Comedienne-writer Carol Leifer

The veteran comedy writer recounts stories from the trail that she blazed and shares advice from her book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying.

An accomplished comedienne, Carol Leifer broke into the all boys' club that was television comedy. She's been in stand-up and TV for nearly 40 years and has won Emmy nods for her work on such shows as Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, SNL, Modern Family and Devious Maids (which she also co-exec-produces) and has starred in several of her own comedy specials. A Long Island, NY native, Leifer began her career as a stand-up comedian in well-known Manhattan comedy clubs and got her big break when David Letterman caught one of her performances. She's also a best-selling author and offers career advice in her latest book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Anyone who’s ever watched the Emmy Awards has strong visual evidence that our writing for comedy is still mostly a boy’s club. One who did break through, four-time Emmy nominee, Carol Leifer.

She’s written for such TV shows as “Seinfeld” and “Modern Family.” Her latest text is called “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying.” I love that title [laugh]. Carol, it’s good to have you on the program.

Carol Leifer: Great to be here.

Tavis: Why would anyone want to break into this boy’s club of comedy writing?

Leifer: Well, you know, when you have a passion to want to be in comedy, there is no stopping you. Whatever sex you are, whatever anything is, you are just going to go for it.

You know, they say that peoples’ greatest fear is talking in front of large groups of people? I always say that a comedian’s greatest fear is not speaking in front of large groups of people because it’s got to be in your DNA to want to get out there.

Tavis: So the bug that bit you? When? Where? Why? How?

Leifer: Well, you know, Tavis, I was always funny in school and in summer camp and all that. And then I went to school in upstate New York in Binghamton, state school there. And I was in a theater group with my then boyfriend named Paul Reiser who was the funniest guy I had ever met.

Tavis: Love Paul Reiser, yeah [laugh].

Leifer: Yeah. And we shared a passion for comedy. We could both lip sync the “2000 Year Old Man” record, you know, Mel Brooks you had on recently, Carl Reiner. And he told me – Paul – he said, you know, during the summer, I go to these comedy clubs in Manhattan and I audition. I go on audition night.

And it sounded very exciting to me, so I went and I watched Paul at one of these audition nights. And I was thinking I got to get into this racket because, if you want to be a comedian, you just get a number during the day and that night you go on and suddenly you’re a comic.

And that’s what I loved about it and still love about it to this day. It’s very low-tech. You want to be a comedian? Well, here’s the stage and now go on and there you are.

Tavis: Yeah. You make it sound so easy. I have tried this.

Leifer: You have, huh?

Tavis: On a dare, I did five minutes one night and I thought I would die [laugh] just trying to get out a tight five.

Leifer: Yeah. It’s not for the squeamish.

Tavis: It is not. It’s not for the squeamish. And, again, because when you broke in, it was such a boy’s club. How did you manage the stage fright or was there never stage fright for you?

Leifer: I still – when I perform, I think I get a good amount of butterflies. I think a performer should be concerned if they’re not a little bit amped up before. I think then you’re taking your job a little too casually.

Tavis: So a little bit of butterflies is healthy?

Leifer: Yes, yes.

Tavis: Okay.

Leifer: But, you know, I think when you get out there, it’s really a matter of being in the moment, being in the now, and that’s what I’ve always loved about standup. And especially being one of the only women who started in the late 70s when I did.

You know, I really looked to my male compadres to help me navigate certain situations specifically that had to do with men.

Like, for example, I came to see that when I would go on stage, if I saw three or more men together in a group, I would see them walk into the club and say to myself they are going to be heckling me tonight [laugh]. They’re going to heckle me and…

Tavis: I love the story. I love it, yeah.

Leifer: So I would always have problems with men heckling me and I asked a fellow comic what can I do? I can’t shut it down. And he gave me a great piece of advice.

He said, when guys heckle you, all you need to say is, “Guys, where are the dates? Where are your dates tonight?”

And that would shut them up because he taught me as a man to know what the Achilles heel was. And I still use it today when I have problems with men.

Tavis: And it works every time, doesn’t it?

Leifer: It does, yes, because you get them right where it hurts.

