'Reflections' On Life, Love And Comedy In her new memoir, When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win: Reflections on Looking in the Mirror, stand-up comedian and Seinfeld writer Carol Leifer recounts her experiences working as a comedian.
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'Reflections' On Life, Love And Comedy

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'Reflections' On Life, Love And Comedy

'Reflections' On Life, Love And Comedy

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is comic, actress and writer Carol Leifer. 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." She's also had her own TV comedy specials. She's written a new memoir, called "When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win." She's 52 now.

Her book is about a lot of the surprising changes she made in her life as she got older, like after she turned 40, she decided she wanted to have a lesbian fling. That first fling turned into a committed relationship.

Leifer and her partner adopted a son a few years ago, another big surprise, since until then, Leifer didn't think she wanted to have a child. Her memoir is also about comedy and how her father helped inspire her to become a comic.

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 ensures. 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's always, 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.

GROSS: Now the essay that was the biggest surprise to me in your book is the one in which you explain that although you'd been married, although you'd always liked boys, you wanted to have a lesbian fling. And the woman you had that fling with more than 12 years ago has become your partner. You've since adopted a son. You have seven rescue dogs together.

So let's start at the beginning of the story. Why, after what being sounds like an enthusiastic heterosexual, did you decide that you wanted to try being with a woman?

Ms. LEIFER: I don't know what came over me, Terry. It just became this obsession. I just remember I really wanted to have an affair with a woman. I remember this movie "Bound" was out at the time.

GROSS: Oh, Gina Gershon, is that the...?

Ms. LEIFER: Yes, but I remember there were these sex scenes in "Bound," and I must have burned through the videotape, I just watched it so much. It just became something I had to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: And you know, little did I know that this woman that I would meet at a charity event, at a Project Angel Food event, would, you know, be the woman who I had this fling with who I didn't expect I fell madly in love with, and here we are 12 years later.

GROSS: When you realized that you were actually serious about her and her about you, and this was going to be a long-lasting relationship, did you have to, like reorient parts of your identity because now you were in a lesbian relationship and a long-term one? You know, so it wasn't about like having your lesbian fling. It was the real thing.

Ms. LEIFER: No. You know, it was difficult because I did approach this as oh, you know, my fun, chic lesbian affair. This will be a great story, and I didn't expect to be captivated and to find myself really so in love in such a different way, and it was a difficult transition because, you know, it was like this was supposed to be my fun fling. This was not supposed to be something to redefine me.

It's a vast transformation. I mean, I have a joke about it in my book that, you know, I went to gay bookstores for help, you know. Yes, excuse me, do you have "What the (beep) Just Happened To Me"? Because it is that powerful of a transformation in your life, and...

GROSS: So what does it say, do you think, that you changed? Do you think you had, like, repressed feelings about girls when you were younger? Do you think that you were heterosexual at one time, and that just changed? Do you think that means you're bisexual or that there's this kind of like shifting scale of sexuality, and your scale shifted? I mean, do you think of sexuality, the nature of sexual orientation differently than you did before?

Ms. LEIFER: I do. I do. I think that what I've learned from the experience is that our sexuality is constantly evolving and can be a fluid thing.

GROSS: Or at least for some people it can. I mean, I think for some people it probably can't be, on both ends.

Ms. LEIFER: Yes, but I do think that it really did hit me like a bolt of lightning, and I'm not an unexamined person. I mean, I've been in therapy most of my adult life, you know, but I'm not sure.

I mean, I do talk in the book about, you know, my first crush was on Davy Jones of the Monkees, you know, and I had a lot of powerful feelings for boys, but I remember as a kid being obsessed with - Herb Alpert had this album cover, and it was a woman who was naked, who was covered with whipped cream, and I was really fascinated with it.

And it's like I don't know. Was that some early indication of some attraction to women? I'm not sure, you know.

