Mark Schiff: The Jewish comedian who turns chaos into comedy

Schiff shows his love for the Jewish community by doing stand-up for Jewish charities

 MARK SCHIFF performs at the Laugh Factory. (photo credit: COURTESY MARK SCHIFF)
MARK SCHIFF performs at the Laugh Factory.
(photo credit: COURTESY MARK SCHIFF)

Born in 1952 in the Bronx, New York, comedian, actor and writer Mark Schiff found solace from the chaos of his childhood by making other people laugh. In Israel, he performed at the Knesset in front of Margaret Thatcher and Benjamin Netanyahu, and at the Menora Mivtachim Arena with Jerry Seinfeld, with whom he has toured for 25 years and is on the road with again. Schiff has worked with such legendary comedians as Robin Williams, Carl Reiner and Paul Reiser, and has performed on Johnny Carson’s, Jay Leno’s and David Letterman’s late-night talk shows. 

Schiff was a guest star and writer for the 1990s sitcom Mad About You, where he, Mel Brooks and other comedians would come up with funny punchlines on the spot in front of a live audience. He also wrote for the sitcom Roseanne and toured with musical artists such as Diana Ross, Sheena Easton and Natalie Cole.

He currently co-hosts a podcast, You Don’t Know Schiff, with comedy writer Lowell Benjamin. In the latest episode, Schiff discusses the benefits of veganism and notes how, no matter how healthy he tries to be, “Nobody has a perfect diet. Maybe a squirrel has a perfect diet, but I do not.” Schiff’s weight loss is one of the struggles humorously detailed in his new book, Why Not? Lessons on Comedy, Courage, and Chutzpah, which was released on November 8. 

When he lost 50 pounds, he noticed that Jews and non-Jews reacted very differently toward him. “Jews get very worried when you lose weight,” he observes. “They all think they are doctors and diagnosticians. They say things like, ‘Are you OK?’ ‘Why did you lose the weight?’ ‘Did you want to lose the weight?’” One friend actually screamed at him in the street to stop losing weight; another turned white when she saw him because she heard he had died. By contrast, his non-Jewish friends casually complimented him by telling him how great he looked.

Schiff, who at one time wrote poetry and grew what he calls a “poet’s beard,” writes in a deeply personal way that really allows the audience to feel as though they know him. It’s apparent that Schiff shares his innermost struggles with the intent to inspire people and let them know that they are not alone. His painful moments are softened with humor, a universal lifeline. He describes comedians as “worried neurotics. We are a desperate bunch begging for acceptance and hoping for a chance to spread lightness.”

 WITH HIS parents at the Boulevard Nightclub, Rego Park, Queens, in 1964 - the night he saw Rodney Dangerfield. (credit: COURTESY MARK SCHIFF) WITH HIS parents at the Boulevard Nightclub, Rego Park, Queens, in 1964 - the night he saw Rodney Dangerfield. (credit: COURTESY MARK SCHIFF)

Schiff relays how one of the most memorable days of his life was when renowned playwright Neil Simon came to see the first play he wrote, called The Comic, which was performed at a local Los Angeles theater. The play was about an older Jewish comedian who wants to do something good for another person before he takes his own life. Schiff was incredulous when he spotted Simon in the audience giving him a standing ovation. He says, “That’s like in the 1600s, you write a play and Shakespeare comes to see it…with his hat, and his quill sticking out of his pocket.” 

A life lesson Schiff dispenses in his book is to never give up. When Schiff was asked to be the voice of a Dachshund, “Little Dog,” in an animated series called 2 Stupid Dogs, starring himself and actor Brad Garrett as “Big Dog,” he became riddled with anxiety. He had never done voice work before, and the whole acting crew suddenly “looked like they had just been diagnosed with a rare, incurable disease” every time he stepped into the recording booth. A friend advised him to let himself be fired rather than to quit, and eventually he learned how to become “Little Dog.” Actors like Carol Channing praised his performance. “They hired me for a few other things, but I couldn’t do any voice except ‘Little Dog.’ I was stuck in this one voice.” Schiff still gets a kick out of secretly barking in stores that don’t allow dogs, so everyone looks around, frantically trying to find the Poodle or Pomeranian he’s imitating.

