September 19, 2018

Mark Schiff: Thoughts From a Stand-Up Guy

Standup comedian Mark Schiff has been a headliner at all the major casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. He has appeared on “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night With David Letterman,” and has had HBO and Showtime specials. The 60-something comedian has been the featured act at the Montreal Comedy Festival and appeared in Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” with Adam Sandler. He has also written for and guest starred on the sitcom “Mad About You,” and was a writer on “Roseanne.” His first play, “The Comic,” ran in Los Angeles for 10 months and played at The Aspen Comedy Festival, after which HBO optioned it for a movie. Schiff talked with the Journal about the influences on his career, his interests and pursuits.

Jewish Journal: When did you become interested in doing stand-up comedy?

Mark Schiff: When I was 12, my parents took me to see Rodney Dangerfield and I knew what I wanted to do for a living. I had no idea how to do it or anyone that had ever done it. But the door to becoming a stand-up is wide open to everyone. It’s the most diverse and inclusive business in the world. If you’re funny, they will come.

JJ: Who were the comedians in your “freshman class” when you were learning the ropes at New York City comedy clubs?

MS: Gilbert Gottfried, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry Miller, Paul Reiser, Marc Weiner, Larry David and Steve Mittleman.

JJ: Which comedians have been your greatest influences?

MS: Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Robert Klein, George Carlin and Alan King.

“I love reading books about rabbis. After reading those books, I wanted to grow a beard.”

JJ: What are you reading these days?

MS: All very serious biographies. I love reading books about rabbis. “A Tzadik in Our Time” and “All for the Boss” are two great rabbi books. After reading them, I wanted to grow a beard.

JJ: Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of show business?

MS: I collect old movies I never watch. My other hobby is trying to decipher things my wife says to me. Many times, she will say something, and I’ll go into another room and try to figure out exactly what she means. I know I’m wrong about something, but not always sure what.

JJ: You’ve lost a lot of weight. How have you managed to keep it off?

MS: I lost 50 pounds seven years ago. Almost anyone can lose weight, but few can keep it off. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s a constant fight and it doesn’t get easier. I have a fat man inside of me constantly wanting to come out. I’m a vegan, and I exercise seven days a week. And I’m strict. No pizza, pasta, bread, frozen yogurt, chips, dips, desserts, fried food, licorice, sugar or sugar substitutes, coffee or tea. And very little to no oil. I believe with every fiber of my being it’s life or death. As the rabbis say, “Choose life!”

JJ: What accounts for the longevity of your 28-year marriage?

MS: I stopped dating other women. Also, I took acting lessons, so I know how to pretend to enjoy doing the things my wife asks. I also stopped trying to turn her into my mother. And I try to make her laugh. All I have to do is ask for sex and she’ll laugh for hours.

JJ: Any charities close to your heart?

MS: My wife, Nancy, and I like The Salvation Army, Feed the Children and The Leprosy Mission. I also like doing hands-on work, like visiting sick people. Loneliness is a problem for most people, but when you’re sick, magnify it 20 times. I was with my friend Jack the other day. Jack is 90 and in a nursing home. When I went to see him last week, he told me he wanted to die. Fifteen minutes later, we were telling each other jokes. Go visit sick people. It’s good for them and it’s good for you.


Mark Miller is a humorist who has performed stand-up comedy on TV and written for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and various sitcoms. His first book, a collection of his humor essays on dating and romance, is “500 Dates: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Online Dating Wars.”

Married People: A Comedy – Theatre Review

Veteran Stand-ups Mark Schiff and Steve Shaffer create comedy theatrical masterpiece.

Married People: A Comedy’ proves one thing.  Honesty in relationships begin at home…indeed with ourselves. 

“Don’t miss the amazing chance to see what will surely be a memorable Broadway hit. Seinfeld meets The Honeymooners by way of Dr. Phil.  Married People: A Comedy is funny, insightful, and extremely well-crafted by Hollywood’s finest comedy-makers.  It made me laugh and stop to deeply think. If I had the money, I’d buy the rights to the film!”  – Steven Alan Green, The Jewish Journal

First off.  Uber there.

Parking is shit.  You need a fucking lawyer and a rabbi just to get decent parking near the theatre.  I think they might have valet.  I’ll check.  Don’t have time.  I will later.  Secondly.  Don’t miss this show.  I’ll explain below why.  Thirdly, the audience is stupid.  That is to say, there’s a great disconnect between the Orwellian shackles limiting the minds of the most sophisticated audiences and the finest of performance art.  It’s called PC over thinking, but it’s bigger than that.  It’s the audience forgetting they’re watching characters in a play, not reality.  More on that below.  First an overview of the play Married People: A Comedy.

HENRY AVIVA

A Stanley Kowalski in Doc Martins

Two couples.  Jake and Aviva and Henry and Cookie.  Jake is a bit of a mild-mannered stuffed shirt, Aviva lives up to her eponymous name with plenty of “Viva!” in her.  Cookie is a complex woman who co-opted her own womanhood at the behest of marriage.  She happens to be married to Henry, a real lug.  A Stanley Kowalski in Doc Martins.  A guy whose personal enlightenment is that he knows he must have Monday Night Football with an equal balance of bedtime with his betrothed or he’ll go nuts.

Sit-com type director

The play is deftly directed by Rick Shaw, and yes, I fully expected a heavily breathing Chinese man running in front of him.  I’ll give you a minute.  Back to the review.  The play runs as 14 set pieces separated by blackouts/set changes to the tune of Sinatra’s Love and Marriage or Jimmy Durante’s Glory of Love and the like. The set is brilliantly designed; rotating slats, which one minute are upright beds which the actors lean against to give a birds eye view of them in bed, then turn during blackout to reveal a neon beer sign and they’re now in a bar, slinging them back between unleashed words.

The two couples are friends.

And they both have problems.  Issues in the bedroomJAKE AND MICHELLE abound as negotiable currency as in any business agreement, such as marriage.  But also they both have children, whom both couples talk about, but we never see.  Everyone is getting along most of the time, going to Yoga class, planning this, planning that.  But when Cookie decides to play therapist to maybe solve some of these issues between partners (and all because she took an online class or two), that’s when the play really begins.  And what’s brilliant about this play is that, just like real therapy (take it from one who has researched plenty) the unsolvable never becomes apparent during the group therapy sessions themselves.  The burning hidden issues reveal themselves afterwards in real life.

 What are we really?

And that’s the most interesting part of the play.  For our minds can never truly be fully aware of everything at the same time.  That would be like making love and realizing you left the oven on.  In fact, whether the playwrights Steve Shaffer and Mark Schiff (who also serve as producers) knew it or not, each couple symbolizes one person and in fact, both couples together – all four characters – represent one ideal person.  Because disloyal readers, think about it.  What are we really?  Do I, for example, ever feel/act/think like bullish Henry?  But I’m really mild-mannered Jake.  Or am I ever excited with big impossible ideas like Cookie who has been the ad-hoc therapist for longer than she can remember, with Henry as her primary patient?  And what about the soul of the play, Aviva.  She represents the higher selves, the spiritual self.  The moral self.  We are all those things throughout our lives; indeed throughout the day.

