Monday, November 29, 2010

An Interview with Shelley Berman - Part Two

Kliph Nesteroff: Around 1959, and I find this astounding today, to examine the ignorance that some people were promoting, a lot of critics started labeling you and any of the new comedians as a "sick comedian," which just seems so ridiculous.

Shelley Berman: That was a weird period. "Sick Comedy" came across as a matter, really, of Lenny Bruce's choice. He made a recording [with the cover showing him] sitting, having lunch in a cemetary. He called it The Sick Comedy of Lenny Bruce. Lenny was a contemporary. We were friends. He was of our time and he was a very good comedian, but he gave the comedy business a title for the period. It was merely a matter of the time period; we were there. Pretty soon, other comedians who were working the same genre, different from the previous comedians that were "set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline." Mort Sahl was different. I was different. All of a sudden I read about this [Sick Comedy label] and I think Time magazine created this damn thing. That was the first time I saw "Sick Comedy." There was no sick comedy!

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, the people that were being labeled with it seemed to actually be the most erudite or the most measured comedians.

Shelley Berman: Yes, we were more intellectually... what the hell... they had words for us. I hated those titles and those words.

Kliph Nesteroff: You could almost see some people from the old guard being more appropriately labeled sick... someone like Joe E. Ross who was quite blue maybe, but instead it was the young kids who had the smarter approach that got stuck with that monicker.

Shelley Berman: Yes. It was not right. It was not right.

Kliph Nesteroff: Is there some sort of story about you having picked on some mobsters that were in the crowd at one of your shows?

Shelley Berman: Oh! (laughs) Lenny Bruce did a whole thing on that! He did an entire act on what happened. He fictionalized it. What happened was, I was in Philadelphia. There was a full table there of guys. One guy at the head of the table and eight guys with him. This one guy was laughing at everything. He loved everything. He'd laugh before I got to the joke. He was having a great time and I thought, "This guy is killing my timing. He's just ruining my show." I was trying very hard to unload him and so I was starting to work on him and make him feel foolish and cut it out. Here I am, standing in front of an audience, telling someone not to laugh. Whatever it is, the gall of this performer, I can't think of any other way to describe myself, I finally got off the stage. My boss was waiting for me and he said, "You get out there and you apologize to that man." I said, "I don't do that. I don't apologize! That man was ruining my show by laughing all over the place." He said, "You better go out there and apologize to this man." 

My boss stared at me and said "Do you want to wake up tomorrow morning? Do you want to be alive tomorrow morning? That man. You don't know him. I know him. Go out and apologize." Now I realize that my life was involved. So, I went out and I practically begged him to forgive me. He just stared at me. Finally he said, "Alright, kid. Get the hell out of here."

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.

Shelley Berman: I knew I was off the hook, but he was a Don and I didn't know it. Anyway, Lenny Bruce made a helluva routine saying it was a Chicago gangster and he described what I was doing, being haughty and demanding of the audience. Wow. I learned my lesson. I think Lenny recorded it, yes. I hope you can find it because he did record it. You might find it somewhere. It's hysterical. He's done me before. Lenny Bruce would do routines on me and I would sit there and scream.

Kliph Nesteroff: Around 1960 you performed at The Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas. Apparently this did not go well - your first crack at Las Vegas.

Shelley Berman: That I can't remember. I do remember eventually becoming the headliner at the Sahara.

Kliph Nesteroff: I had read that during your first crack at Vegas, you did twenty-seven straight nights without a laugh.

Shelley Berman: Oh (laughs). Well, it's possible. It's possible that I went into the Thunderbird Hotel and didn't get a laugh, but I don't recall that.

Kliph Nesteroff: You started playing The Sahara in Las Vegas on a regular basis. What was that like as a venue?

Shelley Berman: Oh my God, it was thrilling. It was thrilling. I had the best show of openers; people working with me. The Mills Brothers, these guys that I admired as much as I could admire anybody. My God, and they opened the show. I worked with all kinds of wonderful people on that stage. I looked forward to that job every year.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you encounter Joe E. Lewis at all?

