Mark Schiff, WHY NOT?: Lessons on Comedy, Courage, and Chutzpah

Mark Schiff, WHY NOT?: Lessons on Comedy, Courage, and Chutzpah

Zibby interviews master comedian and long-time touring partner of Jerry Seinfeld, Mark Schiff, about his hilarious and brilliantly honest collection of essays, Why Not?: Lessons on Comedy, Courage, and Chutzpah. Mark shares the details of his life story, including his weight loss journey, the trauma he survived as a child, and finding a home in the Jewish community. He also talks about his career in comedy (from bombing his first show at 18 to touring internationally with Jerry Seinfeld) and shares his best advice for aspiring writers and humorists.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mark. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Why Not?: Lessons on Comedy, Courage, and Chutzpah.

Mark Schiff: That’s right. Thank you. Thank you, Zibby, for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure.

Mark: I was at your bookstore in Los Angeles. I did an event there. It’s a wonderful bookstore. I don’t know why I thought it’s like a home library. It’s very comfortable. It’s small. You’ve got rows of books. It’s just sweet. It’s a sweet store in a beautiful neighborhood. We had a beautiful event there.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Who were you with? Who were you in conversation with?

Mark: Wayne Federman, another comedian like myself. He wrote a book about the history of stand-up comedy. We both together did an event at your store.

Zibby: That’s so great. I’m sorry I wasn’t there. It sounds amazing.

Mark: It’s my second-favorite store. My first favorite store is The Strand.

Zibby: Wow, second just after The Strand. That’s amazing. I’m totally honored by that.

Mark: It is amazing. I loved it. Good to see you.

Zibby: It looks just like my house. I have the same contractor. I wanted it to feel just like another room in my house. It just happens to not be in my house. Thank you for going there and doing it. We’ve just started livestreaming all of our events. I keep missing them because I’m in New York. Now every time there’s one — it’s perfect because my kids will have just fallen asleep. I put it on my phone or I put it up on the TV from YouTube. I can feel like I’m there. Next time, I won’t miss events like yours. Back to you and your book, which I really loved. I will definitely not ask you how old you are, having read it. I was like, I wonder how old he’s going to look. Why don’t you tell listeners a little bit more about your book and even why you decided — I know you explain why in the book — why you decided to even make this a book and when you started writing your columns and all of that?

Mark: It started a long time ago. I got a phone call. I didn’t start out to write the book. I’ve heard this a lot on your show. I’ve listened to your podcast. A lot of writers, they don’t start out to do it. Then all of a sudden, a miracle happens, and they have a book. That’s kind of what happened with me. I got a phone call from the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles, from the editor. I do stand-up comedy. He loves my stand-up comedy. He thinks I’m funny. He said, “Mark, why don’t you write something for us?” I thought about it for a minute. I said, “Why not?” I wrote it. He liked it. He said, “This is pretty good. People seem to like it. Why don’t you write something else?” I said, “Why not?” I wrote it. Those two words, “Why not?” is one of the reasons the book is here now. The book is called Why Not? If I had said to the guy — David Suissa is his name. He’s the editor of the Jewish Journal. If I had said, “No, thanks,” this book would not be here now. Two words can change your life. When you get married and you say “I do,” your life is changed. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you say certain words. If you throw yourself into life, things happen. I kept writing and writing and writing. I had about forty essays. The guy was great. He gave me a page in the paper anytime I wanted. Can you imagine this? If you’re a writer and you have an opportunity, it’s mind-boggling. Then COVID hit. On my COVID vacation, a two-and-a-half-year vacation, I decided not to eat and get fat and not to watch television. I looked at this. I said, maybe there’s a book here. I got forty of these. I just kept writing and writing. There’s an agent in New York. His name is Murray Weiss. I knew him. I had written a play. He tried to get my play off the ground. Didn’t happen. I said, “Murray, I think I wrote a book. Would you like to read it?” You know what he said? “Why not?” I sent it to him.

Zibby: It’s so perfect.

Mark: I sent it to him. He read it. He said, “I think you have a book here. Would you like me to help you put it together?” You know what I said?