Schiff remembers his mother

WHEN RECOLLECTING his childhood, Schiff describes his mother as “an extremely nervous woman. Asking her why she was so nervous made her even more nervous.” She would insist that he call her when he walked from one room to another and was always anticipating impending doom. “If my mother served fish, she would warn me numerous times about the possibility of bones and choking to death. She would say, ‘Never ever talk when you’re eating fish. You could choke.’ I became very scared of eating fish and swimming in the ocean. How come when fish eat other fish they never choke?” 

His mother’s obsessive warnings to never sit near an air conditioner with wet hair, to always bring a sweater just in case, and to beware of potentially broken glass took a toll on him, making him a nervous wreck. He reveals, “To this day, I still check every rim of every glass I’m drinking from, every jar that I open, because I’m frightened of swallowing glass. A few times, when I thought I might have swallowed some glass, I would just patiently sit and wait to see if I was going to bleed to death internally. So far, so good.”

It turns out that having an overprotective, neurotic mother is surprisingly universal. Schiff explains, “When I perform for Jews, they think this is only a Jewish act; but when an Italian family comes to see me, they identify the same way…Italian mothers are the same as Jewish mothers.” He describes how a woman who was originally from Mainland China, whose parents worked in rice fields, came over to him after one of his performances and asked, “How do you know my mother?” Another time, Liza Minnelli, the daughter of Judy Garland, told him after a show, “Your mother and my mother are exactly the same.” 

“When I perform for Jews, they think this is only a Jewish act; but when an Italian family comes to see me, they identify the same way…Italian mothers are the same as Jewish mothers."

Mark Schiff
 At the Kotel with his wife, 2017. (credit: COURTESY MARK SCHIFF) At the Kotel with his wife, 2017. (credit: COURTESY MARK SCHIFF)

At times, the stories in Schiff’s book turn unexpectedly dark and sorrowful. His mother would vacillate from being “sweet and loving” to “a runaway train.” She was prone to having uncontrollable emotional outbursts, to the point of threatening violence. Her frightening mood swings, coupled with his father’s helplessness, left him feeling painfully alone, on edge and afraid, especially since he was an only child with no one to turn to.

“I felt like a virtual prisoner in my own body. At times, my body seemed to vibrate and hum,” Schiff reveals. “I feared most people, places, and things. My hands shook, and I had a bad stomach. I failed practically every school subject. Worst of all, I lived in fear I might be murdered. By whom, you ask? Not by a stranger but by my mother. Why would I think she wanted to kill me? Because she said so. She told me and my father over and over that she was going to kill us both. She threatened my life with everything from throwing me out a window to stabbing me.” 

Schiff’s father coped by blocking out the madness. “My father was of little help. He was a dear man but useless when it came to protecting me…Many nights as he put on his pajamas, my mother would threaten to slit his throat after he fell asleep. Even with that threat hanging over his head, he could sit in bed sharing a pint of butter pecan ice cream with the dog while he watched TV.” 

As a result of the chaos, Schiff started acting out at a young age. He sold illegal fireworks when he was 10, and by the time he was 12 he was smoking cigarettes he stole from his parents. Shortly thereafter, he started drinking and doing drugs. “I was also a liar,” he discloses. “Lying seemed to flow as easily from me as water from a garden hose.”

Schiff's history with comedy

WHEN SCHIFF was 12, his parents took him to a show at a nightclub for their 30th anniversary, where famed comedian Rodney Dangerfield was the opening act. Schiff recalls, “I immediately knew. I had an epiphany. I said, ‘That’s what I want to do for a living.’” It was a rare elated moment of reprieve for his family. “When I looked over at my parents, I realized I had never seen them laugh this hard or seem this happy about anything.”

