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Carol Leifer on auditioning for Larry David, writing for SNL, and more

Everybody has to start somewhere. In Firsties, we talk to some of our favorite pop-culture figures about the many first steps along the way to their current careers.

Carol Leifer first made a name for herself as a stand-up comic, relentlessly touring the clubs and honing her act, resulting in regular appearances on late-night talk shows, including Late Night With David Letterman, The Tonight Show—first with Johnny Carson, then with Jay Leno—and Late Night With Conan O’Brien, but she also has a formidable résumé as a TV writer, having worked on Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld, and The Larry Sanders Show, among other series. While in the midst of promoting her new book, How To Succeed In Business Without Even Crying, Leifer talked to The A.V. Club about some of the firsts from her career, from her first comedic influence to her first time dealing with a series being canceled.

The first comedian who really made an impression on her
Carol Leifer: I’d really have to say Robert Klein. I think to my generation of comics, he was kind of the first guy whose observational style was so relatable. Here’s this young, hip guy doing comedy. It wasn’t, like, my parents’ generation of comedians, a Jackie Mason or a Rodney Dangerfield. He was just this cool dude. [Laughs.]

When someone has an impact on you as a comedian, you know, it’s just thrilling the first time that you meet them—but he saw me perform at the Improv, and I didn’t realize he was in the audience. I had a really bad set, but Robert Klein came over to me and said, “You know, you’re really good. Don’t let this audience or tonight get you down. You really have it.” And that meant everything to me.

The A.V. Club: Do you remember how you discovered Klein? Was it seeing him on TV?

CL: It was either seeing him on television or listening to his comedy album [Child Of The 50s]. In fact, I think it was his album, now that I think about it.

AVC: Did his style of stand-up have a direct impact on you developing into an observational comedian?

CL: I would say definitely, yeah, because his stuff was so quotable and funny and… different. I mean, it really popped, you know? It was just so much of the newer generation. And I’m sure every generation has that with comedians, someone who comes out who just makes you go, “Wow, this is really new and fresh and different.” But for mine, it was Robert Klein.

The first time she decided she wanted to be a performer
CL: Wow. Well, as a kid, I always liked performing. In summer camp, I won the Hammy Award. [Laughs.] Which was a high honor, I can assure you. So I always kind of knew that I wanted to perform, but it wasn’t really ’til I met Paul Reiser in college that I saw that there was this real outlet to actually be able to do it, with an open mike night at a comedy club. That was so incredibly exciting to me. I was like, “Wow, so anybody can go and get a number to audition?” You get your number, you go on that night, and now suddenly you’re in show business! It was all very exciting to me, and so much more appealing to me than, say, becoming an actress, where it’s such a roundabout route: You’ve got to get an agent, and then you’ve got to go on auditions… This kind of cut out the middle man of performing: You just have to have the balls to want to do it, and that night you’re doing it. 

The first time she did stand-up
CL: I went to a club with Paul Reiser called Tramps—it’s not around anymore, but it was in Manhattan—and they had an open mike night, so I went on during my sophomore year of college. But it wasn’t until I went on during my junior year that I passed the audition at these comedy clubs. The first time I actually auditioned in New York, when Paul and I auditioned at the Comic Strip, Jerry Seinfeld was the emcee, and he told us we’d passed the audition. And when I went to another club called Catch A Rising Star, Larry David was the emcee, and he passed me on that audition. And, you know, looking back, when I listen to my first five minutes, it wasn’t half bad! [Laughs.] It had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it really was kind of okay! I think at that time, if you had five minutes that wasn’t just insane—like, completely crazy—and actually got one or two laughs in it, you were on your way. I think that’s the thing about comedians: We always have an innate sense of other people and whether they have it or not. So I’m really grateful that Paul helped me with my first five minutes and getting me into it, but also that I have these friends—who I’m still friends with to this day—who saw me way back when and said, “You’re good! You’re in!”

The first time she heard someone say that she was “the real Elaine” on Seinfeld
CL: I’m trying to think when that was, but I’m not really sure when that would’ve been. I sure hear it a lot, though! [Laughs.]

AVC: The bigger question, though, is whether it’s true.

CL: Well, you know, I didn’t create the character, and I’ve never heard it directly from anyone who did, so it’s hard for me to give a definitive answer to that.

The first time she met an honest-to-God celebrity
CL: I think it was probably when I worked at Saturday Night Live, and Tom Hanks hosted. That was a very, very big deal. He was always very game for anything. He’d always sit in with the writers and spitball and try to come up with ideas for himself. So that was pretty surreal, sitting in a writers’ room with Tom Hanks. But what I think is amazing about him is that he’s just such a regular guy. You know, you can always sense from somebody the moment you meet them whether they have that star pretension or if they’re just kind of a regular guy, and even though he was already a big deal and a big star when he hosted SNL, Tom Hanks was and still is a regular guy.

