The very funny comedian Shelley Berman (1925-2017) has passed away. A Chicago native, Berman got his start at that same Compass Players which also launched Nichols and May, and I associate him, like them, with that very hip kind of early sixties sophisticated sketch comedy. He was helped along in his comedy by a physiognomy perfectly suited for his times. He had a kind of shifty, weaselly, venal sort of countenance, a kind of nervous, chain smoking character, always cast perfectly as an uptight business man under a lot of pressure. Early sixties satire seemed largely about being “open season” on the values that had made the 50s so oppressive and stifling. Berman was at the center at that kind of comedy. (I’ve always been fond of his little turn in the 1964 film The Best Man, which I think was my first exposure to the comedian/ actor). He was definitely not someone you would have pegged as living until 92. Dead of a heart attack at 52 would have seemed more like it!
Berman’s accusation of Bob Newhart stealing his telephone routine is of course silly, as any old school show biz buff can tell you. Georgie Jessel was doing a telephone routine before Berman was born. Not to mention “Cohen on the Telephone“, which dates to 1906. Comedians were using phones as props almost as soon as the damn thing was invented. But show biz is a heartbreaking business. Berman, every bit as talented as Newhart, was fated never to achieve the same scale of fame (although he did enjoy a nice career revival as Larry David’s father on Curb Your Enthusiasm.)
Godspeed to a funny, funny guy!