Sunday, November 28, 2010

An Interview with Shelley Berman - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: When you were a struggling actor, you sold a few sketches to the Steve Allen Tonight Show. How did you know they would accept material from outside sources? Had you submitted material to other shows that had been rejected?

Shelley Berman: Well, it was just a matter of fate, frankly. There was this man who came to see a show I was in. A stock show. He wasn't coming to see me. He was coming to see the production. He was a talent coordinator for Steve Allen. I had been playing with the idea of writing for someone like that. And here it was. I said, "If I send you a little script of a sketch, would you see to it that he gets it?" He was very nice. He said, "Yes. Absolutely." I don't have his name, it was so long ago. 

I created a sketch in which Steve Allen was [like] a Dr. Phil. He was one who would advise people about their children - that was the sketch. I watched it on the air and it got big laughs. So, I sat down and started to write another one. That's the way it went.

Kliph Nesteroff: At that point were you hoping that this might lead to a job on their staff as a writer?

Shelley Berman: Oh, yes! A staff job there or some other place - to be writing for a living. I had just about given up trying to find a job as an actor. That's all I wanted to do - just be an actor. I had prepared, I had studied, I had been in stock, I had lots of experience in acting and stock companies. I played all kinds of roles and I had played lead roles. Now here I was trying to crack the big time, any possible role. I just couldn't make it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was it around this time that Martin Landau would tell you about the Compass Players?

Shelley Berman: Well, no he didn't tell me, but that did happen around there. They called me and told me that Marty Landau had suggested me. We were very good friends. We had played stock together. He was now doing some acting and he had a job. He told them about me. They called me. Then I found out that it was Marty who recommended me to those people in Chicago called the Compass Players. I hadn't tried improvisation except in school where you'd improvise.

Kliph Nesteroff: Had that not happened, had you not got the call from the compass players, would you still have been aspiring to be a writer? 

Shelley Berman: Oh God, yes. I would still continue as a writer, but my wife was the one. I said, "Sarah, I'm making a living now. I'm making these sketches [for television] and I'll be writing." She said, "But you're an actor." She wanted me to go to Chicago. "You want me to leave you here!?" She was working to feed us. She was supporting me. She said, "You're an actor. You've got to go there." "But I have a chance to be a big writer!" "You're an actor, Shelley," and she insisted. That was that. So, I went to Chicago to join the Compass Players.

Kliph Nesteroff: Staying on the writing note, when did you first discover the work of Robert Benchley?

Shelley Berman: Oh my goodness. I discovered the work when I was watching movie shorts and Benchley was in them. Then I found books that he had written. Then I found other people that were humorists. Oh my goodness, I was taken, really taken. And I had read an awful lot of stuff. Benchley was one of the chief guys. One of the best.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you also a fan of James Thurber? S.J. Perleman?

Shelley Berman: Oh God yes! James Thurber. I'm looking at my wife and she's nodding as hard as she can here because these writers are, incidentally, and Dorothy Parker, all the humorists... I had brought all of those books to my students at USC. I don't know if you know this - I taught for twenty-three years. I was bringing all those books to my students. I worshipped what they did. This was after I became a comedian and after I had become a professional. At first when I read them, yes, they were the geniuses that I admired.

Kliph Nesteroff: I won't dwell on this too much, but I understand that while you were struggling, you were a dance instructor. Had you learned to dance in theater school? How did you gain the ability to be a teacher at an Arthur Murray school?

Shelley Berman: They gave me a twelve week [crash course] and I had to ... learn what to teach the people that came in. That's what I did at Arthur Murray ... Eventually, I was able to make a living teaching ballroom dancing. This was way before any opportunities arose to be an actor.

Kliph Nesteroff: It's just so hard for me to picture you in that scenario in my mind.

Shelley Berman: Well, I look back on it and I laugh. But I was pretty damn good as a dancing teacher. I loved it. I was doing well with it. I was surprised. My wife from then on, everytime we danced together, she'd be counting. If we're doing a waltz I can actually see her lips moving. It didn't hurt our beautiful marriage, but it was funny.

Kliph Nesteroff: In my mind, I can sort of picture you being a cab driver, I can sort of picture you managing a drug store...