The first sketch she wrote for Saturday Night Live
CL: It was probably one I wrote for Jon Lovitz that didn’t make it to air, but it got very close. It got in the dress rehearsal. But I did a takeoff of a guy who did ads in New York called Crazy Eddie. Jon was hysterical doing it, but as you learn at SNL, sometimes a sketch that gets on the dress rehearsal doesn’t make it to air. It was the first time I heard my sketch read aloud, and it was also the first time that I learned a hard truth of show business by hearing, “Yeah, it’s not getting on tonight.”

The first person to give her a big break in her career
CL: That definitely would be David Letterman, and I talk about it in my book. He put me on his NBC show and gave me my network television debut, and even after that, he really just said to me, “Anytime you have a set ready to go, just call us and come on the show.” After that, he just gave me free rein to come on the show whenever I had material ready, and it led to 26 appearances on his NBC show, which was enormous. Not only did it give me a lot of confidence, but it also gave me the knowledge that I had a really safe place to go and perform where people were so supportive and just my biggest fans.

AVC: So how was that initial network-television experience?

CL: Well, it’s pretty heady, you know? [Laughs.] There’s only one time someone is ever going to say, “This is their network television debut,” and back in those days, that was an even bigger deal than it is now, because there were so many fewer channels than there are now. I tend to get nervous. I don’t show it a lot, but I definitely get a lot of butterflies and get anxious about going on, but it’s kind of like a bull in a chute before a rodeo: Once I get out there, it’s fine, but being caged up backstage beforehand… that’s the hard part.

The first time she got a bad review
CL: Oh, God, well, it’s not so much a bad review as a bad piece that was written about me, but I remember it was sometime in the ’80s. I was traveling nonstop, and it was really getting to me. I was really stressed and lonely and having a tough time, and I think I was in Winnipeg, and I met with this reporter who seemed so nice, and he was like, “I don’t know, you kind of seem pent up,” and I just kind of spilled it all out on him, going, “Oh, my God, I’ve been traveling for six months…” And when the piece came out, he’d just completely turned everything on its head and spun it such an awful way that it was titled something like “So sad about a career in comedy.” It was just terrible.

The first time she realized her name was attached to something that wasn’t very good
CL: The first thing that comes to mind is… I’ve played so many comedy clubs that have funny names, like Tickles and Sir Ha Ha’s and Sir Laugh-A-Lots and that kind of thing, and I always think that’s kind of iffy when your name is attached to a ridiculous-sounding comedy club. So I’d say it was probably when I played a place with a name like that. But I, uh, also emceed at a few male strip clubs early in my career. [Laughs.] I knew that was a clipping I probably wasn’t going to be sending to my parents.

The first time she said, “Hey, that’s not what I wrote!”
CL: Hmmm. That’s a very good question! You know, when you write on the Oscars, as I have, a lot of times what you write for the presenters, they wind up changing. So that’s probably the first time I said that, because with actors, the bigger they are, the more they get to change the copy. [Laughs.] So I’m sure there was some case when someone went out and it was like, “Wait, that’s not exactly the copy I wrote…” And what’s frustrating about that is when it doesn’t go over well. When they change your material and it doesn’t work, they go, “Well, I didn’t write that,” and it’s like, “No, but you changed it!”

The first time she pitched a TV show
CL: It was probably right after Seinfeld. I pitched a show to Warren Littlefield, who was then the NBC president, and he seemed to love it in the room. That kind of happens a lot: They love it in the room, and then they pass. [Laughs.] I’m still always surprised by that. It’s like, “Give me a little bit of a hint in the room that you’re not loving it, you know? Who’s doing the acting here?”

AVC: Do you remember what the show was about?

CL: I remember I’d just started playing golf, so it was about a bunch of people who work at a driving range. But I don’t remember the title. Maybe Fore? [Laughs.] I really don’t remember. But whatever it was, that probably went over better in the room, too!

The first time she found herself in awe of someone she was working with
CL: Early on, Jay Leno was also a big supporter of mine. He also saw me at the Improv and encouraged me to keep it up, and then I started to open for him in the ’80s. It was very cool, because I opened for him at my kind of hometown big theater, which was then called the Westbury Music Fair, in Long Island. I think the first time I opened for him there, I was not only in awe of him because it was, like, “Oh, my God, here’s this guy Jay Leno, who I’ve idolized, and now I’m opening for him,” but it was also because I was doing it at this hometown theater where I’d grown up going to shows at.