Tavis: You mentioned Mel Brooks a moment ago. He was on this program not long ago. What a delight we had with him.

Leifer: Yes, and I loved your two-parter.

Tavis: Thank you. I’m glad you watched. Two great nights with Mel Brooks. But why for you is he one of your comedy heroes?

Leifer: Well, not only because growing up in my Jewish family on Long Island, the “2000 Year Old Man” was, you know, like listening to Pavarotti as a comedy analogy that it brings back so many memories to me of growing up and hearing this album and everyone in the family laughing.

I mean, I hope nowadays are we having that experience still? I don’t know. Everybody with their own, you know, headphones.

When you’re a kid, you’re kind of captive to your parents’ taste and they love comedy. They listen to, you know, the Vaughn Meader “First Family” album and Allan Sherman records. You also have to be part of the tribe to remember Allan Sherman.

But, you know, that’s what I remember so much about Mel Brooks growing up. But not only that, that he’s had such a long career and that he’s never lost his sense of fun. And I think I admire that so much because it really is supposed to be – this all should be fun, you know.

Tavis: Robert Duvall, a guest on this program one night years ago, we were talking about reviews. Duvall says to me, “I don’t read reviews.” I said, “You don’t read reviews at all?”

He said, “I’ve been in this business 50 years. I don’t read reviews. Why not? Because I met Marlon Brando when I was a kid. Brando saw me one night in a movie and came up to me and said to me, ‘Kid, you’re good. You are really good.’

He said, “Since then, I don’t read reviews ’cause Marlon Brando told me I was good.”

Leifer: Right, yeah.

Tavis: I raise that only because you were embraced by Johnny Carson. I mean, what else do you need to hear when Carson says you’re good?

Leifer: Well, that’s true. Although I tell the story in my book about Johnny Carson because, you know, it’s such a great story, having been on the show now with the new regime of Jimmy Fallon taking over, it kind of has a whole new luster to it.

But what I talk about in the book is that – the Johnny Carson experience was fantastic, but what I talk about is it took me 22 auditions to get on the show. And I raise the story because so much of business, so much of the comedy business, is stick-to-itiveness and keeping your head down and, you know, going forward always.

Because, believe me, you know, Tavis, you’re turned down for the Tonight Show after times seven, it’s a little like, come on, guys, okay. I get it. You’re not loving me. But every time I had an audition, I showed up and I thought maybe this will be the time that will put me over the goal line and number 22 did.

And this many years later, I’m glad I did because, you know, to get on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, to interface with greatness like that, is really rare.

Tavis: I’m glad we came to this because I figured you’d tell that story. But how does one keep one’s focus when there’s something you really want and it takes you 22 tries to make it happen? How do you stay focused on that? How do you not take that personally, put another way?

Leifer: Well, I think it’s a big lesson of everything you do in work is to not take it personally. I mean, it’s hard when you’re auditioning for a show where you’re doing standup and it’s you.

It’s hard not to take it personally when they turn you down, but I’ve always felt you just have to keep moving forward and plowing ahead because you control the things you can and the things that you can’t, screw it.

Because I can always show up and audition and do my best audition and have my best five minutes, but what I can’t control is whether they’re going to pick me for the show or not. So I don’t focus on what I can’t control.

You know, I give these tips in the book because I kind of feel like this is the book that I wish I had had when I started out. Because in writing a memoir, all of these memories sparked kind of a takeaway from each experience and I thought I want to share that with people because the great smart things I did along the way and the really dumb boneheaded things as well to avoid.

Tavis: Let me put you in hot water intentionally, but lovingly.

Leifer: Okay.

Tavis: There are those who say now – I don’t need to call names. There are those who say that what Carson did back in the day, giving comedians a chance to be showcased, doesn’t happen anymore and that late-night TV in particular is no longer the terra firma that it once was to grow budding comedians.

You had a chance. Others you listed, including Leno and Reiser, had an opportunity. What do you make of the lack of opportunity? Or does that opportunity exist in other places?

Leifer: I think the opportunity still exists. I mean, in fact, there are so many late-night shows for a comic who’s up and coming to go on these days. The problem is with, you know, media proliferating everywhere and being 3,000 channels and YouTube and this and that.

