Shelley Berman, comedian

Shelley Berman
Shelley Berman
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THE comedian Shelley Berman, who has died at 92, was a pioneer of a new wave of pre-alternative comedy in the 1950s and early 1960s, and his best-selling LPs were a fixture in many a middle-class British sitting room.

Berman made his name delivering wry monologues about the annoyances of everyday life, and was a major TV star on both sides of the Atlantic, until an unfortunate documentary appearance wrought a premature, though not permanent, withdrawal.

A forerunner of the comedy of Woody Allen and Bob Newhart, Berman could evoke laughter from such matters as air travel discomforts and small children who answer the telephone.

Late in his career, he played the father of Larry David, on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. With dialogue improvised by its cast, the series gave Berman the opportunity to return to his improvisation roots and introduced him to a new generation of TV viewers.

“I’m not a standup comedian,” he often insisted. “I work on a stool.”

He had trained as a straight actor, with the Goodman School of Drama in his native Chicago and with the prestigious actress-teacher Uta Hagen in New York.

But with jobs hard to come by, he put together a 20-minute comedy routine and auditioned at the Chicago nightclub, Mister Kelly’s. He got the job, and then he had to scramble to write more material for a half-hour show.

Berman’s success in Chicago led to a booking in Las Vegas, but his cerebral comedy was years ahead of its audience. Instead, he turned to TV and issued his first album, Inside Shelley Berman, still regarded as a classic of the genre.

He appeared in a Broadway play, The Boys Against the Girls, in 1959 and a musical, A Family Affair, in 1962. His film debut came in 1964 with the adaptation of Gore Vidal’s hit political stage drama, The Best Man, starring Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson.

But in 1963, while performing his act before an audience for a documentary-style NBC show, Comedian Backstage, a ringing telephone interrupted him. It was the second night it had happened.

He stormed backstage and ranted at everyone in sight. His outburst, edited to make him appear temperamental, was included in the broadcast.

“Once you’re known as being difficult, it becomes too hard to deal with management and even fellow artists,” he later recalled.

The bookings fell off, and Berman returned to acting, with little luck. He and his wife, Sarah, were forced to file for bankruptcy, and he began a long struggle to pay off his taxes and creditors.

He found some work on TV shows and in occasional movies, and for more than 20 years he taught comedy at the University of Southern California.

In recent times , he landed guest roles on series including The King of Queens and he appeared in the film, Meet the Fockers.

He retired from performing in 2014 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

He is survived by Sarah, whom he married in 1947, and their daughter, Rachel. A son, Joshua, died before him.