens in a very intimate moment when you're saying something like, "Darling, I just want to say ... aahhh."

Logan Rishaw:
That was Embarrassing Moments by Shelley Berman. He's had a few embarrassing moments in his life.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes, he certainly has.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. There was a big incident that led to him kind of going on an extended hiatus from comedy.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes. There was a ... and I want to talk about this just briefly too, because it's not really the defining thing for Shelley Berman. He was so popular. He was such a popular comedian. They took cameras and they went and followed him around. It was called Comedian Backstage. It was a television special in 1963. And what happened one night when he was doing this, a telephone went off backstage. And it kind of ruined the mood that he was setting. He got upset about this. He was really voicing his exasperation, his frustration in front of everyone, and let it go. I mean, comics do ... I mean, performers do this all the time. And he got a raw deal, in my opinion.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. It's tough when that's the only part of your actual personality people see, aside from you on stage. They have this one bad clip.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes.

Logan Rishaw:
And that's what blows up.

Dave Schwensen:
And he was got this reputation for being difficult to work with. And I saw an interview with him later. He says, "People ..." He says, "I can't even send back a steak. I can't do anything. People think I'm this mean guy, and I'm not." It was-

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. That's something that's so common, especially in theater and show business.

Dave Schwensen:
I can definitely understand his frustration. And I want to say, make it clear, I think he got a raw deal.

Logan Rishaw:
I would agree with that.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. There you go. So in defense of Shelley Berman.

Logan Rishaw:
That's why he did stop doing comedy for a while there. He got back into it later in his life.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes.

Logan Rishaw:
But he went to other things in that in between time. He taught comedy writing for 20 years at USC.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes.

Logan Rishaw:
Like you mentioned before, he wrote some books. And he got into acting again.

Dave Schwensen:
Well, but then after all that acting and all the TV shows he did, he never lost his Zen. Because he talked about that one in the clips. His zest-

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. He-

Dave Schwensen:
... for doing standup comedy.

Logan Rishaw:
... really came out strong. And in the end part of his career, he pushed himself to get into more and more acting gigs. He's probably best known recently for being in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Dave Schwensen:
With Larry David.

Logan Rishaw:
And he won an Emmy for that role.

Dave Schwensen:
He did. And you know how he got the part?

Logan Rishaw:
How did he get the part?

Dave Schwensen:
This is no secret. Shelley Berman wore a hairpiece. Okay? But now, you see, Larry David, he does not wear a hairpiece.

Logan Rishaw:
He is quite well known for not having a hairpiece.

Dave Schwensen:
And in the show he had to play Larry David's father. So Larry said, "You can have this part. The part's yours. But you're not allowed to wear the hairpiece."

Logan Rishaw:
And he didn't wear the hairpiece?

Dave Schwensen:
He didn't wear the hairpiece. And because of his acting ability, not because he didn't wear the hairpiece, he got nominated for an Emmy in 2008.

Logan Rishaw:
And that's all you got to do.

Dave Schwensen:
As an actor on Curb Your Enthusiasm. But yeah, he did go on and he performed in Las Vegas at Harrah's doing standup comedy. And he really continued ... really had a long life. I mean, he lived to be 92. He was continuing pretty close to the end.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah, and he's a very beloved comedian. He has been well-respected for comedy and acting. He's actually getting a lot of his works showcased at the National Comedy Center in Jamestown.

Dave Schwensen:
Right. All his archives, everything ... or all his work. His work is in the archives at the Comedy Center.

Logan Rishaw:
Actually, I was just there not too long ago. It's a wonderful museum. It's only been around for about a year or two now, but it's fantastic. If you're listening to this podcast, I highly recommend the trip.

Dave Schwensen:
I'll do that too, because I've been there also. We could spend ... we've talked about this. You could spend days in that place if you're a comedy fan. All right, Logan, we're going to wrap it up today. And not only are we just wrapping up this episode, we are wrapping up the season.

Logan Rishaw:
And it's been a pretty fun season, I'd say.

Dave Schwensen:
I've had a blast.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah, I've learned a lot. I've got to listen to a lot of fantastic comics with you, and I'm looking forward to the next one.

Dave Schwensen:
We got the laugh. That's what it's all about. Comedy. Well, we're going to come back for another season.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. I'm looking forward to season two. Thank you, everyone, for listening.

Dave Schwensen:
All right, we're going to sign off here. I'm Dave Schwensen.

Logan Rishaw:
I'm Logan Rishaw.

Dave Schwensen:
And you've been listening to What's So Funny. And we'll see you for our next season. Until then, keep laughing.

Announcer:
Thanks for listening to What's So Funny. That's all we have for you for now. Be sure to check back in for the next season of comedy classics. Special thanks to executive producers Joan Andrews and Michael DeAloia, producers Sarah Willgrube, and audio engineer Eric Koltnow.

View Less

Recent Episodes

View All

Dick Gregory is A Force to Reckon With

Dick Gregory broke barriers for African American comics. Let’s take a listen to his very first album from 1961 “In Living Black and White.”
Listen to Dick Gregory is A Force to Reckon With

The Funniest Woman in the World, Moms Mabley

| S:2 E:7
In this episode of What’s So Funny! we are listening to the one and only Moms Mabley and her 1970 album “Live at Sing Sing.”
Listen to The Funniest Woman in the World, Moms Mabley

The Original One Hit Wonder, Vaughn Meader

| S:2 E:6
Let’s go back in time to Camelot with Vaughn Meader’s “The First Family!”
Listen to The Original One Hit Wonder, Vaughn Meader

The Comedy Duo Nichols and May present “An Evening With Nichols and May”

| S:2 E:5
In this episode of What’s So Funny! we take a listen to the live recording of their Broadway show “An Evening With Nichols and May,” by Mike Nichols and Elaine May.
Listen to The Comedy Duo Nichols and May present “An Evening With Nichols and May”

Connect on social media or subscribe to our newsletter

Connect