The biggest household name on the bill has to be Leifer, who, much like the Queer Queens lineup, is a triple threat: writer, actor and producer. Her comedy career reaches all the way back to the 1970s. She’s been in front of the screen on TV shows like “Late Night with David Letterman,” “The Tonight Show” and “Politically Incorrect,” and has written and produced for “Seinfeld,” “Saturday Night Live” and the short-lived “The Ellen Show.”
More recently, Leifer has been writing and co-producing CBS’ “Rules of Engagement,” she appeared on the latest season of “Celebrity Apprentice” and she continues making the rounds in support of her published collection of humorous essays, “When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win: Reflections on Looking in the Mirror.”
In the book, Leifer, 54, writes about finding her sexual identity as a lesbian at the age of 40, her relationship with her longtime partner (with whom she has adopted a son who is now 3) and what it’s like to be a Jewish lesbian vegan.
Leifer talked to PGN about her long career and current success.
PGN: Do you prefer doing shows like the Queer Queens of Qomedy to doing club shows?
CL: I do like a theater environment a little better than comedy clubs these days, because comedy clubs have too much of the “we have a birthday over here” element or a bachelorette party, which steals the focus from the show. So I’m kind of preferring theater shows these days because it’s more of an event.
PGN: How often do you find yourself performing live?
CL: It varies, but I do standup at least every couple of weeks. I’ve kind of had a big lesson. I learned the hard way when I was doing “Seinfeld” and I stopped doing standup. I put it on hold for a while. And then the next time I had a standup gig it felt like the first time. So I vowed then after that that standup was never something I was going to put on the back burner for too long because suddenly, you’re not a standup comic anymore.
PGN: Having spent a considerable amount of time on the writing side and on the performance side of comedy, which do you prefer?
CL: Honestly, what I feel so fortunate to have in my career is that I can do each of them and they really fit both parts of my personality. I’m a ham. I like to be out there. I like being the center of attention. I like getting my laughs. But after I’ve done so much traveling and being so tired of seeing a shuttle bus to a hotel, I can focus on my writing and be a little more solitary and concentrate on that. So I’m lucky that I have the best of both worlds because they’re both parts of my personality.
PGN: Has the art of writing for sitcoms and television changed a lot since you first started?
CL: It really hasn’t changed all that much. People work in different ways. When I wrote for “Seinfeld,” we didn’t have a writers’ room like most shows do. However Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld wanted to run that room, it worked. When I worked for “The Larry Sanders Show,” we did have a writers’ room and I really learned the fun of that. It really is kind of like right out of “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” It’s people clowning around and having a great time all together. It’s basically the same. It’s getting a good group together that works well and writing a bunch of shows.
PGN: What effect, if any, did coming out have on your career?
CL: I’m happy to say it’s plus-25 percent. I was never in the closet. I wasn’t until my book came out [and] I really hadn’t been performing for a while [that I noticed an effect]. The great thing about it, especially living here in L.A., it’s a no-brainer. I’ve never had any kind of negative impact from coming out: to the contrary. I have a piece in my book about coming out, an essay called “Surprise.” O magazine bought the piece before the book was published. And then they got such a great reaction to it that Oprah Winfrey did an entire show about women coming out at 40-plus. So I got on Oprah Winfrey with my book. So that was a direct result of coming out. So it’s been so far from a negative experience. It’s only enhanced my career.
PGN: Do you think it’s easier or harder for women and gay comedians now compared to when you first started doing comedy?
CL: It’s kind of the same only in that standup comedy is really hard as a career. It’s really difficult and it really weeds out quickly the people who aren’t serious about it because you’ve got to bomb to get good. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. I’ve seen a lot of people not be able to take that rejection, which is really the only way for a standup comedian to become good. Comedy is hard to begin with. I’ve always felt that being a female in the man’s world in comedy is an advantage because it makes you stand out all that much. I used to have trouble when I started out with groups of single guys in the audience heckling me. It becomes almost scientific at a point when guys like that come out, they’re going to hassle the woman on stage. But you learn how to deal with it. I had a really good comedian give me some advice: When guys heckle you like that and they’re alone, the only thing you have to say is, “Where are the girls tonight, guys? Parking the car?” You needle them about being alone and they right shut up. You just find your arsenal of how you want to take people down. I always tell women whatever makes you unique and different is a positive.
PGN: You’ve worked on “SNL,” “Seinfeld,” opened for Frank Sinatra and been on “The Late Show with David Letterman” many times. From a comic’s standpoint, you’ve been to the mountain as far as entertainment goes. Do younger comics ever approach you for advice or guidance?
CL: I get my fair amount of advice questions. It’s always pretty much the same advice: to stick with it and not judge yourself. Like I just said before: If people can’t take rejection, they’ll get out of comedy right away. I always tell comics a piece of advice a great comedian, Steven Wright, told me when I was starting. He was like, “You go on every night for three years and you don’t judge yourself. You have some good shows and some bad shows, but you just keep doing and doing it and that’s how you learn your craft.” That would be the advice in so many other fields. You just have to do it and don’t judge yourself.
PGN: Given the success and the caliber of the shows you work on, do you tend to be more cautious about your material when there is more money and visibility involved in the project?
CL: No. Going back to an earlier question about coming out, having been straight and being married and realizing I was gay, I noticed in my live show that it brings the audience closer to me. When I started talking about the transition that I had from being married and straight to meeting this woman and falling in love and not seeing it coming at all, the audience is fascinated, but I know from all my years of doing comedy when the audience comes into you. And, when I start to talk about my coming out, the audience comes into me and in a really good way. It’s a good statement about the times of being gay and how much more acceptance there is. But also, the audience just wants you to be real and they know when you’re not being real. When you talk from the gut and talk about your life, they love it and it brings them into you. With writing it’s the same thing. The edgier the subject, the better it is for a sitcom. When I wrote for ‘Seinfeld,’ I wrote an episode called ‘The Marble Rye’ where Elaine dates a saxophone player who has oral sex with Elaine and it messes up his saxophone playing. We did this episode 15 years ago and it’s pretty outrageous that this story got by. But the show was so successful and at its peak at that time, so the network didn’t challenge us. It’s always kind of pushing the boundaries that makes good comedy writing stand out. When a show is a number-one show on the air, the executives sit back and put up their feet. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
PGN: Are the essays in your new book any different from the material you do on stage?
CL: Yes, completely. I wrote a lot of essays about coming out and so many of the essays deal with my partner and I becoming parents. I dug a little deeper with my book and I share a little more personally than I do with my act. I really think, for a gay audience, they’ll appreciate it. I talk about the everyday things. I’ve been with my partner for 14 years and there’s a lot of comedy in being in a long-term relationship and having a child together. I think gay people will enjoy it because there’s not a lot of people talking about the kind of lives that we lead.
The “Queer Queens of Qomedy” perform at 8 p.m. Aug. 19 at Keswick Theatre, 291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside. For more information or tickets, visit www.carolleifer.com
or call (215) 572-7650.
Larry Nichols can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.