Billy don’t be a zero

Henry, who played by Paul Parducci, is absolutely the most singular brilliant comedic theatrical actor I’ve ever seen live in theatre, simply can’t get behind that his and Cookie’s son Billy is gay, let alone that he’s getting married and the church warned the big man that if he attends his own son’s wedding, he’s going to hell along with the actual sodomite, Billy the son.  Billy don’t be a zero.  At one point, Cookie confronts the problem head on, as it were.  “What bothers you most about Billy being gay?

A bold opinion

Henry responds with the enthusiasm of Richard Dreyfuss finally being believed that the mash potato mountain he’s building in Close Encounters actually means real aliens.  Henry says: “Being gay!” Which is a brilliant line because it could’ve easily been Henry’s own personal admonition.  And, what happens.  Does the audience laugh?  No fucking way.  Why?  Because the audience is PC?  Maybe. This is Hollywood.  Here’s my theory and this has been on my mind for personal reasons – ever since I came back from an illustrious multi-coloured comedy adventure in England and back to the dull as dishwater bandwidth of comedy acceptability of America.  You ready? I’m gonna lose a lot of friends on this one.  Here goes.

THE AUDIENCE IS STUPID!!!!

That’s right.  I’ve said it.  I don’t mean it literally.  The audience in attendance was smart as a whip, but they were overly-reserved. That’s all I mean by “stupid”. Maybe Mr. Shaw, our fine director here, could fix this by signaling to the audience where to laugh, by having the actors hold their lines for laughs. In other words, say the line, then wait for the audience to get it, like a good stand-up does; but that would slow the play’s snappy pace down considerably.  But it wasn’t just that line by far. AUDIENCE SMALLER That line, by the way.  “Because he’s gay!” is very very very very funny because we are watching a character, who has clearly been set up as American working class, who loves Monday Night Football and loves to screw his wife and has no clue why she’s the least bit unhappy with him.

We are supposed to laugh

The irony is that Henry thinks he has self-awareness.  He sort of does because he is aware and outwardly accepts that he’s an animal.  But he doesn’t really, because he doesn’t know (yet, no spoilers) that the part of himself he’s not aware of is how much of him is molded from stereotype and the church and how much of him is truly his own man.  So when he says: “Because he’s gay!”  We are supposed to laugh.  NOT because we’re laughing at gay people!  No.  Because we’re supposed to be laughing at bad people or in this case, bad traits of good people.

There’s a big difference.

It’s what made Archie Bunker lovable, in spite of the fact that if he had a billion or so he’d be in Trump’s cabinet right now.  We are (or should be) laughing at the lovable Henry’s stupidity. And that’s not where it ends; that’s where it begins.  In other words, the entire play is woven with fine silk threads of misunderstandings, miscommunications, assumptions, expectations, prejudice and class-bating.  At more than a couple of points, I was literally the only one laughing out loud in a theatre of over a hundred and I had to balance a writing pad on my knee and sing Oh Susanna. Don’t get me wrong; the audience was laughing plenty throughout the play.  They just cowered where they should’ve leapt.

Hey that’s a good quote

The finely crafted lines in Married People: A Comedy are layered on top of one another when they need to be and other times sat quietly next to each other.  Like a finely laid out comedy Smorgasbord, Married People: A Comedy is an entertainment feast.  Hey that’s a good quote.

Like a finely laid out comedy Smorgasbord, Married People: A Comedy is an entertainment feast.  Hey that’s a good quote. – Steven Alan Green, Jewish Journal

Great cast makes the difference

As I mentioned earlier about Paul Parducci; he was great.  Enough about him; don’t want to give him a bigger head or indeed bigger Doc Martins.

Andy Lauer as Jake is the kind of actor who every director and producer would salivate to have because Lauer carries his script water, but never spills a drop.  He plays it real, he plays it calm, even when Aviva is haranguing him for not acknowledging the import of her being a Jew; and when he tries but fails it just breaks your heart.

Kylie Delre brings suffragette Cookie to life by the best way an actor can do.  By emphasizing what’s important in the text of the script.  Not every word written by even Shakespeare has as much resonance as the rest, and Kylie has the kind of actor’s instinct rarely found on any local theatre circuit.  She knows how to interpret script and understand story-arc.  She plays it big; she plays it soft.  All the while, completely, and utterly, engaging

But my pick of the litter is definitely Michelle Bernard as Aviva.  Wow.  What authenticity.  I’m still shpilkes over the absolution she rained down on poor little Jake.  I’m a judgmental guy. I can be a real prick, no doubt.  That’s because – in my mind – there’s always a bone to pick and that bone is the one that bugs us all.  All art, entertainment or hanging on a wall, has to have the one element to bring it to life, to give the viewer meaning.  And that is authenticity.  To portray true authenticity is the artist’s ultimate goal.  Because nobody really knows what that is anyway.  That’s why a great night at the theatre is so important; it gives a sense that things actually make sense.

SCHIFF AND SHAFFERMarried People: A Comedy co-creators are the double-cream of the crop.

So many great minds go into creating the finest comedy art and Mark Schiff and Steve Shaffer are indeed full comedy cholesterol.  A veteran perpetually young comedian of over 30 years, Mark comes from the vintage village years of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, the former whom Mark tours with as opening act.  Mark is one of those guys who is the comic’s comic and for anyone that’s a certain curse.  For us, the audience of Married People: A Comedy; his loss is our gain.  Steve Shaffer, a Philly born stand-up himself, appeared on Carson and toured with Carlin.  He does the impossible.  He’s funny and likable. Jesus.  I personally hate him for that.  Maybe he’s Canadian.

A master conductor at the helm of the theatrical symphony

Rick Shaw the writer/producer/director is known for directing television sitcoms amongst his quiver of arrowed credentials.  His credits are off the charts. In fact they’re off your computer.  Shaw keeps the pace moving forward and gives every actor the chance to freshly unfold their characters in a way commensurate with the best productions of Hamlet.  I’ve seen Peter O’Toole in Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman.  I’ve seen Al Pacino in Mamet’s American Buffalo.  The hardest piece of the puzzle is having a master conductor at the helm of the theatrical symphony.  Shaw knows his onions and meticulously slices and serves them to us as sweet tasting and yet tear-inducing between the laughs.

For great art to survive and indeed flourish, the early audiences must up their game.  It’s not television.  This is live theatre.

Married People: A Comedy is brilliant.

It touches upon what it really means to be a person of faith in both religion and the bigger agreement we make with God: Our betrothed and to love our children no matter what.  Accept them by accepting your own flaws, faults.  Cutting-edge understanding my not so hidden thesis about the audience not knowing their role; that’s paramount.  This work of comedy art deserves a real chance, in front of a much less inhibited audience.  Maybe that’s you, sitting at home.  And, Spoiler Alert: Some big important Hollywood person go see this show and secure the rights to develop into a series.

