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.