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Comedian Mark Schiff's Done it All: Seinfeld, Carson, Letterman and Leno - Now What?

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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.

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back stage by courtesy of the author

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?

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