“What Emmy?” Berman barked into the phone at Jeff Garlin.
“What?” Garlin replied. “What are you talking about, you’ve been nominated for an Emmy.”
“I have?” Berman asked. “Did I do enough to get an Emmy?”
“It was a classic thing for you to say,” Garlin told Berman during a ceremony honoring the lecturer emeritus in USC College’s Master of Professional Writing (MPW) Program.
“God forbid you should enjoy it for a minute,” said Garlin, who plays the manager of Larry David, Berman’s son on the HBO comedy.
The Sept. 4 event drew about 60 guests, including Berman’s wife of 61 years, Sarah, and Cheryl Hines, Berman’s daughter-in-law on the series. The group gathered at Doheny Memorial Library to celebrate Berman’s first Emmy nomination in the legendary comedian’s six decades in show business.
In 1959, his debut live comedy album, Inside Shelley Berman, won the first non-musical Grammy in history. Earlier in his career, Berman had found success at the Compass Players, an improvisational comedy troupe in Chicago, which became the Second City.
During the event, Berman talked about growing up in a small flat in Chicago, where three families shared one bathroom. There were serious moments when he discussed improvisational comedy and his 23 years teaching in the College.
“This thing about being nominated for an award has no comparison with being able to sit with teachers,” Berman said. “It has no comparison with being able to sit with students, whom I admire beyond expression.”
But good-natured ribbing and signature Berman humor punctuated most of the ceremony.
“I may get an Emmy, but I doubt very much that’s gonna happen,” Berman told the gathering. “There’s a bunch of guys from 30 Rock who are going to get the Emmys. And I’m going to tell them how bad I feel when I lose.”
USC College Dean Howard Gillman joined in the repartee.
“I promised when I came here a little over a year ago that any faculty member earning either a Nobel Prize nomination or an Emmy nomination would get the dean at their event,” Gillman said. “So it’s my great pleasure to fulfill that promise.”
Gillman said he grew up listening to Berman’s early monologues, mostly angst-ridden one-sided phone calls filled with observational humor.
From Berman’s monologues, Gillman said he learned at a young age the beauty in turning some of life’s exasperating moments into comedy rather than tragedy.
“On behalf of the community of the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences, and everybody at USC,” Gillman said, “we wish to congratulate you on this great accomplishment.”
Michael Quick, executive vice dean in the College, opened the ceremony.
“It’s my pleasure to welcome you all to this special event to honor one of the finest entertainers in the past several decades, a consummate artist, a quality person in every way, my close personal friend,” Quick said, adding, “Shelley Duvall.”
Later, while Berman spoke, two of his friends walked in late.
“You’re late; you missed the best part,” Berman deadpanned. “You missed Michael Quick’s introduction of me ... so that makes you lucky.”
Printouts of some of Berman’s work were distributed to audience members, such as a famous Berman monologue depicting a hotel guest calling a desk clerk, complaining that his room lacks a window and a door. Berman performed some of the bit.
Brighde Mullins, director of the MPW program, noted Berman’s work is often called Kafkaesque.
“Like the poet, the comedian turns the diurnal, the nervous-making and the tragic into the bearable, the transcendent, the transformed,” Mullins said. “Like the poet, what the comedian sees may be tragic, but what the comedian also sees is a consolation.”
Berman was nominated for an Emmy honoring outstanding guest actor in a comedy series. Curb Your Enthusiasm was nominated for outstanding comedy series, but Berman was the sole actor in the cast earning a nod.
Hines recalled when David, the show’s creator, shared the outline he wrote for the episode, “The Rat Dog,” which earned Berman the nomination.
“What do you think about this?” Hines recalled David asking. “My mother dies and my dad doesn’t tell me about the funeral and I miss it.”
“That’s sad,” Hines told David. “That’s sad. You can’t do that.”
He said, “You watch.”
Berman was the “only person in the world who could make that funny,” Hines said.
“I kept telling myself, ‘I’m not going to laugh,’ ” Hines said. “When this happens, I’m not going to laugh because it’s not funny. Then everything Shelley said, I laughed. That’s the brilliance of Shelley, though.”
Berman said he had at first been peeved that David hadn’t included him in many of last season’s episodes.
“Out of 10 shows he wrote for that season, he gave me one,” Berman said. “And I am nominated. So, Larry, what do you think of that?”