Comedy Q+A: Carol Leifer
Boston’s Women In Comedy Festival begins today and runs through March 25. There will be dozens of standup comedians, sketch groups, and improv artists performing over the five days with plenty of locals and intrepid out-of-towners filling several shows a night. One of the headliners of the festival is veteran standup comedian and writer Carol Leifer, who performs on the penultimate night of the festival, Saturday, March 24, with Kelly MacFarland and Erin Jackson.
Leifer began her standup career in New York in the 1970s and began writing for television while continuing to tour with comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and musicians like Frank Sinatra. Eventually Leifer became a writer and co-producer of “Seinfeld” and is purportedly the basis for the series’ lead female character, Elaine Benes. She has written for several Academy Awards broadcasts and other awards shows, “Saturday Night Live,” and has been a producer for “The Larry Sanders Show,” “The Ellen Show,” and “Rules of Engagement.”
I had the chance to ask Leifer to share her perspective on the current state of women in comedy and to provide some advice to the many comics at the festival who are just starting their careers.
Thomas Lewis: I was excited to see that you had been recruited to be a part of the Women In Comedy Festival, when is the last time you performed in Boston?
Carol Leifer: I was in Newton, in 2009, to make an appearance for my book, at the Jewish Community Center, so that was a couple years ago.
What enticed you to get involved with the festival this year?
This is what I love about social media. Literally, I got a Facebook message from them, asking me if I’d like to participate, and that’s what got the whole ball rolling. I actually pick up a lot of work that way via Facebook.
Tell us about your involvement with ABC’s “Modern Family.”
I did guest-write an episode last year, and with the Writers Guild Awards, they nominate the entire writing staff, and the show won! I was really honored to be included since I’m not a full-time member of the writing staff — how fantastic! My hat is off to them on a weekly basis.
The topic of women in comedy has been in the news a lot lately. What’s your take on how women are participating in comedy?
It really has changed over the past couple decades. There really are a lot more women comedians out there now. I do agree with the idea that a movie like “Bridesmaids” was really seminal in taking us to a new level. The thing is that comedy is the great equalizer, funny is funny, and it doesn’t matter if you are a woman or part of a different ethnic group, if you are black or Latino, funny is funny. It’s part of what we love about standup. It’s why I never let my standup go because the simple act of one person going up [on stage] and trying to make people laugh is both the glory and the bane of your existence. … I do think it’s great that there are so many more women than when I started, but the bottom line is that you still have to be funny.
What are some things that we’ll be hearing from you when you perform in Boston?
Obviously I’m a left-leaning person, but I don’t really get political in my act. I do talk about my life, and what it’s like living with my partner and adopting a child together. Also, this is kind of a rule of standup, you start your act with some observational stuff and then go to the personal. When I talk about my personal life, I think it’s a really great thing in 2012, that people are not put off by my talking about my partner and our little gay family. I feel the audience come in to me in a way that happens when you open up to them. I love that about standup. They know when you are being real and are opening yourself up, and they respond to that.
There are going to be a lot of comics at the festival who are just starting out, do you have some words of advice that you could share with them about how to persevere?
My biggest piece of advice is twofold. To make it in comedy, I think you always have to be your own biggest fan. You try to surround yourself with good people, but at the end of the day, your belief in yourself has to be unwavering because there is so much rejection and so many no’s along the way — you always have to have a fierce belief in your talent. That doesn’t mean you have to be a big-headed blowhard, but at the end of the day, you have to believe that what you are doing is valuable and important, and if somebody doesn’t see that right now, one day they will. That has always kept me going.
I always thought that there would be a point, and I think people are surprised by this, that there would be a point in your career where you can just coast, and I think that’s a big myth. There is no “coast” part. You always have to work hard, you always have to be your own biggest fan because there is so much resistance, you just have to push through it. For example, I was lucky enough to write on “Modern Family,” but I pursued that all by myself. I pursued [series creator] Steve Levitan to say, “I’m as big a fan of ‘Modern Family’ as anybody, can I pitch some ideas?” and was told that they don’t really hear a lot of pitches and that I “shouldn’t mess up.” So you see you always have to keep your initiative up and that you always need to keep fighting. Nobody shows you the Golden Path, you know?
Carol Leifer performs on Sat., March 24, at the Longy School of Music at 7 p.m. (This interview has been edited for space and clarity.)