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Mark Schiff: Laughs from the Heart

In his new book, “Why Not? Lessons in Comedy, Courage and Chutzpah,” LA comic Mark Schiff finds the humor and humanity in the things we care most about.
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December 1, 2022

Perhaps the most important thing to know about comic Mark Schiff is that he rarely cracks up. Or at least, he rarely cracks up in public. I’m the opposite. If I hear something funny, I will laugh hard enough that pretty much everyone in my congressional district will hear about it. I’ve known Mark for a long time, and we’ve had more than a few interactions when something funny will come up. It’s the same pattern each time: I unravel in belly laughs while he’ll look at me with a straight face. Sometimes, maybe as a sign of compassion, he’ll show the smallest hint of a smile so I won’t feel too alone.

Mark’s first gig

I’ve often wondered about this incredible capacity to hear something funny and keep a straight face. Mark is hardly the first comedian to have that talent, or should I say discipline. But he’s the only one that I know personally. You see, growing up in Montreal, where laughing among friends was a full-time activity, no one kept a straight face. In various degrees, depending on who was the butt of a joke, we all cracked up, even when stuff wasn’t that funny. Laughing itself was our mission — the sign of a happy life, the consummation of one of life’s easiest and greatest pleasures.

So why would a funny man like Mark Schiff not partake in this pleasure? I can only surmise from what I know of him. Maybe he’s so devoted to his audience that he wants them to have all the laughs. Maybe he sees laughing as an indulgent luxury that will make him complacent and lose his edge. Maybe, subconsciously, he sees laughing as suggesting to the audience that it should laugh too, which no comic likes to do.

It’s probably some or all of the above, but I think there’s something else: Mark keeps a straight face so that a volcano of great material will keep burning inside of him. As long as he holds back on the belly laughs, the material will keep bubbling safely inside, always hot, always deep, always ready to be molded and eventually shared with the world.

And when he does share, boy does he share. 

With Paul Reiser, Jerry Seinfeld, Mike Cain, Larry Miller and Steve Mittleman

Many years ago, he wrote a column about his father’s last days that moved me so much it encouraged me to become a columnist. I can still remember the image he painted of driving up on a cold winter night on the East coast with his sleepy father, who wanted to see Mark perform one last time. Mark told the story matter-of-factly and with no schmaltz; it came out like lava from a tender heart.

This generous and revealing gene is in full bloom in Mark’s new book, “Why Not? Lessons in Comedy, Courage and Chutzpah.”

The book is a look back on Mark’s life, but it’s not one of those memoirs where a life story is told in one long volume. Rather, “Why Not?” is a collection of columns that fall under categories such as Age, Community, Dieting, Family, Friends, Hope, Kindness, Marriage, Parenting, Self-Help, Famous Friends, and so on. The columns, many of which will feel familiar to those who read him in the Journal, are like mini standup routines where Mark gives us something deeply human and funny in return for a few minutes of our time.

One can just imagine Mark debating with himself whether or not to reveal something personal and intimate, and then concluding: “Why not? The readers will love it.” 

The columns are often so revealing that they pay off nicely the book’s title. One can just imagine Mark debating with himself whether or not to reveal something personal and intimate, and then concluding: “Why not? The readers will love it.”  

With Milton Berle

In “Craving Community,” he recalls: “When I was growing up, I had no community. My family didn’t belong to a synagogue. My mother would say, ‘All they want is money.’ And I rarely, if ever, visited other family members. My mother would say, ‘Whatever you ask them for, it’s always no,’ so we didn’t visit.

“I was a Boy Scout for a short time, which I enjoyed until I got pink bellied and kicked out for stealing a flashlight I didn’t steal. I didn’t have many friends because they thought I was nuts. And since I was an only child, evenings were pretty much Mom, Dad and me.”

He then tells the tale of how he ended up having two communities that continually nourish him — the stand-up comedy community and the L.A. Jewish community.

“I would see the same people every night at the clubs,” he writes, “and we shared a common bond in comedy … many of my comedian friends had felt the same loneliness I’d felt growing up. It was an amazing time being with a group of people who on a daily basis were trying to get better at something that few other people had any interest in doing.”

He discovered the Jewish community when he “saw a poster advertising a Torah class and went. Not because I wanted to learn Torah, but because I was lonesome and thought there’d be girls there.”

With Johnny Carson

He was a “live wire” at the time, until he met a rabbi and his wife, who helped ground him. “They invited me for Shabbos dinners and lunches and told me to come back anytime,” he writes. “I’m a literalist and took them up on it. I would show up, mostly on Saturdays, uninvited for Shabbos lunch. They never blinked.”

