Reading the first five Shelley Berman Albums

I love LPs, especially of the late 1950s and early 1960s, not because of some luddite fetish, but because they are a great example of a medium trying to figure itself out. What are the consequences of being able to put more than five or eight minutes on a side, or close to an hour over two? You can look elsewhere for the history of that discovery in music: the immediate embrace by classical music ('Western art music' as my ethnomusicologically-oriented peeps refer to it) with its already established long forms; the experimentations in jazz both of live recordings and longer studio work; and of course with rock and popular music, where it subsumes the single as the dominant delivery method and then you get Ummagumma and fuck you kids in my high school who tricked me into starting Floyd with that one.

Comedy benefited from it as well. First of all, comedians excluded for whatever reason (race, gender, 'obscenity') from the incredibly few opportunities for broadcast could get their performances out there (for example, Totie Fields or Pigmeat Markham). But comedians who had access to broadcast, where their routines would be limited to just a few minutes, could now present their material in longer forms. In A Vulgar Art I write about how Bill Cosby's albums transformed from the series of short monologues on Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow - self-contained, character-driven, replete with sound effects, and fading between tracks - to longer, integrated works like To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With or 200 MPH, both of which have (eponymous) routines that take up an entire album side and clock in at over 20 minutes. 

But in the late 1950s that hadn't happened yet, and everyone was trying to figure it all out, and trying to sell them to an audience.  

Four Shelley Berman albums, recto.

Last week I went to the only used book store in Sydney, Ed's Books and More. There are records in the back, and someone with good taste must have died because among the treasures were four of the first five Shelley Berman albums, which I got for $2 a pop. (I also picked up an almost mint paperback of Dick Gregory's From the Back of the Bus, an early example of routines transferred to print cum manifesto, like The Essential Lenny Bruce. So much to write about.) 

If you don't know who Berman is stop reading because you suck and I hate you. (If you don't know who Gregory is stop reading because you suck and are probably racist and I hate you.) If you feel you don't know enough about Berman, you may continue, although I'm not going to tell you much about him.

Because back to why I love LPs: with a lot of real estate to cover on the front - a square foot, if my math is correct - you get some fun with fonts and as much variation as you can have with nothing but a white dude in a suit with a stool and a cigarette. (Legs crossed! Leaning! Legs Splayed! Close up and not a photo but a charcoal sketch! In a club! In a studio!) The album I didn't get that day, The Edge of Shelley Berman, is no different. Also Christmas is coming. Cough.

Ian Inglis has written about album covers that 

Commerce and technology have played significant roles in the history of album cover art. Its birth was assisted by the postwar reorganisation of record retailing (coinciding with the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll) which introduced self-service record racks through which the consumer could browse; they ‘brought the cover face to face with the customer . . . slowly the importance of the cover as a ‘silent salesman’ was noticed by the record companies and their marketing personnel.’
— 'Nothing You Can See That Isn't Shown': The Album Covers of the Beatles (95, quoting "Covering Music," an unpublished MA thesis by M. Sorger, Pratt Institute)

But the backs of the album had the same amount of space to fill, although they wouldn't be looked at until someone picked it up and turned it around. And it's in black and white, presumably because why wouldn't it be? (Has someone written on the economics of album-cover printing?) That 'silent salesman' needn't be so subtle. The writerly text of the image that needs decoding, however simple that decoding may be, can be augmented by a very readerly text: an essay that tells you what the thing inside contains. And so many comedy albums have little essays written by someone you  - yes you, late 1950s hipster - would know telling you about the person you might not know whose work is contained therein, and about the art-form they practice.

Here are the backs of the Berman albums. Look at them. Just blocks of text. Even skimping on the fonts. So when I titled this post "Reading" I meant it literally and not in some douchebag literary-theorist-looks-at-a-suitcase sort of way. That's a lot of text.

Inside Shelley Berman (Verve MG V-15003) wasn't the first comedy album but was one of the first phenomena. He is introduced by two separate essays, one by "KUP" (aka Irv Kupcinet, columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times) and then by Verve label-mate Mort Sahl.  

