Shelley Berman is 80 years old and hot, hot, hot. When he cups his hand over the phone and yells to his wife: “Where am I this week, Sarah?” he’s not having a senior moment. Fresh from playing Larry David’s father on the HBO series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” he’s got bookings in Las Vegas, feature film shoots and network television tapings on top of his regular slate of teaching classes at USC. Shelley’s current schedule would kill a person half his age, which is why, at 44, I’m functioning as his occasional producer, acolyte and coffee bringer (“Last time someone brought me hazelnut — can’t a person get an honest cup of coffee any more?”) at 24th Street Theatre, where we’re in the middle of a live Shelley Berman minifestival. (His next solo performance of classic monologues will be March 24.)
I’ve long been a fan of Shelley Berman. Although not a Jew myself, I’ve been granted cross-cultural permission to write a Shelley Berman report for The Jewish Journal, as we Asian Americans don’t have quite the comedic lineage of the Jews. But surely you can spare us a piece of your cultural history — for how many Christmases have you been eating our food? Ba-dump-bump.
That quasi-joke I just bumblingly attempted — that’s what Shelley calls: “In Yiddish, a shtick. Which means a hunk, or a piece.” He told me, “We don’t know what comedy is, we really don’t. I try to teach it to young people today, not how to be funny, but how to write it, how to think it, how to put it together. And it’s very hard. There’s that marvelous saying, ‘Dying is easy, comedy is hard.'”
Because of Shelley’s love of teaching, we decide that on his first evening at 24th Street he’ll give his lecture: “Comedy and Its Reflections in History.” Such is the appetite to see Shelley live that without publicity, on a rainy Friday night in downtown, our theater is packed beyond capacity — just how far beyond remains between us and the Fire Department. Whereas at some points in his career the comedian has been rumored to be “difficult,” “Shelley 2006” is the soul of wonderful manners, sartorial elegance and cheerful professionalism. (Although we don’t mess around with the coffee — we actually have it brought in.)
Of course, that doesn’t mean that once on stage Shelley won’t fashion the circumstances of the evening into, well, a shtick. After my slavishly fawning introduction, Shelley comes out to a standing O. He waves the audience back down in their seats, looking half-pleased, half-pained. “Thank you … what’s her name. Your introduction was … long. Thank you for inviting me to this… this….” He looks around the small theater helplessly. His voice trails off. Gloomily, he drops his head in his hands. The audience screams.
Further, while Shelley’s famously not a fan of ringing phones, in a cruel twist of fate (as a producer, the phrase “bowels turn to ice” comes to mind), during Shelley’s performance not one — but three — cellphones go off. Three! (Including one whose owner left the building 24 hours ago.) But even here he finds humor. Removing the cell phone from one young man, he says: “I’ll hold it for you. To get it back later, all you have to do is kiss me… ” Long cross back to stage… “Some place.”
Once again, screams.
His audience firmly in thrall, Shelley now embarks on a trip fantastic through Western history. Sometimes with erudition: “Comedy comes from the Greek ‘komos,’ to travel. In that particular period, you knew that comedians had to travel. They weren’t going to stay around in that town that night after what they had done!”
Sometimes with quick irreverence: “I’m very good at talking about the Renaissance because I know so little about it.”
Then sometimes the two together. At one point, when laughter swells into applause, Shelley begins to conduct us. Hands up — applause! Hands down — silence. Hands up — applause! Hands down — silence. He takes a beat, leans forward, confides: “Isn’t it frightening how easily a man can become a leader? Now all I have to do now is learn how to pronounce ‘nu-cu-lar.’ Don’t get me wrong. I’m very proud of our two political parties, the Democrats and the Christians.”
The theme Shelley keeps returning to is how, time and time again, the best comedy illuminates the human condition at that particular historical time: “In the early 1920s, when there was serious hunger in this country, Charles Spencer Chaplin went to the Yukon. But for the hungry, Charles Chaplin ate a shoe. He cooked that shoe with love and anticipation. And when he ate it, he got all of the meat off the nails, as we do with chicken bones. He made a nation feel better. He made a nation laugh at his hunger.”