GROSS: So how do you tell your parents when you're in your late 30s, you've been married, that you're actually now a lesbian?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: Well, it was an interesting ride. You know, it had started a little bit earlier because really, I think three weeks after I met Lori, I had a breast cancer scare. And I went and had a mammogram. And it was the worst thing that, you know, a woman expects when you go to have a mammogram, where you know, usually you're kind of in and out. And it was one of these oh, stick around, the doctor wants to take more films and then comes back again and take more films, and you know, I basically left this radiologist's office that day with - you know, I cornered him as I was leaving. I go, what do you think it is? And he was like, I think it's 80-20, probably cancer. And I was like, what are you basing that on? He was like, from 20 years of doing what I do.

And you know, I immediately called Lori. And we'd only been together for three weeks, you know, even to the point where I wouldn't even have referred to her as my girlfriend yet, but something in my adrenaline made me reach out to her. And she was so rock solid to me in that moment, and I think about it a lot because it had such an impact on me and our relationship.

It was like, you know, breathe and let's get through this, and don't worry about it, and you know, I really had a day, 24 hours, where I thought I had cancer, and she was amazing. I mean, she came over to my apartment and brought a big basket of movies and thought we'd relax and hang out and kind of chill, but I was like, I need to get drunk. I just want to get drunk. And you know, she took me to this great place that we like. She let me get drunk. She drove me home. And it turned out, you know, the next day I spoke to the doctor, and it was a fibroadenoma, which is a non-cancerous tumor.

But I had to go - I went back to New York to have this fibroadenoma out, and Lori came with me, and we went and visited my parents on Long Island, just to say hello before my procedure.

So you know, I was not ready to come out to my parents yet. This was still very new. So Lori came as my, quote, friend. Anyway, we saw my parents, and I had the procedure. About six months later, I called my folks up because I wanted to come to New York and tell them about meeting Lori and being gay now, and you know, to Jewish parents.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: I mean, I called, I said I want to come back to Long Island and talk to you about something. You know, the first thing my mother said was like you're not sick, are you? It's like no, I'm not sick. You promise you're not sick? No, I'm not sick.

And I went back to talk to my parents about it, and I completely expected them to be very emotional about it and basket cases, and kind of the flip thing happened. I was the basket case. I was so emotional, and my parents were cool as cucumbers about it.

And I was crying, actually, and you know, my father, you know, my dear, sweet father, was like why are you crying? And I said, well, I thought you would be disappointed. And my father said disappointed? I'll tell you when I was disappointed, when you married that shaigetz, you know, which is Yiddish for non-Jewish person.

So they were amazing about it, but what I think was also very revealing was when I came home to come out to my parents, my mother did say to me, I knew. I knew when Lori came with you to come back for that procedure for the fibroadenoma that you were lovers. And she knew, she said, because we took a walk around the neighborhood that day, and we walked ahead of my parents, and my mother said I could tell the way you two were walking together that you were a couple.

And I think that's so interesting. I mean look, she is also a shrink. She might be a little more highly attuned to people and, you know, their behavior, but it's just interesting what you think you can hide that you can't hide.

GROSS: So you must have been really grateful to your parents for getting it...

Ms. LEIFER: I was.

GROSS: ...and not for, you know, being upset or worrying, like, how are we going to tell our friends, or you know, like don't bring her home.

Ms. LEIFER: Well, you know, I do think, though, that like the power of Judaism, it's like, you know, the fact that my parents met Lori, liked her, but you know, the fact that she was Jewish is like - you know, she could've been a chimp, but it's like hey, she's Jewish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: You know, it's like add a thousand points.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: They were just so thrilled and delighted, you know, the trade-off of a guy who's not Jewish to a woman who's Jewish. They were like, you know, hey, let's break out the Manischewitz, you know?

GROSS: My guest is comic and writer Carol Leifer. She has a new memoir. It's called "When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is comic and comedy writer Carol Leifer, and her new collection of personal essays is called "When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win."

You never wanted to have children, and you had been married. I mean, you could have had children then, but when you were 50, and your partner, Lori, was 43, you both decided to adopt. What changed your mind about having children?

Ms. LEIFER: It's just still so interesting to me. I really, really thought not only, you know, I couldn't have children at that point, but I'd just never really wanted to have kids, and then it became more of a passion for Lori, and we started to talk about it, and then it just became, it just suddenly became something that we really wanted to do.