Shelley Berman: Joe E. Lewis? He was not presently functioning when I first heard him in my audience. He was okay. I recall I was talking to the audience about something and he made a remark and got a good laugh and I was thrilled to meet him because I admired him. But that was it. 
Kliph Nesteroff: Joe E. Ross?
Shelley Berman: I've worked with everybody, but we haven't formed attachments. I don't remember everybody. First of all, I'm elderly (laughs). You keep trying to nudge me into being a kid!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) I had heard about a fascinating convention that you had used in one of your monologues in Las Vegas. You had a monologue in which you played an insomniac and so you had the venue turn off all the lights so that the audience would sit in darkness for the full fifteen minutes of the routine. 

Shelley Berman: The Insomniac Solliloquy. I did in fact turn the lights off on myself on the stage ... for me, I had the spotlight turned off when I actually pantomimed turning off the lamp. Turned off the lights. Went to sleep. So, that piece of material, which I believe, it's the best written piece of humor that I ever ... I loved what I did.    

Kliph Nesteroff: I found a 1960 newspaper clipping that says "Shelley Berman left New York for the Virgin Islands. Berman's doctor said the nightclub comedian is suffering from physical exhaustion."

Shelley Berman: Yes, that's true. I had to stop a tour I was going to be on. I canceled it momentarily just so we could rest up a bit. We went to St. John and we just stayed there for a couple of weeks. It was such a blast. What a rest it was, what a beautiful thing it was, and then I came back and booked another tour. I was pretty much in demand [everywhere] and that was pretty thrilling but I was beginning to take it for granted. Honest to God, I was beginning to think "this is the way it should be."

Kliph Nesteroff:  One of your Jack Paar appearances you were on the same episode with a great wit and a troubled man - Oscar Levant.

Shelley Berman: The only thing I can think of [when it comes to] Oscar Levant is that I loved him. I enjoyed him. I think I met him, yes, but we didn't have much contact.

Kliph Nesteroff: I think people forget what a great wit he was.

Shelley Berman: Oh, boy, he was something. 

Kliph Nesteroff: One of my favorite quips of his was around the time that Doris Day became a big film star and was making all those sugar sweet comedy pictures. Oscar Levant said, "I knew Doris Day BEFORE she was a virgin."

Shelley Berman: (laughs) Lovely. Well, that's the kind of thing you could count on from him.

Kliph Nesteroff: In January of 1961 you filled in as the host for a vacationing Jack Paar. 

Shelley Berman: Yes, but I was a loser. I was no good. I didn't know anybody was going to write about it. I didn't know I would be criticized for trying to be a talk show host. Someone asked me to do this. My agent said, "Go ahead - do this," that's all. I had a few days to do this. It was almost a week. I wasn't auditioning for the role, but that's what I read - that I wanted to be the host after Jack Paar. But no. I had no... it wasn't like that and I wasn't good at it. I really wasn't good at it. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you remember it being a lot of grief? Did you realize half-way though that this wasn't something you wanted to do?

Shelley Berman: It was something I didn't want to do from the beginning and I knew it. But then I realized that what these guys were doing was way beyond me. I didn't have that kind of a personality.  So, yes, I was not thrilled with it. I didn't hate it, but I didn't think it did me much good.

Kliph Nesteroff: And you were a guest the famous night that Jack Paar walked off the show!

Shelley Berman: Yes. When Jack Paar walked off the show I was a guest. I did not know what to do. I had to receive a gold record on the air. I was to be honored on the air for one of my recordings. I knew that, but I also knew ... at one point [prior to broadcast] he said, "Here's what happened to me and I'm going to quit. I'm going to walk off." I thought, "I'm here. And I don't know what to do." I was in my dressing room and I thought, "What the heck was that? What should I do?" I didn't know ... I didn't know what course I should take or how I should behave. I was rather stupid about that. Maybe rather selfish about it, because I did not know how to side. On that occasion, when Jack started speaking of this. There was something that happened in South America at one point - the people all picking up their tools to fight the city. I said, "All of us should pick up our tools, our farmer tools and whatever we have and we should fight the network!" I just didn't know what else I was to do. There were a few other performers that night, but I can't remember their names...

