My guest today is long-time comedian and playwright Mark Schiff. Welcome to OpEdNews, Mark.
JB: You've just finished your second play, MARRIAGE IS A BOUT. What can you tell us about it?
MS: My first play, THE COMIC, I wrote by myself. This one, I wrote with Steve Shaffer. He is a standup comic also as well as an actor. We have been writing this play for almost ten years. It wasn't until last year that we physically started to get together and work on it. We did almost all of it over the phone and on our computers. We would sometimes talk seven hours a day on our cell phones. Thank God for unlimited minutes. We would work on it for a while then take a year off to do other things. Then, Steve would call me and say he had a new draft and we would start up again.
He was really the guy that kept this play going. Then one day, we looked at it and said we really have something here. So we went full speed ahead. We had a reading in Los Angeles, New York and in Chicago. Chicago was the first time we actually had a director working with us. Carole Dibo, the owner of The Wilmette Theatre, found director Damon Kiely for us. Damon really helped us see what we had. He then hired four local actors and we had the reading. There have been probably 30 drafts of MARRIAGE IS A BOUT already.
Playwriting was the first thing I ever remember wanting to do. At about age 12, I started writing plays really late at night. I remember my father going to work one morning about 5am and asking me what I was doing up. I told him I was writing a play. I still remember sitting at the desk with the light on, writing this really painful dramatic scene about a pregnant woman falling down a flight of stairs. Not bad for a 12 year old.
JB: I attended the reading at the Wilmette Theatre and found the whole process fascinating. Explain to our readers, please, how a reading works. Why do one?
MS: The reading is a form of weeding. The reading is so we can weed out what works and what doesn't work. The actors perform the play and we sit and listen to the audience reaction. We are also listening and trying to figure out if something is dragging and needs to be cut. When I wrote my first play, THE COMIC, Neil Simon came to one of the performances and after the play, I gave him a copy of his book, Rewrites: A Memoir, to autograph for me. Writing is rewriting and that's what the reading is all about. To see what needs to be rewritten. Or, God forbid, if the play needs to be chucked in the garbage. We've had three readings. The next step from here is to mount this stallion.
JB: It reminds me of how a performer works on a routine and as time passes, it evolves and improves. Do you see a reading as a sort of group tweak? And can you give a concrete example of a comment you've gotten which resulted in a change?
MS: The process of a play reading is like working a new standup routine in the sense that the more you do it, the more you learn about it and the more it evolves. But with standup, you can do it hundreds of times to work on it. If I want to, I can go out tonight and do a new routine at three different places. You don't have that luxury with a play. I can't call up the actors and the director in the morning and say, "Hey guys, let's do the play tonight."
So the amount of time you get to develop a play is a much shorter span. Also I'm not sure tweak is the right word. When we're doing a reading, we're looking for big holes in the play, not a tweak. I pray we get to the tweak stage one day. A comment we got from a woman at the reading in Los Angeles was that she felt the female characters in the play were not fully developed and were caricatures. So, we reworked the women characters as best we could and at the reading in Wilmette a woman commented that she was surprised two guys could write women characters so well. The audience is a goldmine of information.
JB: I can see that. Speaking of standup routine, some of our readers may not be familiar with your long and flourishing career. You've hit a number of high points along the way. Care to share?
MS: I started as a standup in 1977 and have been doing it ever since. The dream of every standup comic when I was starting out was to be on The Johnny Carson Show. I was on five times with Johnny. A few years before he died, he handpicked a few comics to be on The Ultimate Johnny Carson Collection which were DVD highlights from his 30 years of broadcasting. He picked my first spot on his show as one of his favorites. I also did Letterman and Leno and had a few HBO and Showtime specials.
About eight years ago, Random House published a book I wrote called I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America's Top Comics. It's a collection of 200 comedian road stories. And for the last few years, I've been doing private events and touring with Jerry Seinfeld. I was at Caesar's Palace with him a few times in the last couple of years. It's a great gig. Private jets and five-star hotels. One of the things I'm most proud of is that I work clean. There is no cursing in my act. I can't tell you how many people appreciate that. The play is also a rare bird these days. There is, I think, one curse word in 90 pages.
JB: Quite a CV! What about the clean part? I know that many people appreciate it. But, it was a calculated risk. Were you ever worried that you were cutting yourself out of jobs or opportunities?
MS: If you mean that by working clean there are less opportunities to work, it's the complete opposite. I can work almost anywhere by working clean. There are a few shows where they demand blue material but other than that, no. I can work in front of the Pope or a birthday party for Larry Flynt. Some years back, I did a show in San Jose and there were six Hells Angels in the audience. After the show, one of the guys came over and said, "It's nice to see a show without obscenities." When I started in comedy, almost everyone worked clean. Seinfeld, Chris Rock. And I believe Bill Cosby is the best comic that ever lived. I've seen him work half a dozen times and never saw him even come close to a curse word.
back stage by courtesy of the author
JB: I'm glad there's a market for clean. The other stuff gets old pretty fast. When and how did you discover that you were funny? Or that you wanted the high from getting a laugh?