Married People: A Comedy is the next Seinfeld, only if Seinfeld was married and to himself.  It’s a great theatrical experience; more laughs – deeper laughs – memorable laughs — than you’ll find at Bosco’s Chuckle Hut. No offense to Bosco.  I know his wife just left him.  However; for great art to survive and indeed flourish, the early audiences must up their game.  It’s not television.  This is live theatre.  There are real people just a few feet away who rehearsed for weeks on end for every funny line to get a laugh.  The funny is there.  You just have to stop laughing at what you think everyone else will laugh at.  Laugh at what you think is funny. Ya know?

Audience workshop

When I’m done writing this review I’m gonna set up an audience workshop.  I asked Mark and Steve if they’ve done stage readings for the play, as most producers do.  They get all the actors round a table with an audience in the theatre and they read the lines.  They said they did and the audience present for the reading laughed on cue every time.  When I first moved to London in the early-Nineties, I lived in Chelsea near the Kings Road.  That’s the actual Kings Road, which used to lead up to Henry VIII’s castle.  There was a screening of The Big Sleep starring Humphrey Bogart.

I thought it would be interesting to see that American classic amongst a British audience.  I wasn’t disappointed and I was pleasantly surprised.  Simply put, I never knew The Big Sleep, a dark 1940’s noir mystery, was funny.  The snappy sexual innuendo’s having to do with guns and cunning attitude were met with knowing group laughter by the very hip audience.  I never knew The Big Sleep was also funny.  In parts.  It took a literal foreign audience to point that out to me.  That’s how come I’m so confident about my point of the audience missing the point.

I never knew The Big Sleep was also funny.

Aaron Glazer’s innovative set design allows an Annie Hall type split-screen dialog going on in two different settings simultaneously and Rick Shaw’s direction feathers nicely as characters support each other in flashback sequences.

My hate is born of envy

Speaking for all Jews for The Jewish Journal, I highly recommend Married People: A Comedy, and I also recommend it when I’m sober.  Trust me; I’m a doctor.   And, I can’t wait to see it again, on Broadway or just off, or maybe even Thursday nights on my electronic vision box.  If anything, Married People: A Comedy will endure production after production and decade after decade.  Nothing has changed; and for that, I am grateful. Speaking as a total self-conflicted neurotic myself, I hated it.  But it’s the kind of hate which is born of creative envy.  One of my main personal motivators.

BTW, Mark just texted me.  There is valet parking after all.  Something tells me I’m in a Seinfeld episode and don’t know it.

Enjoy the Veal,

Steven Alan Green, 3/21/17 

Married People limited run at the Zephyr Theatre through April 2.  

Purchase your tickets here.

PRESS CONTACT: David Elzer, (818) 508-1754, davidelzer@me.com 

To Contact Steven Alan Green to review your play or comedy show, email Steven: sag@thelaughterfoundation.org

 

 

It’s a funny thing about ‘Married People’

“Married People ­— A Comedy” stars Andy Lauer, Michelle Bernard, Paul Parducci and Kylie Delre.

After nearly 30 years of marriage to their respective wives, comedians Mark Schiff and Steve Shaffer know a few things about the trials and tribulations of relationships and family life. Some of those experiences have been written into their new play, “Married People — A Comedy,” that opens March 3 at the Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles.

“It’s a play about acceptance and love,” Schiff said. “And, of course, marriage is always funny.”

The play follows two couples — Henry and Cookie, and Aviva and Jake — who are good friends and who both have sons. Henry and Cookie’s son is gay, and they are having trouble coming to terms with it. Aviva and Jake’s son has forsaken his Jewish heritage, which hurts Aviva, whose maternal and paternal grandparents were victims of the Holocaust. 

Marriage jokes sprinkled throughout the play add lightness to the difficult situations both couples experience. In one scene, when describing his sex life, Henry says, “I’ll tell you how the sex changes. It goes from all night to not tonight to, God forbid, out of sight.”

While the plot of the play isn’t autobiographical — neither Schiff nor Shaffer has a son who is gay — some of the dynamics of marriage are taken from their real lives.

“My marriage material and Mark’s are intermittent throughout the play,” Shaffer said. “But it’s not a jokey play. There is real dialogue. We worked really hard on making this sound real.”

Schiff and Shaffer, who have known each other for 35 years, took seven years to write the play in between other gigs. Shaffer lives in New Jersey and Schiff is in Los Angeles, so they spent hours on the phone hashing it out. The script went through 15 rewrites until they were ready to do readings in New York, L.A. and Chicago before staging it at the Zephyr.

The idea for “Married People — A Comedy” came about through a conversation Schiff had with Jerry Seinfeld. “We talked about plays and he said, ‘You know more about marriage than anybody. You should write a play about it,’ ” said Schiff, who opens for Seinfeld on the road.

This is Schiff’s second produced play. His first, “The Comic,” starred Larry Miller and ran for 10 months in L.A. It went to the Aspen Comedy Festival, and HBO optioned it to make a movie. But Schiff has been writing plays nearly his whole life; he wrote his first one at the age of 12.

“I didn’t even know if I’d seen a play, but I understood the medium,” he said. “I had a very up-and-down relationship with my mother, so the play was about a guy dealing with some woman. It was my way of trying
to figure out what was going on in my
relationship.”

In “Married People — A Comedy,” Schiff once again touches upon what it’s like to maintain a Jewish identity. Though he is observant, his characters are not. By the end of the play, though, the characters reconcile some of their problems.

“Essentially, what happens is the parents themselves had very little Judaism in their lives,” he said. “Their son didn’t have any role models to look after. They are getting more involved now. They are starting to light Shabbos candles. It may be a little late for the kid but not too late for them.”

The play stars Michelle Bernard as Aviva, Kylie Delre as Cookie, Andy Lauer as Jake and Paul Parducci as Henry. Rick Shaw, who produced six seasons of “The Nanny,” is the director.

As for the play’s future, Schiff said he hopes he can take it to Broadway or turn it into a half-hour sitcom. “People who have seen it love these characters,” he said. “They want to know more about them, and that’s a good sign.”

Though many of the issues that longtime couples face are highlighted in the play, Schiff and Shaffer stressed that, overall, it takes a positive look at marriage.

“The play is truly an affirmation for marriage,” Schiff said. “One of the things somebody said is everything he’s seen on marriage is negative. These two couples are never getting divorced. They are in it to win it, as they say on ‘American Idol.’ These couples care about and love each other, but they have big issues and they need to work through them.”

Added Shaffer: “People will walk away thinking we’re all going through the same thing. We all suffer the same problems. When people realize we’re all in the same boat, it makes life a little easier.”

“Married People — A Comedy” will be in previews Feb. 23-25 at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. It opens March 3 and runs through April 2.

Typical Jewish mother

There is the joke, “What’s the difference between a pit bull and a typical Jewish mother?” The answer: “The pit bull eventually lets go.”

