When stand-up comic and television writer Carol Leifer came out as a lesbian to her Long Island Jewish parents, she was already in her 40s, and had been married and divorced from a man.
But she was relieved and surprised that, after telling her parents that she was in a yearlong relationship with her partner, Lori Wolf, they were happy for her, and not disappointed.
“‘I’ll tell you when I was disappointed,’” Leifer recalled her father telling her. “‘I was disappointed when you married that gentile.’”
Being raised with that kind of Jewish sensibility has influenced Leifer’s comedy both onstage and as a writer for “Seinfeld,” “Saturday Night Live” and “Modern Family.”
Leifer will be the featured speaker for the Pacesetters program for invited donors, Wednesday, May 30. The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh is sponsoring the event, which is being held at Rodef Shalom Congregation.
“I completely credit my Jewish upbringing for my being in comedy,” Leifer told the Chronicle. “Growing up on Long Island, my family was reverential of comedy. We would listen to ‘The 2000-year-old Man’ and Alan Sherman records. When ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ would come on, my father would have everyone stop what they were doing to come watch. Jews live to laugh, and that certainly has been my motto.”
Speaking of her father prompts Leifer to note wryly that he was an optometrist named Seymore. She sees humor in the minutiae of everyday life, knowing it can be fodder for good comedy writing, if one is just paying attention.
Leifer is most definitely paying attention.
Remember that “Seinfeld” episode where Elaine suspects her Korean manicurists are gossiping about her in Korean? True story, taken from the life of Leifer. Or the episode where the Costanzas bring a loaf of marble rye bread to George’s in-laws, and when it isn’t served, Frank Costanza takes it back home? That story line came from one of Leifer’s friends feeling insulted after taking bread to a dinner party where it wasn’t served.
“I think the key to writing really good sitcoms, like the stuff in ‘Modern Family’ and ‘Seinfeld,’ is to use real life experiences,” Leifer said. “Your life often offers up endless possibilities comedically. Sometimes I’m just standing outside my life, with a pen and a notebook.”
Leifer won the 2012 Writers Guild Award for her work on “Modern Family,” an episode based, in part, on her and Wolf’s experiences writing an adoption story for their child, and arguing over a final resting place.
Although she has written sitcom episodes for Jewish characters, her comedy transcends culture and translates into situations that are universally funny.
“When I was writing for ‘Seinfeld,’ the Costanzas were not Jewish, but people thought they were Jewish because of their story lines,” she said. “A funny idea is just a funny idea.”
Leifer has appeared on “The View,” “Late Show with David Letterman,” “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” and “Real Time with Bill Maher.” She is the opening act for former boyfriend Jerry Seinfeld on his 2012 comedy tour, and is the author of “When You Lie About Your Age, The Terrorists Win,” which was endorsed by the Jewish Book Council.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)