Carol Leifer first hit the standup stage as a college student in the 1970s, at a time when a female comedian was a novelty act on par with ventriloquists and animal tricks. Over the next several decades, she became a writer on Seinfeld and Saturday Night Live, an opening act for Frank Sinatra, the star of her own sitcom, a 25-time Late Night with David Letterman guest, and a co-executive producer of a modern soap (Lifetime’s Devious Maids). Now, she’s written a career guide to following in her footsteps—How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying: Lessons From a Life in Comedy—that hits shelves next month. I talked to Leifer about the modern state of women in comedy, writing for Elaine Benes, and turning the coming out process into a joke.
Slate: Three decades after you launched your standup career, you note in the book that women are still underrepresented and underpaid in comedy. Why do you think that is?
Carol Leifer: I think it’s just kind of everywhere, you know? Women are underrepresented across the board. It was true when I started out, and it’s still true now. I think we’re always going to be somewhat marginalized. People would always ask me, as a woman in comedy, “Isn’t it bad being marginalized? Doesn’t it suck to be part of the minority?” And I have to say, it isn’t that bad. It meant that I got onstage early in my career, because bookers were looking to check off the boxes: the ventriloquist, the singer, the woman comic. If they saw me as a specialty act, I’d take it, if that’s what gets me onstage. As a comic, it’s really just all about getting on.
Slate: Now that there are more women, do you think there’s a limit to the upside of being a novelty? Some places may want to check off the woman box, but that doesn’t mean they’d want two or three women onstage. A British comedian recently made news when she was dropped from the bill at a venue because she was told there were too many women on it.
Leifer: For women who came up in my standup generation, it meant that club owners got to see us, and the more they saw us, the more we were able to change the idea that our perspective was a niche. We were talking about things that 50 percent of the audience also experiences, but it wasn’t just for women—it wasn’t the type of “Am I right, ladies?” jokes where just women should pay attention while the men went off to pay the bill or get another drink. Women see life through a different prism, and that’s still new and different in comedy. My advice to women is to really exploit that.
Slate: In your current act, you talk about falling in love with your partner, Lori. Coming out is a subject that’s often approached very seriously in popular culture. It’s always framed as the “very special episode” of the TV show. How do you make it funny?
Leifer: I had a lot of jokes about dating men and going through a divorce. Then I fell in love with this woman, and I had to throw out all of that material. I couldn’t go up there and be some fake version of myself, but it meant that I had to really approach the situation head-on. I say, “I got divorced and realized I was gay,” and there’s a laugh in the audience, and I have to be like, “No, seriously, here’s what happened,” and then walk the audience through it to build to a place where I can make jokes. I don’t know that if I had met my partner in the ‘80s, the act would get as great of a reception as it does now. In comedy, you are doing it in this vacuum of the culture.
Slate: Do some of your jokes work for some audiences, but not other ones?
Leifer: Standup has given me a great respect for the audience. If it doesn’t play, I just can’t use it. And I’ve found that a joke that works in Peoria actually does work in Sacramento. A good joke works everywhere. For example, I have a joke where I talk about coming back from a Planned Parenthood gig, and I say, “I’m always surprised that Planned Parenthood flies me on Virgin.” That pretty much gets a laugh anywhere, but when I’m in a liberal area, I say, “I just did a gig for Planned Parenthood—cue applause.” If I’m at a more conservative area, I set it up for some boos or some grumbling. A good line is pretty universal. There are some variations, though. I’m Jewish, and when I play New York, I do a lot of Jewish jokes. When I’m in Wyoming, I don’t do as many Jewish jokes.
Slate: Seinfeld was originally dismissed as “too Jewish” to play in middle America, but the show’s massive success proved that calculation wrong. Do you think that sitcoms, which are overwhelmingly written by people in New York and California, have affected the perspectives of the rest of the country?
Leifer: Yes. The great thing about writing for television is that it does really affect the culture. When something is funny and makes people laugh, they become more open to different ideas. I’ve written for Modern Family, and I think—starting with Will and Grace—gay storylines have impacted the culture enormously. I really do think sitcoms are one of the links to the bigger changes in the culture around gay marriage, and that’s really exciting to me. It warms people up to bigger issues.
Slate: I’m a woman who grew up in the ‘90s, and Elaine was such an important character to me—she was this fully formed, hilarious, idiosyncratic woman on TV when a lot of other women in comedy were written as stereotypes or accessories. What was it like to write for her?
Leifer: All of the writers pitched Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine stories, but I did write quite a bit for her. The most notable one is maybe the episode where Elaine thinks her Korean manicurists are talking about her behind her back. So many people will ask, “Did you write the spongeworthy episode? You would have to, because you’re a woman!” But Peter Mehlman actually wrote that one. It certainly helps to have women writing on shows to share their perspectives, but it was also really important to have a cool group of guy writers who were committed to writing her well. Elaine had to be as completely self-involved as everybody else on the show.
Slate: In the book, you write about the men in the industry—Paul Reiser, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David—who were wonderful friends and colleagues and helped you out along the way. Was anyone, like, a total dick, though?
Leifer: Every comic has their own stories about people who were dicks or shits along the way, but I really have to say that my experience was a 180 of what people usually assume about comics—that they’re competitive and cutthroat, plotting against each other and scheming. It’s not that way. It’s really a fraternity. I trust comics more than any other people because we all do the same thing. I didn’t know a lot of comics who went out of their way to screw each other over. Those people didn’t last very long.
Slate: About that “fraternity.” In the book, you lament the fact that there’s still no Old Girls’ Club in the entertainment industry. How do we get one of those?
Leifer: I think women are still kind of watching out for themselves. In order to create an Old Girls’ Club, you have to have the confidence in your position and the stature to create an easy sense of camaraderie and a strong power base. I don’t think women have enough power yet to really be able to do that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.