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Years before the emergence of Woody Allen, Garry Shandling, or Janeane Garofalo, there was Shelley Berman, the comic who singlehandedly transformed modern neuroticism into high art. Complete with both a unique, vignette-styled narrative sensibility and a mannered, sophisticated stage presence, Berman introduced a new breed of comedian -- raw, intense, and deeply personal, his material reflected everyday hopes and fears with uncanny precision, and in the process established the comedy record as a viable mainstream commodity.
Born February 3, 1926, in Chicago, Berman initially set out to become a dramatic actor, but after finding little success in the theater he joined the Compass Players, the same improvisational troupe that later gave rise to Mike Nichols & Elaine May, Jerry Stiller & Anne Meara, and Alan Arkin. In 1957 Berman struck out on his own, creating a singular style steeped heavily in his theatrical background; unlike the free-form riffing favored by popular comedians like Mort Sahl, Berman's routines were finely orchestrated, well-oiled comic mechanisms, performed with rigid decorum while seated on a stool. However, the polished perfectionism of Berman's work belied the tortured neuroses at the core of his comic vision -- at their best, his monologues pulsed with fear and loathing, his jokes raw, exposed nerves.
The success of his Grammy-winning 1959 debut classic Inside Shelley Berman revealed to just what extent his work connected with the American psyche; the first comedy record ever to be certified gold, it cut to the core of the jittery suburban mindset gradually gaining dominance as the reassuring safe haven of the 1950s gave way to the dark, foreboding changes of the 1960s. In addition to his famed "The Morning After the Night Before," an essay on drunkenness and regret, as well as riffs on air travel and grammatical idiosyncrasies, Inside Shelley Berman featured "Buttermilk," a career-defining routine that firmly established the comic as an individual truly disturbed by the multiplying complexities of the modern world.
The unprecedented popularity of his debut launched Berman to the forefront of the comedy circuit, and he quickly resurfaced with a sequel, 1959's Outside Shelley Berman, an ambitious set spotlighting the tour de force "Father and Son," a warm, poignant slice-of-life story about an aging Jewish deli owner who must grapple with his child's decision to move to New York to become an actor. While high-concept pieces like "Franz Kafka on the Telephone" made Berman the darling of the intellectual set, he decided to continue exploring the warmer, gentler side of "Father and Son" on 1960's ironically titled The Edge of Shelley Berman, a disappointingly mild set that failed to repeat the success of its predecessors.
As a result, 1961's A Personal Appearance returned the performer to his roots; darker and more surreal than any of his previous work, its angst-ridden monologues aligned him firmly with so-called "sick" comics like Lenny Bruce. Released in 1962, New Sides continued in a similar vein, while 1964's studio sketch effort The Sex Life of the Primate (And Other Bits of Gossip) returned to Berman's improvisational origins, and featured guest Lovelady Powell along with the Stiller-Meara team. Clearly, Berman was growing tired of endlessly repeating the same routines again and again, and he began moving away from comedy; following a handful of television comedy specials, he began focusing his energies on acting, and appeared in a number of films and TV programs.
Apart from a recurring role on the soap opera satire Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Berman retained a low profile throughout much of the 1970s and '80s; personal problems plagued him, and the death of his son proved a devastating blow. Finally, by the end of the 1980s he began to resurface, taking a series of small roles in low-budget features and making television guest appearances. In 1995 he issued Live Again!, a comeback record featuring new standup material.
Sheldon "Shelley" Berman (born February 3, 1925) is an American comedian, actor, writer, teacher, lecturer, philanthropist, and poet.
Early life 
Berman was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Irene (née Marks) and Nathan Berman. He is Jewish.
Early career 
Berman started as a straight actor, receiving his training at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, honing his acting skills in stock companies in and around Chicago and New York. In the mid-1950s, he became a member of Chicago's Compass Players, which later evolved into The Second City. While performing improvised sketches with Compass, Berman began developing solo pieces, often employing an imaginary telephone to take the place of an on-stage partner.