Zibby: Why not?

Mark: Why not? That’s exactly it. Anyway, to make a long story short, he mentored me. He helped me do this. We put it together. Then he said, “I want to start sending it out. Would you like me to send it out?” Why not? He sent it out. Thirty-seven rejections in a row. Beautiful emails back. They liked my work. They never commented on the work. They said, “You’re not the type of guy we’re looking — we want this younger –” and whatever. Finally, Apollo Publishers stepped up. They said, “We like it. We’d like to have a Zoom meeting with Mark. Would he like to meet with us?” Why not? We met. We talked. We liked each other. They said they wanted to publish it. I said, go ahead. That’s it. The book is here. Then when you write something, you never realize what you’re really writing it for sometimes. Really, what this book is, it’s a footprint of my life for my children. I got three boys. You’ve got your family, nice-size family. They didn’t know much about my life. Kids, they grow up. They’re great kids, but they didn’t know a lot. A lot of this, I wrote so they would know about where I came from. The book will have a lot more value to them after I’m gone in many ways. They read it now. They like it. When they really look back after that day comes, they’ll know what I was about. That’s kind of the overview of the book.

Zibby: That’s so nice. I wrote a memoir. I can’t get my kids to read it.

Mark: It’s impossible. It’s crazy, right?

Zibby: I know. I’m like, it’s my life story. They’re like, whatever. Let me go back to YouTube. I’m like, okay, that’s how interesting I am to you. Fine. Whatever. You’ll be happy later.

Mark: I wrote all about them in the book. Although, one of my sons, my middle son, he thinks I wrote less about him than the other ones. We have this whole controversy with him. I just recently had to write something just about him to make him happy.

Zibby: You just can’t win. Parenting is so thankless. One of the parts of your book that I was so moved by and inspired by and just really resonated was your talking about your body and your weight and trying to keep this weight off and the fifty pounds that you lost and how every day, you wake up, and it’s a struggle. I have been struggling with my weight forever and have not gotten to the post-“I lost the weight, kept it off” thing. I’ve gone through many, many ups and downs. Your book, I know it was inspired not because you — you differentiate between need and want and all of that, but just that you wake up and you’re like, this is something I have to do every day, is not have the cake I want, or whatever. Just tell me more about all of that.

Mark: I lost fifty pounds a little over ten years ago. Losing the weight was not that difficult. It was actually exciting. Every day, the things are fitting. The pants are falling off. It was crazy. It was so exciting. Then I lost the weight. I got to where I wanted to be. I got to my high school weight. I was wearing my kids’ clothes. I went into Forever 21. I’m seventy years old. I was afraid to go into Forever 21 because I thought they would throw me out. They’d go, what’s this guy doing here? Is he a store detective or something? I started buying clothes in H&M and Zara. It was crazy. Keeping the weight off is murder. There’s a guy inside of me that wants to come out every day. I have a little system. One of the things I do is I have these two friends, and we call each other every day. We check in with our exercise. I’ll call, and I’ll go, “I’m done.” I exercise seven days a week now. I don’t go crazy. I don’t do four hours. I do forty minutes a day. I call my friends. If I’m going to want to eat something that is not right for me — it’s hard to do. I’ll call them and say, “Listen, I’m about to dive into this thing.” Then I try not to do it. I don’t beat myself up. I always get back on track. I try not to, in my head, where the head goes, it’s too late. It’s over. You gained back four pounds. The whole thing is over. I don’t let myself defeat myself. It’s difficult but so worth it.

Zibby: For the accountability with your friends, how did you find the right people, even? How did you know when you needed that? What happens when you do fall off the wagon? Why does it not collapse for you?

