Shelley Berman: Comedian, Actor, and My Friend
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The first albums I ever owned were comedy albums.
I had them all: Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Woody Allen, The Smothers Brothers, and, yes, Bill Cosby. One of the best discoveries of that time was that I could go to thrift stores and bring home laughter for 25 cents an album.
I brought them home and listened to them over and over until I wore them out and I knew every routine by heart – and I still laughed.
Then I remember seeing, in a pile of records somewhere, these albums whose covers depicted a guy in a perfectly tailored suit, sitting on a stool. He had a cigarette in one hand, an imaginary telephone in the other, and a comically pained expression on his face. Without even hearing the records, I thought, "This guy MUST be funny!"
I put one of the records on my little plastic Sears phonograph, expecting to hear jokes. What I heard instead were monologues and little audio one-act plays, many of which took the form of one-sided telephone conversations.
I heard a harried man trying to save a woman hanging from the window ledge of a department store; apologizing to his host of the night before for drunkenly throwing his mother through a window; and attempting to talk to his recalcitrant nephew.
This was my introduction to Shelley Berman.
When I got my first computer in 2000 (I was a little late to that party), I found that I was able to go online and research the heroes of my youth – information which had previously only been available to me in the form of grainy, scratchy microfilm scans of old newspapers. I spent hours learning everything I could about these comedy icons.
It was during this research that I stumbled across Shelley’s first website, which at the time was nothing more than a glorified message board. What made the board special, however, was that Shelley himself participated and interacted with his fans. I was actually in touch with one of my heroes!
I was also in touch with other fans like me, and they all had the same question: When would Shelley’s albums be available on CD? Shelley didn’t know. I, however, had already digitized all of his albums for my own amusement, and I mentioned it on the board.
At that point, I was deluged with requests for copies, with people offering to pay me for them. Enter Laugh.com, a small website and record label dedicated to preserving classic comedy albums in the digital age.
Marshall Berle (nephew of Milton Berle), the owner of Laugh.com, contacted me to let me know that his company was in the process of releasing Shelley’s albums on CD. He seemed to be under the impression that I was trying to sell bootlegs of Shelley’s records, and in the process cut out his company.
Reassuring him that nothing could be farther from the truth, I also mentioned that I was sure he had the masters, while mine were only recorded from vinyl. Surprisingly, he responded that they didn’t have access to the masters, and that they were having trouble finding clean enough vinyl copies to make good CDs. I thought mine were pretty good, so Marshall asked me to send him a few tracks, and when he heard them, he was impressed.
Thus began my adventure with Laugh.com, and my permanent contribution to the Shelley Berman catalog.
Through my work with Laugh.com, Shelley became aware of me, and invited me to lunch at his home. “Excited” doesn't begin to describe how I felt at the prospect of meeting this man I had been idolizing since I was a kid. I wasn't anticipating how warm, friendly, and loving he and his wonderful wife, Sarah, would be. They took me in as if we had been friends forever, and it was perhaps – no, check that, it WAS – the most pleasant lunch I had ever had.
After that, I was invited back many times. At one point, I noticed that Sarah had stopped putting out the good dishes when I came over, replacing them with paper plates and paper napkins. She explained, “The good dishes are for guests. You're family.”
Over the years, I spent more and more time with the Bermans. We traveled together to Solvang, California to find knives for Shelley’s collection. I traveled to see Shelley perform in Las Vegas, San Diego, and here in the Los Angeles area.
I helped Shelley and Sarah with a number of personal projects, from helping to clean out some of their massive assembly of papers to reorganizing and redesigning Shelley’s official website. In the process, I became Shelley’s archivist, maintaining a collection of photographs and memorabilia from his long career.
But more important than all of that is the incredible friendship and wisdom that Shelley shared with me. And the fun. Wherever we went, Shelley was recognized… by everyone. His fans from his early comedy career, younger adults who knew him from Boston Legal and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and kids who knew him from appearances on Lizzie McGuire and Hannah Montana. And with every person who came up, Shelley shared a smile, a joke, an autograph if they asked, or a picture.
He was never put out, never minded talking to his fans. He taught me what a real class act looked like.
In 2015, Shelley was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and he started to slip away from us. The last year or so of his life, he also began shutting down physically, like shutting down the lights before sleep. He no longer had the quick wit, but the sweet smile was still there, right to the end. When he died on September 1, 2017, frankly, I didn't know how to feel. The world lost a great talent, Sarah lost her husband of 70 years, and I lost one of my dearest friends.
But, at the same time, he was no longer suffering, and for that we can only be grateful.
If there is a theater in the afterlife, Shelley is on its stage now, playing Shylock in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, a role he coveted in life but never got to play. He’s also headlining in the main comedy showroom, and will be playing two shows a night for eternity.
Rest In Peace, my dear, wonderful friend.
Christopher Bay is a digital coordinator with the Television Academy.