Tales from the Comedy Road from Jerry Seinfeld's Favorite Standup
On the one hand, having Jerry Seinfeld call you his “greatest comedy pal” has to feel pretty darn good, like being the jokester Jimmy Olsen to stand-up’s Superman. If you’re Mark Schiff, author of the upcoming book Why Not? Adventures in Comedy, Courage, and Chutzpah, it comes with the territory of spending decades sharing a bill with Jerry in comedy clubs and theaters around the world. On the other hand, it can be a little intimidating to have Seinfeld get up on stage and introduce you as “one of the funniest people in the world.”
For a few years, “it made me nervous to hear that, for sure,” Schiff told Cracked. “Like, boy, I got to really bring it.”
Schiff and Seinfeld are members of a comedy class that now seems legendary. As young comics discovering their craft, Mark and Jerry came up in clubs like the Comic Strip and the Improv with contemporaries such as Paul Reiser, Gilbert Gottfried, George Wallace, Rita Rudner, and Larry Miller.
“You learn everything,” Schiff says of nights in the back of darkened rooms, watching comics like Jay Leno, Freddie Prinze, and Jimmy Walker hone their material. “That’s your school room. You only really learn by doing it but they’re teaching you right there. That’s your comedy class.”
For Schiff, comedy class truly began when he was only 12 years old. On his parents’ thirteenth wedding anniversary, they took their only son to a nightclub (presumably, young Mark didn’t have to down the two-drink minimum) to see the Italian crooner Al Martino. The opening act? Rodney Dangerfield.
“I've never seen my parents laugh like this in their lives,” remembers Schiff. “They were banging the table, screaming, laughing. And I said ‘that's it.’ I had an epiphany--I'm going to become a comedian.”
That was just the first entry in Schiff’s Dangerfield files. In the early 1980s, Schiff, Seinfeld, and comic Steve Mittleman were in Los Angeles when Jerry heard Rodney was opening in Las Vegas. So the trio jumped in Seinfeld’s pre-fame Fiat and traversed the desert to see their hero.
None of them actually knew Rodney, which contributed to a big problem when the young comics arrived in Vegas. They had no money for food. No money for a hotel. And certainly no money for Dangerfield tickets. What else could they do but lie?
They told the maitre d’ that they were comics (true) and friends of Rodney (well, they’d waved at him at a club in New York once). Amazingly, the host checked with Dangerfield, then escorted the young comedians to a table with instructions to see Mr. No Respect after the show.
Dangerfield didn’t exactly remember the guys but he understood what it was like to be a young comedian. After the show, he asked the comics where they were staying, then nearly lost his mind when they told him they were driving back because they had no money for food or a hotel. “What, are you out of your f***ing minds?”
Rodney took the guys to dinner and even put them up in an extra room in the hotel that he wasn’t using. His one stipulation: Don’t stick him with a big long-distance phone bill.
Schiff’s relationship with Rodney continued through the years, selling him Tonight Show jokes at $25 a pop and turning down his invite to appear on his HBO Young Comedians Specials. An angry Rodney thought Schiff was nuts -- after all, his special had made stars out of comics like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay. But Schiff worked clean, and didn’t think his act was right for the special. Besides, his career was doing just fine on its own, with his own comedy specials along with multiple spots on both Carson’s and Leno’s Tonight Show.
Schiff never got as famous as old pals Seinfeld and Paul Reiser (though he did show up on a few episodes of Reiser’s Mad About You). No resentment there -- “my friends are successes not only because they're talented but because they work so freaking hard. They deserve everything they got.” But he’s also never stopped working, a road comic through and through.
Even though he’s been at it since the 1970s, Schiff still loves the road. “One of the perks is that it's good for my marriage,” he says, only half-joking. ”I'm not alone with that thought, you know. When you're laughing together day in and day out for years and years, it gets a little crazy so we get a little distance.”
Another bonus? Seeing the world on someone else’s dime. “If I had to pay for my travels,” he figures, “it would be a couple million dollars!”
And then there are the other comic minds you get to meet along the way, including Robin Williams (while he’s not intimidated by most comics, “I just felt starstruck”) and playwright Neil Simon. “It’s like standing next to freaking Shakespeare.”
In 2000, Schiff wrote his own play, The Comic, starring old friend Larry Miler. Miller, who had appeared in a Simon play a few years before, shocked Schiff by bringing Simon to see the production. Simon ended up laughing his head off and even gave Schiff a few pointers on improving the script, but not before telling him “You could not make this play any funnier.” Like getting advice from freaking Shakespeare.
One surprising thing about being Seinfeld’s comedy pal? Even the most successful comics in the world need encouragement from their friends.
“Jerry's had so many successes,” says Schiff, and most people don’t want to bother him. But “I just call him every time and congratulate him on each success.” Coming from an acquaintance, that kind of call might seem like a way to ingratiate oneself with a well-known comic. But from an old friend who knew you when you didn’t have an act? For Seinfeld, a guy famous for a show about nothing, it still means something.
Top image: Mark Schiff