(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Jerry Seinfeld strolls out onto the stage of the sold-out Menorah Mivtachim Arena in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, the cheers will likely be deafening. But you can never put it past an Israeli audience raised on reruns of the American comic’s legendary series that bears his name to get over-excited and try to liven things up by shouting out some iconic catchwords such as “Newwwman...” or “Get out!” But according to Seinfeld’s longtime friend, colleague and opening act Mark Schiff, both he and Seinfeld have experienced far worse in their long and varied stand-up careers.
“It doesn’t happen that much opening up for comedians, but the worst is opening up for rock bands. Once, when I opened up for The Beach Boys, I was pelted with bottles,” said Schiff from his Los Angeles home a day before he was flying to New York to meet up with Seinfeld for their trans-Atlantic trip to Israel.
“When Jerry was first starting out, he was onstage in a New York club and some mobsters were in the audience and threw a glass at him, which shattered all over the stage. The punchline is that the club manager threw Jerry out of the club and let the mobsters stay,” Schiff recounted.
Seinfeld wouldn’t be the one sent packing this weekend when he and Schiff do their four sellout shows in Tel Aviv, not that such displays of aggression would even enter the minds of fans who have paid upwards of NIS 1,200 to see the master observer of the mundane do his stuff.
Seventeen years since the last original episode of Seinfeld aired, the Jewish funnyman has reached mythic stature in Israel. Reruns of the show are continuously aired, and the characters Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer are considered to be extended dysfunctional members of the family in many Israeli households. Routines like the exorbitant cost of tuna sandwiches in airports and the shame of poop bags can be repeated verbatim by CEOs and government officials.
With the announcement that Seinfeld would be making his performing debut in the country – if you don’t include practicing jokes on the cows as a volunteer at Kibbutz Sa’ar when he was 15 years old – Seinfeld’s faithful mobilized, gobbling up all the tickets for the show within minutes. When another show was added, it happened again, until four shows sold out – two on both Saturday and Sunday.
Schiff, who has regularly opened for Seinfeld on his sporadic live performances since the TV show ended and has appeared as a guest on Seinfeld’s Internet-based Comedians in Cars series, started out in the same small New York comedy clubs as Seinfeld in the mid-1970s.
“We met at the Comedy Strip in 1976 when we were really brand new in the business. Nobody had an act, and we were all just trying to shape our styles,” said Schiff.
“Jerry would make some extra money as an MC for a while, and I would cook in the kitchen in one of the clubs one day a week. At another club, I was the MC on Saturday nights, and I came in and washed dishes and cleaned the toilets on Sunday. You did what you had to do to earn a living when you started out,” he explained.
Schiff left for California in 1984, where he added TV to his resume and has long established a reputation as one of the industry’s funniest G-rated stand-ups. Seinfeld, meanwhile… well, we know how his career turned out.
According to Schiff, neither he nor Seinfeld planned to adapt major elements of their act for their Israeli audience this weekend, but he added that most of their humor is universal.
“Hopefully, everyone is taking English lessons this week; otherwise, we’re going to have a problem,” he joked. “We both do a lot of stuff about families, so it’s kind of universal. Your marriage and my marriage are basically the same.”
Schiff has appeared in Israel before as a headliner on one of the biannual Comedy for Koby tours to benefit the Koby Mandel Foundation, so he has experience with the nuances of working in front of an Anglo-Israeli crowd.
“I’m probably going to do some stuff on what’s going on Israel, and I have a lot of Jewishoriented material I can do,” he said, adding that if some bits don’t go over well, the beauty of stand-up is that the elements can be immediately revised from show to show.
“Once we see that something isn’t cooking, we’ll pretty much take it out and move something else in,” said Schiff. “One of the great things in stand-up comedy is that it’s very fluid. It’s not like doing a play, where somebody hands you a script and you’re stuck to those words. You can always jimmy things around.”
Schiff said that he and Seinfeld would be discussing the shows on their 10-hour flight to Israel overnight Thursday on the private plane that Seinfeld leases.
“There’s Jerry and me and three pilots. There are more pilots than passengers,” said Schiff.
And the tuna sandwiches are probably free.