With a title that suggests an ill-advised mixture of matzoh balls and mu shu chicken, producer and host Lisa Geduldig opens her 15th annual Kung Pao Kosher Comedy this week.
The cross-cultural confab sets Jewish humor in a Chinese restaurant at the height of the Christmas season. Political humorist Scott Blakeman and Korean-Jewish comic Esther Paik Goodhart will share the stage for eight performances with actor-comedian Shelley Berman.
For Berman, it is something of a homecoming. He was one of a legendary mix of performers — including Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers, Maya Angelou and a twenty-something Barbra Streisand — who made the hungry i in North Beach one of the nation’s top nightclubs in the 1950s and ’60s.
“That’s where things really got hot for me in my career,” he says. “It was a springboard for all of us and I’d be happy to still be working there. It was the happiest time of my life, personally and professionally. They’d let you try anything there.”
Colleague Mort Sahl persuaded a reluctant Berman to try branching out into recording.
“One weekend at the i, they came in and taped my entire act,” he says. “I thought maybe [the album] would have my picture on the front and it would be advertising for me and that would be it.”
It was so much more. “Inside Shelley Berman” was the first non-music Grammy award winner and paved the way for several more successful albums, all of which are still in print on CD.
“It made a career for me,” Berman says.
It was actually a second career. Berman trained as an actor at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in the ’40s. He made his first television appearance 50 years ago on “The Steve Allen Show” and has been a regular on the big and small screens ever since, most recently with recurring roles as senile, crotchety Judge Sanders on “Boston Legal” and as Larry David’s father on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Though he eschews legendary status, Berman has lived quite a stretch of the modern comedy timeline. He holds no torch for “the good old days” but he is suspicious of the four-letter fodder that fuels a lot of today’s comedy argot.
“If it comes from a need, from a truth, then fine,” he says. “Otherwise, why? I don’t think there’s anything you can’t joke about. What matters is how you make the joke.”
IF YOU GO
Kung Pao Kosher Comedy
Where: New Asia Restaurant, 777 Pacific Ave., San Francisco
When:6 and 9:30 p.m. Dec. 22 and 24; 5 and 8:30 p.m. Dec. 23 and 25
Tickets: $40 to $60
Contact: (925) 275-9005; www.koshercomedy.com