I’ve heard people say, “My mother is the typical Jewish mother.” I have an Italian friend who says his mother is the typical Italian mother. All groups have their typical everything. But what does this mean?

My wife is not the typical Jewish mother. She knows much better than I do how to let go. She doesn’t hang on and nudge our kids to death like the stereotype suggests. That’s why they tend to confide in her more than they do me. I’m much more the worrywart. I’m much more the typical Jewish mother than she is. I’m also more annoying. That’s because my mother was much more a typical Jewish mother than my wife’s mother was. 

My mother must have asked me 10,000 times when I was going out if I was going to wear a sweater. “You don’t have to wear it.  Just carry it.” One time, she actually said to me, “I hope you’re smart enough to button up if it gets cold.” My mother had a great fear that the temperature could drop 100 degrees at any given moment and a new ice age would be upon us. 

She also worried about me not being able to find lunch when I went out for the day. You would have thought I lived in the Sahara desert, where the next restaurant was 4,000 miles away.   

I grew up in New York City, where the trains and buses run 24/7. She would always tell me that my father and she would come get me any time of the day or night if I couldn’t get home. She always worried that I didn’t have enough money to get home. “Do you have enough money to take the bus?” The bus was 25 cents.  

If there were a reality show called “Extreme Worry,” my family could have cleaned up.  You’d have middle-aged Jewish women and men competing with each other about who has it the worst and who has the most heartache from their families. And, of course, who has had more operations and diseases.

My mom said she was dying at least once a week and would tell me, “One day, I won’t be here anymore.” She was right about that. She’s been gone about 17 years. I miss her a lot. 

I went through a period where everything she did annoyed me. I guess I was the typical Jewish son. I was in therapy for years complaining about my overbearing mother and my weak father. I spent thousands talking about how I got shafted and how I was misunderstood. My therapists never suggested that I try to understand what my folks might be going through. My mother would ask me, though. As a teenager, I couldn’t have cared less. “What about me?” I’d shoot back. It was all about me. All I could think back then was, “Why do these people have to annoy me so much?” 

What I did learn from all the therapy is that I like to complain a lot. Where I fault my therapists is that they never gave me a solution. We never talked about forgiveness. They did a lot of head-shaking and agreeing with me. I’m not saying all therapists are like this, but mine were. Here I am again, complaining. Not about my parents, but my therapists. 

Then one day, I lucked out. If you live long enough, it’s possible to change. Out of nowhere, I was gripped with something called empathy. It came on like a bad flu. All of a sudden I thought, “Gee, my parents probably didn’t have it all that easy. It must have been hard on them.” Then I thought, “Maybe I wasn’t such an easy kid to deal with.” When I look back at it, I admit I gave my parents a lot to worry about. Soon after this realization, I had another thought. “It must have been so hard on my parents when I moved from New York to Los Angeles.” I was an only child. My parents, not being big world travelers, must have felt a little like those parents in the old country, when their kids got on the boat to go to America. Somewhere deep down, they probably thought, “This might be the last time we ever see him.” 

And so, with that thought, the love my parents had for me came flowing through. The dam had broken. I finally realized, in my 50s, how much my parents really cared for me, and how much they really loved me. I also think having my own kids made it easier for me to feel what my parents must have gone through. Hopefully, my kids won’t have to wait until they’re in their 50s to realize how much we love them. And it is more than they could imagine. But I still think Los Angeles gets cold out at night, and they should wear a sweater. I know I do. 

Mark Schiff is a Jewish comedian, actor and writer living in Los Angeles.

Jews, non-Jews and weight loss

A little more than four years ago, I was walking on Cashio Street and I dropped something on the ground. When I bent down to get it, let’s just say it wasn’t easy to stand back up. I was almost 200 pounds with a big puffy face. I was really starting to feel old.

A day or two later, as I was being introduced to go on stage, Dom Irrera, a comedian friend, said to me, “Look how fat you are.” Soon after that, I was with another friend when he pointed to an old guy using a walker while crossing a street and said, “We don’t want to end up like that.” 

OK, message received: Lose weight. So the next day, I decided to crawl out of my fat suit and do something about it. It took a year, but I lost 50 pounds and have kept those 50 pounds off for more than four years. Losing the weight was not hard. It was exciting. But keeping it off is murder. I now exercise seven days a week. That’s good, but the food is where it’s at. I have been an overeater my whole life — still am and always will be. I remember when I was 3 months old being breastfed and my mother screaming at me, “Enough already. Don’t you ever stop eating?” My problem is I’m never full. I could eat a 15-course dinner and on the way home, stop for popcorn and pie á la mode. I have an empty space inside of me that is very demanding and never satisfied.

In order to lose the weight and keep it off, I had to do just one little thing: change just about everything. For me, that means not eating things I used to enjoy and not having them ever again. And doing this one day at a time. I don’t eat pizza, pasta, bread (except on Shabbat) and my dessert is fruit (no more cakes or cookies). To the best of my ability, I’ve given up all sugar. My diet now is whole food, and plant based. I recently talked to my rabbi to see if he could somehow get rid of the 7,000-calorie-a-day holidays such as Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot. They are killers for a person like me.

As I was losing the weight, a funny thing happened. I noticed that my losing weight bothered my Jewish friends more than my non-Jewish friends. Jews get very worried when you lose weight. They all think they are doctors and diagnosticians. They say things like, “Are you OK?” “Why did you lose the weight?” “Did you want to lose the weight?” On the other hand, when my non-Jewish friends would see me, I’d hear, “You look great!” “How’d you do it?” “Bet you feel terrific!” “Want to go to the rodeo?”

A few of my Jewish friends called my wife to try to pry out of her how long I had to live.  Sometimes they would walk up to me in the street and scream, “Enough already.” “Stop it.” “Don’t lose any more weight.” The crème de la crème was when I was in Glatt Mart supermarket and this woman I know looked at me, turned white and started running away. I quickly caught up with her and asked if she was all right. She was trembling right there in the middle of the store. She told me she had heard I was very sick and that I had died. And she always liked me and was very sad to get the news of my death. I thanked her for her kind words, told her I was all right and went back to eat some free grapes. 

About an hour later, I thought: If she liked me so much, why didn’t she send a card or make a small donation in memory of me? Fooey on her. 

A few months later, I was visiting my 85-year-old aunt, who offered me a piece of cake. I said, “I don’t eat cake.” She said, “Life is not worth living without cake.” I guess if I were married to my Uncle Louie like she was, I might feel the same. 

One rabbi who wanted to lose weight called and asked me to meet him and tell him how he could do it. I asked, “Where do you want to meet to talk?” He said, “Schwartz Bakery.” 

Keeping off the weight is a daily fight. It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Everyday I am on the battlefield trying to stay alive. To my Jewish friends, I know you mean well. And when I do die one day while eating a bowl of broccoli, you can all have your laugh. What I’ve come to understand is that all the foods that I thought I could not live without, I hardly ever miss. And as I get older, I realize that almost everything in life is overrated anyway. Keeping off weight is a full-time job. My paycheck is getting my health back and wearing my kids’ clothes. 

