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Shelley Berman, Harry Styles & who we are

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POSTED September 5, 2017 1:42 a.m.

“If the plural of radius is radii shouldn’t the plural of stewardess be stewardi?”
I first heard that joke in 1965. It was on “Inside Shelley Berman”, an album by the comic/lecturer/poet/teacher/comedian/actor of the same name. My aunt Grace had given my mom a sizeable chunk of her 33 1/3 LP collection along with a Magnavox Micromatic Portable record player complete with turntable and stereo amp speakers that also could play my grandmother’s 78s. The cutting edge technology allowed you to buy two songs for less than $1 — 45s.
I lost more than a few people with that paragraph. I know the feeling. I took my granddaughter Katelyn to see “Dunkirk” on Saturday. It was her pick. She wanted to see it because Harry Styles was in it. I had no idea who on earth Harry Styles is. I now know he’s a wildly successful musician with One Direction — The Sun of London calls him an “international superstar” — as well as an actor who made his debut on the British TV series, “The X Factor” in 2010.
As for 33 1/3 LPs they were the first recordings of music to contain more than one song per side. They were about the same size of the gigantic pancakes served by the Mangy Moose Café on East Yosemite Avenue in Manteca. They were light and fluffy compared to the 78s that were as clunky and almost as thick and big as the artery clogging chicken fried steak at Salida’s Kountry Kitchen on Broadway in Salida.  They were from a politically incorrect time when musicians could actually record songs titled “Slap Her Down Again Pa” and “The Too Fat Polka” without being stoned.
The Magnavox portable stereo did for music in the early 1960s what smartphones and apps did for music in the past five years. To play your personal selections you were no longer tethered to a stereo that was as big as a couch although what passed as portable in the early 1960s weighed 30 pounds.
What triggered this trip down memory lane that seems as focused as someone texting while behind the wheel on Interstate 5 was the passing Friday of Shelley Berman.
Berman’s jokes based on everyday life were funny to me as an 8 year-old and they’re still funny to me as a 61 year-old just like Styles’ music and acting will still bring a smile to my granddaughter’s face when she is closing in on Social Security 50 years from now.
Berman could take a trip to the airport and turn it into a stand-up comedy routine that could leave you in stitches and not use profanity, employ vulgarity, or do anything that would make a sailor blush. A bit had to do with his delivery but it was mostly because he saw the humor in everyday things. 
I’m not elevating Berman to sainthood nor am I implying that Styles is a saint. But at the end of the day, the year, or your journey through life they are the type of entertainers  who reflect who we are.
It’s not celebrities like Madonna that push the envelope in music videos and coffee table books with nudity and such and then turns around and files a lawsuit for trademark infringement  because Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Nebraska dared to use “Madonna” in their website domain then argued through her publicist that she was “the most famous Madonna in the world.” That must have come as a shock to the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.
There is no doubt Madonna is famous and ranks as one of the most popular singers today.
But the world she creates isn’t the world most of us live in. You can escape into it and you might even get lost in it. But the worlds the Madonnas (as in the celebrity version) create  are a far cry from that the likes of Berman and Styles create. There’s nothing wrong at the end of the day with being outlandish, provocative, or even pushing the envelope make more money.
It’s just that we sometimes make the mistake that celebrities like Madonna more aptly reflect the moral and cultural fiber of 7.5 billion people — or simply 323 million Americans — more so than other entertainers whose public persona is much more down to earth.
Celebrities that tend to be closer to the people they entertain in their style and demur are the ones that are woven into our cultural fabric so well that they wouldn’t stick out in a game of Trivia Pursuit.
Poking fun at ourselves — such as Berman did — and conjuring up romantic thoughts such as Styles does — without using shock is where most people live.
We forget that in the Tower of Babel we’ve created where titillating and carnage power tabloid sales, website clicks, and social media hits that the real world is not the same as the world of celebrities — whether they are long haul or the 15 minutes of fame crowd — that the tortoise prevails every time over the flash in the pan hare.
Scratch that. Berman said it much more elegantly: “As  a culture I see us as presently deprived of subtleties. The music is loud, the anger is elevated, sex seems lacking in sweetness and privacy.”

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209.249.3519.

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