Mark: Because you have other people that you’re accountable to. They calm you down. They calm your nerves. These two guys, I know forever. One guy, Bernie, lost 175 pounds. He’s kept it off now for well over ten years. The other guy, Steve Mittleman, also had done the same thing. We exercise every day. There’s a saying. It starts in the kitchen, and it ends in the gym. I could run from — I don’t know where you live. Let’s say you lived on 85th Street. I could run from 85th Street down to Greenwich Village. That’s a cookie. That’ll be 230 calories. Exercise doesn’t do it. Once you lose the weight, exercise maintains it, but you don’t lose weight by exercise. It’s all about accountability here. I stopped everything, by the way, Zibby. I stopped smoking. I stopped drinking. I started eating well. I reversed my entire life.

Zibby: Wow, it’s so impressive.

Mark: Thirty-eight years, I haven’t had a drink. Not even water. I started off on the wrong foot in life. I kind of chucked everything that I thought was right. I had to reverse almost everything in my life.

Zibby: I have to say, what you wrote about growing up and the deep sadness you felt and your loneliness and the pain that you went through, it was tough. My heart really broke for you as a kid. It’s great you could recognize it now, write about it, move on from it, and face it. A lot of times with trauma and all that stuff, you just sweep it under and never really pull it out to examine. I’m wondering how that felt for you when you went through that.

Mark: Writing about my mom was very difficult, very, very difficult, but it was cathartic. When I look back on it, I just had to write it. I was in therapy for seventeen years. It helped, but it didn’t — some things you just never get rid of. Writing it out really changed everything for me. I really got a good view of what was going on. One of the things in the book which I’m most proud of is that even though I had a tough life and a tough beginning and all that stuff, nobody gets hurts in the book. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of. I’m not saying nasty things about people and people that hurt me. I’m not trying to destroy them back. There’s none of that stuff in the book. I developed something from my mother. God bless her. I know how much she loved me. She was probably bipolar, but they didn’t know that in 1960. They called it high-strung. It was crazy. I have empathy for her now that I never had before.

Zibby: I feel like in the book you came to this realization. My parents were sick. There was something going on with them.

Mark: Yeah. You don’t know that when you’re a kid. I’m not excusing anything, but they did what they could do. They did the best they could. I know they loved me. Thank god for my father because I really knew he loved me all along. If you got one person in your life you know that really cares and really loves you, it can take you far.

Zibby: Yes. I feel like you set it up so that it makes sense why you are so happy being a part of the Jewish community and why being there and living there and adopting that as a place — to find that sense of home sometimes doesn’t come at home. You have your family now. I also loved those parts where you’re like, where else can you find all these people? I love these Jewish names. I love this. I’m Jewish myself, so I get it. I get what you’re saying. It’s very comforting.

Mark: It’s very comforting for me. I’ve always lived in Jewish neighborhoods my whole life. In New York, I grew up in the Bronx and Forest Hills and Manhattan. Then I jumped across the country. I lived in Los Angeles. I live in a very Jewish neighborhood now. I love seeing Jews. There’s something about feeling at home with my people here. I love rabbis. It sounds insane. I love rabbis. The greatest thing about going to synagogue is when a rabbi talks, either you learn something or you get a good nap. You cannot lose. I’ll tell you a funny story. There was a rabbi in San Antonio. I lived there. My wife is from Texas. She used to actually ride a horse to school.

Zibby: Wow.

Mark: A Jewish girl riding a horse to school, can you imagine this? It’s unbelievable.

Zibby: Unbelievable.

Mark: I always fall asleep at synagogue. It happens a lot. I said to this rabbi, “I want to come listen to you speak in the afternoons, but there’s a good chance I’m going to fall asleep when you’re speaking. Is that okay with you?” He said, “Absolutely. Come.” I sat next to him. I was asleep almost every week. He was so kind to me. If you’re honest with people and tell them what’s going on, it takes you a long way.

Zibby: I have to say, my husband converted to Judaism. I used to go with him in the beginning when he would have the meetings with the rabbi. It was in this dark, kind of airless office down below the sanctuary. I would always sit on the couch and fall asleep. It was so embarrassing. There were only three of us in his office. I could not stay awake. Now he jokes about it. I’m like, I don’t know. I’m going to come in and fall asleep. I get it. Maybe it was just his voice or something.

