April 21, 2024
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April 21, 2024
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Laugh Along With Jewish Comic Mark Schiff

Reviewing: “Why Not? Lessons on Comedy, Courage, and Chutzpah” by Mark Schiff. Apollo Publishers. 2022. Hardcover. 272 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1954641167.

A man interested in stand-up comedy once approached Wendy Liebman, a successful touring comic, and expressed his interest in going into comedy. They had known each other since childhood.

“Why would you even think about going into comedy?” she asked. “You have nothing to resolve.”

Mark Schiff is the absolute opposite.

If that’s the criterion for going into comedy, then Schiff chose the right field. The comedian, currently opening for Jerry Seinfeld across the country, came out of childhood with plenty to resolve.

You can read about all of it in his new book, “Why Not? Lessons on Comedy, Courage, and Chutzpah,” with a foreword by his friend Seinfeld, and recently published by Apollo.

Schiff says that when he was 8 years old, his mother would take him to ballet and singing lessons. He would come back to school the next day and show the other kids what he had learned, and they would beat him up.

So his mother enrolled him in karate lessons, but then the karate instructor beat him up.

When he was 12, his parents took him to see Rodney Dangerfield, and at that moment, he knew precisely what he wanted to do with his life. (Albeit with more respect than poor Rodney got.)

Schiff leans heavily on his early years in the book, depicting his complicated relationship with his parents, which culminated in his father’s final wish—to see his son perform one last time. Wish granted, Schiff’s poignant description of that encounter is worth the price of the book.

“Why Not?” includes dozens and dozens of Schiff’s columns in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, where he talks about his love of family, comedy and all things Jewish.

The comedian lives in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles and attends services at Young Israel of Century City. He writes about his fascination with watching people perform in public, as a group, the most private activity imaginable, namely prayer.

He also tells wonderful stories about the comedians he has known, including the man he considers funnier than all of the rest, Jackie Mason. Schiff recounts that Mason would always tell him, “I was a rabbi and I wanted to become a comedian. You’re a comedian, and you want to become a rabbi.” That’s because of Schiff’s endless fascination with all things Jewish.

One of his greatest accomplishments, which he details in the book, was losing 50 pounds and keeping it off for more than a decade. He eats a plant-based diet—“Nothing with a face or a mother.” While he doesn’t proselytize for his faith and he doesn’t try to convince people to become comedians, he says he’ll talk to anybody, anytime about weight loss and eating properly.

Schiff writes that Jews have a very funny attitude toward people who lose weight—they assume that they are sick or dying. Otherwise, why would you eat less?

The author describes one encounter with a woman who saw him in the supermarket and burst into tears. “I heard you died,” she said, apparently equating Schiff’s weight loss with a living death in which one is deprived of the right to eat around the clock.

Another great story is how Schiff first appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” and how close he came to never appearing on that essential fulcrum for comedians’ careers.

He was part of an audition night at a comedy club attended by one of the talent scouts for “The Tonight Show.” Schiff says he “killed” and got a standing ovation, and yet the talent booker refused to take him on. Acting somewhat less than maturely, Schiff cursed the man out in the parking lot, after which he was told that he would never appear on “The Tonight Show.” Cut to another comedy club a decade later. The same booker for Carson attended the show and this time invited Schiff to perform on “The Tonight Show.”

Schiff, astonished, accepted the invitation, did his five minutes on what was then the Holy Grail for comics, killed, and was repeatedly invited back to perform. Before long, he got the highest accolade a comedian could receive in those years: an “OK” sign from Carson himself, and an invitation to come and sit with Johnny on the panel. Schiff writes that this was one of the most electrifying moments of his life and that Carson actually gave him some ideas about how to perform better.

Schiff and Seinfeld have been friends for forever, and Schiff now opens for him at venues across the country, including New York’s Beacon Theater. Schiff’s comedy is very much like Seinfeld’s—clean, calm, observational humor that you can feel comfortable witnessing for yourself. No foul language, no inappropriate references. Many folks say it’s comedy the way it should be.

Catch Schiff live—his upcoming dates have him performing across the country and at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio. Or read his book, which will make you love comedy … and all things Jewish, even more. Mark Schiff is a comedy voice you definitely want to know better.

New York Times bestselling author Michael Levin is publisher of Jewish Leaders Books.

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