Remembering Shelley Berman
The music blared as friends and family gathered around to welcome my bride and me. As we walked from the yichud room to the social hall, someone joined my side: an old man. He was not my grandfather, as most of the guests thought. He was the legendary comedian Shelley Berman.
Although he was 90 years old, Berman was keeping up with everyone, dancing to the loud Israeli music with his cane up in the air, and smiling from ear to ear. He was the life of the party on the dance floor.
I first met Berman in 2014, when I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview him on my podcast. After the interview, Berman and his wife, Sarah, invited my wife and me to look at Berman’s impressive knife collection and have some tea. We talked about how Sarah converted to Judaism, and how my wife, Kylie Ora Lobell, was in the process of doing the same. It turned out, in fact, that we all had a lot in common, and an instant friendship was born.
As a new couple in Los Angeles looking for another couple to hang out with, we had finally found our match. It just so happened that they were a few years older than we were.
They told us to stay in touch and we did. We drove up to Shelley and Sarah Berman’s house a few more times for lunch and became a fixture at their holiday party every Hanukkah. When Kylie and I got married in the summer of 2015, Sarah and Shelley Berman were there with their daughter, Rachel, celebrating with us.
The following Rosh Hashanah, Shelley Berman came to our festive meal along with his daughter and two grandsons. He had us all laughing throughout the holiday. He showed us how he ate pomegranates by first rolling them against the table to loosen the skin and then just biting into them. He said that nothing made him happier than a good pomegranate on Rosh Hashanah.
In fact, Rosh Hashanah was one of Shelley’s favorite days of the year, so much so that he had written a poem about the sounding of the shofar is his book “To Laughter With Questions: Poetry by Shelley Berman.”
The next time I was to hear this poem was sadly at Berman’s funeral; he died in Southern California on Sept. 1, 2017, at 92. The Chabad rabbi presiding over the funeral read it aloud, because it had been a gift to him from Berman, and Rosh Hashanah was only a few weeks away.
On Jan. 30, 2018, droves of people, including Kylie and me, went to the Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach to celebrate Berman’s life and career with a memorial service. We heard from his contemporaries, friends and family, such as the host of the event, comedian Lewis Black, comedian George Carlin’s daughter, Kelly Carlin, producer and writer Alan Zweibel, and comedians Laraine Newman and Fred Willard, who brought down the house with a story about the two of them grand marshaling a Hollywood parade. In attendance were many of Berman’s co-stars, including actors Larry David and Cheryl Hines, and comedians who wanted to pay their respects. Sarah Berman closed the afternoon by talking about their loving 70-year relationship.
Most people will remember Shelley Berman for his work on the comedy series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” on which he portrayed Larry David’s father, Nat David. Or perhaps the older generation will remember his many television performances and famous telephone routine. Maybe he will be remembered for being the first comedian to win a Grammy for a comedy album, his 1959 work “Inside Shelley Berman,” and for changing the face of stand-up comedy.
I will remember him for being a mensch and a great friend.
Danny Lobell is a stand-up comedian.