Mark Schiff is a Jewish comedian, actor and writer living in Los Angeles. He is originally from a very poor and haggard New York Jewish family.

Two Jews walk into Israel

On Dec. 19 and 20, Jerry Seinfeld and I will be performing stand-up comedy at the Menora Mivtachim Arena in Tel Aviv. I have not been this excited about doing a gig in years. Jerry and I had talked about going to Israel to perform and, God willing, it’s now happening.

Jerry and I have been touring together for more than a decade. Touring with Jerry is a total first-class experience. We travel in a private jet, which is a lot better than an El Al flight, where every 10 minutes people wake you up to join a minyan or some woman with 14 kids wants you to hold the triplets while she tries to get the other 11 kids out of the bathroom. We stay in the best hotels and we laugh more in a day than most people laugh in a year. Plus, the people who come to see Jerry’s shows are, by far, the best audiences on the planet. 

I expect Israel to be all that and more. For me, performing in Israel is different from performing anywhere else in the world. The people in Israel are more than just an audience. They are my brothers and sisters. They are modern-day heroes.  And now more than ever is a perfect time for Jerry and I or anyone else to go and show support for the people who live there. 

People ask me, “Aren’t you scared to go to Israel with all that’s going on now?” Not really. My job calls for me to go wherever people want and need to laugh. Bob Hope taught us all about that. Israel is under immense pressure on almost every level. Just having a Jewish mother is enough pressure for anyone. Now add to it all their other mishegoss and your head could pop off.

I love Israel and I love the Jewish people. In stand-up comedy, Jews have always reigned supreme. They set the standard for the art form, and have raised the bar pretty darn high. A question that comes up a lot is, “What keeps the Jewish people going? How have they survived when, in every generation, someone or some group is trying to wipe them out?” One answer might be laughter. Jews love to laugh. Jews like to tell funny stories. Jews don’t mind jokes at their own expense. In a rabbi, a priest and a minister joke, the rabbi is almost always the fall guy. And no one laughs harder than the rabbis.

So, on Dec. 19 and 20, two Jews will walk into the Menora Mivtachim Arena and tell some funny stories to the great people of Israel, who will listen and laugh. You know what? Not even terrorism can stop the laughter.

Mark Schiff is a Jewish comedian, actor and writer living in Los Angeles.

Comics invade Sderot

Just 45 minutes from the hustle and bustle of beautiful downtown Tel Aviv is Sderot. Just 47 minutes from there is the Gaza Strip.

Location, location, location.

You know the old joke.

So who books Sderot? Answer is Avi Liberman.

Besides himself, this year, he brought Mark Schiff and John Mulrooney. Being comics on a five-city tour in Israel, Sderot was not one of the cities we were performing in. Yet, we found ourselves there anyway.

Avi has a no-nonsense approach to things. “Hey guys, they’re dropping bombs in Sderot almost every day. You want to go there for lunch?”

We were in Israel doing a series of fundraisers for Crossroads, a center for teens at risk. So we figured, let’s stick with the “at-risk” theme and head on down to a community that is at risk every day and grab something to eat.

The congregants at our synagogue back in Los Angeles, Young Israel of Century City, had given us more than $2,500 to spend in the embattled town, as they were suffering almost daily from Qassam rocket attacks.

We arrived along with the coordinator and publicist of our tour, Dena, and her husband, Jeremy, and were pretty moved at what we saw. We were shown the back of the police station with racks full of collected Qassams and just couldn’t believe how many there were. In the last seven years, more than 7,000 rockets have fallen on Sderot.

“We label each one and from what group fired them,” a cop told us.

Noam, our guide for the morning, was from the Sderot Media Center and decided that we should visit a man whose house got hit just a few days ago. Upon arriving, we saw that the kitchen was completely caved in, except for the menorah that was in perfect shape in what was left of his shattered kitchen window. He had stopped working to take care of his wife who took shrapnel in her leg.

His neighbor, a sweet, middle-age woman who we visited next, had a son who was also injured by a Qassam, and upon hearing the sirens, he now wets himself every time. We saw her again the following morning on the cover of the Jerusalem Post running with her daughter away from the school, which had taken a hit in the playground.

But enough of the tragedy (which goes on almost daily there). We were there to eat, and we were getting hungry. We first went to the falafel stand in the town square, and after ordering what amounted to about a $10 meal, gave the guy more than $100.

He smiled wide and asked whether it would be OK if he put a large sum of the cash in the tzedakah box on his counter.

“Do whatever you want with it,” we responded. “It’s not our money.”

Next, we went to an elderly woman who ran a small bakery. “How’s business?” we asked.

“When the Qassams aren’t falling, it’s fine,” she replied. “So right now, not so good.”

Mark got an apple Danish. It was three shekels. He gave her 100.

Avi then walked over and said, “I heard how good the apple Danishes were here.”

He got one and gave her another 100 shekels. John, an Irish Catholic who also wanted in on the joke, ordered a Danish and gave her 200.

The non-Jews always buy retail.

By this time, even she was laughing and couldn’t have thanked us more.

Walking into a small clothing shop, the salesman was trying to tell us that certain items were up to 30 percent off.

“Wow that’s great!” we’d say back, while Dena would be laughing in the background, knowing what we were up to. We bought two hats and paid double.

One store we went into was completely empty, and after paying 400 shekels for a pack of gum, the man graciously thanked us and told us he was closing at the end of the month if things didn’t change, because no one was around anymore.

One other market had a man who remembered Avi pulling the same thing last summer, and when Avi asked him about his two friends who were there previously, he told us they had moved away because of the situation.

Mark got a big laugh when he paid a woman for a haircut and said he didn’t have time to get one and would collect in a year, when he returned for his son’s bar mitzvah.

Even John, lucked out. Being Irish Catholic, he found some shamrock magnets in a small store and couldn’t have been more thrilled to overpay.

The second to last store we went into found Mark buying some hats for his wife, and when he paid double, the woman actually told us she was doing fine and refused, but knew where we could spend the last of our money.

“There’s an elderly Russian woman named Nina who is a seamstress,” the woman said. “She is really hurting right now. She has a small shop over there.”

We walked over, and all the woman had was some fabric in the store. She was in the middle of making a dress for someone. We bought a piece of cloth, telling her we were also in the business, and dumped all the money we had left, which amounted to about 600 shekels. After her initial shock, she offered us a receipt, but we said it was fine and she could keep it.

There’s an old saying that comedy is tragedy, plus time. Well, we can’t really make any jokes about Sderot, since the tragedy is still going on. All we can do is try and put a smile on a few people’s faces when we go there.

Lucky for everyone, that’s a smile you don’t have to be a professional standup comic to get. Try it yourself. You’ll be surprised just how good you are at it.

Go to Sderot on your next trip to Israel.

Funny and frum

On a recent evening at a private home in Beverlywood, a group of Orthodox Jews listened to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa talk about issues liketerrorism, crime prevention, anti-Semitism, a vision for the city for the next century, fixing LAX and so on. People asked questions, debates followed, the mood was serious and intense.

