October 28, 1999
By Curt Schleier
Recently, The Journal caught up with three comics whose Judaism informs their act and whose career informs their Judaism. Cathy Ladman quips about her intermarriage; Mark Schiff brings his comic pals to perform at an Orthodox shul fund-raiser; and Larry Miller views stand-up as Talmudic discourse.
"People think Jews are funny because we've been oppressed, but I shake my head very quickly and very firmly at that," Miller says. "I say, 'No, comedy is intrinsically Jewish and something Jews are very good at and really right for. Because we're people of the book, word and thought.'"
Jews don't lift weights. They ask other people, 'Would you help me pick those up, please?'
Every New Year's Day for the past 20 years, comedian Mark Schiff has flown to New York to have lunch with his comic best buddies Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser and Larry Miller.
"We have a club that meets once a year," Schiff explains. "It's called 'The Funniest Men in America.'"
Schiff has known Seinfeld and Reiser since the three hung out together every night in the comedy dives of New York in the '70s. Like his friends, Schiff went on to regularly appear on "The Tonight Show" (he was one of Johnny Carson's favorite comics) and to create an act that kvetches about the irritating minutia of life.
He complains about parents, grandparents, his wife. He imagines a set of "unmotivational tapes," dispensing such advice as "Get a bottle of whiskey and a pie and go back to bed." He describes the frustrations of shopping at a supermarket: "I can never find people who work in these stores. I was in the meat department. I saw a guy in a white coat --blood all over the thing. I said, 'Excuse me?' He goes, 'I don't work here.'"
Schiff, an observant Jew, also makes comic observations about Jews. "There are no Jewish bank robbers," he says. "The reason is that they'd have to say, 'Put your hands up and get on the floor.' But Jews can't handle that. They'd say, 'No, no, get up, you'll get dirty.'"
Schiff decided he wanted to become a comedian at age 12, when his parents took him to see Rodney Dangerfield perform stand-up comedy in the late 1960s. "I was mesmerized by all the laughs, the love, the attention Dangerfield was getting," says Schiff, who grew up in a Bronx sixth-floor walk-up where "Everyone was always complaining and yelling and threatening...I never felt heard when I was a kid. I never felt understood. And I had to find a way to be understood or go crazy."
Stand-up comedy provided the outlet, and so did Schiff's first Showtime special, "My Crummy Childhood," in 1993. "My mother always used to say, "Do socks belong on the floor?'" he recalls, in his act. "I can't wait until my parents get old and they come to live with me. I'll say to them: 'Do teeth belong on the floor?'"
Schiff began his journey to observant Judaism 12 years ago, when an Aish HaTorah Bible class convinced him that there was a better way to fill his inner emptiness than with the fleeting attention he received onstage.
Since then, he has joined two Orthodox synagogues, Anshe Emes and B'nai David-Judea, and he has convinced the Funniest Men to perform at an Anshe Emes fund-raiser. More recently, Schiff, a former staff writer on "Mad About You," co-wrote an episode in which Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt observe Shabbos -- sort of. In the episode, the characters meet an Amish man and are inspired to experience 24 hours without electricity.
"Words are important in Judaism, so I try not to slander anybody in my act," Schiff says. But gently complaining about his wife is OK. "I don't see it as LaShon HaRah. I see it as a bit of kvetching so I feel better."