By Danielle Cantor
Success came quickly to comedienne Carol Leifer after David Letterman discovered her in a Manhattan comedy club in the 1980s. Since her first performance on Late Night With David Letterman (there've been 25 in all), the Long Island native has made countless appearances on programs of every kind, and written side-splitting scripts for TV series like The Larry Sanders Show, Saturday Night Live, and most famously, Seinfeld. (Two words: marble rye.) In 2004 Leifer became an adult bat mitzvah; three years later, at age 50, she became a proud first-time parent to son Bruno (adopted with partner Lori Wolf, whom she met in 1996, ten years after her divorce). On page, on stage or on screen, Leifer's inner monologue shines through and illuminates even the most mundane topics—foreign currency; automatic-flush toilets—with brilliant hilarity. Her first book of essays, When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win (Villard, $24), goes on sale in April 2009.
Has it become difficult to be a comedy writer in a reality show world?
It has, you know. Reality shows have really decimated sitcoms and scripted shows. The networks buy so many less scripts now and it’s not getting better. I’m glad I started the process with my book a couple years ago, because the landscape is getting tougher and tougher. I learned early on, when I started in standup clubs, that to have a long career we need to diversify. So I went from standup into sitcom writing, and now hopefully writing these essays and books will be a new arm of my career.
What do you think the prevalence of reality programming says about the entertainment industry, and about American audiences?
Reality TV is a little bit like junk food—you don’t necessarily wan to eat a Snickers bar but if it’s in front of you, you’re like, “Hey, what the hell.” Reality shows are so much cheaper than scripted, and in this economy everybody is cutting corners, so I’m not surprised they put on as much reality as they do. In a way I think it also makes scripted TV better: I watch I Survived on Discovery and think, “This is what I’m up against—a person telling a compelling story,” and it inspires me to create better writing.
Looking back, what was the best part of working on Seinfeld?
The best thing about that show was, honestly, the lunches. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David ran that show very differently than most sitcoms. Most shows have a writers’ room where you work all day, but on Seinfeld most of the individual writers would go off and work on their own. But we’d all have lunch together every day, and having all those people in one room, the funniest people I know, were some of the best times I’ve had in my life. I have a lot of career left, but it’ll be a tough experience to beat.
What would you tell your 25-year-old self about life at age 50?
“Don’t sweat the small stuff—and 99 percent of it is small stuff.” I look back on so many things I used to get upset about, and it really turned out in the big picture not to be anything. You can get hung up on so many small things. But it goes quickly, and the idea is to really enjoy it while it’s happening. Stay in the moment and enjoy what you have.
What’s your take on the writers’ strikes that shut down TV production last year?
It was really unfortunate. That was work that all those writers, myself included, will never get back: It’s tough not to work for one-third of the year. But it was something that had to be done. As there’s more and more media that’s not even aware of what it will be 10, 20 years from now, you have to take a firm stance. The great thing about it was, I met people picketing I’d never met before—like Peter Farrelly, one of the Farrelly brothers, and now we’re developing a pilot together.
Obviously those in front of the camera are under pressure to stay young, but is there an age bias among writers?
I think ageism is everywhere. We live in a youth culture and it’s important for us to stay current. I don’t want to say ‘stay young’ because you’re not young anymore in your 50s. But it’s really just about your attitude. I’m glad there’s an audience out there for books like mine. It’s nice to write these pieces, being at my age, and kind of reflect on things with perspective I wouldn’t have had at 25. I don’t think people realize what kind of gold there is in aging. I’m so much more confident than I was when I young. I think at this age you really get a good game plan of how to look at life.
When did you know you wanted to be a comedienne? To write? Which came first for you?
I always liked to perform when I was a kid, I was always funny. It was something that early on I just knew I wanted to do. I even left Binghamton University to do standup in New York. So I’m just so lucky to have found what I love so early.
Which do you prefer—writing or performing?
I like doing a little of it all. Sometimes when I'm in a long jag of writing essays, being alone in my office for hours, and then I go down to a comedy club to do some new material, it's a nice change. And then when I've done a week at the Improv in Las Vegas, 12 shows in five nights, it's nice to go home to the solitude of my office. What I've always loved about writing is that nobody can ever stop you from doing it. You don't have to wait for someone to invite you to write, you just do it. I'm glad that I sought out a lot of different areas, not just one.
After David Letterman discovered you in a Manhattan comedy club, you went on to appear on Late Night 25 times and your career took off from there. Do you credit him with giving you your big break?
I do, I really do. I had only been doing standup for a couple years when he recommended me to The Tonight Show. And when he came into the Comic Strip, I was unaware he was there. And in the 1980s he gave me carte blanche to come on Late Night whenever I had a set ready and wanted to go.