You know, the Tonight Show when somebody went on and did an amazing set, Freddie Prinz, and the next day had a television show, it was because most of the TVs were tuned to the Tonight Show, and it was such a small pond then.

So I think what’s different is, you know, really every other show that you could be on, there are a million shows. It’s just the focus of the old days is not there anymore. So there isn’t any star-making show on the landscape anymore.

In fact, I kind of think what is a star-making turn is when people do their own thing and put their stuff on YouTube and develop a following that way. That really seems to be kind of, you know, the sweet spot for making it really big.

Tavis: This is an unfair question to ask with a few seconds to go. I know there’s no one answer to it, but that’s the trick to being a successful comedy writer?

And I ask that because I know a bunch of folk in this town right now. I see them at certain restaurants and places I hang out and they’re all struggling trying to get that gig. They all want to be a comedy writer on one of these great shows on television. And, obviously, there are only so many opportunities in the writing room.

Leifer: Right, mm-hmm.

Tavis: My own personal bias is there still aren’t enough women in these writing rooms. There aren’t clearly enough people of color in these writing rooms. That’s another conversation for another time.

Leifer: That’s our part two.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. If Mel had one, you can have one [laugh]. But what’s your read of that reality, number one. And what’s your advice to those who, like you a few years ago, are trying to break through as a writer?

Leifer: Well, I think my advice is twofold. I think, as a writer, to be a really good writer, it’s really what I learned at “Seinfeld” being a writer there for many years and learned at the seat of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, is to look at your own life for funny ideas because those are the most unique and hilarious.

You know, ideas that people see now like Elaine thinks the Korean manicurists were talking about her behind her back in Korean. That happened to me, okay? And how great, you know, to make it an episode. And also using my femaleness in generating ideas. I doubt a man would have come up with that idea.

But my advice is a little unique in my book in that most people would tell a comedy writer, “Write a spec script of a show that you like, try to get an agent and submit it and maybe a door will open.”

I think the odds of that happening are zero to none. It’s interesting advice, but not practical. What I tell people to do is whatever show you love and you want to write on, try to get a production assistant, the lowest job on the ladder that you can get.

Just get into the machine because I’ve seen so many people in comedy rooms over the years who started as runners, who started as the person who got the writers coffee and red vines. And then they hung out in the writers’ room and they were funny and they got to stay a little bit and pitch some jokes.

And I think that’s the best way to break into the business. Find where you want to be, where you aspire to be, and take the bottom level job.

Tavis: There must be some joy in having made it where you’re respected by both the women and the men in the business, but I don’t want to overstate that.

Leifer: No, no. I’m absolutely elated that I have the support of so many of these big stars who gave me these great blurbs for my book, and I’m so appreciative. No, it really means a lot because, you know, I go back to my first day of show business with Larry David. He was the emcee at a club called “Catch a Rising Star” when I auditioned.

Same thing with Jerry Seinfeld. He was the emcee when Paul Reiser and I auditioned at the Comic Strip, so literally from day one. And I really feel like comedians too, there is something so fraternal about it. It really is a fraternity.

And what I’ve also, you know, greatly gotten from these great stars who’ve helped me along the way is I never position my act as a “Am I right, ladies?” you know. I never kind of segmented the audience like that.

I always went up and the greatest compliment I would get from a Jay Leno or someone like that was so much of your material, anybody can do. It’s not about particularly from the vantage point of segregating the women in the audience. It’s just funny material, you know.

Tavis: Everybody in this town thinks she’s funny. I mean, I’ve never seen a book that everybody loves. These are all the blurbs on this. J.J. Abrams, Whoopi Goldberg, Judd Apatow, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Jimmy Kimmel, Chris Rock, Bill Maher, Larry David, Jay Leno, Paul Reiser, Dave Letterman, Joan Rivers.

Everybody loves Carol Leifer. Her book is called “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying: Lessons from a Life in Comedy.” I think you’ll love it and laugh all the way through it. Carol Leifer, congrats and good to have you on the program.

Leifer: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: September 10, 2014 at 11:05 am