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Hanging on the telephone with Shelley Berman

Michael Freedland remembers a comic who was "as Jewish as one of those bagels,with a nice shmear of cream cheese on top"

    Telephone man Shelley Berman
    Telephone man Shelley Berman

    I was never sure if I wanted a telephone call from Shelley Berman. If I ever did phone him myself I am no more certain as to where it would have led us. Say, I knew he was running a business finding seats at shul for Rosh Hashanah — such things used to exist in America, like a theatre booking agency. Chances are he’d say that, yes, he could do Reform, Conservative or even find a come-as-you-are Reconstructurist (they have those in America,too), but Orthodox might be a problem. He wouldn’t have talked theology, but he’d say, “Yes, but you don’t want to sit next to your wife? Now, at Rabbi Jacobs’s shul, you might even get a bagel, too.”

    It was on such a mishegas that Berman, who died last week, became world famous as the stand-up comedian who was really a sit-down comic — sitting on a stool and talking. As he told me when I featured him on my You Don’t Have To Be Jewish radio show, “I’ll be honest. There are times when I don’t know what I am saying myself.” I will be similarly honest and say that was something he repeated in countless interviews — just as he repeated his telephone conversation act, time after time. He’d talk about missing cats. Or he’d make a call to his psychiatrist.

    But you didn’t need to go off Broadway or even on to the street itself to listen in on what would be the best crossed line you’d ever be likely to find. He became famous to folks who never went into a theatre in their lives, but laughed so loudly at his records that they could have worried their own GP that a heart attack was on its way.

    And, though, in truth, in those heady days he rarely got involved in Jewish “conversations”— always with his fingers on a telephone and, naturally, no one at the other end — he was as Jewish as one of those bagels,with a nice “shmear” of cream cheese on top.

    It was, of course, the age when it seemed any decent American comedian was Jewish. It was almost a necessary qualification. Think of the Borscht Belt, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Joan Rivers, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. Berman was Woody Allen before there was a Woody Allen.

    Of course, his name was a give away. Unlike others, he never thought of changing it. “Why should I?” he asked me, as if he was about to go into another of those monologues from the days in the 1950s when making a phone call meant you always talked to a living person (how would he have managed today when,inevitably, a call to a stranger — which he never seemed to be — means talking to an electronic device?). Somehow, as you imagined the bell (which phones had in those days) ringing, you knew his call was important to us.

    That is how he would probably have liked to have been remembered. But, for the aficionados of “real” comedy who tuned into late night TV, he was the little man in the huge glasses in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

    He played Larry David’s dad, and it was here that he actually “played Jewish”. He was at the head of the Seder table, the man who went to Temple and the patriarch for whom his son made sure there was a mezuzah on the front door — and who, surprisingly, fell for a woman who did not share his faith. He had found a brand new public from a brand new generation.

    But for me, the best was the era when that little man seemed tall on his stool, handsome, too — and no glasses. The one who collected a clutch of gold discs, on one of which you eavesdropped on his phone call with a local department store: “I was just sitting … I was looking out of my window and I...um,um.... noticed there’s a woman hanging from a window ledge on your building about 10 flights up and she’s....no, operator, I don’t wish to speak to her.”

    On consideration, you’d have loved to have spoken to Shelley Berman.

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