When Shelley, to his terror, was forced to enlist into the Army, it was Danny Kaye who lent comfort, finding outrageous humor in the indignity of Army medical exams. And there’ve been others, so many others; Shelley’s passion to speak the great names of comedy aloud becomes almost an aria: Mack Sennett, Harry Langdon, Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Buster Keaton, Eddie Cantor, Fannie Brice, Milton Berle, Jackie Miles, Jack Benny, George and Gracie, Henny Youngman, Shecky Green, Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, Steve Allen, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett, Jackie Mason, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce….
As a monologue writer myself, what struck me, particularly in Shelley’s descriptions of Jewish comedians, was the incredible precision of comedic rhythm. Consider Lou Holz –“a stand-up comedian, a raconteur, a storyteller, who wore a beautiful suit and carried a walking stick. Oh, he was natty as could be. The main character in all his jokes was a fellow by the name of Sam Lapides….”
You don’t have to be Jewish to tell this joke, but that DNA would help:
“So, Sam Lapides goes to the grocery. He says to the grocer, ‘Do you have salt?’ The grocer says: ‘Do I have salt? Do I have salt? Come here, take a look behind the counter here, see? Look at this. Bag salt. Box salt. See that salt? Over here? Canned salt…. Come on downstairs — I show you something….’ They go downstairs. He says: ‘Look. Look on these walls. Canned salt. Bagged salt. Good salt. Everywhere you look — salt.’ And Sam Lapides says, ‘I’m very impressed. But are you going to be able to sell all this salt?’ And the grocer says, ‘Me? I can’t sell salt. But the guy who sells me salt, oh can he sell…!'”
Here’s another joke with cadences so exact it’s akin to a minihaiku, or like one of those little Carl Sandburg epigraphs. You can almost diagram it. I’ve laid it out on the page for you to replicate the way Shelley told it:
Guy tells a doctor, “I can’t pee.”
The doctor says:
“How old are you?”
“I’m 87,” says the guy,
“You’ve peed enough.”
Shelley can also tell a killer Irish Catholic joke, if unprintable in a family newspaper. And of course ever the master artist, Shelley celebrates humor no matter from what tribe it emanates.
“There was a kid, I swear to God…. I saw the first movie, the first movie he ever did? He was so new, so fresh. A lot of Jews had dominated this field for a long time. And suddenly, there he was — the goyim! A non-Jew! Who’s funny! If you’ve never seen Red Skelton, you never saw funny! Oh my God, there was one wonderful thing he did — he did this routine where he’s cross-eyed, and he’s dunking doughnuts in the other guy’s coffee…!”
Bob Hope, though? Not so much.
“He never said anything cogent — never. ‘Road to Rio’?” Shelley opens his hands. “What was that?” None of us know. We are OK, this evening, leaving Mr. Hope — and all the world’s ringing cellphones — to fend for themselves.
It’s true that Shelley believes comedy today is in a fallow time. When the Vietnam War ended, he feels the comedic habit of anger and bad language remained, even as the underpinning of righteous indignation disappeared.
Says he: “There’s a lot of cruelty in our comedy today. We’ve got to find someone to give it to.”
One bright exception? “Larry David. A guy who has made himself the butt of every joke he’s ever done. Who is Harry Langdon? Who is Fatty Arbuckle? Who is Edgar Kennedy of old times? Larry David creates a character who is “Everyman’s Schmuck.” Every time we’re laughing we’re seeing ourselves in that guy. It’s the most therapeutic, wonderful humor I’ve ever seen.”
So as the evening ends “up” and, to a final standing O, Shelley admits: “I love to teach. I’d like to become everybody’s rabbi.”
Shelley Berman will perform a selection of his original comedic monologues on March 24 at 8 p.m. at the 24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th St., Los Angeles. $25 (general), $15 (teachers, students and seniors). For tickets, call (800) 838-3006.
Radio personality, author and monologist Sandra Tsing Loh’s solo show, “Mother on Fire,” runs through April 9, at 8 p.m. (Saturdays) and 3 p.m. (Sundays) at the 24th Street Theatre.