And you know, that's what I love about, you know, adoption. There's no age limit to it, and so at 50 and 43, we adopted our son, Bruno, and it's really been amazing. It's been something that I never would have expected to be as great as it is, and what I love about it is that I think I'm so much of a better mother now at 52 than, oh God, I would have been at 42 or 32.


Ms. LEIFER: I just think it's - I just have a different pace to my life now than I did then. It was much more go, go, you know, turning on all cylinders. It's much easier for me to kick back now, and I think what really makes a great parent, especially now that I am a parent, is the ability to kick back and be with it and enjoy it because I think it's all - that's what a kid is all about.

And you know, what I think is so fascinating is all the platitudes that I'd heard about kids somehow start becoming real, you know, of the - I'd always hear you kind of reexperience the world through your child's eyes, and it seemed kind of, you know, dumb and fake to me, and it really happens.

GROSS: Let's get back to telling jokes.

Ms. LEIFER: Okay.

GROSS: You - at the beginning of our interview, you were talking about your father and how he was a great joke-teller and how you got started when you were still in college, working as a comic.

Do you now feel like there's a part of you that's attached to an older period of show-biz, one that doesn't exist anymore?

Ms. LEIFER: Hmm.

GROSS: I'm thinking for instance that I know in your collection of prized possessions, you have some cue cards that - of patter between Milton Berle and Bob Hope from a special that you worked on. You opened for Sinatra in Vegas. You were on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.

Now grated, this was late in Sinatra's life, it was late in Carson's career, but still you were there for that.

Ms. LEIFER: Well, you know, it's also one of the things I love about, you know, where I'm at in my life and my career. You know, I've been doing what I do for it's going to be 32 years. I mean, it's just mind-boggling to me, you know, that I've been doing what I love for so long.

And the advantage of being, you know, having been around for so long is that I have, you know, been with the greats like Sinatra and, you know, being on a Bob Hope special with Milton Berle. And you know, I'm very happy that I'm a little bit of a yenta that way, you know, waiting around after a special like that, like would you mind very much if I took the cue cards?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: That kind of stuff and making sure that I got a picture with Carson when I was on with him. But what I love about show business, that it is this long chain, and all these greats that went before me and the evolution of comedy, to you know, have been a part of it, even started 30 years ago and see how much has changed.

And then, you know, to be a part of it, you know, even now, I mean, I just did a part in Judd Apatow's new movie that's coming out called "Funny People," with Adam Sandler, and in the movie, he has dinner with, you know, some of the people, the comedy people he admired when he was coming up, and Paul Reiser was in the scene and myself and George Wallace, and you know, it's - I like being a part of this history.

But in the end, what I love about it is a funny person is a funny person. And I'm sure that if I came up, you know, with Bob Hope, if he were part of my generation, or George Carlin, I would've buddied around with them like I buddied around with the guys of my generation.

It's a very kind of - it's a small, little, fun clique to be a part of because funny people do kind of gravitate to funny people. I trust comedians so much more than I do regular people, you know, because there is this bond that you have of this quirky little skill you have that does make you part of this fraternity.

GROSS: One more thing. Growing up with a mother who was a psychologist, you know, a lot of kids feel like their mothers are kind of omniscient and can read their minds, and they can't get away with stuff. Did you feel that way about your mother, especially since she was a psychologist?

Ms. LEIFER: Well, I used to do a line about my mom in my act, Terry, that she was not crazy about, which was it's hard to picture my mom solving other people's problems when she's the root of most of mine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: Yeah, she did not dig that joke, but you know, having a shrink for a mom is just, it's different. It's weird. In certain ways, I think they forget to take their shrink hat off and just put the mom hat on. I think that's kind of always the challenge, you know, but I do, you know, remember another funny story.

When I was learning to drive, I went driving with my mom, and I accidentally hit this squirrel in the road. And my mother, to cheer me up, was like you know, don't worry. The squirrel clearly displayed suicidal tendencies anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: So don't bum out about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, Carol Leifer, thanks so much for talking with us.

Ms. LEIFER: Oh, it was my pleasure.

GROSS: Carol Leifer new memoir is called "When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win." You can read an excerpt on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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