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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. Out next guest on this special Father's Day salute is comic, actress and writer Carol Leifer, who got an early start in comedy hearing her father tell jokes when she was a kid. She started working the comedy clubs when Paul Reiser, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David were getting started, and they became her friends.

She later wrote for the NBC series, "Seinfeld," and has starred in her own TV comedy specials. Terry Gross spoke to Carol Leifer earlier this year upon the publication of her memoir called "When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win."

TERRY GROSS, host:

Carol Leifer, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Ms. Carol Leifer (Author, "When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win: Reflections on Looking in the Mirror"): Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Your opening essay in the new book is about your father, who recently died at the age of 86, and you write that he's the reason you wanted to be funny because he was funny. And in this piece, you tell one of the jokes that he used to tell. It's a, quote, "dirty joke" that you didn't get when you were a kid. It's such a great joke, so I have to start by asking you to tell it.

Ms. LEIFER: Okay, well a guy goes to the movies with his pet chicken. And he buys two tickets and the person says, who's going in with you? And he goes, well, my pet chicken here. And the ticket person says hey, you can't bring an animal in the movie theater. So the guy goes around the corner. He stuffs the chicken down his pants, goes into the movies, and the movie starts, but the chicken is starting to get a little hot. So the guy unzips his fly to let the chicken stick his head out and get a little air.

So a little bit of time has passed by and a woman nudges her friend and says, you know, this guy next to me just unzipped his pants. And the woman goes eh, look, you know, you've seen one, you've seen them all. And the woman goes, yeah, I know, but this one's eating my popcorn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I love that.

Ms. LEIFER: Yes, hilarity ensues, but I remember as a kid, you know, my father telling this joke a lot and getting big laughs. And I was young enough that I didn't really understand it, you know, because all I heard was a chicken and, you know, a zipper, and it didn't really make sense. I found out, you know, what the joke meant later, and that just might have been the thing that pushed me into lesbianism, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Which we'll get to later.

Ms. LEIFER: Yeah, but I really - you know, my father was the king of the joke-tellers. And I was so impressed as a child watching him hold people in rapt attention with these stories and it had a big impact on me.

GROSS: So did he actually collect jokes?

Ms. LEIFER: He did. My father, he was the kind of guy that, you know, he'd always say, throw out any subject and I got a joke on it. And he really - one of the high points of his life was - my mom is a Ph.D. in psychology and she went to one of her psychology conventions and the scheduled entertainment for that night had cancelled. And the psychologists, knowing that my father was a big joke-teller, asked if he would mind stepping in and telling some jokes.

And as I hear it, you know, he was thrilled and delighted. And he I think told about a half an hour or 45 minutes of jokes, and he killed. And it was really a fantastic night for him. I think to my father's generation, to have a career in show business was not something that was accessible or something that someone actually did, you know. And I'm really happy that he lived long enough to see a lot of my success and was so happy for me. So it's - you know, it's nice that he left this earth, you know, having seen that and shared that with me.

GROSS: When your father died, the family found a list of jokes that he kept in his wallet. Did you know that he had that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: I did know that he had that list of jokes. We all did, my brother, sister and I, because you know, it ties back to that evening that he entertained the shrinks at their convention. I know that he thought if they ever asked him to perform again, he wanted to be prepared. So he had his list of jokes there.

GROSS: So when the family was dividing up his possessions, you got the paper with the jokes that you say you now keep in your wallet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: Yes, I do keep it in my wallet. And if I'm ever stuck at a show, I'm certain I will have no problem whipping it out and going through the list. I - you know, I did a special many years ago. I think I spoke about it the last time I was on the show, called "Gaudy, Bawdy and Blue," which was a tribute to these bawdy, dirty comediennes of the '50s and '60s. And I had asked my father to put on tape every dirty joke he knew, and I think it's about two hours worth of jokes. And I'm so happy that I kept it so that I really feel like I have my father's legacy with me because he wasn't a pro, but he had excellent timing.

He was an amazing comedian. And people who knew him, the first thing they always said about him was that he was so funny. And I talk about that in a piece that I think if my father knew that being funny was the first thing that people said about him, that would be enough and make him happy, not having had a professional career.

GROSS: What he did for a living, he was an optometrist.

Ms. LEIFER: Yes, he was, he was. But you know, he always shared funny stories about, you know, being an optometrist. You know, people would come in, and he'd say, he'd ask them, you know, can you please read the eye chart? And they would ask, out loud? No, sir, you know, why don't you mime it for us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: Of course out loud. Or he would have people that would read the eye chart and go capital E, capital F - you know, it's like they're all capitals, okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: So yeah, we - I miss him so much.

GROSS: Now you pointed out that your father and his friends never thought that a show-business profession was anything that was in reach, but obviously you did and you did it. So what made you think when you were young that it was within reach for you, that you could go, you know, be a professional comic?

Ms. LEIFER: I think because I started so young, it was a dream that seemed possible to pursue. You know, I started doing stand-up comedy as a junior in college. You know, my mother had said, I thought it was something that you'd get out of your system, you know. But I clearly remember my father saying, you know, dad I passed the audition at this comedy club and I want to transfer to Queens and try to become a comedian.

My father's like, you know what? You got to strike while the iron's hot, and I think that was great advice. I think it was an opportunity not to be missed. But I do think the fact that I had still finished my college degree, that was important to my parents. And I think to my generation of comics, it was within reach. I think to - certainly to my dad's generation, I remember asking him why he had never pursued it, and he said well, you know, someone's got to make a living. And you know, that generation, it was a really far-off dream and not within the realm of possibility.

BIANCULLI: Carol Leifer, speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. Her memoir is called "When You Lie About Your Age, The Terrorists Win." Here's a great song Loudon Wainwright III wrote about for his daughter. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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