USC Dornsife’s Master of Professional Writing (MPW) program students perform comic monologues in front of the man who blazed the trail: Shelley Berman.
Everyone has them. Those moments of complete humiliation when blood rushes to your cheeks and you quickly look around hoping no one noticed.
Who would want to relive those moments, much less share them with strangers? Storytellers in USC Dornsife’s Master of Professional Writing (MPW) program would, and they did August 4 in an event called, “Funny But True.”
The night marked the culmination of a five-week course taught by Prince Gomolvilas, who teaches writing for stage and screen in MPW. Throughout the class, “Writing and Performing Comic Monologues: A Storytelling Workshop,” students anticipated the event in which they would perform on stage in front of legendary comedian Shelley Berman.
In her monologue, MPW student Amy Silverberg recounted her first yoga experience with a man she recently began dating.
“It has always been my experience if you want to impress someone you are dating you should agree to do something you have no aptitude for,” she said. “So when he suggested we do yoga I said that was a good idea. Mind you we were still in that stage of our relationship where everything that came out of my mouth was a lie.”
As Silverberg and seven other MPW students told their tales, Berman applauded and laughed. Then he approached the microphone and took the place where he is most comfortable: under the spotlight.
“What you did was wonderful, it got to me,” Berman deadpanned. “I thought ‘I’ve got to follow these punks?’ ” Berman, lecturer emeritus in MPW, had presented a guest lecture on a history of comedy to the same students during the summer course. He touched upon various comedians during his talk starting with Aristophanes and ending with Jon Stewart.
Known for his flippant remarks and being a master of improvisation, Berman gently poked fun at MPW students before offering a warm smile as if to say, “Don’t take what I say too seriously.”
“There was something I came here to do but seeing as wonderful as your work was I’m going to cut it out,” Berman said, settling onto a chair. “I really loved watching you people do comedy.”
In his classic sit-down comedic style, Berman held his fist to his ear, falling into his one-act monologue “Father and Son.” The comedian’s fluid transformation from speaking the part of himself as an adolescent to becoming his father Nate, a Jewish deli owner, was marked by the sudden onset of a thick Yiddish accent.
For 20 minutes, the audience became privy to the telephone conversation Berman had with his father when he disclosed his wish to move from his family home in Chicago to New York to become an actor.
The crowded room fell silent when Berman grew serious and howled with laughter when he delivered an amusing line.
“You couldn’t come home and talk to me man to man? Did I ever lay a hand on you? In your whole life did I ever lay one finger on you,” he said in his father’s voice. “Alright, but those times you deserved it.”
In the end, Nate agreed to give his son money and his blessing to pursue his dream.
Gently, he reminded his son, “Wherever you go in that world you remember in Chicago you have somebody,” Berman recounted.
“He’s a comedic genius,” said MPW director Brighde Mullins of Berman, who taught humor writing in the program for more than 20 years. “Shelley's inner spark of creative brilliance has had a vital impact on our students.”
During the event, MPW students Silverberg, Fadi Bayaa, David Davin, Marvin Ferraz, Ali Garfinkel, John Gasienica, Nader Kheirbek, and Richard Mathiasen told stories of looking for love in a bar, trying to disguise a lap dog as a seeing eye dog and a passion for the starchy goodness of mashed potatoes.
Davin disclosed his failed attempt to make a David Hasselhoff-like lifeguard rescue on the beach. As he raced to the water, he tripped and found himself face down in the sand inches away from the little girl he thought was in desperate need of being rescued.
“The little girl is standing there looking at me and asks ‘are you okay?” Davin said. “I am just laying there in the water like a big whale and now I’m the one being rescued.”
“I'm genuinely proud of all my students,” Gomolvilas said. “Many of them started out terrified of standing up and telling stories in front of people. So to go from that to performing in front of a standing-room-only audience of nearly 100 — and actually commanding the stage on top of that — is a remarkable feat.”
Berman marveled at the students’ stories and performances.
“What you thought up and what you did,” he said, “was wonderful.”
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