We’re excited to obtain a copy of the DVD Shelley Berman on Location, filmed live at the Los Angeles Playboy Club in 1977. This is from a rather unique period in cultural history: the Playboy Clubs were at their zenith, but there was a new player entering the entertainment game which would eventually be called premium cable TV. This was so early in that particular game that Shelley doesn’t even say “HBO;” he refers to the company as “Home Box Office” and keeps talking about it as if it were a new term, something which neither he nor most of his audience has ever heard of.
The irony of HBO shooting a comedy special at the Playboy Club is overtly apparent 35 years later. During the Playboy Clubs great years, this was pretty much your only chance to could see a major comic like Shelley Berman in his full-length glory. And that’s especially true for Shelley, even though he was all over television in the 1960s. He was on every program, from The Hollywood Palace to The Jack Paar Show—in fact, he was a constant presence on television. He was on so often that, by an apparent coincidence, he guest starred alongside Ethel Merman on The Perry Como Show in 1960 and then again on The Judy Garland Show four years later. One wonders if the two stars ever considered co-hosting their own program, which would have been called, of course, The Merman-Berman Hour.
But he only did brief, but hysterically funny bits on TV variety shows. If you wanted to see him stretching out at length, and doing all of those classic bits that made him a star, you had to wait until he came to a Playboy Club near you to catch him live. That’s why HBO made such a difference: they gave you everything you could get in a club. In fact, it was cable TV that created a boom in comedy in the 1980s. This became the number one factor in the downfall of nightclubs because they were no longer necessary: since the comedy clubs were merely feeding the cable TV stand-up comedy shows, people eventually realized that they didn’t have to leave their homes anymore to see the great headliners like Shelley Berman. In a sense, when HBO filmed Shelley at the Playboy Club, it was the slow beginning of the end.
Shelley Berman on Location is a performance blissfully ignorant of that realization—classic Shelley at his peak. You’ll note that he begins with one of his trademark “telephone” routines. This was a long-time staple of his act. Just like Eddie Lawrence doing countless variations on his “old philosopher” routine (“Is that what’s bothering you, Bunky?”) or Johnny Carson’s many long-running routines, all Shelley had to do to incite gales of laughter was hold his hand to his ear to mimic a phone call. There was something contagiously funny about hearing half of a phone conversation. The timing lent itself perfectly to one-man stand-up comedy, it was almost like an verbal Abbott & Costello vaudeville routine where you only hear Abbott while the presence of Costello is suggested but never made explicit. [In fact, that’s the classic image of Shelley Berman – hand to ear.] Shelley will be 90 in a few months, but he remains as important – and as funny – as ever.
Here’s a clip of Shelley doing one of the all-time funniest of his many telephone routines, this one on The Judy Garland Show in 1964: