My Strange Encounter With Shelley Berman

Shelley Berman in an episode of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM

Comedian Shelley Berman died yesterday. I never worked with him but we did spend an afternoon together.

Six years ago, I was having my car repaired at MBZ Motors in a dreary corner of the San Fernando Valley. I can’t remember why, but I was stuck there all day while the work was being done. There was no where else to go. I had my laptop with me and I was trying to write. Shelley Berman came in to have his Mercedes repaired and sat on the couch across from me to wait it out. I recognized him immediately (my Dad had his records when I was a kid and I saw him perform once — I believe it was in San Francisco) but I didn’t pay attention to him out of respect for his privacy. And I wanted to get some work done.

But it soon became apparent from the way he was talking to people in the waiting area, all of whom were relatively young, that he was very eager to be recognized and was greatly disappointed that nobody knew who he was. They treated him as an irritating old man they wished would just leave them alone (though, I must say, the staff at MBZ was incredibly friendly and respectful to him — they clearly had known him for some time). I felt sorry for him. He was an incredibly talented comedian and actor…and it broke my heart that it appeared to him that he was forgotten. So I spoke up, addressed him by name, told him that I knew who he was, and that I enjoyed his work on BOSTON LEGAL, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, and that my father had his records. 

He broke into a big smile. Berman then went on to regale me over the next few hours with amusing and emotional anecdotes from his life — even sharing with me the heartbreak over the death of his young son (and tearing up as he told me). It was remarkable experience…and also a bit uncomfortable. There was something not quite right about his need for attention or how open he was with me, a complete stranger, about his life (I remember wishing I’d recorded it all). Now that I’ve read his obit, and learned that he passed away from Alzheimers, the strange encounter makes a bit more sense. But it was a memorable afternoon and I felt honored to have been his audience of one.

8 thoughts on “My Strange Encounter With Shelley Berman”

  1. That’s a sweet story Lee. It’s a good reminder that people that we love sometimes get a little weak as they age, and we need to have patience with them. As for Mr. Berman, he was a huge talent. I’m old enough to have Seen him lots of times.
    Signed, Jude McGee

  2. thank-you for this share as a kid i heard his records would play them over and over sadly I had forgotten him thank-you for the reminder

  3. Every time I eat popcorn, I remember his classic bit from the 50s, shoveling popcorn in his mouth in a movie theater, never taking his eyes from the screen.

  4. Thank you for this. My mom also had his records and back in the day when we only had one tv with 4 channels, I would get bored and listen to his and a bunch of other records that mom had. This man was so funny and he didn’t have to cuss or get disgusting like they do now. Mom also had Bob Newhart (love his phone skits), Bill Cosby and Redd Foxx. Brings back a lot of memories!

  5. I’m happy Mr. Berman had you to interrupt, even though I am, of course, sorry you lost time for your writing. Later-Alzheimer’s aside in anyone’s case, it’s an odd thing we do sometimes, in telling strangers about our lives in hammered detail. It’s as though those experiences have been just a-boiling to come out. I have done it myself, but am more often the one who wants to hear the lessons learned, the sights seen, the surprise of violations from which I was spared. Hey, how else can I say it but that we hoomans NEED stories? Need them, to pour in someone’s ear, or to get splash-dunked from someone else. Observation + conclusion = story, humorous or heartbreaking. You listened; god bless, Lee. That counts. – Oh, one other slightly cynical thing: . I’ve found that actors (read: comedians-as-actors, also) to be terribly needy souls. Not that I’ve known that many of ’em, but enough to make me step back against the drapes like Comey in the infamous White House display. Hmph. There I go, telling a tale, of a sort….

  6. I had a similar situation when I ran into Jonathan Winters at a swap meet in Ventura. He talked to a few people but it seemed that most didn’t know who he was. We ended up at the same booth and started talking……..I told him how I remember the great characters he played on the Steve Allen Show and later on the Gary Moore Show. One of my memories of him besides his own show were his perfomances on It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World and Eight on the Lam. He had the quickest mind and was one of the all time best adlibers. We walked and talked for over an hour going from booth to booth.

  7. It’s lovely that you helped him bring his gift, his art, back for even just a little bit. He will continue to entertain. Even now- some of what we are remains, even after our corporeal body is gone. You are a kind and generous man. Regards- Ede

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