KUP contextualizes Berman for the listener and defends the title.

“Inside Shelley Berman” is like one of John Gunther’s “Inside” books. There’s a vast territory to explore. I’ve been exploring Shelley ever since he hit it big at Mister Kelley’s on Chicago’s great white way, Rush Street. And, man, inside Shelley is “way out!”

Hipster references abound, but speak to the culture of the time. He - KUP - can vouch for Berman, and thus the goodwill you may have for KUP is being asked to extend to Berman as well. He describes the method of the material.

He is usually found with an imaginary telephone in hand, sitting on a real stool. Sometimes he is a man badgering his nephew to call his mommy to the phone. (“Just stand there with the telephone in your little claw, and yell ‘Mommy’. If you don’t - lightning will strike you!”) ... [He performs] any one of a number of peculiarly Bermanesque characters - all immediately and easily recognizable among anyone’s circle of friends.

A list of his various nightclub appearances (Hungry i, Blue Angel, Avant Garde) is followed by his various TV appearances (Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan), which show his credentials. KUP's essay is essentially an emcee performance. Jason Rutter identifies six “turns” evident in the compère’s talk: contextualization (giving background details), framing of response (directing the audience to greet the comedian with a certain attitude), evaluation of comedian (commenting on performance skills), request for action (typically applause), introduction (naming), and audience applause (466). KUP is doing most of these in essence, although the essay changes the form. Similarly, I have written about the role of established comedians in showcase tours, using the specific example of Cedric the Entertainer and his Starting Lineup special. 

In this manner, the “craftsman” emcee asks that the extant personal goodwill between him- or herself and the audience be extended to these more or less unknown comedians. In effect, if we take Rosenberg’s (1986) model of markets and status seriously, these comedians may be accurately categorized as “craftsmen” in their local markets and “journeymen” in their
regional ones, but as their market shifts to national, their status drops to “apprentice.” Through the sketchiest of biographies, incorporating a presentation of generalized professional credentials, a statement of geo-social provenance, an attestation to his or her comedic skills, and, if necessary, an advertence to particular possible counter-expectations [...], the emcee contextualizes the performer and the performance to come.
A Vulgar Art (85-86), citing Neil V. Rosenberg's “Big Fish, Small Pond: Country Musicians and Their Markets,” in Narváez and Laba's Media Sense: The Folklore Popular Culture Continuum. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

But the greatest thing is the last paragraph, where KUP explains the whole concept of the comedy LP to the potential purchaser.

This album is a recording of Shelley Berman actually doing one of his night club sets. It’s a new idea in records, just as Shelley is comparatively new in cafes. On my beat, there are egghead comedians, the comedian’s comedian and even some very unfunny comedians. Shelley Berman may best be described as the cerebral comedian of the U.S.A. See for yourself. Take “Inside Shelley Berman” home, put the record on your gramophone, turn the lights down low and there you are - a do-it-yourself night club, with guaranteed laughs.

So this is what I am holding? I get it now.

I'm not (trying to be) a prick about this, because I do have fifty years of precedent that began more or less with this album (actually, less) to build on. But the very concepts of what the comedy LP is or might be needed at one point to be patiently explained to an audience: by extension, what the comedians or the record company thought they were producing is now more explicit.

Mort Sahl's essay is less a straightforward introduction and more an impression of Berman, replete with his own jokes and demonstrations of inside knowledge. 

Of the many groups that Shelley reaches, whether it be in night clubs, on the aforementioned TV shows, or a very fast sketch comic on the many TV programs, the group with which he has absolute empathy are actors. I recall the first night Jo Anne Woodward and Paul Newman first encountered him and immediately recognized an actor in class, which we may call it, even though some call it “A comic in a night club”, or, of course, a human being in the day to day scuffle. As the publicity grew during the year, people invariably referred to Shelley as a method comedian because of his theatrical background and the fact he does organized material rather than free association. For instance, in my case, and let me say here that discipline material is certainly compatible with spontaneity and creativity. If he is a method comedian, there is a “stimulating madness in his method”.

