Interview'There's no lashon hara, there’s no knocking people'

With a jam-packed schedule at 70, comedian Mark Schiff asks ‘Why Not?’ in new book

The longtime opening act for Jerry Seinfeld looks back on 50 years in the business, as well as his connection to his Jewish faith

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Comedian Mark Schiff and his new book, 'Why Not?' (Courtesy)
Comedian Mark Schiff and his new book, 'Why Not?' (Courtesy)

Mark Schiff has never been busier.

More than two years after COVID brought live shows to a grinding halt, the veteran stand-up comedian is back on the road as the long-time opening act for Jerry Seinfeld, as well as performing his own gigs in Las Vegas and hosting a weekly podcast, “You Don’t Know Schiff.”

Now the comic is out with his first book, titled “Why Not? Lessons on Comedy, Courage, and Chutzpah” — written largely during the pandemic.

“I wrote my book during COVID, and so for me, it was a great growth spurt,” Schiff, 70, told The Times of Israel in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “My work was decimated as a comedian, there was no more performing, no live anything — so I decided to try to write a book.”

As live shows have returned and he’s back on the road, “I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my whole life,” said Schiff. “But I’m glad to be this busy.”

That “whole life” has included decades on the road as a stand-up comedian, from days performing in clubs in New York in the 1970s, to his appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman in the 1980s, a voice-acting gig on a popular cartoon in the 1990s, as well as Showtime comedy specials, numerous TV writing credits and 20 years of traveling around the world as Jerry Seinfeld’s opening act.

In “Why Not,” Schiff draws on his long and colorful career — as well as his 32-year marriage, three sons and fresh grandfatherhood — to pepper the book with anecdotes, musings on life, and reflections on Jewish values. Part memoir, part essay collection, part compilation of one-liners, the book tackles humorous and heavy topics alike.

Schiff’s connection to Judaism is front and center, and he credits his observance with changing his outlook on both comedy and life.

“One thing I’m most proud of in the book,  and in my act, is nobody gets hurt,” Schiff said. “There’s no lashon hara, there’s no knocking people — I try to talk about real-life events without disparaging anybody,” said the comedian, using the common Hebrew phrase for derogatory gossip.

The book is heavy on Jewish content, including smatterings of Yiddish and references to olam haba (the world to come), sheitels (wigs) and tzitzit (a ritual garment). Schiff adds tongue-in-cheek footnotes to explain many of the words and phrases common to Orthodox Jews, but foreign to most others. The footnote explaining brit milah, the ritual circumcision, jokes that “It would have been nice if instead of God saying ‘Snip the tip,’ He’d said on the eighth day, ‘Cut his fingernails and let’s be done with it.’” The entry for tzitzit suggests that “the knots remind the man of the knots in his stomach from constant worry about things he has no business worrying about.”

Comedians (from left) Jay Leno, Mark Schiff, Larry Miller, Paul Reiser, Jim Brogan and Jerry Seinfeld at Miller’s wedding in 1993. (Courtesy)

Nevertheless, he said, “I don’t think it’s just for Jews, the book, I think it’s pretty universal… I’m just kind of talking about universal premises — how to be a better person, not necessarily — I hope — only restricted to Jews.”

Keen fans of comedy and the industry will certainly enjoy Schiff’s reminiscing about some incredible interactions throughout his career, including being invited over to Katharine Hepburn’s home, having Bob Dylan show up to hang out at his apartment, and learning from the greats like Jackie Mason, Rodney Dangerfield, and Milton Berle.

Schiff is most closely associated with Seinfeld, whom he first met in 1976, when they were both in their early 20s. Today, Schiff is one of a handful of regular opening acts for the world-famous comedian as he tours around the United States and the world.

“It’s the best gig in the world. If you’re not gonna be headlining a show yourself, this is the show to be on,” said Schiff. “[Jerry] is so supportive — we started together, neither one of us had anything — he was working in a burger place to make money, and I met him in the clubs, and we were friends early on and we remain friends since then.”

Mark Schiff, Rodney Dangerfield, and Jerry Seinfeld after a comedy show in Manhattan. (courtesy)

Schiff opened for Seinfeld at both his 2015 and 2017 shows in Israel. “He uses two or three of us. For Israel, he said, ‘I can’t think of anyone else but you,’” Schiff told The Times of Israel ahead of the 2017 gig.

Those trips, the comedian said recently, “were incredible… these are my people. What’s great is when you go to Israel from America, they’re so happy that you’ve made the trip over.”

Even, he said, considering the 15-hour flight from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv. In the book, Schiff wrote: “I don’t mind the flight to Israel though. I like flying on planes with 400 other Jews except when they wake me to pray.”

While “Why Not?” is full of laughs and humorous tales, Schiff also tackles more serious topics, including childhood abuse at the hands of his mother, as well as his own struggles with alcoholism.

“I felt that it could be helpful for somebody,” said Schiff of the decision to include such stories. “I felt that there’s other people that definitely go through things like that, and to know that I came through it might be helpful to them.”

Comedian Mark Schiff performing on a USO tour for US troops in Kuwait in 1991. (Courtesy)

Amid his jokes and his memories, Schiff finds comfort in the notion of humor bringing light during dark times — recalling performing stand-up in New Jersey days after a deadly shooting at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City in 2019, as well as doing a show on a cruise ship docked in Alaska the day after 9/11.

“Sometimes the only thing you can do is do what you’re supposed to do,” he writes. “The bottom line is life goes on. I’ve been blessed to have known a few Holocaust survivors who have told me as much. These are people who lost everything and everyone and had to start over, sometimes more than once.

“What choice is there but to carry on and live a good life? After you’ve been beaten to a pulp, isn’t the ultimate revenge doing well?” he adds. “Isn’t it the best thing a Jew can do, to have a few children to counter what Hitler tried to do? Life goes on.”

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