NEW YORK — Some may laugh in the face of danger; Monica Piper laughs in the face of the “the dark stuff.” And right now she thinks America needs to laugh more.
“It’s getting harder and harder, that’s for sure — but a funny way of looking at things is important, no matter how dire the situation is. And in our current political situation, if you can’t find the funny it can be even more stressful,” said Piper, who is currently starring in the one-woman show “Not That Jewish.”
The 90-minute Off Broadway show, which is running at New World Stages through the end of April, is one part autobiographical trip, and one part her quest to figure out what being Jewish means.
She takes audiences from her childhood in the 1950s Bronx where she had a father who gave up his comedy career to provide a more stable home life, to her marriage and subsequent divorce from a tall, blond gentile who felt she was too Jewish and not that funny. She talks about her stint as a singing waitress in Hollywood and her first time on a comedy club stage.
Piper shares the milestones and moments — bitter and sweet — that shaped her life: her near tryst with her childhood hero Mickey Mantle (whom she blames for her attraction to blond, blue eyed men), her mother’s Alzheimer’s and father’s death from congestive heart failure. She shares the story of surviving breast cancer and describes her son’s adolescence. Throughout, her sense of family, love and laughter glues the vignettes together.
In 1980, after teaching English for several years — and gaining a reputation as a tough but funny teacher — Piper decided to audition for The Comedy Store in Los Angeles.
“I joked that I was doing five sets a day with hecklers already. I was honing my craft without realizing it,” said the Emmy Award-winning and golden Globe nominated writer, actress and comedian.
‘I was doing five sets a day with hecklers already. I was honing my craft without realizing it’
The audition was a success, and when Piper put down the chalkboard and picked up the microphone she also changed her birth name from May Lee Davis to Monica Piper — a name inspired by a walk along Los Angeles’s Santa Monica Pier.
“It was a sign, literally,” she said, adding how she took the Monica and added a “P” to Pier.
In 1991 Piper decided to adopt a baby as a single career woman — a choice she made at a time when not only did few women go that route, but those who did faced a great deal of criticism. It was around then that vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle lambasted fictional television character Murphy Brown for raising a child out of wedlock.
In her show, Piper tells the audience about how when her son Jake was a baby people’s eyes would move from the blond-haired baby to her ring finger to see if she was married, and seeing no ring she could almost feel them “wondering if I was selfish, a lesbian or a selfish lesbian.”
She studied improvisational comedy with Second City in Chicago and performed with “Sons of the Sunset” and “Papaya Juice” in San Francisco. After honing her skills Piper went solo as a stand up and became one of Showtime Network’s “Comedy All Stars.”
As she came up through the ranks she recalled how separate the women were from the men, “like in an Orthodox shul.”
“I remember many times on the road trying to book a show and being told ‘We already have a woman this week.’ Because you know, having two women would be weird. It just was not considered the norm then. Now so many more women are on the scene,” she said.
As her Hollywood career took off she tried to balance motherhood with an active career on the road. In time, like her father before her, she concluded that moving from airport to airport, hotel room to hotel room — even with room service — wasn’t the life she wanted for her son.
So she traded the stand up stage for the writers’ room — a move which ultimately led to an Emmy Award and collaborations with artists including Helen Hunt, Roseanne Barr and Robin Williams.
Her Ace Award-winning Showtime Special, “No, Monica… Just You” was nominated for an American Comedy Award. Piper went on to become an acclaimed television writer for shows such as “Roseanne” and “Mad About You.” She eventually becoming the showrunner of the children’s animated series, “Rugrats,” for which she won an Emmy.
“My father was so proud of me. He’d hang signs inside the elevator advertising if I had a show. He’d always tell people ‘Monica’s on TV tonight.’ He was my number one fan,” Piper said.
For Piper, the show is her way to answer the question of what it means to be Jewish.
“I’ve explored this subject for so long. I now know what my grandma meant when she said being Jewish means having a Jewish heart and passing it down,” Piper said.
For Piper, having a Jewish heart means being tolerant, accepting, politically active and compassionate. And of course, when confronted with the “dark stuff,” finding strength in humor and sharing that strength with others.