Schiff’s first performance was when he was 18 at The Improv on West 44th Street in Manhattan. He didn’t perform again for five years because of experiencing crippling stage fright, something which has gotten better over time but still follows him like a shadow as the curtains begin to open. “I’ve gone on stage in the past with my teeth chattering and banging, and so nervous in my hands. It felt like I had stuck them in a freezer for half an hour; they were ice cold.”

To get through the anxiety, Schiff says a prayer backstage to calm himself down. “This is not about me,” he says. “I have a gift, and God wants me to share this gift. And hopefully, some people will have a better day because of it.” 

Schiff attends an Orthodox synagogue and observes Shabbat when he can. Noting that he performs on Shabbat when he gets booked for shows because the largest audiences are on the weekends, Schiff remarks, “I’m not the most religious guy on the block, but I do the best I can with it. With stand-up, there’s just no way around it. I hope He marks on a curve.”

It was serendipitous that Schiff would encounter Dangerfield – whom he calls “the funniest person who ever lived” – many more times throughout his career. Eventually, Dangerfield would become Schiff’s close friend, “angel” and mentor. “He had the soul of a poet; a guy who was sad and in pain...There was a sadness to him, and he goes and makes other people happy, but he never really was happy himself,” Schiff reveals. “He was always sweating and always worried. And he also always wore a bathrobe.” Schiff remembers seeing him crossing Wilshire Boulevard in broad daylight in a robe.

Schiff met Dangerfield for the first time when he was 23, at the Upper East Side comedy club Catch a Rising Star, where Dangerfield was rehearsing material for his next Johnny Carson performance. In the early 1980s, Schiff, Jerry Seinfeld and comedian Steve Mittleman drove to see him perform in Las Vegas. They were all broke and told the maître d’ they were Dangerfield’s friends so they could get in and see the show. When Dangerfield heard they couldn’t afford a hotel, he took them out to dinner and gave them a free hotel room. Schiff says, “He made us promise we would not make any long-distance calls and stick him with the bill.”

When Dangerfield was in a coma right before he died, Schiff remembers, “I took his hand and did the Shema with him…Who knows if he even knew I was there…He had earned his wings and was getting ready to return his funny soul.”

Schiff's relationship with Judaism

SCHIFF MOVED to Los Angeles in 1984 and got married six years later. He and wife, Nancy, have three sons, all of whom had their bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. 

Schiff was inspired hearing about his grandfather’s 19 trips to Israel. He has had performances in Israel during Passover and hosted an educational skit for StandWithUs, where he asked random UCLA college students questions to test their knowledge about Israel. Some did not know the difference between Hamas and hummus. He is also a member of AIPAC. 

Schiff lives in the Orthodox community of Pico-Robertson. “With the recent uptick of antisemitism, I love my neighborhood and the Jewish people even more,” he explains. “I love living where people are not afraid of openly showing that they are Jewish. Truth be told, the older I get, the more I like Jews. You might say I love Jews. Not all Jews, but an awful lot of them. I say ‘most’ because how can I like Ben and Jerry?”

Schiff has been a longtime friend of Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of global social action of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for over 20 years. “I never forgot I was in love with rabbis,” he says, “I can’t explain to you why, but I always have been…You get the best of both worlds. Either you learn something or you fall asleep.”

Another way Schiff shows his love for the Jewish community is by doing stand-up for Jewish charities. To help with fundraising, he has performed for the Koby Mandell Foundation, which offers emotional support to grieving family members who have lost loved ones in terror attacks. The foundation was set up by the parents of Koby Mandell, who was murdered with his friend when he was 13 years old by a Palestinian terrorist while hiking in the Judean desert.

Dispersed throughout the book, Schiff offers his own anecdotal meanings of Hebrew words, like olam haba, which means “the world to come.” He elaborates, “Jews believe that olam haba is where we are hoping to be sent after we die. It’s Florida without the humidity. Chocolate cake without the calories. Jewish mothers without the screaming.” Why Not?

When looking back at all of his accomplishments, Schiff observes, “I was able to turn scars into stars.”  

Schiff’s book, Why Not? Lessons on Comedy, Courage, and Chutzpah, is available at: 

www.markschiff.com/products