Mark: There’s a rabbi in Los Angeles. He runs the center there. His name is Rabbi Hier. He used to be a rabbi in Canada. The police came once and said, “In case of emergency, how many people can your synagogue sleep if we need it?” He goes, “Every Saturday when I speak, I sleep over three hundred people.”

Zibby: That’s really funny. I love that. You took the pain of the past and all of your experience, and you found comedy. You write about when you realized that this is something you want to do, even though nobody believed you would really do it, necessarily, and then of course, made this this huge career, so much so — Jerry Seinfeld, you grew up with him. He wrote the forward in the book. All these people you said you really came up with in your industry, talk about that and that journey of becoming a stand-up comedian, which is such a wish for so many. So few actually make it.

Mark: I’ve been blessed. I’ve worked over forty years as a stand-up. I was really never out of work. In show business, it’s amazing. A very small percentage of people. When I was twelve years old, my parents took me to a nightclub. I’m an only child, so they took me everywhere. They took me to a nightclub. The great comedian Rodney Dangerfield opened the show. He came out. I never saw people laugh like this in my entire — I saw my parents laugh in a way that I never saw them laugh my entire life. I made a decision. I had an epiphany. I said, that’s it, I’m going to be a comedian. I didn’t even know what it was. When I was sixteen, I started going to clubs to watch other comedians, sixteen, seventeen. I had my phony ID. I got in. Then when I was eighteen, I decided to try it. I did a show, one show. I bombed so bad. I didn’t get on stage for five years.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Mark: I was petrified. At twenty-three, I went back. I wrote original material. It’s what you have to do. I memorized it. For the next five years, I worked for free every night at different showcase clubs in New York. I started with Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, a guy named Larry Miller, Gilbert Gottfried. You name it. This was my group coming up. The only thing we cared about was not making money, not becoming famous, but becoming as funny as we can possibly be. That was the goal. The generation before me all worked clean. They didn’t curse on stage. There were no four-letter words. There wasn’t sex talk. I decided I’m going to work clean. I’ve never veered off from there. I’ve been on the road with Jerry now for twenty years. It’s an incredible tour. He wouldn’t have me on the road if I didn’t do well no matter how close we were as friends. If you’re going to open that show, you better be good because we’re talking three thousand, four thousand, five thousand. We went to Israel. Seventeen thousand people.

Zibby: I know. You mentioned that was when all these murders were happening all around you. You had the security guards. You still had to get up. Your whole “Show Must Go On” section, oh, my gosh.

Mark: I wrote a story called “The Show Must Go On.” If you’re a fireman and you don’t feel like putting out a fire that day, if there’s fire, you go. In show business, if you don’t feel like performing and you’re booked, you do it. I had to do a show a week after my father died. I talk about him in my act. I was in Lake Tahoe. I’m on stage in front of a thousand people. I almost feel like crying on stage talking about my father who just passed, but you got to do it.

Zibby: You said it was like a shiva, having your own shiva on stage.

Mark: That’s right, having all these people coming to the shiva. I forgot I wrote that line. Absolutely true. Something else that happened to me over the years is that I started out feeling miserable in life, and I’m fairly bon vivant now. I never thought that that would happen in my life. I thought I was going to be depressed and miserable my whole life. Somehow, when you make certain changes in life, something came out.

Zibby: That’s great.

Mark: It’s amazing. I didn’t expect it.

Zibby: What do you attribute that to? I know you talk about your wonderful marriage and all of that.

Mark: Thirty-three years. Interesting, also, about my group, Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, my friend Larry, we all got married, and we all stayed married. There were no divorces. Really interesting that this particular group, we all respect the institution of marriage. A lot of it has to do with service work. I bought into the idea that being of service in life is the most important thing. When you have a family, you’re nothing but being of service. I got three boys. When they were growing up — you know what the word schleper is? It’s a guy that’s always — I carry every — I decided, this is my lot in life. I’m schleper for my family. How precious time is. I wrote about it in the book too. When my wife was breastfeeding when the kids were little, my job was, get up, three o’clock morning, go and get the baby, bring him to my wife, and then bring him back. One night, I was in there picking up one of my sons. It was three in the morning. Instead of griping about having to get up in the middle of the night, I thought, this one minute that I’m going to have alone with this boy in the middle of the night is so precious and so important. I’ll never be able to get it back. I’ll only think about this in good ways. I’m giving a gift right here to be with him alone at three o’clock in the morning for one minute and be of service. Sometimes thoughts like that can reverse everything.