Kliph Nesteroff: Orson Bean...

Shelley Berman: Orson Bean! He jumped up and he really ran into that whole idea and said, "This is a rotten thing that this network is doing!" He didn't have any qualms about it. He really took off for him. But I had already made my little speech, which had nothing, [none of] that kind of wonderful strength. From that point on Jack Paar thought of me as a deserter. As a selfish deserter. He never, never forgot it.

Kliph Nesteroff: So that was your last time with him...

Shelley Berman: Yes, it was my last time with him and more than that, it was the last time that this man would trust me. He would make remarks about me - unpleasant remarks about me - from then on.   

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, he was known for being, if he wanted to be, very unpleasant. Did you talk to him - or did he talk to anybody when he walked away from his desk, through the curtain and backstage?

Shelley Berman: No. No. I didn't do anything... I received my gold record on that show instead of getting up and walking out. I was more interested in getting my gold record than helping a friend. It was like that. That's the way he took it. I didn't know what the hell to do!  

Kliph Nesteroff: Speaking of records, your third album, The Edge of Shelley Berman, was made up of outtakes from your previous two, Inside Shelley Berman and Outside Shelley Berman.

Shelley Berman: Oh boy, I hated that one.  

Kliph Nesteroff: Why did you continue to work with Verve after they went behind your back and put that together? 

Shelley Berman: I could not help it. I was contracted to them.

Kliph Nesteroff: In spite of all that, The Edge of Shelley Berman  got some pretty positive feedback and sold quite well, right?

Shelley Berman: Some of it worked well, but I felt that it wasn't the best thing for an audience to have. I felt there should have been some better stuff there. The Edge of Shelley Berman. Don Rickles once said, "The next one is going to to be Up Shelley Berman." 

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) That's great. In 1961 you started appearing regularly on What's My Line?

Shelley Berman: I loved doing that. I loved it. 

Kliph Nesteroff: For a game show, I don't think there was anything smarter on TV...

Shelley Berman: Oh, it was bright, huh? What people to be with on What's My Line! What people to be with! 

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Dorothy Kilgallen like?

Shelley Berman: Dorothy Kilgallen was an angel. She was an angel... but don't cross her! I think one time she got mad at me too, but the next time we were in love again.

Kliph Nesteroff: What did she get mad about?

Shelley Berman: I can't recall what I did. I can't recall, but it was that small. But I do know she got angry and I could see it in her column. Wow. 

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Bennett Cerf? I found his sense of humor very hard to listen to, personally.

Shelley Berman: He just (laughs)... Bennett Cerf absolutely knew it all. Believe me. He was the smartest, most reasonable, intelligent human being. If you doubt me, ask him

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you find him funny?

Shelley Berman: Yes! I found him very humorous, but they were all good. Every one of them was good and there I was sitting with them. I was thrilled.
Kliph Nesteroff: Well, I am in love with Arlene Francis. 

Shelley Berman: Arlene Francis, still. Yes. 
Kliph Nesteroff: So charming. And what was the atmosphere of that show like? Backstage? 

Shelley Berman: Oh my God, my wife is fully... we were supposed to be out by now. This is a good, long talk and I really love it, but I didn't realize it would take... and my big mouth and I hope I am not disturbing you with this...

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, no not at all. I'm sorry, I didn't realize...

Shelley Berman: You're giving me... this is an honor, a high honor that... all of these things that you're asking me are so right and I love to talk about them, but my wife is now making a call about my car. I promised to bring my car in... 

Kliph Nesteroff: Okay, well, we can wrap this up...

Shelley Berman: Is that all right? Wait a minute... huh? Bring it in at two? Okay, that will kill our day. Okay, so we're all right. We can bring it in later. It's all right. Let's finish. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I was asking you about what the atmosphere of What's My Line was like backstage.

