It’s not about him; Mark Schiff just wants to make you laugh
If you’re looking for weird, wacky or shocking comedy, look elsewhere. Mark Schiff, a comic whose success spans decades, offers clean, witty, relatable humor.
“I’m a straight-forward, stand-up comedian with a lot of observations on family life, growing up, parents and grandparents, marriage, raising kids,” he says.
For Schiff, doing stand-up is not therapeutic. “For some comedians, it is. I’m just an entertainer. My aim is just to get up there and make as many people laugh as much as possible. I’m really from a very old school of entertaining. It’s not about me. I’m not trying to make anybody smarter or show how smart I am. I just want them to have a great time.”
When he was just 12 years old, Schiff realized he wanted to be a comic “My parents took me to a nightclub. I’m an only child. They took me to see some famous singer and opening the show was a comedian named Rodney Dangerfield. I had an epiphany. I said, ‘That’s it! I know what I’m going to do with my life. I’m going to be a comedian!’
“I’m telling you, it was like Moses coming down from the mountain. And I was there to receive the tablets from Rodney. I’d never seen anything like this. I’d never seen a comedian live. I’d never seen a comedian standing there, telling these funny things. People were laughing, banging on tables. They were clapping for the guy. I’m thinking, ‘What better job in the world could you do? You go out there in a suit and people laugh and clap and you get paid a lot of money.'”
His parents’ reaction to his career goal? “I was 12, so they thought it was just another one of those things like, ‘I want to be a cowboy. I want to be fireman. I want to be an astronaut.’ They didn’t know.
“But I was committed. From then on, I started watching as many comedians on TV as possible and reading about them, listening to comedy albums. When I was 16, 17, I started going to a nightclub to see shows, at a place in New York called The Improv. I started going to see people like Freddie Prinze, Richard Lewis, Elayne Boosler, all these people, Robert Klein. And I just got hooked.”
By 18, Schiff was writing jokes. ” I had found out I was going to have to write my own material. So I wrote down ideas, memorized them. And then I showed up at these showcase clubs, to work for free.
“I was a terrible performer. But it’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to do anything else. And by showing up every night and getting on stage somewhere, I did feel that I was getting better and better at it, honing in on something. And when you get your hands on the right material and people laugh, you think, ‘Maybe I can really do this.’
“The support of the other comedians at the clubs was also important, having them tell you you’re funny means a lot.”
One of the comics telling Schiff he was funny was none other than Rodney Dangerfield. “We became friends. I would talk to him on the phone. I would visit him. I was one of the last people to see him alive. His wife called me and said, ‘If you want to see him, now’s the time, because I don’t think he’s going to be with us much longer.’ So I went up and he was already out of it and I did the Sh’ma [Jewish prayer] with him. I don’t know if he knew it, but I took his hand and leaned over and did the Sh’ma. But he was pretty much out of it.”
Dangerfield was a comic’s comic. “He was just the embodiment of what we do. He had his own style. He was a one-line comedian. I am not. He was a purist. He lived and died by the joke. And, for a lot of us, he was the greatest one-line guy that ever lived.”
Schiff is always taking notes, making observations, finding new ideas. His family expects to be part of his material.
“My kids were born into it. And my wife understands that every comedian talks about their spouse. Phyllis Diller talked about Fang. Joan Rivers talked about her husband. Bill Cosby talks about his wife. Chris Rock talks about his wife. Jerry Seinfeld talks about his wife. It’s just the way it is. People in the audiences are married. They’ve got family. It’s what they want to hear.”
Schiff has been touring with Jerry Seinfeld.
“He had the number one sitcom of all time, which endeared him to the hearts of America. He had a show that really resonated with people. And this is what he likes to do, more than anything else. He’s the quintessential stand-up comedian. He’s really the poster boy for stand-up.”
In addition to stand-up specials, Schiff has been seen in many sitcom guest shots. He has also written for such shows as “Roseanne” and “Mad About You.”
“I really enjoyed writing jokes every day, sitting down, they’d give you a subject, you’d write on it. I’ve never had writer’s block. I’m blessed. I can sit down, anytime, and just write.”
In addition to hitting the road with Seinfeld, Schiff does a lot of corporate events. They like the fact that Schiff never works blue.
“The business has changed. When I started, almost all comics worked clean. It’s gotten kind of dark. But I don’t get into that. It’s just not who I am.
“One of the great things about this business is, you can really be who you are, if you allow yourself. And you make your own path. There’s never two jokes that are really the same.
“Even though a million jokes have been written on the same subjects, each person tells their little story individually.
“Richard Pryor worked blue, but that’s who he was. He was raised in Peoria, Ill., in a whorehouse run by his grandmother. So that’s how he talked. But a lot of people, they look at a great comic like Chris Rock and think, ‘Oh, I can do that. I can just say the f-word a million times and that’ll work for me.’ Well, it doesn’t work like that. Chris is a unique individual with his own voice. That’s who he is and that’s the way he talks.”
Schiff’s own comedic voice has evolved over the years. “As I got older, got married, got a family, my subject matters changed. I used to make dating jokes. I don’t write them anymore, because I’m not dating.”
Schiff, 60, has three sons, ages 22, 20 and 17. In addition to pitching a sitcom idea, he just finished writing a new play, called “Marriage Is A Bout.” It’s about the trials and tribulations of two long-time married couples. He’s hoping to get it produced soon.
“Since I was 13, 14, I was fascinated with playwrights and plays. I wrote a play a couple of years ago called ‘The Comic,’ and it was a minor hit.”
Stand-up however, remains his passion. “I get the chance to hang out with some of the funniest people in the world — Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Bill Cosby, Seinfeld, I’ve had a chance to hang out with everybody… and that’s a great thing.
“And I love seeing audiences having a great time and knowing that, when they leave my show, that they feel better than when they walked in, probably. When people come backstage and say they haven’t laughed that hard in their whole lives, that’s pay dirt.”