Some funny people such as Ellen DeGeneres or Rob Delaney publish collections of prose; others write memoirs about their lives in show business. Carol Leifer – a comedian who has made numerous appearances on David Letterman’s show, and a writer who has worked for “Seinfeld” and “Modern Family,” among many TV series – takes a different tack. In “How to Succeed in Show Business Without Really Crying,” she weaves stories from her nearly 40-year career into helpful nuggets of career advice.
Each chapter in the book is a mini-homily for young people, things Leifer wishes someone had told her when she was starting out. And the way she combines anecdotes, funny asides and celebrity name-dropping into each lesson, it’s like spoonfuls of sugar helping the medicine go down.
Leifer grew up in a Jewish family on Long Island. Popular comedy records of the 1960s got a lot of play in her house, from Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner to Allan Sherman and JFK impersonator Vaughn Meader. Hearing all those funny people helped mold Leifer’s sense of humor, but her biggest influence was her own father. Seymour Leifer, she says, could tell a joke better than anyone she has ever met.
Carol Leifer attended Harpur College, which is now part of Binghamton University. The first person she dated at school was a guy in her theater group named Paul Reiser. (She later stopped dating boys and started playing for the other team, in “Seinfeld” parlance.) It was the late 1970s and Reiser was trying to break into standup comedy in New York City. One night Leifer went to watch him at an open-mic audition at Catch a Rising Star and was dazzled. She decided that she would give it a try.
Leifer and Reiser auditioned at the Comic Strip one night when the emcee was an up and comer named Jerry Seinfeld. The emcee at Catch a Rising Star when Carol auditioned there was another comic named Larry David.
Leifer passed her auditions and was offered performing gigs at both clubs. She didn’t want to quit college, so she transferred from Binghamton to Queens College for her senior year. She would get her degree by day and learn comedy by night. To her surprise, her parents were very supportive.
In an episode of his online series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” Seinfeld says that he is frequently asked what kind of person “makes it” in show business. His answer is that the people in the business are the ones who need to be, the ones who can cope with all of the rejection because they see no other choice in what to do with their lives. Leifer is obviously one of those people who needs to be there, and she also has the talent, personality, intelligence and sheer will to hang onto the show business merry-go-round without getting thrown off.
Two anecdotes particularly stand out about her persistence in the face of show business obstacles. The first is the fact that when she was performing on the comedy club circuit, Leifer auditioned 12 different times for the “Tonight Show” before they finally booked her as a guest. Lesser souls would have given up after audition No. 2 or so, but Leifer kept on keeping on, and eventually Jay Leno – as a substitute host – had her on a holiday episode of the show doing a skit. Johnny Carson’s people saw her and finally invited her on for a standup set on a night when Johnny was there. Carson invited her to the couch, where she sat next to Bob Newhart. She said it was an unforgettable night.
Another story was that after “Seinfeld” was over, Leifer tried to land a writing job on Garry Shandling’s “Larry Sanders Show.” She got passed over and didn’t get the job, which she admits was pretty disappointing. But Leifer is not one for sour grapes, and several months later she ran into Shandling in L.A. She told him how disappointed she was that she didn’t get the writing job and that she really enjoyed his show. A few weeks later, Shandling called with a job offer. Again, so many other people in that situation would have been defeated by the early rejection, but Leifer rose above it by remaining positive and staying strong.
Just getting on stage and doing a standup set is an act of courage. You bomb on stage a lot, she writes. “I’ve had sets in rooms so quiet that a yoga class broke out.”
Among her pieces of advice are to find out what you are passionate about in life.
“Find the thing that’s inside you, burning to get out,” she says. “I’ve always loved the question, ‘What’s the one thing you’d love most to do if you knew you could not fail?’ ”
She also says to chase your dreams while you have the advantages of youth.
“Take advantage of being young and brash and stupid,” she says. “Reality will come later and it can be a real dream-killer.”
Leifer has a chapter about writing for “Seinfeld” called “The Show About Nothing Taught Me Something.” I wish the chapter had been 10 times longer, but it is still a highlight of the book. Writing a script for the show began with pitching an idea to Seinfeld and Larry David in their office. (Leifer writes that the most hurtful remark David could make about a script idea was, “I could see that on another show.” Knowing how much David hated typical sitcoms, she felt this was a polite but very cutting insult.)
One lesson she gleaned while working on “Seinfeld” was that writers learn to make use of stories from their lives in order to get script ideas. A friend from high school told Leifer about a couple she knew that brought a loaf of bread to a dinner party, the bread never got served and the couple took the loaf back home with them out of spite. This premise became the “Marble Rye” episode of “Seinfeld.”
Another lesson she picked up was, when a boss at work revises or changes your work, always pay careful attention to what has been changed and why. Jerry and Larry had the final pass over every script that was used on “Seinfeld,” and they improved upon every single one, Leifer says. Rather than resenting the changes to her work, she would pore over the drafts and final script to study exactly what they had done. It helped her scriptwriting immensely, she says.
Leifer comes off in the book as one of the wittiest Jewish mothers you’ll ever meet, dispensing advice as if it were it’s chicken soup for the career-minded soul. I don’t know if it’s Kosher for her wisdom to be so leavened with humor, but no one who partakes will regret it.
Greg Connors is a News sports copy editor and student of comedy.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying
By Carol Leifer
240 pages, $19.95