Then, at a moment of high intensity, a quiet, unassuming man in his early 50s who hadn’t said a word all night got up, and with the crowd suddenly hushed, asked: “Mr. Mayor, is it illegal to park when the parking meter’s broken?”

It brought down the house.

The man himself didn’t crack a smile. He was dead serious about his question.

Of course, if you know Mark Schiff, you know he’s a master of self-control. He rarely laughs. He would much rather see you laugh — especially when he’s performing.

Schiff is a rare bird. He’s made a living as a stand-up comic for more than 30 years and is much admired in the fraternity of American comedians. For years, he’s been performing on the road with Jerry Seinfeld (one of his closest friends). Last year, his book, “I Killed,” a compilation of stories of the road from the country’s top comedians, got a glowing review on that most exclusive of book review stages, the Sunday New York Times.

But swing by my neighborhood at around midday on any Shabbat, and chances are you’ll see another Mark Schiff. This is the Orthodox Schiff, who is quietly walking back from synagogue with his wife, Nancy, and one or more of his three sons — part of the procession of observant Jews who grace the streets of our neighborhood during Shabbat.

Over a vegetarian lunch and herbal tea the other day, Schiff was recalling the very beginnings of his comedic and religious influences. As I understood it, he was influenced by “two rebbes”: Rodney Dangerfield and Rabbi Nachum Braverman.

When he was 12, his parents took him to see singer Al Martino at a nightclub in New York, and a young Dangerfield was the opening act. He saw the “physicality” of the act — the unique voice, the disarming honesty, the simplicity of one man in a black suit and red tie making hundreds of people weep with laughter — and he got hooked.

Almost 20 years later, after he had moved to Los Angeles to further his comedy career, a friend took him to a little house in Pico-Robertson to hear “this new rabbi.” Again, he saw a man in a black suit, with a unique voice and a disarming honesty, moving his audience. And again he got hooked. Only this time, instead of being moved by a self-deprecating “I tell you I get no respect” routine, he was moved by Rabbi Braverman’s “learn to discover and respect your Judaism” routine.

It was the beginning of a new life, but certainly not the end of an old one.

One thing I love about Schiff is he doesn’t pretend there’s no conflict between the two sides of his life — between the innate irreverence of comedy and the innate reverence of religion. He gets it. In comedy, you’re supposed to make fun of everything, while in religion, you are commanded to take things seriously. Religion teaches you how to count your blessings; in comedy, you kill if you know how to count (and recount) your kvetches. Comedy wants to touch you in the moment, while religion wants to move you for all moments.

The struggle of Schiff’s life has been to make these opposite worlds peacefully co-exist.

To look at him, it’s easy to see how he pulls it off. For one thing, he’s blessed with a very non-Jewish character trait: He hates drama. Just look at his face. He could be a yoga instructor. It’s the face of a craftsman, of a really good listener, someone who will not rush impulsively into anything (but who can still pounce on you at the right moment with a line like, “Humor was so clean in the old days they called it ‘Hoover Darn'”).

Schiff manages the contradictions between his two worlds by listening carefully to both.

That means he understands boundaries. He might do a slightly off-color routine at the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard and then clean up his act the next night in front of 500 people at a Jewish fundraiser in St. Louis. He knows, for example, that elderly Jews will laugh at racier material if it’s kept in the context of marital relationships — and to never, God forbid, use the term “girlfriend” with that crowd.

One thing that’s always been difficult to reconcile is the fact that Friday night is a big night for comedy, but it’s also the biggest night for observant Jews to stay home with their families. For many years while he was on the road, he tried to find “kosher ways” around that, but now he’s always home for Shabbat. Schiff doesn’t deny that not working Friday nights has hurt his career, but he sees it as a worthy sacrifice to live in two worlds that he deeply loves.

Conflict aside, he’s always felt a certain kinship between his different worlds, like, for example, a reverence for the heroes of the past. You hear him talk about his comedic ancestors, people like Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Sid Caesar and many others, and he might as well be speaking about Torah giants like Rav Soloveitchik and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and their contributions to the Modern Orthodox world to which he belongs.

In the end, though, perhaps what turns him on the most about his two worlds is that they both seek the same thing — a sense of truth. He knows that rabbis and comedians are at their best when they uncover truths that people will intuitively embrace.

Like, for example, asking the mayor of Los Angeles whether you’re allowed to park your car if a parking meter’s broken.

To this day, he still wonders why, after all the laughing had died down, no one could give him a darn straight answer.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Traveling with my father

When I found out my dad was dying of cancer, I spent a lot of time in New York with him and my mom, rather than in Los Angeles, where I was living at the time.

 
One
of the good things about being a road comic is you can live anywhere and book yourself out of wherever you are. Road comics have no office. So New York became my base.

 
My dad loved my act. He thought I was the funniest person in the world. I guess you are the funniest person in the world if someone thinks you are. My dad and mom came to see me at least a hundred times before he died in 1988. He would come and see me wherever I was doing a show. And he always got dressed up for the show.

 
I would say, “Dad, you don’t have to wear a sport coat. I’m at the Comic Strip, not the Copa.” And he’d say, “I don’t care. If I’m going out on a Saturday night with your mother, I’m not going to look like a slob.”

 
I remember him asking me to do certain bits about my mother. He loved it when I talked about how they’d been married so long, she’d sucked the brain out of his head.

 
“She loves when you talk about her,” he said. “Do me a favor. Do that thing about her cleaning the house.”

 
My dad really loved my mom. He was just so proud of her. And with me an only child, we were his life.

 
I remember when my dad had just gotten out of a hospice, and they sent him back home to die. The night he came home, I had a show to do. I said, “Dad, maybe I should stay home instead.” He wouldn’t hear of it. “You go and be funny.” I did.

 
About three days later, I had this gig about two hours away in upstate New York. That afternoon, we were all sitting at the dining room table when my dad said in the weakest of voices, “Can I come with you tonight? I’d really like to see your show.”

 
I knew what he was saying. He was saying: “I really want to see you one more time before I die.”

 
I asked my mom what she thought.

 
“If you think you can handle him, then fine,” she said.

 
My dad was very weak, but he could go a short distance if you helped him. I said “Yeah, I can do it.”

 
That night as we were leaving, my mom said, “You boys have a nice time tonight. I’ve got things to do here at home. Call me when you get there.”

 
So off we headed to my gig. It was a cold winter night, and a light snow fell for most of the drive. We didn’t talk much on the way up. As I remember, my dad slept most of the way, anyway. I kept looking at him as he slept in the car. I cried most of the way up, but that was OK; I was with my dad.

 
When we got to the hotel parking lot, we noticed that it was empty, except for three or four cars. “Hey Marko” my dad said, “Can I drive around the lot?”
My dad loved to drive. He was the one who’d taught me to drive, just a few years earlier, in the empty parking lots of New York on Sunday mornings. He’d done every single bit of the driving for the 39 years he was married to my mother.

