Thursday, July 1, 2021

Perfect Routines: Inside Shelley Berman and the Wonder of Sound

This album, and this routine in particular, has a lot to do with shaping what I find funny. The cadence, the ideas, the timing. Even the pronunciation adds to it. I heard this for the first time as early as fourth or fifth grade, and it was in regular rotation with Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, Steve Martin, and The Muppets, the "Oliver" soundtrack, and the "Star Wars" Moog band album on my little brown portable record player made to look like a suitcase. Sometimes I would just stare at these albums while they rotated, soaking in the words and wondering how a solid object could contain sound, as if it were trapped in there all the time and the needle just let it out. A stack of records was a world of noise and wonder waiting to be released. The fact that I was listening to this before I had my own locker may also have been a contributing factor to why I used to get punched on the bus.   

It would be a long time before I would understand why a line like "My tongue is asleep... and my teeth itch" was funny, or the feelings associated with waking up repeating, "Oh god, god, god." I had no idea what it meant to be drunk, or to attend an adult party. I didn't take anything more than a sip of alcohol until I reached college, where my fellow students considered me something of a challenge. But I digress. Whatever I didn't understand about the themes of this, it didn't matter. I could imagine every frame Berman was describing. This was unrelentingly funny, and still is. The goofy laugh preceding the punch, moving straight on to the next piece of business with barely a beat. The sheer silliness of fizzy Alka Seltzer being torture. Every word and inflection is perfect, and the rest of the album is at or near the same quality. Even "Buttermilk" was daring.

It's a prototypical routine, too. I would hear its echo later on listening to Robin Williams take on alcoholism. "I took a dump in your tuba? Oh, you said sit in with the band." Inside Shelley Berman was released in 1959, 13 years before I was born. But as a kid, it sounded completely modern to me. To my young self, it may as well have been a new release. My conception of time is still a little fuzzy, but back then, everything in existence was new. Shelley Berman, Andy Griffith, Robin Williams, and Steve Martin were all things I just happened upon. I had no hang-ups about something being too old or out of fashion. At this time in my life, I still coveted the nifty "Billy the Kid" three-piece suits I saw at the Sears and Montgomery Ward. So "cool" wasn't even an option for me.

But this album was cool. Still is. And any number of comedians who happened upon it when they were uncool kids, too, will tell you that.