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But Seriously, Folks . . .

But Seriously, Folks . . .

Celebrated humorist Shelley Berman has taught at USC College's Master of Professional Writing program for 22 years. Berman gives his signature lesson at 24th Street Theatre near USC.

Pamela J. Johnson
February 2006

Shelley Berman was wrapping up a lecture about the history of comedy when the unspeakable happened.

A cell phone rang in the audience, halting the fluid 2-hour presentation in its tracks. The packed 24th Street Theatre near USC held its collective breath.

Berman fans may recall how the father of modern monologue blew his stack back in his 1963 NBC documentary, “Comedian Backstage”. His career suffered after viewers witnessed that memorable outburst.

The trigger? The annoying ring of a backstage telephone.

Now 80 and enjoying a meteoric comeback, Berman has mellowed. But that doesn’t mean the USC College lecturer can’t channel some of his dormant rage and use it in his shtick.

Brrriiiiing! Brrrriiiiing! Brrrriiiiing!

Wearing a fire-red handkerchief in his suit’s breast pocket, Berman calmly removed his glasses and strolled toward the audience. He held out his palm. The offender handed over his cell phone, still ringing. Berman turned it off, closed the antenna, pocketed the phone and returned to the podium.

“I’ll hold it for you,” Berman deadpanned. “When you want it back all you have to do is kiss me . . . someplace.”

The veteran comedian often improvised during his trademark lesson, “Comedy and its Reflections in History”. The Feb. 17 event hosted by writer/performer/humorist Sandra Tsing Loh drew about 300 people. A regular contributor on public radio, Loh studied with Berman in the 1980s at the College’s Master of Professional Writing program.

“Everything I know I learned from Shelley Berman,” Loh told the audience. “So it’s his fault.”

Berman, Loh declared, is a legend. “But a fresh, young legend,” she quickly added.

Loh, who wrote and performs, “Mother on Fire,” a solo play presented at the 24th Street Theatre through March, invited Berman to appear. She said his recent success proves he belongs back on stage.

Berman, who has taught humor writing and other courses at USC for 22 years, made his name in the 1950s and 60s in comedy clubs, on Broadway, in movies and television. But a new generation of fans knows him as Larry David’s father, Nat, on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. Others might have caught one of his current Las Vegas gigs.

“It’s all Shelley Berman all the time,” Loh said. “So you’re hot, at age 80.”

Berman has still got it.

“My subject for tonight is, how come, if I’m so important, I’m not too busy to be here tonight?” he began.

For nearly 2 hours, he interwove jokes, pantomime and improvisation to recite the history of comedy, starting with Aristotle.  

“This guy Aristotle wasn’t kidding around when he wrote comedy,” Berman told the audience. “He took apart the local gentry without an ounce of concern. But he also traveled. You can’t do that and stay in town.”

Greek theater often produced outrageous satire and political criticism, Berman said.

“Wait a minute, isn’t that today’s comedy, too?” Berman said. “Is it changing that much? Aren’t we saying things like that on ‘Saturday Night Live’? Aren’t we making fun of serious situations?”

Improvisation was born when peasants began laughing at their own poverty and taking jabs at the aristocracy. One of the first to begin writing down improvs was Jean Baptiste Poquelin, or Moliere.

“By articulating their hunger, by articulating their anger, their sadness, by giving them it in such a way that they could enjoy it, they could laugh at it,” Berman said. “It helped them.”

In the United States, post-World War I, depression struck. Charlie Chaplin arrived from England.

“Chaplin, he cooked that shoe with love and anticipation,” Berman said, mimicking the famous scene in which a hungry Chaplin pretends to eat a leather shoe.

“And when he ate it, he got all the meat off of the bones, like chicken bones,” Berman said, elaborately licking his fingers. “And he made a nation feel better. He made a nation laugh at its hunger.”

Vaudeville died when sound was introduced in the movies. Comedians turned to radio. Berman recalled listening to Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine during World War II while he was in boot camp. He recalled when comedians were afraid to express themselves during the communism scare and infamous blacklisting.

At the end of McCarthysim, comedians came out with their fists up. Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Jackie Mason and many others began to change the face of comedy. During the Vietnam War, comedians such as Richard Pryor began “using the language of anger." George Carlin grew his hair and thumbed his nose at the establishment.

When the Vietnam War ended, comedians kept the anger, but it has become misdirected, Berman said.

“We didn’t have the substance to make it righteous, but we knew the package sold,” Berman said, adding that today we laugh too much at people’s pain.

“There is degradation of women in our standup comedy,” Berman said. “There’s a lot of cruelty in our comedy. It sells, people. We’re selling it.”

The wild success of writers such as Larry David, whom he called an everyman’s schmuck who can laugh at his own fallibilities, gives him hope.

“He will be imitated,” Berman predicted. “Comedians will adopt a more retro look and they will start being their own patsies. They will start being more warm and human. We’ll be laughing, purely, sweetly and in love with our time. I want to live to see that day.”

Berman is set to perform a monologue at the 24th Street Theatre on March 24.