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God's Comedian

May 9, 2009 | by Richard Rabkin

Mark Schiff thinks that G-d is funny. G-d probably thinks Mark Schiff is funny too -- most people do.

Mark Schiff thinks that God is funny. God probably thinks Mark Schiff is funny too - most people do. Mark has been a stand up comedian for over 30 years and has appeared many times on both The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with David Letterman and has headlined in all the major casinos and clubs across the country. He has written for and guest starred on Mad About You and has currently been, among other things, opening for his good friend Jerry Seinfeld who is purported to have said, "Mark Schiff is one of the funniest, the brightest, the best stage comics I have ever seen."

But it's not all fun and games for Mark Schiff. He is serious about some things, namely, his Judaism. Mark is an observant Jew and works with numerous Jewish organizations across the continent. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and children.

Mark took time out of his busy schedule to sit down with Jewlarious and talk about his thoughts on life, comedy, and being Jewish.

The Making of a Comedian

Jewlarious: It's always interesting to know how comedians decide to go into comedy. You have written that when your parents took you to see Rodney Dangerfield, that's when you decided to become a stand up comic. What was it about comedy that attracted you so much?

Mark Schiff: I never saw a job before that, which seemed so unbelievable. People are laughing, clapping, having a good time. It looked like if I was a comedian I would be happy all of the time. The truth is, the only job I knew growing up was my father's. He was a truck driver and he worked so hard. I didn't want to do that! If that was work, then I didn't want to work. Until comedy. Because comedy is not really working. In comedy, people don't say "where are you working tonight," they say "where are you playing." You know, like "I played Cleveland last night." I wanted to play for a living.

In comedy, people don't say "where are you working tonight," they say "where are you playing."

Jewlarious: So basically, you were lazy?

Mark Schiff: Not lazy. I don't know, I just didn't really like being indoors. I didn't want a job where I was working indoors all day.

Jewlarious: So you could have gone into landscaping.

Mark Schiff: Being a Jew from Brooklyn, that wasn't really an option.

Jewlarious: Many Jewish comedians, like Bill Crystal for example, have said specifically their Jewish families fostered their comedic development. Did anyone in your family foster your comedic development?

Mark Schiff: I had an Aunt Freda who thought I was the funniest person in the world. She would laugh so hard that I think I almost killed her a few times. My grandfather also thought I was funny. By the way, he made 19 trips to Israel in the 1950's to visit his brother. He had a thick accent too. I am not sure why that's important, but that's how I remember him.

Jewlarious: What about grade school? Were you a good student?

Mark Schiff: No, I was a terrible student. I actually went to a Yeshiva in the Bronx for my first 4 years, not because my parents were religious – they were basically reform or conservative, but because it was basically free daycare. When I was growing up they didn't have day care. Regular public school you get out at 2 or 3. So they sent me to Yeshiva which got out at 5 or so. When I went to the Yeshiva I was completely in love with the Rabbis and the Judaism there. I don't think it was not a coincidence that my parents sent me there. For some reason I loved it. It's true, the discipline they gave me was pretty strict at times, but I always to some degree, deserved the punishment. Sometimes you know that you have done wrong. I was a tough kid to get along with. I needed attention desperately. That's what comedy is. George Carlin says it's called "DiGome." I needed attention then, and to some degree, in my stand up comedy now too.

Jewlarious: Do you think that contradicts any Jewish principles? That "DiGome" attitude?

Mark Schiff: To some degree, Jewish values contradict that, but listen my rabbi gives a great lecture. He does it every week, in front of a whole audience. There's a way of being the show without showing off. Without saying I am the greatest. If you have something important to say to people you should say it, you just can't take yourself too seriously.

Jewlarious: You talk a lot about your days as a struggling comic with your good friends Jerry Seinfeld, Larry Miller and Paul Reiser. How did you guys relate to the fact that you were Jewish, or did the subject even come up?

Mark Schiff: Judaism was always important to all of us. Paul went to Yeshiva in Manhattan. There's a Yeshiva in LA named after Paul's family I think. Larry Miller prays on a daily basis and is really committed. Jerry's ritual involvement is a little bit less so, but he has a very Jewish soul. That's who we were.

Coming up, we all met when we were unemployed comics. The way it works is that you go to showcase clubs and work for free. So me, Jerry, Paul, Larry, Richard Belzer and a bunch of other guys would show up every night for about 7 years. But you only work for 10-20 minutes per night, so we would hang out at the club and hang out for the other 7 hours, and then go out afterwards. And we would just talk.

Jewlarious: And what would you guys talk about? About "nothing" like they tried to convince us that Seinfeld was about?

Mark Schiff: No we went over material, jokes. We would debrief about the evening. Talk about what was funny and what wasn't. What worked and what didn't.

Jewlarious: Comedy is really a science isn't it?

Mark Schiff: Definitely. Comedy is so succinct. Every "and if or but" has to be accounted for. You wouldn't believe how long it takes to find a word in a comedy bit – one word. I can give someone 20 sentences and it will bomb, but give it to me and I can make huge laughs out of it. It takes years to perfect your stuff.

Jewlarious: Is that why in the movie "Comedian" it was seen as such a gamble for Jerry Seinfeld to give up all of his old material and say that he would never perform it again?

Mark Schiff: Absolutely. Jerry is one of only a few comedians out there that could have done that.

Jewlarious: What would you say was the moment that you were "discovered"?

Mark Schiff: There was no one big moment. There were many things that happened. Probably one of the biggest moments was when the talent scout from the Tonight Show gave me the go ahead to do the show. He saw my act once and he told me that I would never ever do the show because "you aren't Johnny's type of comedian." 7 years later I was in SF one night, and he saw me by accident and said that he wanted me to do the show. Johnny became a fan, and the rest is history.