 
She never drove once.

 
Now he was asking me to let him drive. “Sure dad,” I said.

 
So I got him around to the driver’s seat, and for two minutes he drove very slowly around the lot. “That’s great,” he said.

 
I helped him park, and we checked into the hotel and went to our room. It was still early, so I helped him off with his pants, and he took a nap. I called my mother, told her we were safe, and she started crying. “Take good care of him. I love him,” she said.

 
I said, “I love him, too, and I also love you.”

 
At about 8 p.m., we went over to the club, which was attached to the hotel.
Before we went in, my dad said, “Thank you for taking me.”

 
I said, “You’re welcome. Thank you for being a great father.”

 
Then he asked me to do the routine about my mother that he always liked. I did them all for him.

 
A few weeks later, he died. About a year later, my mother came to see me work.

 
On the way to the club, she asked me to do the routines about my father. I kissed her on the head and said sure. I also did the ones about her, because I knew he would have wanted to hear them.

 

Mark Schiff is a standup comedian who has been on all the major talk shows and has recently been touring with Jerry Seinfeld. “I Killed: True Stories of the Road From America’s Top Comics” is his first book.

Comedy Is Not Pretty

Mark Schiff’s friends looked at him funny after reading an early version of his play, “The Comic.” “It ends with a murder-suicide,” the comedian concedes. “But it’s funny.”

The play revisits the years when Schiff spent 30 weeks a year on the road, playing Tuesday-night crowds with nine people in the audience, telephones ringing throughout his act. “The Comic” recalls the smelly, divey motels he stayed in and the chronic loneliness. “It gets to the point where every town looks the same,” says Schiff, who was one of Johnny Carson’s favorite comics. “You eat every meal by yourself, you spend all day by yourself, and you’re a comedian onstage by yourself. You lay around for 17 hours a day, watching TV and eating bad food.”

The isolation got so bad that Schiff used to tear up every time he glanced at photographs of his wife and kids. At first, he hid the photos. But by 1990, he had had enough.

The character of Sid, the washed-up 58-year-old comedian of “The Comic,” first came to Schiff as a caveat to himself, a warning to get off the road. “These old guys get tortured,” he says of some old-timers he’s known. “They’re like cars with 500,000 miles on them. They’re tired, wrecked, bitter. They’re doing the same trick, over and over. They’ve given up.”

Instead of continuing to fill his inner emptiness with the fleeting attention of the stage, Schiff decided to begin a journey toward observant Judaism. He cut back his road trips to corporate and cruise gigs. He reinvented himself as a writer, serving on the staff of the TV show “Mad About You.” Finally, he penned his first play, “The Comic,” which focused on the limbo of the road.

Schiff actually hoped to write plays since he was 16, when he’d sneak into Broadway shows at intermission. Instead, he chucked his theatrical ambitions for the “instant gratification of standup comedy,” he says.

Finally, at 44, Schiff’s first play is being staged by arcade; one of the artistic directors is ex-comic Michael Patrick King of “Sex and the City.” “I’m nervous,” admits Schiff, who elected not to star in his play. “Writing it was painful enough. I didn’t want to live in it.”

“The Comic” shows Nov. 15-19 at arcade, 8741 Washington Blvd., Culver City (in the historic Helms Bakery). Admission is free, but reservations are essential: (310) 253-9097.

Purim All Year

A year after my father’s unexpected death from a kidney transplant, I returned home.

Six months earlier, my mother had sold our house, the one I had lived in my entire life. The synagogue was the same. The family was the same. Their friends were the same.

Only one thing was different. It didn’t feel like home.

“The drawers are different,” I told her.

“I know.”

“Where’s the extra soap?”

“Linen closet.”

“You have a linen closet?”

“I know.”

I had come for the holidays. Ten days. A New Year, then Day of Atonement.

“Tzedakeh in the puskeh,” she reminded me.

“Where’d you put it?” I asked her.

“Don’t be smart,” she said.

Rosh Hashanah passed with apples, challah and honey, and aunts and uncles pressing me to them just a little too hard. “Good Yontov,” they exclaimed so cheerily, their faces pinched with hiding, baring too many teeth.

A sweet new year, they toasted with sticky sweet wine.

“Next year in Byzantium,” echoed Bubbe, “… or wherever.”

He had been her son. The second she lost in as many years.

Four days down.

“Go to the cemetery,” my mother had said, more than half a dozen times since I’d been home. “You should go to the cemetery.”

I didn’t want to. But how could I say that?

“It’s proper. It’s right,” she insisted. “It’s a sign of respect.”

“It smells in here.”

“Do you hear me?”

“Did you just get new carpeting?”

“Ellie.”

“What else did you throw out?”

“I’m only going to say this one more time.”

“It’s not like he’s there!” I yelled, my first outburst.

She looked at me surprised. You of all people.

“I’ve gone to shul, I’ve said the prayers. I came home. Isn’t it enough?”

“No,” she said, so quietly.

“It’s not like I don’t talk to him anyway. I don’t need a monument to — there’s nothing to do with …”

But she was gone. Finally, she didn’t want to discuss it any longer.

Eight days down.

I visited my grandmothers. We sat with our feet up, talked about nothing, and ate a lot of sugar. Neither suggested I go to the cemetery.

“Do what you want,” Bubbe said.

“Just be nice to your mother,” Nana said.

I wanted to do what was right. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. Nothing could have left a larger void in my life than his death. And no one was questioning my love, least of all my mother, who knew best of all.

Nine days.

Friday evening, the night before I left, we broke fast with relatives after our day of starvation and prayer, bitterness and wishing, hoping, cursing and crying. Completely drained, I got into my car and headed back to my mother’s new place alone.

The car took the route it always had under my hands. From Nana’s, off the fork to the right, down the long street and right on —

I stopped. Inches shy of turning up the driveway, I realized. The radio started playing some incredibly sappy song. I looked to my right. My old house.

The driveway where he taught me to pitch a softball. The road he had pushed my two- wheeler along (“peddle, peddle, peddle!”) ’til I could go on my own. A house where we sat together at a piano singing “Fiddler on the Roof” songs, just this much off-key. Graduation photos in the driveway, yelling around the kitchen table and late-night movies after everyone else had gone to sleep. And I realized.

This was the place my father was buried. This was where his spirit lived and reigned, no matter what name was on the mailbox. Twenty-five years in one house. Two sons, one daughter, a wedding, two bar mitzvahs, a basketball net, a mortgage, a life. We had walked around the house after the shiva, we had let his spirit go. But he remained. His final resting spot.

I cried the entire length of the song, and turned around in the driveway to go home, to my mother’s condo.

I had made it to the cemetery after all.


Award-winning Chicago-based playwright, actress, choreographer and educator Jamie Pachino has served on the faculty of Columbia College and the Chicago Academy for the Arts.

Mr. Schiff Tries for Washington

I am a comedian and I have been lucky enough to have worked in my business for 20 years. This is a huge thing because most people in comedy never even work 20 days in 20 years. I have also been blessed to be part of a great group of comedians who have emerged in that time. Three of them are not just my peers, but also good friends. I both love and respect them as comedians and as human beings. Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser and Larry Miller.