Shelley Berman: It was friendly, easy. I was glad to be a part of that.  

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you ever appear on its sister program I've Got a Secret?

Shelley Berman: Yes. Everybody did I've Got a Secret. Thank God I did too. I had gotten to know Henry Morgan when I had only heard him on radio. Oh, he was wonderful. Clever. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Henry Morgan is one of my heroes. When you compare his stuff with anybody else who was on the radio in the late forties - his stuff was much more intelligent and much more biting.

Shelley Berman: Yes, yes, absolutely.  I just got to know him there. We didn't get to be close friends, but I got to know him. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You were a temporary host on a late night talk show called Nightlife.

Shelley Berman: Nightlife? I think they were trying me out. I was terrible. I just thought I was something else. I knew I could never be Steve Allen. I knew I could never be some of the other great hosts, but I tried. I was actually being auditioned by the producer. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You appeared in a 1959 episode of Peter Gunn playing a comedian who thought his wife was trying to kill him...

Shelley Berman: Yeah... it's hard to remember the details of it.

Kliph Nesteroff: It was an episode that was written and directed by the show's creator, Blake Edwards.

Shelley Berman: Yes, Blake. My God, yes. 

Kliph Nesteroff: What was you relationship with Blake Edwards like?

Shelley Berman: It was just working with a director. It wasn't anything other than that.

Kliph Nesteroff: And what about Rod Serling? You starred in an episode of The Twilight Zone... 

Shelley Berman: Oh, yes, Rod Serling. Well, that was the same thing, but Rod was wide open. He was just marvelous. How I got to do that show... I got a call one day. "Yes, hello?" "Hi, Shelley, this is Rod Serling. I'd like to write a show for you. Would you like that?" My God! First of all, I almost fainted because I loved that show. And I got to do it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow, what an honor.

Shelley Berman: (laughs) Yes! Great honor. Buzz Kulik [directed] and he was easy. He was so easy. Whatever I said worked somehow. It all worked. 

Kliph Nesteroff: People really remember that episode today still.

Shelley Berman: I recall we were shooting and Rod came to me one day and said, "How are things going?" I told him I loved it and everything [but in the episode] "everybody looks like me in the world and everybody acts like me in the world and it's great and everybody's going to know that and feel it - the only thing is - there are no women who are like me." The next day I was dressed in full drag - and I was a woman. They made me up and I was in an elevator going up the floors and I attack a man who wasn't careful about his hands. That was it.

Kliph Nesteroff: You had a guest appearance on The Judy Garland Show. At that point, Judy Garland of course was going through her various troubles. What was she like to work with and did you get to know her at all?

Shelley Berman: Yes, I did. She was troubled. But she was sweet and Ethel Merman was also a guest on that show. They had a duet - a really important duet. We didn't know what the deal was, but Ethel Merman would come to rehearsal and sit there all day long and never get to work. We watched. We knew there was a problem. I did a full sketch with Judy Garland and they eventually had to cut it because she just couldn't handle it...

Kliph Nesteroff: Was that a result of her general deterioration or was it specifically the pills, the booze, or...

Shelley Berman: She was drinking. But what can you say about this great performer? This wonderful performer. Do we just lean on her flaws or do we let that alone? She was so good at what she did. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm just imagining her and Ethel Merman together - I mean talk about your vocal powerhouses...

Shelley Berman: Well, they did it. They did the song and it worked. Eventually. Ethel Merman was a patient, quiet, wonderful woman who waited and bided her time and eventually got to sing it one time with her and it worked beautifully as a duet.

Kliph Nesteroff: In 1959 you were in a Broadway bomb called The Girls Against the Boys. It lasted two weeks. 

Shelley Berman: Well, I knew it wasn't going to work and I was stuck in it. I was a headliner in it. From day one I realized it's not going to happen. I fought it and tried, but no it just couldn't happen as a show. I was contracted to do it. There was nothing I could do about it. I just did the show and I did what I could.  