I understand Frank Sinatra had some flattering words for you after you opened for him. That must have been a fine moment.
He was such a gentleman to work for; it really is the absolute highlight of all my years in show business to open for a legend like that. He said, "I wish my mother had been that funny, I wouldn't have had to work so hard." What a class act. Once I was done with my set he would bring me back on stage for a bow.
You wrote some of Seinfeld’s most memorable episodes, like “The Rye” and “The Hamptons.” How do you feel when you hear people quoting scenes you created?
It’s really an honor—after I wrote that episode about the marble rye bread, I remember going to a deli out here in L.A., and they had a sign that said, “We have marble rye, as featured on Seinfeld.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And the show incorporated so many Jewish terms into our culture—like babka; and marble rye, a Jewish bread. To have affected the culture like it has, it’s been phenomenal.
Name three momentous occasions in your career—good, bad or ugly.
Doing the Letterman show for the first time, which was my network television debut; and opening for Sinatra. Those were fantastic. Nothing has been devastating in my career. I had a sitcom on the WB network that was very well-reviewed but was only on for a year, and I’m sorry that it didn’t go longer because it was really a dream to do.
Your Dad was a funny man. How much of one’s sense of humor do you think is inherited by nature, and how much is learned?
I like to feel it’s genetic, because my father was so inherently funny. But there is the nurture part of it. I was just raised on comedy, with him calling us down to watch every comedian on the Ed Sullivan Show, listening to Jewish comedy records… So I was just inundated with this appreciation for comedy. And now I have a son—an adopted son, so there’s no DNA there—but I’m telling you, this kid’s got it. He’s just so funny. And I know it’s largely from just being around our home.
In the first chapter of your book you discuss your father and accepting a parent’s death. Do you remember when you realized that he wouldn’t be around forever?
I do, very specifically. My parents came out to visit me in L.A. right after I moved here. My Dad drove me to a step aerobics class and he waited for me in the back, and the teacher, not knowing he was my father, said, “Who’s the old guy in the back?” And I remember on another visit my father walking more slowly, having to wait up for him more. It’s tough to see: My Dad is such a hero to me and my whole family, and when parents get older and weaker it’s very hard to watch. I think of my father so much now. So, he’s not here—but he is everywhere. He always passed down to me a real love for Judaism, which my partner has too, and we’re passing that down to our son.
How does your relationship with Judaism today—after your adult bat mitzvah—differ from the way you experienced religion before?
The best thing to me about the b’nai mitzvah is that I understand everything more: I like going to services and being able to read the prayers and know what they’re about. It was all so strange to me before, even though I felt culturally Jewish, and now it’s great to understand the playbook. And our son now is at a Jewish day school, and I like that he’s learning this stuff early in a way I didn’t.
Did the Jewish cultural ideal of family life drive you toward marriage, or perhaps deafen you to your own true sexuality?
I just kinda made a dumb mistake. My ex-husband—and we’re still friends—we dated and it should have stayed at that. We had a great time and a fun relationship but I think both of us would agree now we just shouldn’t have gotten married. But I don’t think that was affected at all by my Judaism.
You write about being excited and rather determined the first time you approached sex with a woman, but were you scared when you realized you were falling in love—particularly with the first woman you dated?
I really didn’t expect that to happen. I thought it would be an affair or a fun fling and that would be it. That was scary at the beginning, because you identify as this person your whole life and then realize, “Oh my God, I think I’m gay.” And you have to get used to having this new identity. But when I stopped fighting it, it became wonderful.
Your parents were very accepting when you told them you were gay. Was that the reaction you’d expected?
I really just thought they would be disappointed, and to a Jewish child, you live in fear of disappointing your parents. I think I underestimated the power of love. My parents love me, and if I met a woman and fell in love, so be it.
Have you been active campaigning against Proposition 8? Would you and your partner like to be legally married?
We were very involved with that issue and were devastated that it didn’t pass. We’d definitely like to be married. But we’re real holdouts—we’d like to wait until it’s legal on a federal level. People don’t realize that even if it’s legal in your state you don’t have all the rights you would if it was federal policy. People who are against gay marriage are people who don’t have any gay people in their lives. And when they do get to know gay people, they realize gay marriage doesn’t have any impact on their lives. I do think we’ll have the right soon that we didn’t have before.
Becoming a parent later in life, has the experience changed you in ways it wouldn’t have affected you 10 or 20 years ago?
I really never thought I’d have children, ever. It was really my partner Lori who wanted to have a child. So I kind of did it because it was so important to her. But I had no idea until he showed up in our lives how amazing parenthood is and what a joyous and rehabilitative experience it is; I feel kind of reborn being a parent. You see the world through their eyes.