I started in New York with these three comics. We saw each other practically every night during the first five years of our careers. We would get to the comedy club around 9 p.m. and go home around 4 a.m. We slept until noon practically everyday, unless we had an audition or a dentist appointment. At that point in our careers, we had two auditions and one dental appointment a year.

We worked at “showcase clubs,” which meant we weren’t paid. If a club owner liked you, he would feed you dinner and give you a drink or two. The club owners made it known to us that what we were doing wasn’t about money, but rather, it was about being funny. It was a nice concept, but try telling that to a New York landlord.

Seinfeld, Reiser, Miller and myself worked hard on our comic careers, but after five years, working day and night, seven-days-a-week with time off only if you were having a near death experience, each night we were only earning a burger, a Coke and about $6. We made a commitment to each other, though, to stay friends and to stay in touch forever. We went as far as saying, for the rest of our lives, we would meet every New Year’s Day for lunch and a few good laughs.

That was 1980, and so far we have done that.

Cut to 20 years later. Seinfeld, Miller and Reiser are still my friends and well, thank God, none of us is working for chopped meat. We mostly live in Los Angeles now, except for Seinfeld, but we still meet as a group every New Year’s Day in New York. So this year, on Dec. 28, my wife and I flew to New York to hang with my buddies and their wives.

Seinfeld put us up at the Trump International Hotel on Central Park West. When we first started in comedy, we would stay in cheap and dirty hotels. But The Trump International was incredible. It’s referred to as a “Preferred Hotel.” In other words, the owners prefer you have a lot of money.

The next night we were off to Broadway. Seinfeld had purchased tickets for himself and his new bride, Jessica, and a group of us to go see Jackie Mason’s new Broadway show. Mason is perhaps the funniest man in the world. Before the show, a few of us made a bet on how many times Jackie would actually use the word “Jew” in his show. We lost count around the 6000th time.

After the show, we went back to see Mason. He asked everyone if they were Jewish, then Mason told Seinfeld that he had always hoped he would be successful, but not as successful as he is. Mason heard a few years back that I had started going to synagogue and every time he sees me he asks if I’ve become a rabbi yet. Then he talked to us about how terrific his show is and how long it’s going to run.

From there, we went out to a restaurant that Seinfeld had arranged. During dinner, about five or six other writers and comedians stopped by the restaurant to say hello to us. Somehow performers know where other performers are, especially if there might be a free meal and some drinks attached.

Seinfeld picked up the dinner tab for all of us and off we went. After dinner, I went over to thank him for the tickets, dinner and the hotel and said, “Listen. It looks like you’re going to pay for everything, so why don’t you just give me your credit card and I won’t have to bother you.” We laughed. Then he tipped the coat guy for all of us.

The next day was New Year’s Eve. Seinfeld was throwing a party at his apartment that overlooks Central Park and half of Manhattan. It is really a spectacular view. Since it was Friday night, my wife and I first walked over to Shlomo Carlbach’s old shul to daven and we then had Shabbas dinner with our friends, the Jacoby’s. Around 9:30 p.m., we walked over to Seinfeld’s for the party and to bring in the new millennium. Shabbos dinner was the first time in two days that Seinfeld didn’t pay for our meal. But if I asked him, I’m sure he would have.

New Year’s Day was just for the guys. Seinfeld, Reiser, Miller and myself met for our annual New Year’s Day brunch. No matter how busy we are, we still make this one day a priority. And boy, have we gotten busy. Jerry and Paul with their hit shows and millions of other commitments that go along with it. Paul, married and the father of one son. Larry, a veteran of 30 movies, endless sitcoms, a wife and two kids. Me, with my wife and three kids, and endless roadwork and writing assignments. Nevertheless, I believe, only once in 20 years did one of us miss the New Year’s Day brunch.

In the last 20 years, only twice was our annual brunch not in New York. One year it was in Los Angeles, which is the wrong place to celebrate almost anything. And one year, we went to Paris for lunch. That’s right. Paris for lunch. Reiser was in Europe working on a movie and could not break away to return to New York for brunch so we brought the brunch to him (anything not to break tradition). I’ll never forget walking down the Champs Elysées with Reiser and him saying “As long as I’m in the area, I should pick up some parts for my Peugot.”

The way the day works is simple. We meet around 11 a.m and keep going until we all feel it’s over or until we’re just out of jokes and don’t feel like making the other guys laugh anymore. When we were younger and not married, the day lasted longer than now but we still manage about eight or nine hours together these days. After a few minutes together, we all share jokes we picked up from the past year. Reiser is a great joke teller. One of the reasons is because he just loves to tell them. Not many people can tell a joke well, but Reiser is an expert at it. If I ever feel down, I know I can call Paul and he will have one or two new ones to pick me up.

We then head for Brooklyn for brunch. A running joke each year is when we get to the restaurant and are seated at our usual table for brunch, we ask Robert, our same waiter for the past 20 years, “how is the squab?” He always says “We don’t have squab,” and the four of us throw down our napkins and pretend to walk out of the restaurant disgusted. When we get about halfway out, we turn around and go back to our seats. The lunch is always good, but the main course is really the different stories each one of us brings to the table from the past year. And with our group, there are always some good ones.

After lunch, we do the one activity that officially puts the past year behind us and starts the clock ticking on the new year. We walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. That is one of the greatest walks in the world. You can never be on the Brooklyn Bridge and see the same thing twice. It truly is an amazing place. We also have a tradition that if the weather is too cold, we first stop near Chinatown and buy four Russian fur hats with the flaps and chin straps so we can keep warm when we walk over the bridge. I must have 10 of these now. Some years it’s been 15 or 20 below zero on top of the bridge. I carry a camera and often have to ask people to take pictures of the four of us. They are always shocked when they look through the camera and see who the four of us are. When we get to the halfway mark on the bridge, we kiss the old year goodbye and smile and wish each other well for the year to come.

Sometimes, if someone is in need of a prayer, for whatever reason, we stop and say it for him as a group. The older I get, the more I realize that good friends are not easy to come by. And maintaining friendships seems to get more complicated rather than easier. But when you put in the time and effort to maintain friendships like the four of us have done, I find you have something that is irreplaceable. This year, I thought to myself, “You know, Mark. You really have a great life. You have a great wife, great kid
s, and great friends. You’re a lucky guy.”

A lot of people are always asking, “have these guys changed with all of their successes?” The answer is that we have all changed. We are not the same guys we were 20 years ago. We are all different and that’s why we are still friends. We always have new and exciting things to bring to the relationship whenever we talk with or see each other. The fact is, in our hearts, we are still comics that love doing what we do and enjoy the company of other funny people. There are few things in this life that are better than hanging out with some of the funniest people in the world. If that doesn’t make you feel better, then nothing will.


Mark Schiff is a comedian, writer and actor
in Los Angeles