After 50 years in show business, and with two hit TV shows on his resume, Shelley Berman ought to star in a Jewish remake of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Just don’t tell him that.
“There’s no such thing as a wonderful life,” the 81-year-old actor/comedian said from his Los Angeles home. “There’s only me worrying. No matter what happens, I worry.”
He can relax when it comes to packing ’em in at Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, San Francisco’s annual Christmas present to the Jews: Chinese food, belly laughs and not a wreath in sight.
Berman will headline this year’s Kung Pao shows, which also feature Scott Blakeman, Korean-Jewish comic Esther Paik Goodhart and founder/impresario Lisa Geduldig rounding out the line-up. The performances take place Dec. 22-25 at the New Asia Restaurant in San Francisco.
As for his standup routine, Berman hasn’t quite worked it out yet. Then again, he rarely does before hitting the stage, preferring to trust his improvisational instincts.
“That’s the way I work,” he says. “As a standup comic, almost everything I recorded was improvised. To this day, I work without a net.”
Maybe that’s one reason he fits in so well on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the hit HBO comedy that is largely improvised on camera. Berman plays Larry David’s father, Nat, a crotchety alter kocker who can’t even find happiness in his corned beef sandwich at the deli.
He also has a regular role on “Boston Legal,” playing the semi-senile Judge Sanders. He must be a good actor, because Berman is neither senile nor kvetchy.
Indeed, Berman is suddenly cool again, popular with young viewers as well as with his long-time fans.
He was also cool in the 1950s, when he worked the comedy club circuit and the improv theater stages alongside luminaries like Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Berman was also one of the pioneers of the comedy LP. His 1959 debut album, “Inside Shelley Berman,” was the first comedy record to go gold and the first to win a Grammy Award.
Not bad for a yeshiva bocher from Chicago, whose first language was Yiddish.
“My parents had that foreign naivete, but there was love in that house,” he said. “I was a choirboy in the synagogue as a young boy, and it was absolutely decided I would become a chazzan. But I fell away from the strict religion, and that discouraged everybody, including me, of the idea to be a cantor.”
Instead he joined the Navy during World War II and later decided to become, of all things, an actor. To that end, he studied at the Goodman Theater with the Art Institute of Chicago.
“My father was absolutely convinced I was feygele,” he recalls. “He saw me in Shakespeare and said, ‘Why do you talk funny?'”
Though he made his name as a comic — including 21 appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” — Berman parlayed his acting training into stage roles. Among his favorites, playing Tevye in a New York production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Berman has been married for 60 years to his wife, Sarah. The two are avid boxing fans, and Berman has a thing for collecting knives (which Sarah does not share). He also has come back to the Judaism of his youth, hanging out with the Chabadniks in his San Fernando Valley neighborhood.
As for returning to the Bay Area, Berman is thrilled. He recalls well his early days playing the hungry i and other long gone North Beach clubs.
All too soon, Berman has to get off the phone to take on the next interview. But not before thanking his interviewer. “Talking about myself is a joy,” he says.
The 15th Annual Kung Pao Kosher Comedy plays 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 22 and Monday, Dec. 24; and 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 23 and Tuesday, Dec. 25; at the New Asia Restaurant, 772 Pacific, S.F. Tickets: $40-$60. Information: (415) 522-3737 or online at koshercomedy.com.