Zibby: It’s so true. What a great way to look at life and all the stuff, especially how fleeting this whole part of parenting is.

Mark: It’s unbelievable.

Zibby: When you’re in it, it feels endless sometimes. Then you look back, and you’re like, wow, that was really nice, that night .

Mark: You don’t think it’s ever going to end. The first seven years, you can’t sit and have a meal because you’ve got to keep chasing them around. You think, this is going to go on forever. Then one day, they’re sitting at the table.

Zibby: On the other hand, I was getting a lot more exercise.

Mark: That’s true too. If you have a car, park six blocks from your — I do that too. I turn everything into a little bit of exercise.

Zibby: Smart. When you’re writing jokes versus writing essays, how do you do them differently? Does it all just come out?

Mark: It’s an interesting question. It’s a great question. When we first handed the book over to different publishers to look at, some of the comments I got back was, a little jokey. There is a difference. I’m not necessarily going for the joke in the essays. Although, I want them to be funny, a lot of them. In stand-up, you got to get to the point right away. You have no time to piddle. With a guy like Seinfeld, they’ll give him an extra thirty seconds. I’ll come out. If I don’t have it after thirty, forty seconds, they start getting antsy. As Jerry said, you better think you have something more important to say than they do. Otherwise, they’re going to come after you. Writing jokes, it’s just another way of thinking. Things come to me, and then I write them down. I just love writing. I always have. When I was twelve years old, one night, I got up, and I started writing a play. I don’t think I ever saw a play.

Zibby: What advice do you have for aspiring authors or even humorists or anyone who wants to take what’s in their minds and put it on the page?

Mark: We’ve all heard this. Staying seated is one of the most important things. If you can get yourself to the chair and not get up for a while, there is a good chance. I’ve been blessed. I’ve never had writer’s block. Any time I sit down, I can write. Not always good, of course, but at least I can write. I’d tell people that if you don’t want to do it, you can’t force yourself to really do it. I wanted to do it. It’s a need that’s been in me my whole life. I do tell people if they want to write a memoir and you don’t actually want to write it, record it.

Zibby: Good tip.

Mark: It’s very important to leave a trace of your life for people, for your family. I think it’s really something.

Zibby: If people want to watch your stand-up — I know you’re in Vegas now. Where can people watch you either in person or your past recorded stuff?

Mark: tells you where I am all the time. I have a podcast, “You Don’t Know Schiff.” It took us about a month and a half to come up with my cohost, a guy named Lowell Benjamin. He’s fantastic. We have my podcast and my People go. They can see where I am and what I’m doing. I have some stuff on YouTube. Not a lot. I had a couple of specials that are out there, a Showtime special, an HBO special. Some of my Tonight Shows that I did all the way back with Johnny Carson are online. That was amazing. I think you may have read that story. They told me I would never do the Johnny Carson show. I ended up being one of his favorites.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Another lesson I’m getting from you is just don’t listen to the naysayers and all the people who might be standing in your way or rejecting you at first. You keep on going.

Mark: That’s it. Sometimes you’re the only one that knows what you have. You don’t even have to believe in it totally. You got to just put it out there and do it. It can happen.

Zibby: I love that. Amazing. Mark, thank you. This was so great. Thank you for your book, the experience, putting us in your head, opening up your life to all the readers. Thank you. I’ll be watching more stuff of yours in the future. I hope to see you perform.

Mark: I’m going to head back to your bookstore when I get back to Los Angeles, Santa Monia. It’s great. You should come there.

Zibby: I will. I’ll be out there this summer. I’ll be out a bunch.

Mark: Good. Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Thanks so much. Buh-bye.

WHY NOT?: Lessons on Comedy, Courage, and Chutzpah by Mark Schiff Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

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