In “A Valued Customer,” he recounts the sorry state of modern customer service. “When I was growing up,” he writes, “every business answered their phone. Not so anymore. Some businesses don’t seem to even have a phone. Eventually even the suicide hotline might start putting people on hold. ‘Please hold, we have two jumpers in front of you.’” 

In “Ruby: A Lesson in Kindness,” Mark writes about a secret relationship he had when he was 15 with a petty crook named Ruby, a “loser with hope.” They hung out in poolrooms and at the racetrack. Ruby, who was “about fifty,” taught Mark a few lessons in kindness. “When we talked, he was always soft-spoken and gentle. Even when he lost all his money, which was often, he never got angry at me.”

When Ruby disappears from Mark’s life, after a fruitless search Mark comes to realize that “in hindsight, I consider his disappearing from my life an act of kindness. I cannot see how it would have ended well.”

In “They Are Back,” he describes his home life after his three sons graduated college and left home: “My wife and I became empty nesters and were living the life. For dinner, if we wanted we were free to eat Frosted Flakes fricassee.“ 

In “They Are Back,” he describes his home life after his three sons graduated college and left home: “My wife and I became empty nesters and were living the life. For dinner, if we wanted we were free to eat Frosted Flakes fricassee. Then, like a couple of old winos, we could fall asleep with the TV blasting away.”

At the Laugh Factory

Eventually, a few of the kids moved back in temporarily. On one kid’s first day back, Schiff writes, “While I was showering, he banged on the bathroom door so hard I thought the house was on fire. He yelled, ‘How much longer till you’re done?’ Thank God he is now married and back out.”

In “Nap Time,” Schiff confesses that at “almost any play, movie, event, or talk that I attend, I fall sound asleep during at least some of it … I also fall asleep every time I open a book and start reading in bed. I have one book I’ve been reading for about 12 years.”

Since gratitude permeates Mark’s life, he has developed a sharp eye for the silver lining. 

Since gratitude permeates Mark’s life, he has developed a sharp eye for the silver lining. Regarding his napping habit, he writes: “The good news is I don’t ever feel like I’ve wasted my money or missed out on anything by falling asleep. I’m always happy and grateful after a solid nap. If there is something good to be found in my falling asleep, it is that I don’t snore or bob my head up and down like some junkie in a crack house stairwell.”

In “Keep Your Two Cents to Yourself,” Mark weighs in on the value of restraint. He tells the story of being hurt by an offensive email from an old friend. “I was slightly upset for a few hours. More shocked than upset. And then I said to myself: ‘Do I want to enter this world of hate with him?’ The answer was no. If I had stayed in … I knew I would have to get real mean.”

“Before you send that email or you say to that person what you really think of him or her,” he advises, “put a penny in your mouth and suck on it until it melts.” 

“Before you send that email or you say to that person what you really think of him or her,” he advises, “put a penny in your mouth and suck on it until it melts.” 

In “Caesars to Cedars,” Mark starts by telling us about fourteen shows he performed on the Las Vegas Strip. “In an expensive suit, shiny shoes, and with polished teeth,” he writes, “I busted them up.”

Then, over Shabbat lunch back in Los Angeles, someone tells him how good he looks. In superstitious lore, that was the “kiss of death.” That night, he writes, “I awoke with a familiar stomach pain. This pain is like a bad relative. As much as you try to forget it or them, you can’t.” Soon enough, he was in so much pain that he ended up in the emergency room in need of surgery.

”I called my wife and started crying. She also started crying when she realized how little life insurance I had.”

“While I was lying in the hallway,” he writes, “a nurse with a clipboard asked me that, if necessary, did I want to be resuscitated? I told her to ask my wife. She said I had to answer this question on my own. I wanted to explain to her that I’m a Jewish husband and am not allowed to answer questions, but I mumbled ‘yes.’ I called my wife and started crying. She also started crying when she realized how little life insurance I had.”

With Jerry Seinfeld, who wrote the foreword to Mark’s book

In “Consult Your Doctor,” he rails against the foibles of technology. “I used to spend more time with myself and other people,” he writes. “Now I spend more time with devices.” These devices, he reminds us, “don’t care a hoot about us human beings … Good friends or family will tell you things because they care about you. When’s the last time your iPhone said, ‘You look tired’ or ‘Go to sleep; I don’t want you to get sick’ or ‘You should call your mother and apologize for yelling at her’ or ‘Dinner’s on me tonight?’” 