Shelley Berman: Oh God (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: I can't picture you as a ballroom dance instructor.

Shelley Berman: (laughs) Well, yes... Sara, he can see me driving a taxi (wife laughs). He can see me doing these other things... you can imagine those things. But those are things I had forgotten ... and here you are reminding me of my sordid past! Oh, I was selling pots and pans at Mandel Brothers in Chicago, a big department store.

Kliph Nesteroff: Through all those years of struggling, you finally managed to get an audition at Mister Kelly's [nightclub]. What did you have to go through in order to convince the nightclub to give you a tryout?

Shelley Berman: I found an agent who might be interested in me. I was, of course, doing improv with this group in Chicago and gaining some notoriety. People were coming to see us. This agent came and I can't remember her, frankly, but she did wrangle the audition for me with these two brothers. The Marienthal Brothers who were running the place. I just did some of the stuff that became part of our repertoire and I got hired. I got hired to be the opening act. They liked my comedy. I did well. I had an awful lot to learn about being a nightclub comedian. I was an actor and all these things that I had done that I brought into this nightclub, I had brought in as an actor doing improv. I expected the audience to behave as an audience behaves in the theater. But it was a nightclub; they're drinking; they're talking. I had to make a lot of adjustments and I was slow.

Kliph Nesteroff: Who were you opening for?

Shelley Berman: One of the people was Anita O'Day. The first time I saw her she was working with Gene Krupa. She was magnificent. I watched her and she was wonderful. Who else did I open for? Peggy Lee. Della Reese. I opened for a lot of female singers and all these marvelous people. I was content to be an opener. I didn't realize I was fitting myself for more than that in nightclubs.

Kliph Nesteroff: It must have been a thrill to get paid to perform and to be in the presence of such incredible stars.

Shelley Berman: Ella Fitzgerald. Yes, these were extraordinary people. It was hard for me not to watch them. But I couldn't watch them - because I could not be present in view of the audience at all. I didn't want to distract ... One time, a beautiful thing happened. I opened the show for Anita O'Day and it was the second time that we worked together. I did my opening and it was good and the audience really liked it. When I got off, the audience didn't stop applauding and shouting. It was incredible. They just didn't want me to get off the stage. I walked off the stage, they're still applauding, and I go over to the place where Anita was waiting to go on. She says, "You go back there, sweetheart. They want you." And I did. I can't believe the beauty of that moment - how lovely that woman was - to be able to say that to me and put me back on. I went back, I did one little thing, and then got off. But what a thing to do for me.

Kliph Nesteroff: What a classy act, Anita O'Day. By 1957 you had appeared on The Steve Allen Show as a performer.

Shelley Berman: Yes, yes. It was in that same period that I was just beginning to appear as a comedian.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the atmosphere of that show like?

Shelley Berman: The Steve Allen Show? Everybody was sweet. Everybody. He didn't have that big cast of wonderful, wonderful comedians at that time. He had a regular Allen's Alley, but at the time I was just a budding comic who he put on his show. He had marvelous singers and the orchestra was Skitch Henderson. Andy Williams was singing and Steve and Eydie and those people were on his show. He was doing very few monologues. He went out and just talked. He was just delightful. His mind was so quick. He was so neat. It was wonderful to watch him. He said, "You've been writing some of these sketches. Why don't you do one?" So, I did and it sort of hit.

Kliph Nesteroff: So he remembered you as the man who had submitted the sketches. Now, a man that I've always found funny - and today is underrated - is George Gobel...

Shelley Berman: Ohhhhh...

Kliph Nesteroff: And you appeared on The George Gobel Show...

Shelley Berman: Oh. No, I never appeared on The George Gobel Show.

Kliph Nesteroff: You didn't?

Shelley Berman: Yes, oh, my wife is nodding that I'm wrong. I did. Yes, I did. There was nobody like George Gobel. Absolutely nobody. I was befriended by a man I so admired - Hal Kanter. He was the producer and head writer of that George Gobel Show. He created George Gobel. The persona and almost all the humor. Gobel, himself, was a very talented comedian. Hal Kanter was one of the great deans of comedy that we saw.

