Before Sarah Silverman, Carol Leifer had to break into the boys club
Showbiz pioneer Carol Leifer is one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets, even though her resume boasts stints on some of the most popular and memorable television shows of the last half-century — “Seinfeld,” “Saturday Night Live” and “The Late Show with David Letterman,” among them. A veteran stand-up comic, Leifer got her start in New York’s predominantly male comedy club scene alongside burgeoning stars Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, who became her mentors, friends, and later, bosses. Though by comparison, Leifer has more or less remained a background player, her work has paved the way for other female comedians like Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler and Tina Fey, who have parlayed their comic talent into mini-empires. In her new book, “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Crying,” part memoir, part how-to manual, Leifer offers up tales and wisdom on what it takes to make it in Hollywood – and in life.
Hollywood Jew: Your book is very, gleefully Jewy, which can be a rarity in Hollywood. How did you become so comfortable in your Jewish skin?
Carol Leifer: I think we’re all a mixture of good qualities and bad qualities and in-between qualities. All of my good qualities come from my being Jewish.
What does it mean to you to “be” Jewish?
CL: Even though I feel so Jewish culturally, we were not big on religion because my Dad was raised Orthodox and went to a religious school that was very intense, so he wasn’t big on going to shul. My Dad passed away three weeks before I got Bat Mitzvahed [as an adult], and [before he died] I got to see him in Long Island, where he gave me his tallis that he wore in the 1930s at his Bar Mitzvah. And when my Dad was near death, his caretaker told us he was chanting all of these Hebrew prayers. That stuff is very deep in the genes.
Your late father, Seymour Leifer, looms very large in your book, having been your primary mentor and comedy idol, even though he was an optometrist who never pursued comedy professionally. Did it ever seem like he was trying to realize his dreams through you?
CL: I look back on it now and realize there is so much potential for bitterness when you don’t get to live your dream and your child does. I think it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but for him it wasn’t. He was so encouraging to me. He was truly thrilled for me and my successes and I’m really touched by that. Now that he’s gone I see it even more.
You came up through the comedy ranks as the only woman among a cohort of men who went on to become some of the most successful comedians in the business — among them Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and Paul Reiser. Were there opportunities you missed out on because of being female?
There will always be men who don’t think women are funny. [But] there’s always something positive about standing out. Even when you’re the minority, you’re singled out a little more just because you’re noticed more. It was to my advantage getting on at comedy clubs; they wanted to put on women because it was different. And even though it was sexist — they wouldn't put on two women in a row — I was still getting on more than [other] white men.
It could be said that you paved the way for big female comedy stars like Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman to have star-making careers. Are there disadvantages to being first?
The only disadvantage was [that] when there were groups of men in the audience, I knew they were gonna heckle me. They would just hassle me. And I once asked a male comic to help me and [he] said, ‘You gotta go for the jugular.’ So I said to [those] guys ‘Where are the women tonight, parked in the car?’ And then they shut up. I had to learn that from a man: That what’s gonna hurt [hecklers] is to shine the spotlight on their emotions.
You’ve famously referred to yourself as a “late bloomer” for coming out as gay after turning 40. What was that like?
CL: Telling my parents about being gay, I thought, they’re gonna fall apart and be a mess and I have to be strong. And the opposite happened: They were loving and supportive and I was the one who was crying. And my Dad was like, ‘Why are you crying?’ And I said ‘Because I thought you were gonna be disappointed.’ And he said, ‘I’ll tell you when I was disappointed — when you married that shegetz [non-Jewish man]!’
Now, you and your longtime partner have a son and plan to marry.
Yeah, we thought we’d [marry] cause our son is 8-years-old and he could remember it and experience it. And here we are living in Los Angeles and he goes to the most progressive school and we told him we were going to get married and he said, ‘But girls don’t marry each other.’ The joke now is: It was hard enough to tell my mother I was a lesbian; now I have to break it to her that her grandson is a Republican.
Before you fell in love with a woman, you had a series of relationships with ambitious men who introduced you to the world of comedy and furnished you with opportunities. Do you think they’d have done the same if you had not had an intimate relationship and just remained friends?
I do, yeah. You know, I dated comedian people because they were really the only men I saw for the first 15 years of my comedy career.
Is this the part where I ask what comedians are like in bed?
CL: (laughs) Same as everybody else.