Comedy Legend Carol Leifer on Writing 'Seinfeld', Life on 'Devious Maids' and Her New Book
Carol Leifer is a multiple Emmy nominee (Seinfeld, Modern Family, SNL, The Larry Sanders Show), writer of seven Academy Awards telecasts, five of her own comedy specials, and author of the bestseller When You Lie about Your Age, the Terrorists Win.
The Hollywood Reporter asked Leifer (pronounced LEFF-uhr), about her new, funny-but-serious memoir How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying and Lifetime's Devious Maids (back for a second Season Apr. 20), for which she is co-executive producer.
THR: You told this great joke at my magazine's event in 1987: "Petula Clark sang, 'Don't Sleep in the Subway, Darling.' What kind of guys is she dating that she has to give them advice like that?"
Leifer: That's in my first five minutes on Letterman!
And now, in your book, you're giving everybody advice, what you learned from working with Paul Reiser, Jerry Seinfeld, Senator Al Franken, and that security company where you made sure job applicants weren't psychotic -- even though some of them were hookers.
Yeah, that was a colorful waiting room -- the guy applying to be a fry cook at Burger King sat next to Trixie from the escort service. In a haze of cheap perfume.
The career lesson was, you were bold enough at age 22 to ask your boss if you could work from 11-6 because you were moonlighting as a comic who worked until 3 a.m.
My mother's voice rang in my ears, "You don't ask, you don't get!"THR: Plus, you learned to type fast, by transcribing fry cook and hooker job interview transcripts.
Every aspiring writer who asks, "How do I break into sitcom writing?" -- I tell them, become a good typist and get a job on a sitcom you like. Be the best writer's assistant out there. Become invaluable, and everything follows from that.
But you say some people push too hard, or the wrong way, like the lawyer who demanded money for spec writing on a pilot.
I told this lawyer, "I have this pilot, do you want to pitch some jokes? I've been asking other comedy writers who've been around for 20 years to pitch." He got all legal on me: "You have to pay me, and blablablah." I was surprised, he was really quite funny and had a knack for it..."
But he didn't get that comedy writers must pay dues.
I'm very loyal. If that pilot had worked out, I would have hired him. I know lots of lawyers who get a second career writing comedy.
Your Binghamton college pal (and date) Paul Reiser got you started back when apparently there were like a dozen comics, and instantly you knew them all.
Paul was the funniest guy I'd ever met. I wanted to perform, but if you're an actress there were all these hoops -- you gotta get an agent -- whereas in comedy, here's a club, you audition, go out out, and that night you're a comedian. Paul was my link to that exciting world. At the Comic Strip, Jerry Seinfeld was the emcee who passed us on our audition. Larry David emceed Catch a Rising Star.
Future Senator Al Franken hired you at SNL, but Lorne Michaels didn't like you. So what's the lesson for the rest of us?
I learned a hard lesson. No matter what your job, you've got to be pleasing the boss. Then I was intimidated and shrank away from him, instead of what I should have done, go toward him, do everything I could to make sure he was talking to me, step up my game.
Another lesson in your book is that bad luck sometimes turns out to be good -- like with you and Sinatra.
Out of the deepest valley of your career can come the greatest moment if you just keep your head down and keep working. This agent promised me the world, and booked me at a ground round restaurant on the New Jersey turnpike. He said, "I'm working on Frank Sinatra." I was giving up. But sure enough, I was working on a cruise ship and got a call from Jilly Rizzo, Sinatra's manager, to open for him.
What did you learn writing for Seinfeld?
There's no coasting. People have the idea in showbiz that it all comes to you, you sit back and field offers like a regal queen. I'm proud to say I'm a hustler.
That's how you got Modern Family.
I kept running into Steve Levitan and Chris Lloyd at Emmy time, when I was nominated with the team writing for Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin at the Oscars, and I said, "I have great ideas to pitch." The squeaky wheel.
When I asked The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson if he was scared he'd run out of ideas, he said, "No, working gives you comedy muscles." You too?
Going onstage is like a muscle, if you don't use it you will lose it. After a full day at Devious Maids -- we premiere Apr. 20! -- it's not fun to shlep down to Hermosa Beach Comedy and Magic Club, but I'll never let my comedy chops go. That would be a shonda.
After 30-something years in showbiz, what more do you have to learn on Devious Maids?
Mark reinvented the soap genre with Desperate Housewives, just as Larry Seinfeld and Larry David reinvented the sitcom. He mixes comedy and drama, and hopefully I'm helping with the comedy. Where I come from in sitcoms, the story is pretty basic, your characters have funny adventures. But on Devious Maids, there's an arc that builds from episode one to 13. I'm learning so much about story and mystery.