Kliph Nesteroff: I don't understand why George Gobel has not had the longevity in terms of people's memories. It's strange because he was around so much in the fifties and sixties, yet now all of a sudden is forgotten...

Shelley Berman: That's interesting that you say that. That's something we all wonder about. What the hell happened? Where did he go?

Kliph Nesteroff: His rhythm of speech, his pattern, is stunning. Like you say, there was no one like him. Just a unique...

Shelley Berman: (doing a Gobel voice) Pritt-ee, perk-ee, Pegg-eee Lee. And the way he hopped across the stage. He had his own way of walking, talking. He was marvelous. I did not get to know him. I don't remember having much of a chance to even talk to him.

Kliph Nesteroff: You went on to perform regularly at The Blue Angel. What was The Blue Angel like as a venue?

Shelley Berman: That was the cream. That was it. That was the elite. That was where Barbara Streisand opened the show for me. That was one of the top places to be in New York. You went there, you did your time, and everything worked out for you. It really was beautiful. I remember learning how to deal with the occasional heckler. That was hard. Oh my, that was hard. I didn't want to prove that I was nifty and smart. I didn't want to do that. I just wanted to do my show. In New York I found that occasional heckler and it was hard to deal with, but when I did decide to fight back I was able to keep my place on that stage.

Kliph Nesteroff: Would you try to battle a heckler within the character, within the sketch that you were doing so that you'd be able to get back into your routine after the disturbance had been dealt with?

Shelley Berman: No, that would be quite hard. That was the problem. I was a character on a phone for the most part. If I turned to the heckler at any point - that phone routine which is so [meticulously] put together - I would drop that routine. It would be dead [because] of that one moment. That was hard for me because I did not address the audience. I was an actor playing a part.

Kliph Nesteroff: If that happened, you had to abandon the sketch you were in the middle of and start a different one...

Shelley Berman: Yes, that's correct.

Kliph Nesteroff: You appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show seven times in 1959 alone. Of course, he was known for being a great showman and a peculiar personality...

Shelley Berman: I did twenty one Ed Sullivan shows in the long run. He could be something. He was so... he was something. He was a stickler for time. If you were a new comedian you got six minutes and that was it. If you were an established comedian you got seven minutes. If you were a star you got ten minutes. It seemed to me, that was the way it worked. I did a routine for him which ran twelve minutes. We would try our routine in the dress rehearsal on Sunday morning. He would tape it, but rarely used portions of that in the evening show, but he could have. I did a routine in which I portrayed my father talking to me and I'm asking him to give me one hundred dollars to go to acting school in New York. It's played with a mild Jewish dialect and you can see the [father] not [understanding] what the heck it is this son of his wants to do. Eventually you see the love of the man for the boy. It was a nice routine. 

When I did it on Sunday morning, there was a line in which [Ed Sullivan] came to me and said, "When you say 'write a letter' why don't you say write a letter to your mother?" He knew [my routine] over stayed my time, but here he's asking me to extend a line. I couldn't believe it. I'm trying to tell him and he says "Write a letter to your mother. That's what I think you should say. That's what I want you to do." I said, "It will extend the piece!" Then all of a sudden he stood up and he pointed at me and let me know in no uncertain terms "WRITE A LETTER TO THE MOTHER!" Oh my God. I thought, "This guy is going to hit me." It made the whole routine a lot sweeter and a lot better. Incidentally, when I did that routine that night, it was the first time I'd ever seen a standing ovation from a TV audience. When I got offstage, Sylvia [Sullivan] was on the phone waiting and she was in tears telling me how much she loved what I did. Well, I was walking on air.

Kliph Nesteroff: Contrary to popular opinion, sometimes Ed Sullivan knew exactly what he was doing.

Shelley Berman: Oh, boy. Contrary to what we thought - he knew what he was doing. He was the greatest showman I have ever known. This is a long time now. He brought us so many great, great acts. The Beatles, Elvis Presley. He brought us all these people.

Kliph Nesteroff: Your story is interesting in the regard that a lot of comedians have stories about Sullivan cutting their act at the last minute for time.

Shelley Berman: He would. He wasn't heartless, but he had to do what he had to do.

