#1: Shelley Berman- "The Edge Of Shelley Berman", 1960:
I think it's fair to say Shelley Berman is one of my comedy heroes. I grew up listening to his albums, and somehow found them funny even when I was too young to understand references to Gertrude Stein or Franz Kafka. So I've heard them many times over the years, and it's always a pleasure to revisit this brilliant performer every few years.
For those of you who may only know him from his, for lack of a better word, "comeback" as a member of the cast of "Curb Your Enthusiasm", I should explain that Mr. Berman had a career decades before Larry David did. He was an early member of what became the famous Second City improv group in Chicago, and went from that to doing standup comedy (or sit-down comedy in his case, as he usually sat on a stool), dramatic acting, a great deal of writing, and in recent years has been teaching college writing classes.
His comedy records in the early '60s were truly groundbreaking. First of all, they proved that comedy albums were a viable and profitable medium- his first album, "Inside Shelley Berman", went gold and was among the first comedy records to win a Grammy, and the followup, "Outisde Shelley Berman", was an equally big success. I mentioned this in an earlier blog, but the idea of recording a nightclub comedian's live act and putting it on an album was a brand new and somewhat revolutionary idea in record production in 1959. Mort Sahl got there first, but it was "Inside Shelley Berman" that created a sensation and made record companies pay attention to this new concept.
What was even more groundbreaking about Berman was his approach and subject matter. Of course, the previous generation's comedy had been ruled by vaudeville performers who told one-liners (although there were exceptions, of course- the character-based humor of Jack Benny comes to mind). In the '50s and '60s, a new breed of comedians came along- Berman, Sahl, Jonathan Winters, Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, etc.- who were smart and satirical and, instead of reciting old jokes, took more chances by expressing their individual personalities and being honest about who they were and what they felt. All of today's comedians have been inspired by this revolutionary group- their attitudes, their subject matter, their delivery, even the way they dressed. Those performers changed the game forever, and Berman was one of them. He was the most vulnerable- the hapless, neurotic everyman who seemed tortured by the embarrassments and frustrations of everyday life. He presented his fears and insecurities nakedly to the audience in ways that were relatable, sometimes even poignant, and always hilariously funny.
His delivery and performance style were different too. He was not a vaudeville performer who had to get to the next joke quickly. He didn't tell jokes. He was, and is, first and foremost a very talented writer and actor, and so his performances consisted of carefully honed and polished theatrical pieces delivered very skillfully. They were not mere comedy monologs, they were literate performance pieces., whether he was talking directly to the audience in his more confessional pieces, or portraying various characters engaged in imaginary telephone conversations- the latter of which became his trademark and was later emulated by the aforementioned Bob Newhart. To my knowledge, no one had ever done quite that sort of thing in a nightclub before, and I can't think of anyone who's done it since.
But to get to this particular album. Unfortunately, the title is a bit misleading- the material is hardly edgy. After two hugely successful albums, Berman found that when he performed live, the audience knew the routines by heart and therefore wouldn't laugh. So he had to keep coming up with new material, and I'm guessing he was a bit burned out by this point. The routines here are amusing, but very mild compared to the creative peak of the "Inside" and "Outside" albums. The highlight is the closing monolog in which he confesses to the audience that he needs them there because hc couldn't be funny without them. It's a bold thing to admit to an audience, and as a comedian myself, I understand it all too well.
#2: Shelley Berman- "Inside Shelley Berman", 1959:
As I mentioned, this is one of the great and most important albums in the history of recorded comedy. I listened to this album many times as a child, so it's rather nostalgic for me, and it still holds up as one of Berman's masterpieces. He starts off with a 14-minute monolog about airlines which, while slightly dated now, is still very funny, encapsulates his stage persona perfectly right from the start, and really shows his craftsmanship as he starts off slowly and then builds it into an exploration of just about every comedic angle one can find in the subject. He later said it was this monolog more than anything else that made him famous, and I can see why. It's one of his best.
There are a few "confessional" routines here, but those are fairly brief. The highlights are the phone call routines- whether he's a harried everyman trying to alert the staff of a department store that a customer is hanging from their window, a hung-over slob who finds out what an ass he made of himself at last night's party, or a man whose young nephew doesn't quite understand how the phone works yet, these are all great pieces of comedy. "Outside Shelley Berman" has some equally great moments- I'll get to those next time- but it's easy to see why "Inside" made him a star. This is brilliant stuff, even 55 years later.
#3: Shelley Berman- "Let Me Tell You A Funny Story...", 1965:
There's actually not much to say here. This is just a "best of" compilation, mostly consisting of bits from "Inside" and "Outside", with a few brief comments from Shelley introducing the bits. His comments contain a small amount of interesting trivia, but really, if you have the other albums, you don't need this one. I've hung on to it anyway just because it was given to me when I was a kid.
Next time: three more Berman records, all very good.