Here a comedian with a notably different style, one emerging as more cutting edge, perhaps, gives his imprimatur to a comic who does "prepared material." (Although if one thought that Sahl was ever unprepared for a performance one would be sadly mistaken: his great contribution was emphasizing the illusion of extemporaneity.)

His next album, Outside Shelley Berman (Verve MG V-15007) has less text. There is a short note by Norman Granz, the head of Verve and one of the leading voices in jazz. He doesn't speak to the comedy itself but instead to Berman's character.

The magic word with any performing artist is “contact”. Any artist, no matter how talented, ultimately must depend on the emotional response he can elicit from his audience. Talent viewed objectively depends on the quantity and quality of it inherent in the artist and on the perception of the audience - but this relationship is largely an intellectual one and can be developed by a good professional; on the other hand, the emotional relationship is one normally with which he was born. In short, it must be said that the warmth of the artist is the warmth of that artist as a human being.

As a measure of the feeling that Shelley Berman has for his fellow human beings, I submit the following liner note written by Shelley, in which he pays tribute to the engineer on his recording sessions. It is also a measure of his good taste in that he doesn’t use the liner for the usual blurb that one too often discovers on record albums, but instead confines itself to a genuine, appreciative thanks.

I would imagine that Granz is building on his years of working with jazz musicians and the conviction that live performance is its true performance context. He grounds his critique in audience perception, not as market but as contributor to the performance. Berman's note is indeed in praise of Ami Hadani, the engineer.

I will not attempt to describe here the monumental task of recording a comedian’s act on the premises of a crowded night club in full swing, the endless job of sifting the good tapes from the bad, the capturing of an audience response, the sneaky ad lib off-mike. And then the editing: “Ami, I cleared my throat here, erase it,” or “Let’s cut this line, it doesn’t pay off.”

And in the end, the truest possible sound of the audience.

On this recording you will here the audience - their ad libs to me, mine to them, the over-enthusiastic lady who is delighted with the initials “I.Q.”, the strong laughs and the not so strong and the dull thuds. “Ami, cut that dull thud.”

Berman indeed praises the engineer but by doing so he reinforces the liveness of the event. He is emphasizing what may be obvious to us but was perhaps novel to the original listener: that the audience is part of the performance, that the comedian's performance does not exist without the audience's reaction. However much his performance is prepared it is done so with the expectation of an audience's response because that response closes the circle and completes the text. Granz's and Berman's notes attest to a singular point: this is a live performance medium, so any recording of it must contain the audience's reaction. 

The Edge of Shelley Berman (MG V-15013) is an odd duck. Granz returns and seems to do nothing but blurb, the very opposite of which he praised Berman for on Outside.

I don’t know if there’s anyone in the United States who owns a phonograph who hasn’t heard “Inside Shelley Berman,” and almost as many people ought to have heard “Outside Shelley Berman.” But for the rare exception who hasn’t heard either, we propose this album: “The Edge of Shelley Berman” - and if you find it sufficiently stimulating, why not try “Inside” and “Outside” as well. Since “The Edge of Shelley Berman” speaks for itself, there’s no need for a liner, but in case you’re thinking of the “Inside” or “Outside,” we are herewith reprinting the comments on those albums.

And that's exactly what they do: KUP's and Sahl's from the Inside and the first paragraph of Granz's from Outside with a new sentence: "And no performer today exemplifies this more than Shelley Berman."

A Personal Appearance (Verve V-15027) reverts to the older format of an introduction by an authority, in this case the poet and critic Louis Untermeyer. He solemnly intones that 

Rarely in our history has there been so great a need for comedy. The constant daily tensions would be unbearable were it not for the therapy of humour. Shelley Berman may not consider himself a therapist - he is almost everything else: writer, actor, comedian, and critic - but he has the paramount ability to evoke the healing power of laughter. He makes his audiences forget the cost and calamities of modern life by recognizing - and, what is more, responding to - its absurdities.

