BWW Interview: Barry Marder - The Comic Genius (Behind Many) Stands Up On Stage Himself (Sort of)
The talented man wearing many hats (with a few noms de plume) - book author, late night talk show monologue scriber, stand-up comedian, and Jerry Seinfeld's maid (just kidding!); Barry Marder will mount the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater stage of The Geffen Playhouse June 23 in LETTERS FROM A NUT BY TED L. NANCY, based on his book and produced by Jerry Seinfeld. We managed to tear Barry away from all his various writing responsibilities to provide us with his informative, funny stream of consciousness.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview!
This is so cool! I feel like I'm interviewing a whole cast of characters when I'm only talking to one person.
But all are listening.
So, who will I be talking to? Barry? Ted? Ed? Do you have a distinctive voice for each?
You will be talking to Ted L. Nancy. Me. But I will CC the others.
Where did you come up with the moniker "Ted L. Nancy"?
I noodled the name around for awhile. I liked the first name "Ted" because I thought there were a lot of crazy people with that name. Ted Bundy, Ted Kaczynski. And then I saw a product called "Mr. Coffee," a coffee pot. And I thought, "Here's a coffee pot called Mister," and "Someone out there is named Coffee and they call him "Mr. Coffee."" I liked someone called "Mr. Coffee." I thought an unusual last name like that would be good. So I experimented with various last names. "Mr. Susan," "Mr. Vivian," which sounded like a hairdresser to me. I made a list. And at the end of the list of strange last names that I wrote down was "Nancy." "Mr. Nancy" just hit me as funny, and it seemed funny when you saw it in print. So now I had "Ted Nancy." I needed a middle initial. I went through the alphabet: "Ted A. Nancy," "Ted B. Nancy"... and when I came to L, I thought it was regal. Ted L. Nancy. Like El Cid. Very Spanish royalty. So that was the name I settled on. Ted L. Nancy.
Then, as I always do, I asked my girlfriend Phyllis Murphy what she thought. She is the love of my life. Phyllis does not consider me her fiancé. She considers me a "Person of Interest." She was right there when I created the book idea in 1994 and she knows this character and me so well. She is super smart and creative and she always gives me the right answer. So "Ted L. Nancy" was the name.
How about your other nom de plume "Ed Broth"?
Ed Broth is another interview. Ed's not feeling himself today. There is a whole other story behind Ed Broth that is most interesting.
Why all these aliases?
Only two: Ted L. Nancy and Ed Broth. Everyone needs a friend, someone to talk to.
Jerry Seinfeld is producing your show at The Geffen Playhouse. You were his opening act at his live shows. Tell me how you and Jerry first met. Was it a meet cute? A spilled coffee? A distinct uncle's referral?
I used to see Jerry doing stand-up around the clubs in Los Angeles, mostly the Improv and Igby's. We would say, "Hello," as most comics do. I was friendly with comedian Larry Miller, with whom I wrote and hung around. Jerry and Larry were close, they still are. I had written for quite a few comics then: Garry Shandling, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Bill Maher and Brad Garrett. I was writing a movie with George Carlin, which was always a good conversation piece with comics who worship George Carlin.
I ran into Jerry at Jeff Altman's barbecue party in 1991. Jerry had co-created Seinfeld in 1989 and had four shows done. He asked me if I had seen it, and I said, "No." So he, Larry Miller and I went over to Jerry's condo in West Hollywood and he showed us the couple of episodes.
Jerry said he needed some help with the monologues that were in the beginning, middle, and end of the show. I'm sure he could have done this on his own, but writing the show left him little time to write the stand-up on the show. They were easy for me to write, so I just started sitting with Jerry at his condo and we would write them together. I always felt like a cleaning lady coming over to his condo. I would show up, do my work, and he would always buy me a chicken sandwich next door. I was surprised he didn't want me to change into a maid's outfit.
This went on for the entire run of the show, including the last episode. He and I writing the stand-up, going to the Improv on Melrose on Saturday night to try out the material. Then back to Jerry's house, sometimes until four in the morning, working on the bits. Then watching him do it at the show's taping.
After all these years of writing your books and working with Jerry, what made you two decide to put on LETTERS FROM A NUT BY TED L. NANCY?
