Carol Leifer grew up loving I Love Lucy like today’s comedy fans loved Seinfeld. And as a writer on the seminal “Show About Nothing” (she was responsible for episodes including “The Lip Reader,” “The Hamptons” and “The Rye”), Leifer deftly chiseled her experiences into the bedrock of an entertainment career approaching 40 years.
“Jerry [Seinfeld] and Larry [David] afforded each writer an amazing experience,” the Santa Monica resident explains. “When it was your episode, they brought you into casting, the run-throughs, down to props and costumes. They consulted the writer of the episode down to editing. Most staff writers never learn how to edit until they’re way down the food chain in TV production, but Larry and Jerry involved every writer in every step of the process. That is really unusual in TV, and I feel really grateful.”
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The lessons clearly stuck. In her new book coming out April 8, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying, she offers advice gleaned from the moment she first set foot on a stand-up stage onward. Her follow-up to her 2009 essay collection When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win recounts interactions with Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, Howard Stern, Richard Belzer, Jimmy Kimmel, Paul Reiser and many more. It also includes stories such as landing her first behind-the-scenes gig on Saturday Night Live, auditioning 22 times for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, reconnecting with The Larry Sanders Show, co-creating The Ellen Show and contributing to seven years’ worth of Academy Awards ceremonies.
“There’s a lot of stuff to impart about the long game, because people want a career, but I think more importantly, you want a good long career,” she says. “A lot of the advice is kind of chestnuts, but at the same time I don’t think you can impress them on people enough.”
From the preventative (wait 24 hours before replying to emails that anger you) to the primal (keep physically and mentally healthy), Leifer examines the often-overlooked details that can impede advancement in anyone’s chosen field. Then there are the ongoing battles that truly set the tenacious apart. When Leifer addresses overcoming the fear of failure and cautioning that at no point do the day-to-day challenges of making forward progress get any easier, she plumbs far deeper territory than the average comedy autobiography. In doing so, Leifer may have written the most honest, practical comedy memoir since Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up. Currently the co-exec producer of Lifetime’s Devious Maids, the second season of which premieres April 20, Leifer feels fortunate to be involved with Desperate Housewives showrunner Marc Cherry’s latest hour-long venture. “When a show is struggling, or it hasn’t found its audience yet, or creatively it’s not on track, it really diminishes the experience because of the stress and the strain of it,” she says. “It’s great when you work for someone like Marc who really knows what they want and puts it into effect.”
No dream day job, however, can consume so much of Leifer’s artistic energy that she forgoes her principal love of stand-up. After overcoming a period in her career spent avoiding the stage and experiencing subsequent pangs of anxiety, she vowed to never again let fear keep her from connecting with audiences in an immediate and visceral way. When she’s not on the road, Leifer works out material at Hermosa Beach’s Comedy & Magic Club not only to keep her skills sharp, but to pay respect.
“I feel a great debt of gratitude to stand-up, because it’s given me everything,” she says. “It’s also still a kick that I don’t think I’ll ever lose. To go onstage and tell jokes and have people laugh is really still quite a high, you know? And what I love about it as opposed to TV writing or any other thing that I do that is a group activity: stand-up — it’s your show, it’s all you, the glory and the bane of it. When you kill, there’s still nothing better, and when you die, there’s still nothing more horrible.”