He praises Berman's skills at observational humour (never referring to it as such) with descriptions of the routines, much as KUP did. (The whole thing is too long to excerpt, and you can probably imagine it: if you can't, read it here.) He ends with  

Pre-eminently a fun-maker, Berman is neither a biting cynic nor a buffoon, He is one of us. He shares our confusions and our bewilderments, and he expresses them in our behalf. For though Berman sometimes sounds as though he never tires of laughing at us, it is really with us that he is laughing.

Berman's own contribution is but a paragraph, but again emphasizes the audience context.

The audience on this recording is real. I remember this performance as being one of my favourites out of a thirty-five city one-niter tour. The show started at eight-forty PM and ended around eleven-thirty. It was supposed to end at eleven but, as you will hear from the audience response, it was hard to leave them. The encore is on the record. Side two doesn’t end where it seems to end so don’t pick up that needle. Some pantomime moments are left on the record, not to frustrate you, but to give you the feeling you’re there. Please enjoy it. And, oh yes, don’t forget the encore.

So that's the first four. What about New Sides (Verve V-15036)? I don't know where to start. Berman appears to be apologizing for the quality of his material even before the purchaser can listen to it. It is defensive and odd. He may be referring to his last album or this one.

A performer who is fortunate enough to achieve recognition for a special piece of work may also emerge the victim of a problem of his own making. He has set a standard for himself and now he is obliged to live up to it in future works. The record buyer is, I’m sure, familiar with the artist who attempts to duplicate a previous success by making a sequel, or by using a similar situation or similar arrangement with new words. Think back. How many of these second attempts have been as satisfying as the first?

It is for this reason I have made every effort to avoid sequels to the “Airline Routine,” “Morning After the Night Before,” Department Store” from INSIDE SHELLEY BERMAN; the “Father and Son” from OUTSIDE SHELLEY BERMAN. These routines have become favourites of my audiences and it would be a simple matter for me to continue using them in personal appearances or to fake my way through the “new” routines composed of essentially the same formulas. The fact is I still occasionally resurrect the “Father and Son” or the “Morning After” or “Embarrassing Moments” in my night club appearances in order to please that audience which has come to see an old friend. But I am also aware that an audience should have the opportunity to make new friends. It is for this reason I am constantly at work on enew material. Simce I wrote every bit of my material, I have no one else to blame when I have not maintained those standards which the audience expects of me. I am, however, proud of my attempts to equal or surpass the quality of my previous work, even on those occasions where I felt the outcome was not to my satisfaction or to yours. At least I have not been lazy or afraid to try something new.

But when, oh when will I find myself another “Airline Routine”? When will I be as satisfied with a piece of work as I was with the “Father and Son”? I certainly did nt know at the time I recorded those pieces that the record buyers would make them their favourites and cause them to be the criteria by which my future work would be judged/ Does this album contain some new favourites? I wish I knew.

Perhaps I’m looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps it is ridiculous for me to attempt to equal or surpass myself. Wouldn’t it be more sensible for me to simply be content with doing the best I can and let it go at that? I don’t think so. I cannot in good conscience ask the person who plunks down hard earned money for this record not to compare it with my previous records while I smugly claim, “I did my best.” Therefore I have taken this liberty of providing you with what I hope will be an aid to you in your decision concerning there quality of the material on this album. Following is a brief explanation of the routines it contains.

And then he does so: one by one, how each routine is kind of like one before it. It is mind-bogglingly passive-aggressive.

I'm going to do a follow-up post very soon where I listen to all the albums (The Edge is available through three different labels on iTunes, so I'm guessing it's officially public domain), and maybe track down the elusive sixth Sex Life of the Primate and Other Bits of Gossip (Verve V-15043), which is not available on iTunes in Canada. But I hope I have made my main point - that once upon a time there weren't comedy albums, and upon their eventual coming into being people had to be told how to listen to them.