Shelley Berman


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Sheldon "Shelley" Berman University of Southern California, Hon. 2005 b. February 3, 1926 is an American comedian, writer, teacher, and actor.

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Berman's early years were filled with dreams of the stage. After numerous failed serious plays, Berman found himself with The Compass Players, an improv comedy troupe, where he found his first success. This troupe would later become The Second City.

He left the group in 1957 and created his own comedy style. Contrasting with the frenetic, ad libbed style popular at the time, Berman's act was perfectly timed and poignant, while remaining improvised. This would be expected, given his theater background.

His preferred mode of delivery was seated on a high stool at center stage, as opposed to his contemporaries, who tended to stalk the stage or prop themselves up on a piano or microphone stand. His honest, biting, satiric comedy style soon found its niche.

His 1959 debut album, Inside Shelley Berman, won the first non-music Grammy Award ever, and the cover of that album cemented his image as a skinny guy sitting on a high chair, cigarette in one hand and a microphone in the other. He was the first standup comedian to appear in Carnegie Hall, and went on to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show over 20 times, The Jack Paar Show, and numerous other variety and TV specials throughout the 1960s.

Berman's Broadway theatre credits include The Girls Against the Boys and A Family Affair.

In 1963, Berman allowed NBC cameras to film him for months for a documentary. During this time, Berman, known as meticulous performer, handled it like a pro when during his act a phone rang backstage. He did, however, chide his road manager that the backstage phones should be off the hook while he was performing.

A few nights later, the backstage phone rang again at the emotional finale of a piece about his father. Again he dealt with it like a trouper, but upon getting backstage he lost his temper and the camera caught his outburst. The documentary Comedian Backstage was edited to play up the outburst. The documentary had been screened by Berman and his people and there was no disapproval of the content on their part.

When it aired in March 1963, however, the public reaction to the distorted picture the documentary drew put his career into a tailspin. For decades he had trouble getting work and when he did the pay was nothing like what he had previously achieved. In 1975, news of his son's brain tumor (which caused the boy's death within 18 months) put a further strain on Berman's personal and professional life.

By 1989, he had returned to comedy by taking small roles. In 1995, Berman released a new live comedy album called Live Again! At the Improv. Since then, he has been part of numerous projects, including Curb Your Enthusiasm, Boston Legal, Friends, Arli$$, King of Queens, The Bernie Mac Show and Meet the Fockers.

Since 1982, Berman has been teaching in the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, in the subject of Writing Humor, Literary and Dramatic. He has written three books, and continues to write and act. In 2006, he hosted the annual Chabad Telethon broadcast in several cities.

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