Shelley Berman

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Shelley Berman
Shelley berman 1960s.jpg
Berman in the 1960s
Sheldon Leonard Berman

(1925-02-03)February 3, 1925
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
DiedSeptember 1, 2017(2017-09-01) (aged 92)
Resting placeHillside Memorial Park Cemetery
Alma materGoodman Theatre
OccupationComedian, actor, writer, teacher, lecturer, poet
Years active1954–2014
Sarah Herman (m. 1947)
Comedy career
MediumStand-up, film, television
GenresObservational comedy

Sheldon Leonard Berman (February 3, 1925 – September 1, 2017) was an American comedian, actor, writer, teacher, lecturer and poet.[1]

In his comedic career, Berman was awarded three gold records and he won the first Grammy Award for a spoken comedy recording in 1959.[2] He played Larry David's father on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a role for which he received a 2008 Emmy Award nomination.[3]

He taught humor writing at the University of Southern California for more than 20 years.[4]

Early life and education[edit]

Berman was born in Chicago, the son of Irene (née Marks) and Nathan Berman. He was Jewish.[5]

He served in the Navy during World War II.[6] He then enrolled in Chicago's Goodman Theatre as a drama student. There he met fellow student Sarah Herman; they married in 1947.[6] His acting career began with an acting company in Woodstock, Illinois.[5] Leaving Woodstock in 1949, Shelley and Sarah made their way to New York City.[7]. He studied acting at HB Studio[8] To make ends meet, Berman found employment as a social director, cab driver, speech teacher, assistant manager of a drug store, and a dance instructor at Arthur Murray Dance Studios.[7]

Eventually, Berman found work as a sketch writer for The Steve Allen Plymouth Show.[9]


Early career[edit]

Berman began 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 City.[10]

In the mid-1950s, he became a member of Chicago's Compass Players, which later evolved into The Second City.[11] While performing improvised sketches with Compass, Berman began to develop solo pieces, often employing an imaginary telephone to take the place of an onstage partner.[11]

Nightclubs and live performances[edit]

In 1957, Berman was hired as a comedian at Mister Kelly's in Chicago, which led to other nightclub bookings, and a recording contract with Verve Records.[12] His comedy albums earned him three gold records and he won the first Grammy Award for a spoken comedy recording.[2] Berman appeared on numerous television specials and all of the major variety shows of the day.[2]

He starred on Broadway in A Family Affair and continued with stage work in The Odd Couple, Damn Yankees, Where's Charley?, Fiddler on the Roof, Two by Two, I'm Not Rappaport, La Cage aux Folles, The Prisoner of Second Avenue and Guys & Dolls.[12]

Berman's voice was used as the inspiration for the voice of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Fibber Fox, performed by Daws Butler.[13]

Television career[edit]

Berman portrayed the role of Mendel Sorkin in an episode of CBS's Rawhide ("The Peddler", 1962).[14]

Berman also appeared fairly regularly as a panelist (and once as the "Mystery Guest") on the famous CBS game show What's My Line in the early and mid-1960s.

Berman performed both comedic and dramatic roles on television, including appearances on episodes of The Twilight Zone (both radio and TV versions), 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, Lizzie McGuire, Hannah Montana, CSI: NY and the revived Hawaii Five-0.[15][16] He also had a recurring role on the short-lived sitcom Walter & Emily.[17]

From 2002 to 2009, Berman appeared as Larry David's aged father on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a role for which he received a 2008 Emmy Award nomination.[3]

Film career[edit]

Among Berman's film credits are Dementia (1955, with Shorty Rogers), The Best Man (1964, with Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson), Divorce American Style (1967, with Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds), Every Home Should Have One (1970, with Marty Feldman), Beware! The Blob (1972, with Robert Walker Jr.), Rented Lips (1988, with Martin Mull and Robert Downey Jr.), Teen Witch (1989, with Robyn Lively and Zelda Rubinstein), The Last Producer (2000, with Burt Reynolds), Meet the Fockers (2004, with Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller), The Holiday (2006, with Cameron Diaz), and You Don't Mess with the Zohan (2008, with Adam Sandler).[18][10][12][16][17]

Writing and teaching[edit]

Berman wrote three books, Cleans and Dirtys (1966), A Hotel Is a Place ... (1972) and Up in the Air With Shelley Berman (1986),[19] two plays, several television pilot scripts, and numerous poems.[4] In 2013, he released his collection of poetry, To Laughter With Questions.[20] For over 20 years, Berman was a lecturer (later lecturer emeritus) in humor writing in the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California. He was also a teacher for the Improv Olympics program.[4]

Personal life[edit]

Berman married Sarah Herman on April 19, 1947. The two met while they were studying acting at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.[21]

In the mid-1960s, Berman and wife Sarah adopted two children, son Joshua and daughter Rachel.[10] The Bermans were planning Joshua's bar mitzvah when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Joshua died on October 29, 1977 at age 12.[21]

Berman and his wife were 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 contributed their time and resources to the benefit of the facilities and the residents.[3]

In the 1980s, the Chamber of Commerce in Canoga Park, California selected Berman to be one of the celebrities to serve a term as honorary mayor of Canoga Park.[22]

Allegation of plagiarism[edit]

In a 2012 podcast interview with Marc Maron, Berman alleged that comedian Bob Newhart plagiarized his improvisational telephone routine style, describing its genesis and saying it was a "very special technique that couldn't really be imitated.[23] 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!'"[23] 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."[24]

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..."[23]

When asked in interviews about the telephone issue, Bob Newhart noted that:

Shelley 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.[25]...George Jessel had a radio show...At the end, he would call up his mother and tell her how the show had gone. 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.'"[24]

