“My whole act is confession.”
-Shelley Berman, February 3, 1925 – September 1, 2017
Maybe the name Shelley Berman doesn’t sound familiar to you even though his first comedy album, Inside Shelley Berman, sold over a million copies and he was the first comedian to perform at Carnegie Hall, but even if you think you haven’t heard of him you have heard his influence in every whining, complaining comedian who turns anthills into Everests. He turned confession into comedy at a time when most other comedians were doing character monologues. He was obsessed with himself, but in a good way, because he portrayed himself as deeply insecure, worried about everything, so you felt sorry for him. He played, and could have even inspired, a ludicrously misanthropic character in the Twilight Zone episode “The Mind And The Matter” as a man who discovers he hates all of humanity but discovers he hates himself even more. As historian Gerald Nachmann says, “Something about Shelley Berman made you want to throw your arm around the guy and tell him that everything was going to be all right.” He was described as “everymanic”, and when Time did its infamous piece on the new generation of “sick comics” it’s surprising he wasn’t singled out as the sickest. Maybe it all started at the Chicago improv group The Compass Players, where Berman brought plenty of neurotic baggage and doing improv learned to unpack it. The Compass produced several other notable comics—in fact at one point Berman almost formed a trio with his fellow players Nichols & May, but they realized they worked better as a duo and he was too much of an individual to share the stage. And yet he also credits others for his success. Night after night he worked on a bit that came from an audience suggestion: a man waking up with a hangover from a party the night before. He kept repeating a line about throwing the host’s lamp out the window until one night a fellow cast member offstage whispered “Make it his cat”. “The Morning After The Night Before” became one of his funniest and most successful pieces and has a hilarious opening line: “My tongue is asleep and my teeth itch.” There’s also a prologue in which he assures the audience no cats were harmed, long before such disclaimers became standard.
He was such an intense individual he even did standup his own way—sitting down.
The tragedy of Berman is that the nervous, irritable, insecure character on stage was a nervous, irritable, insecure man in real life. He was an obsessive worker for whom every detail had to be just right, which earned him a bad reputation and cost him work. A 1963 documentary that showed him screaming backstage because a phone had rung during one of his routines almost destroyed his career, forcing him to take smaller and lower paying gigs. In fact it was the second time a phone had interrupted him that night, but the documentary was edited to show him melting down after just one. Some think the producers also had the phone ring deliberately to set him off, making him an early victim of “reality” television. Such obsessiveness might have been forgiven from a well-known actor interrupted in the middle of Hamlet’s soliloquy, but audiences and critics were surprised and turned off by a nightclub comic who took being funny so seriously. Maybe success—which, no matter how hard he worked, some who knew him said he didn’t feel he deserved—magnified his own personality, but it also magnified how others perceived him. Years later he’d say, “people are still surprised when I say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and that I don’t have saber teeth.”
Yet he never entirely dropped out of the limelight. He would also turn his attention to writing books and teaching, and while he’d still do some comedy performances he focused on acting, which is what drew him to The Compass Players in the first place. A quick glance at his IMDB page shows him working steadily, and in his influence he may never be forgotten.