Shelley Berman died today after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. He hung in there for quite some time but it is a horrendous illness that always wins in the end. I know having seen its effect on several family members.
I’m reposting the interview I did with Berman back in 2005 for Filmfax in his honor. Since he has passed, I’m also adding something else. When I first posted this on my blog I made mention of a subject that came up in the interview that angered Berman so much, he wanted to end the interview. Well, with his passing I have decided to mention it here. Keep in mind, I could have mentioned it earlier, or for that matter, even left it in the original interview, but the choice was mine to make and I left it out in respect to Berman. Now that he has passed, I’ll discuss it here. For the record, I’m not one of those writers who rubs his hands together and thinks, “Oh goody! Now that he’s gone I can bash him to my heart’s content.” Far from it. In fact, it is in homage to Berman that I mention it now, as I feel it shows his humanity, his down-to-earth nature and his never-ending rebelliousness. So, with that said, I can now say what it was in two simple words: Lenny Bruce.
What happened was this. If you look below at the 6th page of the interview we did indeed discuss Lenny Bruce as they were contemporaries of each other. However, as friendly as he sounds reminiscing about Lenny Bruce, there was an obvious air of rivalry when he Berman spoke of him. Small wonder as comedians as diverse as Alan King to Bill Cosby (ahem!) have gone on record in admiration of Bruce’s audacity on stage.
What happened n the interview was this: Berman had begun talking about Lenny Bruce in rather less than complimentary terms and, being a Lenny Bruce fan, I challenged him. Went something like this….
Berman: I was in a club one night watching Lenny perform when a group of high school prom dates came in all dressed up for the evening. He saw them and said into the mic, ‘Hey, are you kids gonna FUCK tonight?'” He didn’t have to embarrass those kids like that….
Filmfax: Didn’t anybody think to ask what a bunch of high schoolers were doing in an adult nightclub?
Berman (angrily): Okay, I never met Lenny Bruce! What I said never happened. Turn off the tape recorder. The interview is over!
And so it went. I did indeed turn off the recorder but then I proceeded to try to calm him down. After several minutes it worked and we went back to the interview. At no time after that did he ask me to edit the interview, read it before publication, or do or say anything that would censor what we discussed. I took it upon myself to not put it in as I felt it effected the great stuff he was telling me otherwise. I mention it now only to show, like all of us, how human the man was and the respect I had for his life and work. Rest in peace, Mr. Berman. Like Lenny Bruce, you life and influence will always live on.
[Original introduction when article was first posted followed by the interview]
Shelley Berman, interviewed by yours truly back ’05 for Filmfax magazine, was part of an idea I had while trying to get Lee Marvin Point Blank published. I figured I’d keep my writing chops up by interviewing subjects within a given theme, in this case it was pioneering comedians. It started with the rare opportunity afforded me to interview both Sid Caesar and Steve Allen. From there the plan was to write about the holy trinity of Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and Shelley Berman. Well, I met Berman at a Hollywood Collector’s Show and he agreed on a day and time to be interviewed. When I found out he was good friends with Sahl, I thought the next step would be a breeze. It wasn’t. As for Bruce, I wanted to interview his daughter, Kitty, who was amenable over the phone but constant scheduling conflicts made the proposed piece prohibitive. Ahh well, maybe some day…
As for Berman, he remains one of the strangest interviews I have ever conducted. He invited me to his home and was very cordial but as our talk went on, he kept pressing me to ask him about certain subjects he wanted to expound on. I’m sure he wanted some specific comments on the record, but that was not why I was there. I maintained control of the interview and asked about subjects I knew the good folks at Filmfax wanted me to ask him about.
Then, at one point, a certain subject was brought up that so angered him, he said that I should turn off the tape recorder as the interview was officially over. I did turn off the recorder but it was to convince him to go back on the record. I won’t say what (or who) the subject was that angered him as I agreed not to go public with it. He calmed down and the interviewed continued to its conclusion. Later, when I told publisher Mike Stein about it, he laughed and said how cool he thought the whole thing was. That eased my worries a bit as I then turned in the article that you see below. Suffice to say, the subject that angered him is still present but only slightly altered. Can you tell what it is???
Oh, and one more thing. After the article, I posted the letter Berman wrote that stated a few of his objections and no, the subject that angered him was NOT in the letter. Go figure….
– Dwayne Epstein