On his website, comedy writer Mark Rothman discussed the history of comic "telephone" monologists:

As far back as the 1920s, George Jessel was doing phone conversations with his mother in vaudeville, with the opening line "Hello Mama? This is Georgie." In the 30s and 40s there was this radio comedienne named Arlene Harris, often referred to as Arlene "Chatterbox" Harris, who did telephone monologues to one of her "friends." The only reason I know about this is that she was featured doing one of them on an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show that featured many old radio entertainers. And she performed one of them. Brilliantly. Then, in the 50s, 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. They talked about marriage and children, and how impossible it was to maintain both. Whereas Arlene Harris was white bread, Betty Walker was challah. Betty Walker's catchphrase was "Ceil....Ceil....Ceeeee—ullll!!!!" Really, really funny. Also brilliant. 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?[26]


Berman died from Alzheimer's disease-related complications at his home in Bell Canyon, California, in the early morning of September 1, 2017.[10] He was 92 years old. His archive was donated to the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York.[27]

Comedian Steve Martin praised Berman on Twitter, thanking him for "changing modern stand-up [comedy]".[28]


  • Inside Shelley Berman (1959) (Grammy Award winner for "Best Comedy Performance, Spoken Word")[2]
  • Outside Shelley Berman (1959)[29]
  • The Edge of Shelley Berman (1960)[29]
  • A Personal Appearance (1961)[29]
  • New Sides (1963)[29]
  • The Sex Life of The Primate (And Other Bits of Gossip) (1964) (with Stiller and Meara and Lovelady Powell)[29]
  • Let Me Tell You a Funny Story (1968)[29]
  • Live Again! Recorded at the Improv (1995)[29]
  • To Laughter with Questions (2013)[29]
  • When Jews Were Funny (2013)[29]


Year Title Role Notes
1955 Dementia Stoned Beatnik Uncredited
1964 The Best Man Sheldon Bascomb
1967 Divorce American Style David Grieff
1970 Every Home Should Have One Nat Kaplan
1972 Beware! The Blob Hair Stylist
1985 MacGyver - Honest Abe CIA-Agent Abe S07E01
1988 Rented Lips Bill Slotnik
1989 Teen Witch Mr. Weaver
1990 Elliot Fauman, Ph.D. Stromberg
1991 Motorama Million Dollar Driver
1997 The Blues Brothers Animated Series Alderman J. Alderman (VOICE)
2000 The Last Producer Poker Player #1
2004 Meet the Fockers Judge Ira
2006 The Holiday Norman
2008 You Don't Mess with the Zohan Zohan's Father
2010 The Legend of Secret Pass Ira Voice
2012 Hawaii Five-0 Morty Sapperstein S03E07


  1. ^ "Shelley Berman, Famed 'Sit-Down' Comedian, Dies at 92". September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d "Grammy Winner Shelley Berman Dies". Grammy. September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  3. ^ a b c "Shelley Berman, Stand-Up Comic and 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Actor, Dies at 92". NBC News. September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  4. ^ a b c "Shelley Berman". University of Southern California. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  5. ^ a b Interfaith Celebrities: Dancing with the Stars of David –
  6. ^ a b McLellan, Dennis (September 1, 2017). "Shelley Berman, angst-filled comedian who pioneered standup (or sit-down) comedy, dies at 92". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 4 September 2017.
  7. ^ a b "Shelley Berman, angst-filled comedian who pioneered standup (or sit-down) comedy, dies at 92". Los Angeles Times. September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  8. ^ HB Studio Alumni
  9. ^ "Vintage Television". Kine Video. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  10. ^ a b c d Keepnews, Peter (September 1, 2017). "Shelley Berman, Stand-Up Comic Who Skewered Modern Life, Dies at 92". The New York Times. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  11. ^ a b "The Second City Mourns the Loss of Shelley Berman". Broadway World. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  12. ^ a b c "Comedian Shelley Berman, who got his start in Chicago, dies at 92". The Chicago Sun-Times. September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  13. ^ "Yakky Doddle in Foxy Duck". Yowp. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  14. ^ "Rawhide "The Peddler"". TV Guide. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  15. ^ "Shelley Berman Biography". Film Reference. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  16. ^ a b "'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Star Shelley Berman Has Passed Away". Observer. September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  17. ^ a b "Shelley Berman dead: Curb Your Enthusiasm alum dies at 92". Entertainment News. September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  18. ^ "Shelley Berman, Famed Comedian and 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Actor, Dead at 92". The Rolling Stone. September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  19. ^ Shelley Berman obituary accessdate February 20, 2018
  20. ^ Shelley Berman, Comic And ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Actor, Dead At 92 accessdate February 20, 2018
  21. ^ a b "Shelley Berman, comedian-bard of everyday life, has died". The Washington Post. September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  22. ^ "The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California · Page 270". The Los Angeles Times. September 9, 1991. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  23. ^ a b c "Episode 332 – Shelley Berman". Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  24. ^ a b Martel, Ned (April 12, 2005). "For Bob Newhart, Dean of Deadpan, the Laughs Go On". The New York Times. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  25. ^ Thorn, Jesse (May 16, 2012). "Bob Newhart talks about stand-up, sitcoms, and why he stays busy | Comedy | Interview". The A.V. Club. Retrieved February 18, 2013.
  26. ^ Rothman, Mark (March 28, 2013). "The Telephone Hour". Retrieved March 23, 2016.
  27. ^ "National Comedy Center Acquires Archive Comedian Shelley Berman". The Post-Journal. February 1, 2018. Retrieved February 1, 2018.[permanent dead link]
  28. ^ "Steve Martin on Twitter". Twitter. September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  29. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Shelley Berman Discography". All Music. Retrieved September 1, 2017.

External links[edit]