Kliph Nesteroff: Around that time Jack Paar and Ed Sullivan got involved in a [booking] feud. You were a regular on both shows.

Shelley Berman: Yes, I was a guest on both shows.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you at any point entangled in that? They were sparring over the booking of guests, right?

Shelley Berman: That I didn't know. That I didn't know. Somebody called me to do the show, that's all I knew, that's all I wanted to know. So, I wasn't in on any of that. I just did my thing.

                            ON TO PART TWO!


MangMade said...

Another fantastic interview, thank you! I feel every bit as appreciative of your efforts as your subjects are.

Anonymous said...

Aw, you forgot to ask Shelley Berman what he's got against Ronnie
Schell! Ronnie wanted to know and I
did too. Now we may never know...

Sam Kujava

Stu Shea said...

Thank you. I discovered Shelley Berman many years ago, in high school, and he came to speak to us at Loyola University in, I believe, 1982. What a charming, gentle, and funny man.

Anonymous said...

He's confusing "The Girls Against the Boys" with "A Family Affair." "Girls" was a revue starring Bert Lahr and Nancy Walker. They weren't big stars yet, but Dick Van Dyke and Shelley Berman were also in the cast. -- What he's talking about in the interview is a musical called "A Family Affair," which ran eight weeks in 1962. He was given top star billing in that. The leading lady who couldn't sing, whose name he couldn't remember, was Eileen Heckart, who it's true couldn't sing, but was a great actress. The original cast recording of "A Family Affair" has recently come out on CD. It's not as bad as he says, and he even has a nice telephone monologue worked into the show. said...

Shelley is one of the greatest actors of our time! You can't find another actor with a genius comic wit like him. I did a quick interview with Shelley a while back, and being a big fan of his since childhood, it was the first time I ever felt a little star struck. He has a style of his own that no one else can copy, many had tried, but couldn't pull it off the way he did, so they gave up.

Kevin K. said...

Another winner! I wish you could videotape these interviews.

ajm said...

We're in your debt, Kliph!

Anonymous said...

Floored! What a great interview with Berman, and I am thrilled that there are many more posted to enjoy.

Anonymous said...

You Mentioned that Shelley Berman did TV scripts for Jackie Cooper that didn't quite get off the ground at Screen Gems Television...Is this how he got to do a guest spot on "Bewitched", playing an ad executive associate of Darren Stevens that had a prejudice against normal looking witches as opposed to traditional "ugly hag" witches that Samantha Stevens was against? That episode was great, & Shelley was a charmer as he learned his lesson about accepting witches & warlocks as "regular people". Too bad you didn't mention that one in your blog. BTW, what Screen Gems scripts did he sell successfully to Mr. Cooper? Screen Gems had dozens of rejected scripts & unsold pilots at the time...even Gene Roddenberry, a soon-to-be ex writer/creator at Screen Gems couldn't get the executives, not even Mr. Cooper to buy his new pilot at the time named "The Menagerie", soon to be known two years later as "The Cage" pilot on "Star Trek". Mr. Roddenberry soon left Screen Gems, & would have better luck with Desi Arnaz over at Desilu Studios. A great hub on Mr. Berman.

Michael Powers said...

Yes, we dedicated Nesteroffians need to know about Berman and Ronnie Schell! Unfortunately, it's the type of question that you can only slip into an interview, you can't call and abruptly ask it afterward, of course.

Shelley Berman was an extremely weird performer and was all over television back in the early '60s. He was sort of the nth degree of a certain type, which was why Serling wanted him for that Twilight Zone episode. This was another entertaining interview; Kliph, these guys are all bowled over when you call them asking about minute details of their careers that even they have forgotten, they must think they're dreaming or actually in the Twilight Zone after a lifetime of clueless interviewers asking the same idiotic questions over and over. Your interviews and articles are literally fantastic treats.

Anonymous said...

Robert Benchley!

My humor God. He left us way too early (dead at age 56 in 1945) and his books are mostly out of print. His writing was like Monty Python, absurdist wordplay, a literary rollercoaster ride.

Stephen Melinger said...

Why no mention of his feud with
Bob Newhart over who invented the phone bit.