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Life Arts

Comedian Mark Schiff's Done it All: Seinfeld, Carson, Letterman and Leno - Now What?

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MS: Twelve years old was a big year from me. It's when I started to write plays and it's when my parents took me to The Boulevard Nightclub in Rego Park Queens to a show. The comedian on the show was Rodney Dangerfield. I still remember watching Rodney tell his wife jokes and thinking, "That's it! I've found my job in life". I knew the minute I saw Rodney that I wanted to be a standup comedian. 

Fifteen years later, I got to meet Rodney and eventually became friendly with him. In fact, when he was dying, I got a call from his wife to go to the hospital and say goodbye to him. As far as the high from performing, there definitely is one. But the real high is when you get off stage and people say the nicest things imaginable to you. If only after sex I would get the same response. "That was great." "You were fantastic." "I'm sorry when you stopped." It goes on and on from there.  


JB: You are funny! Let's talk a bit more about what it's like to do standup.  Do you spend a lot of time inside your head, Mark, going over and over routines? Does it ever get old: too intense or lonely?


MS: I do not spend a lot of time in my head going over old routines, It's the new ones that need to be shaped. But standup is very live and very fluid, so you really need an audience to help you shape it.  Without the audience, you are only guessing at what you might have. 

When I do a TV shot, I might go over the routine 100 times to make sure it's locked in. If I have a stroke while I'm doing it, there's a good chance I'll finish it because I know it so well.  Rodney Dangerfield had a stroke while talking to Leno on panel and he finished the jokes before they took him away. Shaping and reshaping can get old but writing good stuff never gets old. 

It's always amazing when I come up with something new that works.  But every comic does it different. Some of the comics go up with a bare bone idea and play with it while some write every word and memorize it. I'm somewhere in the middle. I write it and also play with it.  Does it get lonely? Bob Dylan said, "Sacrifice is the code of the road." I agree.  The loneliness is what does a lot of the guys in. They go to drugs, alcohol and sex, food, golf or the internet to chase away the feelings.


JB: So, back to your new play. You've been having a few readings but you're also gigging, right now, as an opener for Seinfeld.  How's that, doing two very different, but equally creative things? Hard to switch from one to the other or does it keep you fresh?


MS: Working on the standup and the play at the same time is my form of an orgy, jumping from one creative endeavor to the other.  Opening for Jerry, we play 2,000 to 5,000 people a night.  You never ever really see audiences like that in the theatre.  Jerry and I will throw routines around and try and help each other but we never sit in a room for seven hours and create new stuff. With Steve and the play, we sit and write and rewrite for hours and hours.  The brain is an amazing organ. There's plenty of room to do both. Although I have no idea if I wouldn't  be a better playwright if I only focused on the one thing.


JB: Life is good! What's next with the play?


MS: We hope to get it on its feet. That means getting the money to get it going. Show Business is two words. Show and Business. We have the show, now we need to do the business. It's also called a play which means it's supposed to play somewhere. Otherwise it would be called "a sit in the drawer." We really believe in this play. We think it has a great message you don't see enough of. The message is that marriage is a good thing and that people can go through all kinds of things and make it work. We live in a world where people think that everything is disposable. From tossing out TV sets to throwing newborns into garbage cans.  After 23 years of being married, my marriage is not so hard anymore.


JB: Lucky you!


MS: We've learned how to live together.  There's a saying, "Don't leave before the miracle." Switching spouses is like switching chairs on the Titanic. Good luck not going down.


JB: Got it. Beyond getting this play produced, what other professional goals are up your sleeve? After opening for Seinfeld and appearing on Carson, Leno and Letterman, what's left undone?


MS: I wrote a show called VERONA with another writer by the name of Brian Ross. We're in the process of trying to sell it now. One company has already stepped up to the plate and made us an offer to option the show. An option is money they give you for permission to sell the show to a network. And if they sell it, you're in business with them.  VERONA is also about marriage but this one involves a young couple not yet 20.  

Marriage is a big theme with me. I think about it all the time. I'm fascinated by people trying to get along. I'm also very good at interviewing people. Everyone [except my wife and my kids] tells me I'm a good listener. I would like to do interviews sort of like Studs Terkel did. I love interviewing regular people about their everyday lives. Especially married couples. When you get a married couple talking, there is nothing better.  I would also like to sing The Star Spangled Banner at a baseball game.  And  last but not least. I would like to do two hours of standup comedy onstage.  Bill Cosby does two hours or more every show. I would like to see how that feels.


Schiff again by courtesy of the author

JB: You and I have a lot in common. I loved Studs and enjoy interviewing regular people, too! Everybody's got a story. What haven't we talked about yet?

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)
 

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Ha! Great interview!... by Meryl Ann Butler on Tuesday, Nov 5, 2013 at 6:25:09 PM
Thanks! Yes, he's one funny guy and a fun intervie... by Joan Brunwasser on Tuesday, Nov 5, 2013 at 7:22:39 PM
Great interview. His play was hilarious and fun go... by Rob Kall on Wednesday, Nov 6, 2013 at 9:12:06 AM
Agreed! It was definitely a fun outing. Come to to... by Joan Brunwasser on Wednesday, Nov 6, 2013 at 10:15:40 AM