Accusation of plagiarism 
In a 2012 podcast interview with Marc Maron, 87-year-old Berman accused comedian Bob Newhart of ripping off his improvisational telephone routine style, describing its genesis and saying it was a "very special technique that couldn't really be imitated. It could be stolen. And it was." He continued, "I was coming to work at night and a guy stopped his car, passed me by, and said 'Hey, Shelley! There's a guy [who] stole your act!'" When asked by Maron if it was done maliciously, Berman replied, "Maliciously? He wouldn't do it maliciously. Nobody does that. But he did it to make a living. And he became a star." Berman later added, "I thought it was a rotten thing to do. I thought the agents who sold him - I thought they were just as guilty as everybody else. But, my God, to go into a town and do my show, and the critics saying that I borrowed some stuff from Newhart..."
When asked in interviews about the telephone issue Newhart noted that:I get a lot of credit for it, but I really wasn't the innovator of the telephone
andpeople identify me with the telephone, and it’s a classic form.
AndLily Tomlin ... mastered a similar routine
andShelley Berman did it before I did it. Mike (Nichols) and Elaine (May) did a version of it. There was a thing called “Cohen on the Telephone,” which was a very, very early recording by Edison [Records] of a guy on the phone...As a kid growing up, I remember listening to him and he would call his mother up and say, 'Mama, this is Georgie' " - he paused, skillfully - " 'from the money.' "
On his website, comedy writer Mark Rothman discussed the history of comic "telephone" monologists:"As far back as the 1920's George Jessel was doing phone conversations with his mother in vaudeville, with the opening line "Hello Mama? This is Georgie." In the 30's and 40's there was this radio comedienne named Arlene "Chatterbox" Harris, who did telephone monologues to one of her "friends." ...She was featured doing one of them on an episode of "The Dick Van Dyke Show that featured many old radio entertainers... In the 50's, a great comedienne, Betty Walker, made about a zillion appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, doing essentially the same kind of act as Arlene Harris, talking to her friend Ceil. Only it was intensively Yiddishified... Whereas Arlene Harris was white bread, Betty Walker was challah... All of this pre-dated Shelley Berman. Even Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who were contemporaries of Berman's at Second City, engaged in telephone dialogues, with very similar styled material. And who's more brilliant than them?"
Nightclubs and live performances 
In 1957, Berman landed his first job as a comedian at Mister Kelly's in Chicago, which led to other nightclub bookings, and a recording contract with Verve Records. His comedy albums would earn him three gold records and he'd win the first Grammy Award for a non-musical recording. He was the first standup comedian to play Carnegie Hall. Berman would go on to appear on numerous TV specials, and all of the major variety shows of the day.
Television career 
Berman's success as a comedian enabled him to continue with his first love - acting. He starred on Broadway in A Family Affair and continued to do stage work in productions of The Odd Couple, Damn Yankees, Fiddler on the Roof, I'm Not Rappaport, La Cage aux Folles, and Guys and Dolls, among many others. Comedic and dramatic acting roles on television began to come his way, including appearances on episodes of The Twilight Zone, Bewitched, Peter Gunn, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Adam-12, Emergency!, Brothers, Night Court, MacGyver, L.A. Law, Friends, Walker, Texas Ranger, The King of Queens, Grey's Anatomy, Boston Legal, Hannah Montana, CSI: NY, and Hawaii Five-0 (in 2012). From 2002 to 2009, Berman appeared as Larry David's father on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a role for which he received a 2008 Emmy Award nomination.
Film career 
Among Berman's film credits are The Best Man (with Henry Fonda), Divorce American Style (with Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds), Every Home Should Have One (with Marty Feldman), The Last Producer (with Burt Reynolds), Meet the Fockers (with Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller), The Holiday (with Cameron Diaz), and You Don't Mess with the Zohan (with Adam Sandler).
Personal life 
Berman has been married to Sarah Herman since April 19, 1947. The two met while they were studying acting at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.
In the mid-1960s, Berman and wife Sarah adopted two children, son Joshua and daughter Rachel. The Bermans were planning Joshua's bar mitzvah when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Joshua died October 29, 1977, age 12.
Berman has authored three books, two plays, several TV pilot scripts, and numerous poems. For over twenty years, Berman taught humor writing in the Master of Professional Writing program at University of Southern California, where he is now a Lecturer Emeritus. He continues to do film and television work, and make personal appearances across the country year-round.
Berman and his wife are both enthusiastic supporters of the Motion Picture and Television Fund (located in Woodland Hills, California), a charitable organization that offers assistance and care to those in the motion picture and television industries with limited or no resources, and contribute their time and resources to the benefit of the facilities and the residents.