Legendary actor and comedian Shelley Berman has died from complications of Alzheimer’s at 92. The trailblazing comedian was most recently spotted playing Larry David’s father on Curb Your Enthusiasm but had a career spanning back to the 1950s, when he and a handful of other comics helped transform the art of stand-up comedy into something more substantive and artistic than just someone on stage telling a series of one-liner jokes and gags.
According to the New York Times, Shelley Berman was famous for performing his routines while sitting on a stool on stage. His classic telephone call bits explored the inherent absurdity of speaking to a faceless, disembodied voice at the other end of the line, such as one bit in which Berman calls a department store to report a woman hanging off the ledge of the building’s 10th-floor window.
“And I was just sitting,” Berman pretends to tell an operator who answers the phone. “I was looking out my window, and I, uh, uh, noticed there’s a woman — there’s a woman hanging from a window ledge on your building about 10 flights up and she’s. No, operator, you’re missing the point. I don’t wish to speak to the woman.”
Prior to comedians like Berman and other contemporary mavericks like Lenny Bruce and Mort Stahl, stand-up comedians would often stick to telling short jokes and puns designed to elicit a quick laugh from the audience. Shelley Berman paved the way for an approach in which comedians would tell stories, establishing setting and context for jokes that more deeply explored life, society, and the human condition. Much of Berman’s material was crafted like a short scene from a play, perhaps owing to the fact that Berman formally studied drama at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, went on to join a theater company in his home state of Illinois, and later acted on Broadway.
Shelley Berman also paved the way for comedians to record full-length records of their routines. His first album, Inside Shelley Berman, released in 1959, reached the second position on the Billboard album charts and sold over 500,000 copies. The album won Berman a Grammy, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Releasing the record was a bit of a gamble for Berman, who wasn’t sure if its release would make his live shows obsolete.
“I was nervous about that record, because I thought no one would want to see me anymore if they could just play it,” Berman said in 2003. “Then, after it came out, I went to play a show on Sunset Boulevard, and there was a line around the block! I told my wife, ‘I can buy two suits now.'”
Shelley Berman went on to release several more albums and appeared in dozens of TV shows and movies throughout his career, culminating in a 2008 Emmy nomination for his role on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Many top comedians credit Berman as an influence on their own careers, with some, including Marc Maron and Steve Martin, paying their respects to the late comedian on Twitter.
Shelley Berman has hung up the phone. RIP. The guy who inspired me to sit. Great comic.— marc maron (@marcmaron) September 1, 2017
Thank you, Shelley Berman. You changed modern stand-up. https://t.co/pnmpnTQQmv— Steve Martin (@SteveMartinToGo) September 1, 2017
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