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What Bob Newhart learned, or didn't, from Shelley Berman

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One of this year's TBS Just for Laughs comedy festival headliners, Chicago-bred Bob Newhart, became a national sensation in the early 1960s. One bit that caught rapid fire was called "Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue." It absurdly postulated that America's 16th president was merely an invention of ad men. Newhart performed it, and still performs it, as a phone conversation during which he is the only one who talks and responds.

"Shelley Berman did it before I did it. Mike [Nichols] and Elaine [May] did a version of it," he told the Onion A.V. Club in 2012 of telephone comedy in general. "There was a thing called 'Cohen On the Telephone,' which was a very, very early recording by Edison [Records] of a guy on the phone. There was a comedian named George Jessel... at the end of his radio program, he'd call his mother and describe what happened with the show...It's been a prop for a lot of comedians along the way."

Berman, though, was and apparently remains none too pleased about a "very special technique" that also made him famous in the late 50s -- before Newhart was known. (And, it's worth noting, several years after George Jessel, "Cohen On the Telephone" and others). As the 88-year-old Chicago native told comic and "WTF" podcaster Marc Maron last November, his shtick ("routine," he prefers) was swiped. "When I finally saw Newhart, I was devastated," Berman said. "Because he had it down to a crack." Berman conceded, though, that there was no ill intent. "[Newhart] wouldn't do it maliciously. Nobody does that. But he did it to make a living, and he became a star. It worked for him."

Berman added: "I didn't forgive. I thought it was a rotten thing to do." He also said Newhart's "agents who sold him were just as guilty as everybody else."

Then again, as one Twitter commentator noted, "C'mon, dude. It's more complicated than that."

Maybe it is.

Here's Berman

Here's Newhart

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This page contains a single entry by Mike Thomas published on April 25, 2013 7:25 PM.

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