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 kids, 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