The Queer Queen of Comedy

Books

By Michael Kaminer

Published September 02, 2009, issue of September 11, 2009.
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‘Carol Leifer Gets Weirder: Now Jewish, Lesbian, and Vegan,” an online gossip headline blared after the comedian filmed a Web ad for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

All in the family: Carol Leifer, at right, with her partner Lori Wolf, son Bruno, and dogs Heston, Julius, Maccabee, Shelby, Albert, Cagney and Lacey.
JIM DRATFIELD PHOTOGRAPHY
All in the family: Carol Leifer, at right, with her partner Lori Wolf, son Bruno, and dogs Heston, Julius, Maccabee, Shelby, Albert, Cagney and Lacey.

While most of that line rings true — Leifer is Semitic, same-sex loving and vegan — “weird” is the last word that comes to mind for the haimish-sounding woman with faint Long Island vowels, who calls at the precise time arranged.

In fact, the former “Seinfeld” co-writer and co-producer sounds remarkably centered for a 51-year-old, newly bat mitzvahed celebrity animal-rights activist with a statuesque partner, a 3-year-old son adopted from Guatemala and seven rescue dogs.

As of last spring, Leifer’s also a best-selling author with a book to promote, so she’s working the press at a point in her career when she really doesn’t need to do so. The Jewish Book Council recently chose “When You Lie About Your Age, The Terrorists Win: Reflections on Looking in the Mirror” (Villard), her comic-memoir-cum-self-help guide, as a selection for its Jewish Book Network tour of Jewish community centers and synagogues nationwide.

The book is unflinchingly honest, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who squirmed in recognition of the embarrassing, everyday truths she nailed on “Seinfeld.” It can also read like an extended monologue, which isn’t always a good thing. Read aloud, the book would be a hoot. As prose, it’s a little flat. Turning 50 — the catalyst for the book, she writes — seems to have made Leifer a little kinder and gentler, and you find yourself wishing she’d take her foot off the brakes.

Still, without apology, she writes frankly about her journey from straight woman to lesbian, carnivore to vegan, “holiday Jewish” to deeply spiritual. Along the way, like the veteran stand-up she is, Leifer riffs on Hanukkah (“the perennial also-ran of the holiday season”), funerals (“We hired what our tribe calls a Rent-a-Rabbi”) and fake chicken (“Ficken!”).

“I write about all the changes in my life since I’m 40, which to me are the best changes I’ve had in my life,” she said. “People find any journey interesting, where you’ve had a personal turnaround that way. I know as a writer of comedy anything that’s about conflict is interesting. You have that built in with these kinds of personal stories.”

Throughout looms the ghost of her beloved optometrist father, Seymour, whose death in 2005 sparked the existential crisis that led Leifer down her highly unpredictable midlife path.

“I didn’t have a very big spiritual life before that,” said Leifer, whose older siblings, Marvin and Jane, are a New Jersey psychiatrist and a Virginia school shrink, respectively. “When my father passed away, I was going every week to say Kaddish. That’s a powerful moment. You need to be older to really soak yourself in the gravity of it. The fact that it consoled me to the extent that it did in dealing with the death of my father made it that much more of a revelation to me.”

Even though Leifer’s standup and television writing has always been seasoned with Jewish tropes, the book is almost surprisingly earnest in its embrace of spirituality. That kind of sincerity might raise eyebrows in Hollywood, but Leifer shrugs off cynics. “It’s who I am, so I don’t give that a lot of thought,” she said. “I use a lot of Yiddish words in the book, for example. I was concerned people wouldn’t understand, and my editor said to write what I felt was true. It was the best advice I ever got. There’s a piece where I meet my father in heaven and he talks about kissing my punim. When I read the piece aloud, people are really affected by it. They understand. I just act like me and let the pieces fall where they may.”

Leifer’s show-business roots reach as far back as her theater-major days at upstate Binghamton University, where weekends saw her taking the stage in New York with fellow neophytes Larry David, Paul Reiser and her ex-boyfriend Jerry Seinfeld. It’s become part of showbiz lore that an up-and-coming comedian named David Letterman saw Leifer perform at Comic Strip Live in 1979. That chance encounter eventually led to 25 appearances on Letterman’s late-night show in the 1980s and ’90s. Success on the other side of the camera followed, with production or writing credits on “The Ellen Show,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Alright Already,” among others.

Leifer hasn’t stopped working, but she has ascended to a Hollywood stratum that entitles her to play herself. She makes a brief appearance in Judd Apatow’s tears-of-a-clown epic “Funny People” and in an upcoming episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”: “I get to yell at Larry David for three minutes straight.”

Along with David and Seinfeld, Leifer created some of the most enduring moments of “Seinfeld,” the show that helped popularize Jewish vernacular to the rest of the country — and the world. Her legendary “marble rye” episode, for example, exported a suburban Jewish staple into homes around the world. Despite its particularity, though, Leifer thinks “Seinfeld” lost nothing in translation to the non-Semitic masses.

“People bring bread for a dinner. The host forgets to put it out. People take the bread back with them. If you’re Italian, or Dutch, or Portuguese, that’s just a funny situation,” she said. “The fact that it’s a marble rye, Jewish bread, that’s part of our culture. Finding little small things about people and behavior was genius of the show and genius of Larry and Jerry in focusing on what those little things are.”

David says the feelings are mutual. “‘Seinfeld’ was a great fit for her,” he told the Forward in an e-mail. “She has a great eye for all the small, quirky, funny things that were the hallmark of the show. I would always look forward to when she would come in to pitch, because I would get such a kick out of her ideas.”

How has Leifer — who’s experienced more life changes in a decade than most people see in a lifetime — changed in the decades David has known her? “She’s become wiser, more self-assured, more caring,” David said. “Seems completely comfortable with who she is, and frankly, I find it all very disturbing. Change throws me.”

Case in point: The day before the interview, Leifer and her partner, Lori Wolf, celebrated the former’s 51st birthday in what sounds for her like a perfectly natural fusion of domestic routine and Los Angeles sparkle.

“Lori and I had a really nice day,” she said. “We spent the morning with our son, Bruno, dropped him off at day camp at our temple in West L.A. and went to see ‘(500) Days of Summer,’ which I highly recommend. Then we picked him up from camp. At night, we went to Dan Tana’s, one of my favorite restaurants.” Did anything on the megastar hangout’s old-school menu fit her vegan regimen? “Here’s the great thing about Italian restaurants,” she said. “They have great fried zucchini sticks. They’re not very healthy, but I love them. And you can’t go wrong with pasta marinara.”

Going vegan last year, Leifer says, opened her eyes to the cruelties of factory farming — including kosher slaughterhouses. “Growing up, it was always, ‘If you buy kosher meat, they’re killed humanely.’ But I’ve seen so many horrible videos. What we thought was humane 100 years ago is not humane anymore. The ways animals suffer, I just couldn’t be a part of it anymore.” Does she miss pastrami? Corned beef? “Way far from missing it,” she said, “I’m sorry I didn’t have this revelation earlier. I sleep better and more soundly because I’m not participating anymore.”

Michael Kaminer is a frequent Forward contributor whose writing also has appeared in The Washington Post and The New York Times.

To listen to a Forward podcast with Carol Leifer, click here.


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