October 12, 2006
Will kill for laughs
"Comics, that gifted, exclusive society of professional fools." -- Larry Gelbart in his book, "Laughing Matters"
Stand-up comic Mark Schiff is sitting in his tiny office on Pico, near the Museum of Tolerance, talking about the time he played the Knesset.
"I pointed to the Chagalls and did the old line: 'What a dump.'"
He kids the Knesset. But Schiff knows from dumps. In 25 years of doing comedy, he's performed in some real ones. Now he and standup guy/pal Ritch Shydner have collected stories from their fellow pro fools in a book called, "I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America's Top Comics."
"I Killed" features headliners like Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Jonathan Winters and Shelley Berman for the first time telling tales away from the "comedy caravans" and "yuk-yuks" and even yuckier joints they endured while perfecting their craft.
"People don't know much about this life," says Schiff, wearing a long-sleeved shirt with pictures of Fat Albert and the Cosby kids all over it, as he stuffed books into mailing pouches with co-compiler Shydner. "A lot of my heroes were road guys like Kerouac and Woody Guthrie. These guys would go out for years and never look back. I always came back."
In the book's foreword, Seinfeld says there are just "four Great Jobs in the world: baseball player, race-car driver, professional surfer or standup comedian."
What? Not rock musician?
"He doesn't like jobs where you have to drag a lot of equipment," explains Schiff, who tours with Seinfeld. "It's not a big Jewish job. We don't like to drag a lot of things. We carry a diamond, we carry a microphone...."
And some, like Schiff, after gigging for giggles throughout this great entertainment nation, make it onto "The Tonight Show," the Promised Land for stand-ups (the book is dedicated to hosts Jack Paar, Steve Allen and Johnny Carson.) Other "road monkeys" never make it out of the bare-wall bars of Moline ("Death of a Joke Salesman," anybody?), but from Ashville to Anchorage, comedic troubadours are truly brave.
"I Killed" reveals the road to laughs sure ain't paved with pretty. Flop sweating in front of eight people, bunking in trashed out "comedy condos" because brutal club owners skim on accommodations -- comedians learn on the job, dancing that fine line between failure ("I died") and a laugh ("I killed") all because of the way they emphasize a single syllable sometimes. The camaraderie and competition, self-loathing and loneliness, the disgusting incidents with jazzman Kenny G. It's all in here. Paul Reiser, Bob Saget, Steven Wright, Lewis Black and Rick Overton, all also featured in the hilarious documentary, "The Aristocrats," share outrageous adventures. Here is Rita Rudner standing outdoors on a crate doing her act in somebody's car headlights. Mike Myers chased by wolves. Richard Belzer sucking the gas out of whipped cream bottles before going onstage. All this nonstop "bombing" and "killing." And all for the greatest of involuntary causes: laughter.
Like many successful comedians (Jan Murray, et. al.) Schiff began in the Bronx. He knew he wanted to do comedy at the age of 12 when his parents took him to see Rodney Dangerfield. ("I Killed" is full of funny tales about Dangerfield; he was beloved by fellow performers.) When Schiff started there were only a dozen clubs, but by the mid-'80s, with franchises like The Funny Bone and The Punch Line, the scene exploded, spreading stand up from strip joints to strip malls.
"You never know quite what you're gonna meet on the road," Schiff says.
"Everything from a woman with an axe to a woman who will marry you."
Get the book to read about D.L. Hughley's hatchet job, but Schiff actually did meet his wife at a comedy club. In San Antonio. ("I Killed" has a Richard Jeni story of playing San Antonio, and a big cowboy comes up and says: "We never seen a New York Jew," and Jeni says, "I'm not a Jew." "Close enough," says the cowboy.)
Schiff was in San Antonio for "a one-nighter." His wife, Nancy? "She was in charge of raising money for the federation there. We exchanged phone numbers and we're married now 17 years."
The Schiffs have two kids and pray at Young Israel of Century City. Their children go to the Maimonides School. While away on the road, Schiff has searched for minyans in strange towns and said Kaddish for his parents, but says he hasn't faced overt anti-Semitism.
"I've run into people that have never met a Jew," he says. "And they're interested. I met a woman in Georgia who actually asked me, 'Is it true about the horns?'"
Schiff loves gigging for Jewish audiences. And when he plays an Orthodox venue -- as he will in Montreal next month -- he includes in the contract, three Shottenstein Talmuds. "The collection is 73 volumes. I'm on my second collection now."
"That's interesting," says co-editor Shydner. "I always require that the clubs give me two Dr. Pepper bottle caps and an auto repair manual."
"I Killed, True Stories of the Road from America's Top Comics" compiled by Mark Schiff and Ritch Shydner was released this week. Jerry Seinfeld is scheduled to appear on "Late Show With David Letterman" with the book on Nov. 20.