Jewlarious: In your article for "On the Road" you talk about your time as a successful stand up comic on the road, and have recently been balancing that with your family life. Are you still happy with the decision you've made to spend more time at home?

Mark Schiff: No question. I have kept myself busy doing other things. I just finished writing a book for Random House. It's called "I Killed." It's a collection of 125 road stories, comedians on the road. I just wrote a movie with a friend of mine - Jordan Rush. It's difficult because on one hand, family life and the road do not go together. On the other hand, it's very difficult to give up something you are very good at. And it's such a rewarding feeling when people tell you things like "I never felt better in my entire life." You are making people feel good. It's a great feeling.

The Science of Comedy

Jewlarious: Who are the greatest comedians of our generation?

Mark Schiff: Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Robert Klein, Jay Leno in his heyday, Woody Allen, and I would also include Jerry Seinfeld.

Jewlarious: What about comedians today?

Mark Schiff: A lot of comedians today have sunk to such a low level. It's very hard to find anyone clean today.

Jewlarious: Why has comedy today become so raunchy?

Mark Schiff: Cable TV is somewhat responsible because they give license to say anything you want and once they did that it was a race to see who could be the most disgusting. Richard Pryor was a great comedian and he was dirty, but that's who he was. Eddie Murphy was a watered down version of Pryor. And since then we've just continued to go downhill.

Jewlarious: Do you have a message for young comedians today?

Mark Schiff: Yes! We need more clean comedians. Please God! I will tell you a story: I was playing in San Jose in a night club one night. In the front row were a bunch of Hell's Angels motor biker type guys in leather. After the show, one guy came up to me and said, "I really appreciate you working clean. The rest of the comedians were so filthy I was embarrassed. But you are clean." People thank me all of the time for working clean. Cosby made more money then any comedian because he works clean and it's something that me, Jerry, Larry and Paul promised that we would always do – work clean.

Cosby made more money then any comedian because he works clean and it's something that me, Jerry, Larry and Paul promised that we would always do - work clean.

Being Funny - Religiously

Jewlarious: When did you start becoming more religiously observant? Was it a gradual thing or was it a Rodney Dangerfield epiphany type moment?

Mark Schiff: I had a good feeling about Judaism early on. I never had a problem with believing. Even when I was on the comedy circuit, I might be out all night partying, but I would still read Jewish books at the same time. But then, about 21 years ago I just hit a low point and I decided to clean up my act - I was a pretty wild guy. I started taking a Torah class with Rabbi Nachum Braverman at Aish Hatorah in LA. I fell in love with Judaism. I fell in love with Nachum and his commitment to Judaism. He invited me for Shabbos. I must have been there for about 50 Shabboses, and then I decided to keep Shabbos myself. And Rabbi Braverman had a lot to so with the other stuff as well. If it wasn't for him I wouldn't have gotten married. I didn't know how important marriage and kids were, until he taught me about it. There's a whole group of people who are afraid of commitment these days. After speaking with Nachum I realized that I wasn't afraid to get married, I was afraid not to. Who wants to be by themselves their whole lives? Without a wife, without kids, without meaning?

Jewlarious: You wrote in the Jewish Journal about going from a Shabbos dinner Friday night to a New Year's party with Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser and Larry Miller. Is that a tough balancing act - between your religious life and your comedic/personal life?

Mark Schiff: For me it's pretty easy. First of all, most of my friends are guys which really helps. And second, my friends have been great. They have been very much supportive. I think at first Jerry and Paul and Larry thought that I was crazy, but after a while they saw how much good it did for me, and I think they appreciated it.

Jewlarious: You write that Jackie Mason upon hearing that you have become religiously observant asked if you were a rabbi yet. Did that bug you as much as it bugs other newly observant Jews when their parents ask them things like that?

Mark Schiff: It doesn't bug me at all because when I stop and think about it, I wouldn't trade places with anyone. I am happy - really happy with the life that I have chosen. Could I be more famous? Probably, but what exactly does more fame get you? For example, would I want my own sit-com? No. I don't want to spend 17 hours a day away from my family. That's what Paul Reiser did with his show Mad About You. Granted, he made hundreds of million of dollars, but I wouldn't do that for all the money in the world. When you are on your death bed you don't say, "I wish I had spent more time at the office."

When I stop and think about it, I wouldn't trade places with anyone. I am happy - really happy with the life that I have chosen.

Jewlarious: Would your wife say that it's "all laughs" being married to a comedian?

Mark Schiff: When I am finished with my act, people ask me, "Is your wife really that bad?" She doesn't mind being the punch line. She knows that the jokes in my act are either true or I didn't mean it. And the two most important things to me are making people laugh and keeping my wife happy. If you do those two things, I think you have a good chance of getting into heaven.

Jewlarious: Do you think God is funny?

Mark Schiff: Ya, I do. I think that people are funny and God created them so He must be funny too.

Jewlarious: The Jewish mission has often been described as being a "light unto the nations" - making the world a better place. Do you think being a comic achieves that end?

Mark Schiff: I think it does. The Talmud says that you should start off a lecture with a joke. There is also a story in the Talmud about a great sage who pointed to a "comedian" and said that he was assured a place in heaven because he made people laugh. This would be an unbearable world without laughter. I think everyone would kill themselves. Comedy gives people hope. After my act, people have said to me things like, "My wife died 6 months ago. I didn't think I would laugh again until I saw you." It's such a great thing to be able to do something like that.

Click here to watch Mark Schiff perform.


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