In his dressing room on the set of NBC's "In-Laws," Elon Gold rolls his eyes at a gag gift that sits like an eyesore on a coffee table. It's a cartoon-like clock, so over-the-top it looks straight out of Looney Tunes. "My co-star, Dennis Farina, got me this ugly thing because I was maybe 10 minutes late to work," the boyish actor-comedian gripes.
As if on cue, the dressing room door flies open to reveal a scowling Farina, who portrays Gold's tyrannical father-in-law. "Dennis is always razzing me," says Gold, who plays a beleaguered Jewish culinary student forced to live with his in-laws. "He just never stops."
If life imitates art backstage, the sitcom is a case of art imitating life. Gold, 32, really did move in with his wife's parents -- including his gruff father-in-law, Paul -- after his son was born and a couple of his sitcom projects tanked two years ago. Though he maintains an apartment in Los Angeles, he and his wife, Sacha, still sleep on her parents' fold-out couch when they return home to New York, their primary residence. There, Gold -- who was perhaps the first observant Jew to star in his own sitcom, WB's short-lived "You're the One" -- reverted to his role of intimidated son-in-law. "I try to make Sacha's dad laugh and win his approval, but it always backfires and I get into trouble," he said.
The same thing happened when Gold and Farina playfight between takes. On a recent morning, a crew member asked the comedian to "act faster" so the staff can break for lunch. "I wish he would act better," said Farina, who's played memorable heavies in films such as "Get Shorty."
Gold's real-life father-in law bears an uncanny resemblance to Farina: "He's big and strong, with a handshake that can break bones," the comic said. "And he has this tough-guy voice, exactly like Dennis."
Just don't suggest that "In-Laws" is a rip-off of the Ben Stiller-Robert De Niro film, "Meet the Parents." "It's based on my life," Gold said. "It's my desire to expose my father-in-law and to exact comic revenge."
Before there was the father-in-law, there was the wife-to-be. Gold met tall, blond Sacha at a sweet-sixteen party thrown by a fellow Westchester Day School yeshiva alumnus the day before Gold's 16th birthday in 1986. The budding comedian chatted her up for three hours and amused her with his impressions of celebrities such as Howie Mandel. "After the party, I turned to my friend, Leon Lowenstein, and said, 'I'm going to marry that girl,'" he said.
Easier said than done. Sacha refused to date him for six months, and Gold, the son of a public school administrator, felt out of place during his first visit to her lavish Scarsdale, N.Y., home. "I couldn't ignore the fact that there were five Mercedes in the driveway," he wryly recalls. "And the reception from her father was icy. Sacha had previously been dating this Harvard freshman, so it was like, 'Who's this high school schmo from the Bronx?'"
Paul, who owns upscale clothing stores, threw Gold out of the house late one snowy night when Gold's ride home was 10 minutes late picking him up. "He didn't think any man was good enough for his daughter," the comic said. "He didn't want any guy to take his baby away." Gold said Paul only reluctantly attended his 1994 wedding to Sacha and remained dubious about Gold's career, even after the actor landed sketch show gigs on MTV and ABC. He softened, however, when Gold was invited to do his Howard Stern impression on the shock-jock's show, with Sacha in tow. Paul, a Stern fan, was thrilled: "He was like, 'Wow, my daughter just got asked her cup size by Howard Stern. Elon must be going places.'"
By the time the comic moved in with his wife's parents in 2000, his father-in-law had become a fan. But he still made ridiculous demands, such as the time he ordered Gold to feign illness so he could talk his way out of a traffic ticket. "In-Laws" was born when the comedian's manager heard all the father-in-law stories and suggested Gold incorporate them into his stand-up comedy routine.
Gold may be the latest comic to turn his act into a sitcom (think Ray Romano and "Everybody Loves Raymond"), but his Jewish observance makes him a bit of an anomaly in Hollywood. He arranged for "In-Laws" to tape on Tuesdays, rather than on Friday nights, so he can get home in time for Shabbat. During lunch breaks, he avoids the crafts service table and instead has a crew member bring him kosher tuna with avocado on whole wheat.
During a Journal interview, an electric menorah, a surprise gift from the crew, twinkled in a corner of his dressing room. Actress Jean Smart, who plays Gold's TV mother-in-law, breezed in to give him his Chanukah present, a dark blue corduroy apron decorated with Stars of David. "It's so you should look good while cooking," she said.
Arranging for Jewish content onscreen proved harder. While it was understood that Gold's character, Matt Landis, would be culturally Jewish, the comic argued for months with executives who decreed his TV wife must be Christian. The mixed marriage was a sore spot for Gold, who had received flack for playing an intermarried man on "You're the One" in 1998. "I promised that on my next sitcom, I would marry a Jew," said the comic, who was ultimately overruled by "In-Laws" executives. But he says they've agreed to a compromise: On the show's Passover episode, his fictional mother-in-law will discover she's Jewish, which will mean his TV wife is, too. "We can get some great comedy out of that," Gold said. "I can just see Dennis' character fuming that he's 'a minority in [his] own frickin' house.'"
In real-life, Gold's father-in-law is not fuming over the sitcom. "He feels like he's a celebrity because of the show," the comic said. "So now I'm off the hook; I never get into trouble anymore. Whenever he starts to get mad at me, he'll stop himself and go, 'Hey, you should put that in the show.'"
For financial reasons, Gold said he'll have to keep living with the in-laws until he learns the sitcom has been picked up for a second season. But Farina has a different idea.
"You're not moving out of there until season five," he said. "We need the material."