Shelly Berman—who helped transform stand-up comedy from a string of Borscht Belt-ready gags toward observational monologues, and did so while sitting down—has died at the age of 92. Berman broke out in the late ’50s alongside a new generation of neurotically investigative satirists like Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, and Lenny Bruce, garnering widespread popularity with his 1959 album Inside Shelley Berman, the first comedy record to go gold and the first non-musical recording to win a Grammy. After a publicity scandal derailed his career in 1963, Berman, a longtime theater actor, found a new life in movie and TV roles; he’s probably best known to modern audiences as Larry David’s father on Curb Your Enthusiasm. According to a statement from his publicist, Berman died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
Known as a “sit-down comic”—or, as referred to in a Time article that its subjects largely rebuked, a “sick comic”—Berman distinguished himself from the one-liner slingers of his day by sitting on a barstool, talking in terms both cerebral and absurdist about life’s everyday little anxieties. He was also known for his long, one-sided phone conservations, a bit that, in an interview with Marc Maron, he later accused his fellow Chicago comic Bob Newhart of stealing from him. (Newhart has long admitted that Berman did the routine before him, but points out that the “telephone monologue” has been around nearly since its invention.) And while Berman somewhat bitterly noted that it made Newhart a star, he certainly did all right for himself too: The success of Inside Shelley Berman blazed a trail for comedy albums to follow, and it landed him on the era’s biggest variety shows and inside huge venues like Carnegie Hall—the first comic to headline there.
His popularity led to a 1963 NBC documentary, Comedian Backstage, which captured him performing a monologue that was interrupted by a phone ringing. The backstage outburst that followed—“I’ll pull the damn phones out of the wall!” he screamed—was incredibly tame by today’s Michael Richards standards, but it sparked an immediate backlash nonetheless, with the press drubbing him as spoiled, nasty, temperamental, and unlikeable. Berman—who later claimed that the documentary producers arranged the incident just to goose up the drama—had trouble finding work afterward and soon filed for bankruptcy. His comedy career ebbed.
Fortunately, Berman—who had trained at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and with The Second City precursor Compass Players—had kept up a lively stage career, appearing on and off Broadway in shows like Fiddler On The Roof, The Odd Couple, A Family Affair, and many more. He returned to focusing on acting, becoming a familiar presence in films like The Best Man, Divorce American Style, and Meet The Fockers, and making dozens of appearances across decades of TV shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, L.A. Law, Friends, and Boston Legal.
In 2002, Berman won the role of Nat David on Curb Your Enthusiasm over fellow ’60s comic Shecky Greene, landing the part on the condition that he remove his wig. As Nat, Berman played Larry’s loving, devoutly Jewish father who has no patience for “Schmohawks” and discovers a late-in-life appreciation for weed. He received an Emmy nomination for the role in 2008.
In addition to performing comedy, Berman also taught it, becoming a lecturer in USC’s Master of Professional Writing program. And while his sit-down career was not as long, nor as lauded, as many of his contemporaries, its influence lingers across every comic who recognizes that comedy can be deliberately paced, minutely observed, and as concerned with poignancy as it is punchlines.