By Stacey Gualandi/July 10, 2014
Photos Courtesy Carol Leifer
We all know Carol Leifer from her many credits as a comedian and writer on some of the most popular comedy shows on television. She’s made us laugh on The Larry Sanders Show, The Ellen Show, Saturday Night Live, and the pinnacle comedy sitcom, Seinfeld. She now gives humorous voice to Lifetime’s Devious Maids as a Co-Executive Producer.
“I’m lucky that my dream of making a living as comedian and comedy writer worked out and worked out in spades. I am so grateful for my entire career.” Carol Leifer
Whether she has meant to or not she has now written the ultimate career advice book in the hilariously titled How To Succeed In Business Without Really Crying: Lessons From a Life In Comedy. What a pleasure it was to get some life-learning lessons on The Women’s Eye Radio Show recently and now I can share them with you…
STACEY: You certainly have a knack for the best titles of books. Another title, When You Lie About Your Age, The Terrorists Win, was equally brilliant. Does this come easy for you?
CAROL: You know what, I always like to have a funny title. I do a lot of corporate speaking, and I really have to be honest that when someone introduces me and I get a laugh by just the title of my book, it’s a good ramp up to doing my thing. So, I always like to do titles that are funny to get people in the mood to laugh.
STACEY: It’s an ice breaker to get people in the mood to laugh. Were you always funny?
CAROL: I was always interested in comedy. I always liked being funny as a kid. I grew up in a family that loved comedy. My parents used to listen to comedy albums in the house. The great thing about standup comedy is that the system really hasn’t changed since I got into it in the late 70’s.
You get up on stage and you do it. You go to an open mike night, an audition night like I did, and you give it a shot. That’s what I’ve always loved about it. It’s very low tech. If you want to be a comedian, well, guess what? You can go on tonight. You can be a comedian.
STACEY: What drove you? Was it the instant reaction from the crowd?
CAROL: Yes. Stand-up comedy is always the blessing and the bane of anybody’s artistic comedic existence because when you’re up there and you get those laughs in that moment, there is really nothing better. It feels so good.
Carol Does Stand-Up on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson–2/5/92
It’s a tidal wave of love and acceptance and happiness. Conversely when you are up there and you bomb, what you have to do is get good. There is no way around it. No comedian goes up there and kills it every time they are on. There is really no lower point to experience.
What I love about it is just the live aspect of it and being with the crowd. Of all the things I’ve done, including writing books and television shows, my favorite still is to be with a live audience.
STACEY: Failure is an option, right?
CAROL: I write about that in my book, and it’s not just for people who want to get into show business. I am getting such great feedback about that, and it’s great advice for any type of business. My theory is that if you aren’t failing, you’re not doing something right.
“You need to fail to get good at something, to learn from your mistakes and grow from them. Any career, and certainly my 37-year-career in show business, is full of missteps. And you need those to be good at what you want to do.”
STACEY: Was it daunting to compete in the boys’ club of comedians?
CAROL: I never thought about being female as a handicap. When I got into comedy, there were so few women comedians. I always felt, and I still feel, that it was a tremendous advantage. Despite the hardships you might endure, I think you also get a lot of acceptance and interest because you are a minority.
I always tell people to see your “minority-ness” as an advantage. The men along the way in my career helped me out a lot and saw me as a kid sister. They gave me a lot of breaks. I’ve always really loved the fact that so many men became mentors for me. David Letterman put me on his NBC show 26 times!
I also wasn’t afraid to ask for help from the men. What’s great about the book is that I really try to give people tips to stay afloat and be successful. I am getting great reactions from kids who are graduating high school and college.
Not only that, I also share those moments when I put my foot in my mouth. And, I try to share tips with people how to avoid pitfalls, much like I have had in my work.
STACEY: Did you always know what you wanted to do?
CAROL: In my junior year in college in Binghamton, New York, my fellow theater troupe member Paul Reiser, who was also my boyfriend at the time, told me about these comedy clubs in Manhattan that had audition nights.
For the summer I tried out as a lark, and lo and behold, we both passed the auditions at a club called the Comic Strip that is still in Manhattan. So, I had a choice of pursuing my comedy career or going back to Binghamton.
After talking to both my parents, who were very supportive, we came up with a plan to accomplish both. I transferred to Queens College to finish my education and at night I would hit the comedy trail.
“I think my parents knew this was my driving passion to become a comedienne. I know a lot of people who gave it a shot and it didn’t work out, but you know, you can sleep better at night knowing you tried.”
I’m lucky that my dream of making a living as comedienne and comedy writer worked out and worked out in spades. I am so grateful for my entire career. The first tip in my book is find something you love to do and you’ll never work a day in your life.
STACEY: Mining your own life for ideas, especially as a female, is what set you apart. How so?
CAROL: When a woman goes on stage and talks about her experiences that are not the experiences of a man, people relate to it because it is genuine.
When I was writing on Seinfeld, I don’t think a man would have pitched Elaine thinking about the Korean manicurists talking about her behind her back in Korean. That came from my experience as a woman in New York. I think it’s important to look at your own life for comedy ideas because they are there.
STACEY: You talk a lot about ‘the big idea.’ This relates to having a ‘big idea’ for a sitcom storyline. It translates to other businesses, too. How important is that ‘big idea’ and how do you present it?
CAROL: ‘Big ideas’ are important because what comedy writing has taught me is that whatever business you are in, whenever you pitch an idea, it really should be kept short and sweet and make your point very expeditiously.
I think it is really funny that Twitter really helped my comedy writing because of the word limit. It makes the jokes better. Short and sweet is really good for any business when you go to pitch and when you’re in any kind of meetings.
When people go on and on, you can feel people glazing over; you’ve just lost them. For me, I lose the audience, but you lose them in your boardroom. It’s important to just really get to the specifics and be succinct and clear.
STACEY: You’ve said about working for Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David that you learned how to be a good boss. How important was that to you?
CAROL: When I started out as a staff writer, which means an entry level writer at Seinfeld, I’d never written on sitcoms before. The captains of the ship are the show runners and I was lucky enough to know Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. They were really amazing.
They didn’t treat any crew member on the set any differently from any NBC network executive. I really learned from them as managers because they were so fair and really fun to work for.
STACEY: It trickles down. What about you? Would you ever consider do something in late night, like hosting your own show, or is it tough for women to be accepted in late night?
CAROL: I think everything is wide open. I feel badly that when we talk about women, there’s only Chelsea Handler out there now. I wish there were more women, but I think there’s endless opportunity.
I would love to see late night be over-run with women, and certainly if I was ever given an opportunity, I think it would be so much fun and great. There’s never a lack of talent. There are always new people out there who blow me away and are wonderful. I look forward to who ever is next.
STACEY: Would you advise people to get into show biz?
CAROL: Absolutely. For the people I know from show business, it’s a burning desire from day one. It has to be because the rejection can be so overwhelmingly crippling. You really have to have backbone, but I really encourage people to do it, and, what a fun way to make your living.
I’m still star stuck. I meet famous people all the time with my mouth hanging wide open. I never want to not get a kick out of it. It’s because every day it’s still fun. I feel so fortunate.
STACEY: I feel very fortunate speaking with you, Carol Leifer, and, of course, the book is How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying, and she says she never shed a tear. Let’s do this again and talk more about you. I need more tips.