The first time she worked on a film
CL: Oh, God, you know… [Starts to laugh.] People actually always ask me about this, because on my IMDB page it says that I was in Desperately Seeking Susan… which I was, but I’m really just an extra in a party scene. I did have a couple of lines that got cut. Rosanna Arquette was having a party, she’s passing around hors d’oeuvres, and my line was something like, “Hi, I’m Rhonda! Oh, I love those!” Because she was passing around a tray of stuff. And then when the film came out, I saw that I was just Party Guest and not Rhonda anymore, with no line! But it was still exciting to be in a movie. I remember when I shot, Madonna was there. So even though I have no lines in it, it’s still pretty exciting.

The first time she was offered a role without having to audition
CL: Barry Levinson did a TV pilot called The Toast Of Manhattan, and I got to be part of the ensemble. Paul Reiser was in it, along with Gilbert Gottfried, Craig T. Nelson, and a few other people. I landed this pilot, and they paid me $4,000, which at the time was, like, “Oh, my God! I’ve hit the lottery!” And that money really kept me afloat, because I’d just moved out to L.A., and I felt like Jed Clampett. [Laughs.] It was like, “Tarnation! I just made $4,000!”

The first time she decided to take a role behind the scenes instead of in front of the camera
CL: That’d be Saturday Night Live, because I actually auditioned to be a cast member, but they offered me a job as a writer. But as I came to see from that experience—and I talk about this in my book, too—is that it’s always great to diversify a career, I was disappointed that I didn’t get the cast member role, but my dad was like, “You take that writing job right now, because years from now you’ll see that it was one of the best moves you ever made. Look at the bigger picture of things as opposed to looking at the moment.” And my dad was so right about that.

The first time she said, “Well, I guess that’s just how it is in Hollywood.”
CL: I, uh, think I kind of say that every day, so I don’t remember when the first time was. I’m not sure. But when it happened, I’m sure it was kind of an earth-shattering realization for me to realize. It’s, like, why would anyone think that show business is fair? It’s like any business. If you go into it thinking it’s fair, you won’t last through your first day. If you take that out of the equation, you’ll do so much better, because so much shit happens that’s so not fair. [Laughs.] That’s just the way it is. But if you just accept it and go along for the ride, you’ll do so much better.

The first time she had her own stand-up special
CL: That would be my first special for Showtime, and it was pretty cool, because I signed a deal for two half-hour specials. We did it on a cruise ship, and if you know my act, you know my joke about cruises is, “If you thought you didn’t like people on land…” [Laughs.] It was pretty cool, though, because we brought the whole crew and everything aboard the ship. And, honestly, I’d always had a good time working on cruise ships, because people always seemed to be in a great mood. It’s like, they’re on vacation, and, you know, they’re on a ship, so where else are they going? So, yeah, that was pretty thrilling. And to have your own special with your name on it, it’s just pretty cool.

The first time she had to deal with having a TV show canceled
CL: Well, I had my own sitcom, Alright Already, and it was canceled after one season, which was incredibly disappointing because it had gotten so much critical acclaim and made a lot of critics’ top-10 lists that year. I was obviously very devastated by that. But what’s kind of nice about it is that the guy who was the network president at the time, I saw him at a party a couple of years ago, and he came over to me—I think after having a couple of cocktails—and was like, “I’m so sorry I canceled Alright Already! That was really dumb! I shouldn’t have done that!” [Laughs.] I was like, “Well, even this many years later, there’s still some satisfaction in hearing that!”

The first time she said, “Hey, I’ll write a book!”
CL: Well, that would actually be my first book, When You Lie About Your Age, The Terrorists Win. Basically, what happened was that I started to write these essays really just for fun and to do them around town in L.A., performing them at these open mikes where people just read their essays aloud. But I was really kind of scoring even with just a regular audience there, and I thought, “Wow, this would make a good book!” And what was even better was that, when I put them together as a book proposal, I had some interest.

AVC: Was the experience of writing a book everything you hoped it would be?

CL: What I like about writing a book is the fact that I’m really blessed with my career. When you write a book, it’s so solitary. That’s kind of the bane of it. I sat at home in my office and made myself write. You know, I’d take a few breaks and walk up to the boulevard and go to Starbucks, but then I’d have to go home and write. At the end of the experience of writing a book, though, you’re so lonely and craving some companionship. So I really lucked out that, after I finished my new book, I got this new job as co-executive producer of the show Devious Maids. So now I’m back in a writers’ room, working with a bunch of people, and it’s fantastic because it’s the yang to the yin of writing a book. I’m back with people! [Laughs.] And I’m sure that, when we break for hiatus in a couple of months, it’ll be nice to have more of a solitary writing experience. It’s really fun to mix it all up.