November 29, 2007
Funny and frum
Then, at a moment of high intensity, a quiet, unassuming man in his early 50s who hadn't said a word all night got up, and with the crowd suddenly hushed, asked: "Mr. Mayor, is it illegal to park when the parking meter's broken?"
It brought down the house.
The man himself didn't crack a smile. He was dead serious about his question.
Of course, if you know Mark Schiff, you know he's a master of self-control. He rarely laughs. He would much rather see you laugh -- especially when he's performing.
Schiff is a rare bird. He's made a living as a stand-up comic for more than 30 years and is much admired in the fraternity of American comedians. For years, he's been performing on the road with Jerry Seinfeld (one of his closest friends). Last year, his book, "I Killed," a compilation of stories of the road from the country's top comedians, got a glowing review on that most exclusive of book review stages, the Sunday New York Times.
But swing by my neighborhood at around midday on any Shabbat, and chances are you'll see another Mark Schiff. This is the Orthodox Schiff, who is quietly walking back from synagogue with his wife, Nancy, and one or more of his three sons -- part of the procession of observant Jews who grace the streets of our neighborhood during Shabbat.
Over a vegetarian lunch and herbal tea the other day, Schiff was recalling the very beginnings of his comedic and religious influences. As I understood it, he was influenced by "two rebbes": Rodney Dangerfield and Rabbi Nachum Braverman.
When he was 12, his parents took him to see singer Al Martino at a nightclub in New York, and a young Dangerfield was the opening act. He saw the "physicality" of the act -- the unique voice, the disarming honesty, the simplicity of one man in a black suit and red tie making hundreds of people weep with laughter -- and he got hooked.
Almost 20 years later, after he had moved to Los Angeles to further his comedy career, a friend took him to a little house in Pico-Robertson to hear "this new rabbi." Again, he saw a man in a black suit, with a unique voice and a disarming honesty, moving his audience. And again he got hooked. Only this time, instead of being moved by a self-deprecating "I tell you I get no respect" routine, he was moved by Rabbi Braverman's "learn to discover and respect your Judaism" routine.
It was the beginning of a new life, but certainly not the end of an old one.
One thing I love about Schiff is he doesn't pretend there's no conflict between the two sides of his life -- between the innate irreverence of comedy and the innate reverence of religion. He gets it. In comedy, you're supposed to make fun of everything, while in religion, you are commanded to take things seriously. Religion teaches you how to count your blessings; in comedy, you kill if you know how to count (and recount) your kvetches. Comedy wants to touch you in the moment, while religion wants to move you for all moments.
The struggle of Schiff's life has been to make these opposite worlds peacefully co-exist.
To look at him, it's easy to see how he pulls it off. For one thing, he's blessed with a very non-Jewish character trait: He hates drama. Just look at his face. He could be a yoga instructor. It's the face of a craftsman, of a really good listener, someone who will not rush impulsively into anything (but who can still pounce on you at the right moment with a line like, "Humor was so clean in the old days they called it 'Hoover Darn'").
Schiff manages the contradictions between his two worlds by listening carefully to both.
That means he understands boundaries. He might do a slightly off-color routine at the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard and then clean up his act the next night in front of 500 people at a Jewish fundraiser in St. Louis. He knows, for example, that elderly Jews will laugh at racier material if it's kept in the context of marital relationships -- and to never, God forbid, use the term "girlfriend" with that crowd.
One thing that's always been difficult to reconcile is the fact that Friday night is a big night for comedy, but it's also the biggest night for observant Jews to stay home with their families. For many years while he was on the road, he tried to find "kosher ways" around that, but now he's always home for Shabbat. Schiff doesn't deny that not working Friday nights has hurt his career, but he sees it as a worthy sacrifice to live in two worlds that he deeply loves.
Conflict aside, he's always felt a certain kinship between his different worlds, like, for example, a reverence for the heroes of the past. You hear him talk about his comedic ancestors, people like Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Sid Caesar and many others, and he might as well be speaking about Torah giants like Rav Soloveitchik and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and their contributions to the Modern Orthodox world to which he belongs.
In the end, though, perhaps what turns him on the most about his two worlds is that they both seek the same thing -- a sense of truth. He knows that rabbis and comedians are at their best when they uncover truths that people will intuitively embrace.
Like, for example, asking the mayor of Los Angeles whether you're allowed to park your car if a parking meter's broken.
To this day, he still wonders why, after all the laughing had died down, no one could give him a darn straight answer.