Shelley Berman, who rose from Chicago’s Compass Players to become one of the most successful stand-up comedians of the 1950s and ’60s, died early Friday at age 92, his official web page reports.
A statement on Berman’s fan page on Facebook said he died in his sleep “at his home in Bell Canyon, CA, due to complications from Alzheimer’s.”
In addition to his stand-up work, Berman was an actor best known for playing Larry David’s crotchety father on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” a role for which he was Emmy-nominated in 2008. He appeared often on stage, notably alongside Garrett Morris in a 1989 production of Herb Gardner’s “I’m Not Rappaport” at Chicago’s Briar Street Theatre.
A Chicago native who grew up on the West Side, Berman got his start as a student at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. There he met Sarah Herman, who would become his wife of 70 years. After graduating he joined the Woodstock Players in suburban Chicago, performing with future stars including Geraldine Page, Betsy Palmer, and Tom Bosley.
He had relocated to New York to write for Steve Allen when he received an invitation to return to Chicago to join the Compass Players, an improvisational troupe and precursor to Second City. His castmates there included Mike Nichols and Elaine May.
Though the Compass encouraged ensemble work, Berman shone brightest in solo scenes, often performing one side of a phone conversation with an unheard partner. In one bit, first improvised during a New Year’s Eve show, he played a hungover man learning of his misdeeds the night before. In the first tellings, he learned he’d thrown a lamp out of the window, but at the suggestion of castmate Severn Darden, he changed that to a cat.
“It became one of the most requested routines that I have in my act today,” Berman told author Jeffrey Sweet for his Compass history “Something Wonderful Right Away.” “People are still requesting ‘the morning after the night before,’ or they say, ‘Do the hangover,’ or sometimes, ‘Do the one with the cat.’ How casually it was said: ‘Not a lamp, Shelley, a cat.’ Just whispered in darkness.”
Phone routines would become a trademark of his stand-up act, first unveiled at Chicago’s famed Mister Kelly’s nightclub in 1957. Over the years, he would maintain that Bob Newhart ripped off his one-sided conversational technique, an idea he advanced in a 2012 interview on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast.
Newhart, for his part, acknowledged the phone gimmick had been done earlier by Berman but also by Lily Tomlin, Georgie Jessel and Nichols and May.
Other nightclubs around the country put Berman to work, and he became a contemporary of fellow stand-up pioneers Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. Verve Records signed Berman to record his act. His debut album, “Inside Shelley Berman” (1959), went gold and won a Grammy for best comedy album.
He became a television fixture in the 1960s, appearing on variety shows and specials, and continued his acting work on stage and the big and small screens. His film credits included “The Best Man” (1964), “Divorce American Style” (1967), “Meet the Fockers” (2004) and “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” (2008), in which he played Adam Sandler’s father.
On TV, he also appeared on “The Twilight Zone,” “Friends” and “Boston Legal,” among many other shows.
He retired from performing in 2014, after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis.