Comedian Mark Schiff’s Done it All: Seinfeld, Carson, Letterman and Leno – Now What?
By Joan Brunwasser
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
MS: We haven’t covered my teeth. I need close to 50,000 dollars worth of dental work. So, this play better be a hit.
JB: In that case, it’d better be a big hit! Can’t wait to see MARRIAGE IS A BOUT, the finished product. Good luck with it. And thanks so much for talking with me, Mark. It’s been a lot of fun.