We always thought a live show would be interesting. It's a natural extension of the books. I read reviews and blogs where readers say they read these books out loud to one another at home, on trips, etc. The books are clean, no foul language, which I am proud of. They are also published at Scholastic and I have written a book specifically for Scholastic called Letters From A Nut's Family Tree. The books are also taught in many schools. So we thought, "Why not bring them to life?" We also felt we could open up the show to more than just letters. We have a video that accompanies it with all sorts of weird images and pictures and funny illustrations by cartoonist extraordinaire, Alan Marder.
Beth Kennedy, who plays the Service Rep, is a star. She is hysterical. She does more than 30 voices and characters in the show, playing different service reps answering Ted's letters. Sam Kwasman plays a great Pagliacci. He is a terrific physical actor. He dances, he sings, he jumps up and down. You'll think he's being tasered. He is very funny in this role.
So, is this production a 50/50 collaboration between yourselves and Jerry? Or is one of you only 25%?
No one knows what anyone gets at this point. No one in Hollywood is ever happy with what they get, what you get, what they think they deserve, or what so-and-so is making. Everyone feels like they didn't get enough and you got too much. No one is ever satisfied with their take and what someone else got or expects to get, or what they want you to give them to make it even for what they should be getting and what they feel they deserve. No one gets any percentage they think they are getting. No one is satisfied that they are making the right percentage and that your percentage is fair. Couple that with the fees everyone gets and that is what you're left with. I hope I answered your question in regards to who did what. Everyone just does things. And then it's there.
You've been in the writers' pit for Bill Maher, Leno, Letterman and Jerry. Can you describe the characteristic, distinguishing angles/lines you go for, for each of your comedic bosses?
I get into their voices and write jokes that they would say. I wrote a ton of stuff for Leno, a lot for Letterman. Bill Maher was early on. Leno and Letterman were big stars when I worked for them. Bill was unknown. In fact, I was writing a lot of material when Maher was doing bits for Leno as a correspondent on The Tonight Show. I'm glad he joined the Big Star group. He is a terrific comedian.
Carlin, I wrote a movie with, and was with him for five years. I loved George Carlin. I used to go to his house and he had all these little pieces of paper in a safe with ideas on them and he would bring them out and show me these diamonds. I remember when we started working together on the movie and he said to me "I want to see a guy hitching and he's on fire." I laughed and said, "And then a guy on fire in a car picks him up." That was the first thing we wrote together and it always stayed with me. George Carlin is a giant and I am so glad I got to spend precious time with him.
Which of your passion do you wish you could do more of or full-time: stand-up, writing, acting?
Writing. I love to write stand-up and books and movies and scripts. Writing comedy, for me, is like a funny jigsaw puzzle where you can add that next piece that starts to make it complete.
I remember seeing Joan Rivers way before she had her talk show in a little Santa Monica nightclub. She entered onto this little stage, set her cassette recorder on the bar stool. Clicked it on and then started her act. Do you also record your stand-up routine for self-research?
I did early on. I still have that recorder and the cassettes that I recorded. I think they're in a storage unit that I've paid $280 a month for, for the last 30 years. I realized the other day I have ninety thousand dollars of old Kenny Rogers cassettes. But I can't throw them away.
Will there be another Letters book in the near future? Or will you update them to Emails From a Nutcase or Tweets From a Vegetable?
It's a sickness that won't go away. So maybe. I am currently under Internet Canadian knock-off prescription drugs.
What's your take on the old adage that is sometimes attributed to Jack Lemmon, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."?
Comedy is easy if you can do it. I marvel whenever I watch an electrician or a plumber or anyone doing a job I can't do. I must bother the electrician so much when he comes over because I pepper him with questions. As he always says, "It's easy if you know what you are doing." I know nothing about being an electrician or fixing a bathtub or roofing or any other skilled job like this. I could watch these folks all day. I guess that's why people always stop at a construction site and watch. It's interesting and beautiful how a building goes up and I am in awe of the talent there.
Which is your preferred mode of communication - letter writing, fax, text, email, phone calls?
If you are talking about communication with friends and business associates, I would say the telephone. I don't text. I email a lot. I never fax. I send documents through the mail. With these books, emails are more fun than the letter writing from 20 years ago. Emails are more readily answered and they can go on for quite a few as it takes relatively little energy to write an email as opposed to drafting a letter and mailing it.
Thank you again, Barry, I mean, Ted! I look forward to hearing your LETTERS.
For ticket availability for LETTERS FROM A NUT BY TED L. NANCY and its show schedule thru July 30, log onto www.geffenplayhouse.org