Kliph Nesteroff: What was it about it that you knew would not allow it to succeed?

Shelley Berman: (laughs) Well, my leading lady... I can't remember her name... but she couldn't sing. That didn't work. There were a few other people who were not... I did not have a good part in there. I swear they wanted to get rid of me, I think. Well, I... my wife is saying I was the star in Philadelphia. But then they cut me back. 

Kliph Nesteroff: But it did not last long on Broadway. Only two weeks.

Shelley Berman: No, it couldn't. It was not a good show.  

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you know Jack E. Leonard at all?

Shelley Berman: Oh, I loved him. He was a big, funny guy. We were actually very good friends. But it was just sort of meeting each other here and meeting each other there and it was always sort of... we were lovers. Just very nice.

Kliph Nesteroff: He was hysterical and I have a couple of quotes of his that he said about you onstage. 

Shelley Berman: I couldn't wait to be insulted by him! 

Kliph Nesteroff: He said of the 'new comedians' including yourself, " To understand these fellows you need to take an entry exam" and he said, "Take Shelley Berman. If nobody answers that telephone - he's got no act!" 

Shelley Berman: (laughs) He's right!  

Kliph Nesteroff: He's another guy that people overlook today. Don Rickles has eclipsed him...

Shelley Berman: Jack E. used to call Don Rickles his road show.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were on an episode of Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person. Do you remember anything about that?

Shelley Berman: No, except that it was good; except that it was nice to be honored in that way. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Somebody who had a very unique delivery, sort of in the same vein as George Gobel, was stand-up comedian Jackie Vernon. You performed in a play with Jackie Vernon called The Unemployed Saint?

Shelley Berman: Yes, that was a long time ago. I can't even remember it. Jackie Vernon was kind of heavy and he was a good comedian. He was a funny man.

Kliph Nesteroff: In 1964 you were signed to be a writer - producer - director for Screen Gems. You had written some kind of pilot and brought it to Jackie Cooper...

Shelley Berman: Yes, I did and a few things got sold, but I can't remember a big success out of it.  

Kliph Nesteroff: I was surprised to read about it because I had not heard of this before...

Shelley Berman: Well, I had forgotten it, actually. It was a nice experience and I found out that I did have something going. I don't think it was a success. 

Kliph Nesteroff: There was apparently a pilot called Barney about a traveling salesman featuring Jim Hutton - this was apparently one of your scripts...

Shelley Berman: Yes, well, I wrote that. The truth is that he was given a pilot and it was awful. Somebody needed to fix that pilot. So, I fixed the pilot and everybody was very, very wild over it. Then they did the show. What they didn't realize was that he was absolutely the wrong character. What we all thought would be perfect for him just didn't work. He was more concerned with being cute. It just didn't seem to fit. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Hy Averback was one of the main directors at the time. I heard that you were assigned to shadow him.

Shelley Berman: I didn't get to direct the pilots. I think if I had directed it, it might have succeeded.

 Kliph Nesteroff: Did you write material for singer Abbie Lane's nightclub act?

Shelley Berman: Oh my goodness. Well, I didn't write material for her... I helped her with her material. I offered her a few lines and a few ways for her to do her own material. She was so beautiful and so talented that it didn't matter what I did. But I did help her. There were other [performers] that I made suggestions to and who took my suggestions and worked with it. When you do something like that and you just do it as a friend, it's a gesture. It's a good thing and it's not something that you are just putting in the bank. You just want to help and so you do so. 


Anonymous said...

Wonderful interview! I became aware of Shelley after hearing Lenny Bruce's bits on him. Didn't know he was a Benchley fan. That explains alot.

Ted Scheffler said...

Thanks for this wonderful interview. I grew up as a kid listening with my parents to Shelley's albums (and we weren't even Jewish!). Some of his brilliant pieces are permanently etched in my brain. He facility with language was/is amazing. Thanks again! -- Ted Scheffler