Some people just know how to keep you laughing.
Shelley Berman, Lecturer Emeritus of USC’s Masters of Professional Writing Program, has been dazzling audiences with his charming wit and wry humor since he first began performing in Chicago nightclubs in the 1950s. And, over the course of the next 60 years, that signature comedic style has found its home in literature, television and even films such as You Don’t Mess with the Zohan and The Holiday.
Today, however, the Grammy Award-winning and Emmy award-nominated comedian releases his first volume of poetry, To Laughter with Questions: Poetry by Shelley Berman. The compilation represents more than 20 years of Berman’s work and features a variety of styles from puns on the sonnet form, to limericks to elegies.
“I’m a long time writing poetry, but I never dreamed of writing a book, not until somebody looked at some stuff that I had and said, ‘My God! Why don’t you write a book?’ But I’ve enjoyed it,” Berman said in a phone interview, before joking: “It’s another way to brag.”
Berman’s journey into comedy began after he finished his term serving in the U.S. Navy in World War II. Because of the opportunities for education provided by the G.I. Bill, Berman then decided to start a career in acting at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
“I didn’t think of myself as becoming an acting star, but I did good work,” Berman said. “And little me, I was trying to be something that I wasn’t. I was thinking maybe I could be a comedian. I thought I was being funny. Actually, people did start enjoying me, and I started enjoying it, but I didn’t think of making a career in comedy. That would have been ridiculous. I wanted to [act.]”
At the Goodman, Berman met his wife of 66 years, Sarah, who was also studying acting. In Berman’s latest work, his wife features prominently in several poems such as, “Walks with Sarah” and “Sarah Still.”
“I swear my favorite poem [in To Laughter with Questions] is a simple one,” Berman said. “And it’s called ‘Sarah Still.’ She’s so much a part of my life that it’s hard to even think that we’re separated in any way.”
After his successful career in acting where he landed fiendish roles in Othello and other classic plays in Chicago and Woodstock, Ill., Berman transitioned into comedy. He began to perform in nightclubs, such as the famous Mister Kelly’s, where he earned a reputation for his standup and improvisation. There, Berman began to hone his skills in a variety of comedic forms alongside other famous talents.
“There was a cute little girl who did a lot of singing, and she sang quite well,” Berman said, reflecting on his time at Mister Kelly’s. “[She] sang mostly about [her] race. I liked what she did. It was very good. And she was actually a young little folk singer … And today she’s Maya Angelou.”
Berman’s own stylings allowed him to venture into the theater, television and cinematic worlds. After recordings of his standup comedy earned the attention of large audiences, Berman took on roles in shows such as Fiddler on the Roof and La Cage aux Folles and, eventually, the hit TV show Curb Your Enthusiasm. Off the screen and stage, Berman also published several humorous books such as Cleans and Dirtys and Up in the Air with Shelley Berman.
Berman’s interest in writing poetry, however, did not begin until his time at USC. Impressed with his background in humor writing, poet James Ragan, then the head of the MPW program, invited Berman to teach and take his course in poetry.
“One day, [Ragan] gave me an assignment,” Berman said. “The whole class had an assignment, and he told me I’d outdone all the rest of the class. And I took that with me everywhere I went. And somebody [would ask] me ‘What do you do?’ And I’d say ‘Well, I’m a poet.’ I knew better, but today my poems are being published and we’ll be seeing them in the book.”
But when he wasn’t exercising his creativity, Berman reveled in the vibrant culture at USC. He enjoyed going to football games accompanied by his wife, as well as hosting Saturday brunches with creative writing master’s students at his home in Bell Canyon. Berman’s background in comedy helped him recognize effective ways of helping his students develop their own talents, even in famous alumnus Juno and Up in the Air director Jason Reitman.
“My chest got very big,” Berman said. “I couldn’t just sit there. I was the boss, and I was good. And I was able to say, ‘That’s a mistake! How do you like that?’ And I was able to help. I knew what I was doing.”
Now, Berman’s own creations are coming full circle. To Laughter with Questions features comedic writing as well as brooding observations on his own life experiences. All of these poems are subdivided into categories such as, “Poetic Forms,” “Elegies” and “Not Much to Brag About.”
But readers shouldn’t think that Berman’s extensive background in comedy in any way limits his poetic abilities. Poems such as, “To Laughter with Questions” and “To My Son, Joshua, On Father’s Day, 1970” are reflective and honest, even as they are showcased next to more humorous pieces such as, “First Day of the Poet” and “Iambic Pentameter.” In particular, the title of the poetry collection indicates the simultaneously comical and poignant tones that run through Shelley’s poetry.
“There was a time in my life, that I had a beautiful, beautiful son, the most extraordinary human being I’ve ever encountered,” Berman said. “He was funny. He had a good sense of humor. He would make me laugh. He made me feel so good to be with him. And soon … before his 13th birthday, he would die. And that tragedy was the worst. I wrote a little poem about him about how there was laughter with him. And so that little line, ‘to laughter with questions,’ became the title of the book.”
As the title suggests, one of Berman’s most remarkable traits is his ability to balance life’s darker moments with the same charm that earned him a reputation in a variety of art forms. Readers will notice that tidbits of humor slip in throughout the entire compilation, serving as Berman’s own signature literary stamp. But that should come as no surprise. Berman calls himself, after all, just “a funny guy.”
“[How] can I stop being humorous?” Berman said. “I did a couple of funny poems [and] elegies [of] friends of mine, or people I admired … I have to have a lot of nerve to step into somebody’s death and make it into my work. But I have always done this with love in my heart.”
To Laughter with Questions will be available at the end of November from Bear Manor Media.
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