Go to any restaurant, he says, “and you’ll see people staring at their phones instead of the people they are with. Even sitting alone for a few minutes and doing nothing has become a thing of the past.” Which of course gave him an idea for an article “about how hard it is nowadays to just sit and do nothing.”

Mark has some famous friends, most notably Jerry Seinfeld, who he met on the New York comedy circuit in the summer of 1976. “We became friends instantly and had millions of 2:00 a.m. breakfasts at all-night diners around the city,” Seinfeld writes in the foreword to the book. “We still work together doing dozens of performance dates all over the country every year.”

Since Seinfeld knows Mark so well, it’s worth noting what he says about him: “The thing I love about Mark is that his love of comedy is so pure. We still sit in diners talking about how it works and doesn’t.”

Since Seinfeld knows Mark so well, it’s worth noting what he says about him: “The thing I love about Mark is that his love of comedy is so pure. We still sit in diners talking about how it works and doesn’t and who’s doing what and how that’s working or isn’t.”

I got to see Mark in spontaneous action when we spent the better part of two days on Pico Boulevard shooting a video for the Journal gala. The idea was simply to look for anyone who reads the Journal and ask them to talk about it. Armed with his straight face, Mark talked to virtually anyone who fell in his path, Jew or non-Jew, young or old, male or female, religious or not, reader or non-reader.

If someone walked by who looked like a homeless person, Mark would talk to them. If he saw a sign about “grass-fed beef” in a Persian restaurant, he would improvise a routine about cows who were fed marijuana. Over two days, I witnessed a comic with a sharp eye for both humor and humanity, which for him is often the same thing.

There is plenty of humanity in “’B Positive’ is Not Just a Blood Type,” a story about Menachem Green, who discovers at 32 that he has a rare eye disease that will make him blind.

“I met Green a few years ago when his vision was unimpaired,” Mark writes. “Then on Shabbos a few weeks ago, I was walking with my wife and I saw Green with a cane, Ray Charles-type sunglasses and a young woman. I said, ‘Hey, Menachem. It’s Mark Schiff.’ With a big smile, he said, ‘The funny man. You want to hear a blind joke?’ ‘Sure do,’ I said. We traded blind jokes and then he told me a little about what happened.” 

If he feels strongly enough about something, Mark is not above asking his readers for help. “Green said he loves working and being around people,” he writes. “He currently doesn’t have a job. He’s receiving financial assistance but would rather have a job. He needs a break. He needs some nachas. He needs someone to take a chance on him.”

In “The Nearness of You,” Mark quotes from the song of the same name, by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington: “It isn’t sweet conversation/That brings this sensation, oh no /It’s just the nearness of you.”

The column is about his father, who died when Mark was 36. “Did I really get to know him?” he wonders. “No. I knew only a few facts about his childhood and adolescence. My father was a quiet man with a quiet soul. He didn’t say much, and he didn’t get involved in big events … When I was a kid, I only saw him for about an hour and a half a day. Sometimes we’d both sit in bed in our boxers and polish off a pint of ice cream while watching TV. Anytime spent with him was valuable to me. We really didn’t need to talk.”

With his wife Nancy, and Jackie Mason

The bottom line, he concludes, is that “sometimes you just need to be near the people you love … When one of my kids calls and asks me to go for a ride with him to get a haircut, I go. When the other kid asks me to go to a ball game, I go. When my wife asks if I want to go to Ralphs supermarket with her, I go. Not because I think any huge event is going to happen. Not because I’m going to get an answer to a life problem that’s been plaguing me for years. Not because I need to find out anything new about them. 

“I just go so I can be near them. I go so I can be the first to see the new haircut. I go to share a bag of peanuts at the ball game. I go so I can hear a question like, ‘Do we need pickles?’ 

“I go because one day I won’t be able to go any more. I know it and they know it. We don’t talk about it, but we know it.”

It’s hard to imagine an idea simpler and more poignant than to do stuff with those you love because one day you won’t be able to.

If his love of comedy is so pure, as Seinfeld says, his love of humanity is at least equally pure and searching. 

Just like in his podcast, “You Don’t Know Schiff,” which he hosts with Lowell Benjamin and which promises “funny and deep” conversations, his new book is full of funny and deep observations that linger with you. Mark has dug deep on our behalf. If his love of comedy is so pure, as Seinfeld says, his love of humanity is at least equally pure and searching.

No wonder the man rarely cracks up. He’s too busy trying to touch our hearts.

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