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December 8th, 2004 Audrey Van Buskirk | Books
 

It's Not About Nothing

The most important comic you've never heard of makes the personal universal.

     
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"M-a-i-m." The way Shelley Berman says the word, dragging it out of his throat dripping with bile, suggests there may be no more hideously funny word in English. He uses the word most famously in his bit about flying on the still-hilarious album Inside Shelley Berman.

When I was a kid, I'd sit alone by the record player and laugh myself sick at my dad's Berman albums. At the comedian expounding on the language of the stewardi (Berman's suggestion as the logical plural of "stewardess"). At the futility of airplane seatbelts ("Because if I wasn't strapped into this seat, there's a very good chance that I will fall out of this seat. Say if the plane came to a sudden stop. Like against a mountain."). And at the ominous message conveyed by the life-insurance kiosks that used to be commonplace in airports. (He advises strongly against reading the policy, to avoid reading detailed descriptions of what may happen in a crash--when you become maimed, that is.)

All these years later, Berman's voice sounds the same on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, which he still pronounces as los-ang-guh-leez, as he does on those albums. Born in 1926, Berman is still very much a working comedian. A contemporary of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, Berman says when they all started doing comedy, "it was in response to McCarthyism. There hadn't been any comedy before that."

Along with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Berman was one of the Compass Players in Chicago (now Second City), where he perfected the kind of neurotic, observational monologue that's less about jokes and more about laughing--make that groaning--at individual peculiarities and universal fears.

Berman's comedic style might remind listeners of Jerry Seinfeld, and the degrees of separation are few. Berman now plays Larry David's dad, Nat, on Curb Your Enthusiasm, the HBO show based on the life of the Seinfeld co-creator. While his influence on the younger comedian might appear obvious, Berman says comedy is more about the person than the material. "I don't do jokes," he says. "That's all improvised. I had to have a secretary transcribe them to get the copyright."

Berman teaches classes in improvisation and thinks nearly anyone can learn improv techniques, yet he claims "you can't teach stand-up. To do stand-up, you need to have a persona, and to find that persona you have to really look into yourself and see what's there. And that's hard. As someone said, 'Dying is easy, stand-up is hard.'"

Though a few of the details sprinkled throughout Berman's album might sound dated to modern ears--after all, stewardi are now rarely "girls"--his themes are still relevant. We're all still freaked out about flying, laughing uncomfortably about the ludicrousness of this message: "In the event of a water landing, your seat cushion may be used as a floatation device." And who can't relate to the need to make embarrassing calls after a big night out that might go something like this: "Sorry for what I did last night at your party, and remind me, what was it again?"

Berman's genius lies in how he uses personal narrative to reflect the shared experience. Comedy today faces the new foil of a divided country that seems to be hacking itself into different pieces daily. I can't wait to hear what Berman has to say about its maiming.


Shelley BermanPortland Arts and Lectures, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, 227-2583. 7:30 pm, Wednesday, Dec. 8. $15-$25, $5 for high-school age and younger.

Shelley Berman won the first-ever Grammy for a spoken-word record, Inside Shelley Berman, in 1959.

 
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