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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Marion Grodin interview

I did a phoner with standup comic/author Marion Grodin a couple weeks ago. And I sat down with her in person a couple days ago for a future episode of What's So Funny? As you'll read here, she was here in support of her book Standing Up: A Memoir of a Funny (Not Always) Life. Here's the transcript of our telephone conversation.

Marion Grodin
November 13, 2013

"I still run into that – ‘Oh, she’s Charles Grodin’s daughter – and I’m 53 now. It’s like, well, I am and I’m very proud of it and I’m very proud of him but it’s kind of like after that it should be … but mostly she’s her own person." – Marion Grodin

Guy MacPherson: Where are you off to?
Marion Grodin: Oh, who knows, Guy? At this point, I just go where they tell me. It’s been such a hectic and great tour. I actually wake up in one state, I fly to some other state, often with multiple connections and different time zones. It’s been crazy but it’s awesome. All the events have been phenomenal, I have to say. We Jews are a fabulous lot.

GM: Are they all Jewish-related events?
MG: I’m on a Jewish book tour for the Jewish Book Council. Obviously the book is for everybody completely, but I got this book tour through the Jewish Book Council that meets in New York City I guess annually at the Hebrew College. A lot of them talk about very heavy subject matter, and while I have very deep stuff in my book, I’m a comic. So I got up and in my two minutes allotted just crushed. So I got a lot of bookings.

GM: Tell me a bit about what we can expect when you come here to Vancouver. You’ll obviously be talking about the book but will you be doing standup?
MG: I do standup. It’s not heavy-handed at all; it’s comedy. I think what’s amazing is, I’m doing a solid 30, 40 minutes of standup comedy and I’m a headlining comedian so I think they’re getting something that’s extremely unusual and phenomenal. People are having a great time. Basically I get up and I walk the room and do standup. I talk about the book and I do a very extensive Q&A so that it can be inclusive of the more substantive stuff in the book. You know, I’ve been through a lot of stuff, I’m a breast cancer survivor for ten years, I’m sober 25 years, gone through divorce and a bunch of stuff that people and women and people in general are relating with. So there’s more opportunity to get into that after the standup when I talk about the book and open it up to Q&A.

GM: So that’s what you’ll be doing here in Vancouver?
MG: Correct, yes. So people should come out and have a lot of laughs. I mean, I can’t even believe I’m going to Vancouver. It’s so amazing.

GM: Did you know we had Jews here?
MG: No, I didn’t! Not until I got booked. I’m hoping for more than one or two. That’s what I’m saying: Please tell the Jews in your article that I’m a New York City Jew. Where aren’t we? We’re everywhere. So I need Vancouver to have a really good showing to show this New York City Jew that Vancouver represents.

GM: You know Seth Rogan is a Vancouver Jew?
MG: I did not know that! I didn’t know that.

GM: Yeah. In fact, maybe his parents will be at your show.
MG: Well, I would love that. I would love to meet Mr. And Mrs. Rogan. In fact, maybe we can invite them in the article. But yeah, it’s going to be an awesome time. I’ll rock the house. We’ll have big, big laughs. And then I’ll also talk briefly about the book and open it up to Q&A, like I said where there’s more of an individual personal opportunity. A lot of people when we do the Q&A will say, you know, ‘I was just diagnosed with breast cancer,’ ‘I’m going through divorce.’ It’s an opportunity for a lot of wonderful connection and people to share about their own experiences with some of what’s in the book. There’s something for everybody.

GM: Or maybe ‘I am the child of a celebrity, too.’
MG: That hardly ever happens. It hasn’t happened but I would welcome it because there’s also that aspect of the book where I talk about growing up with a ridiculously charismatic, larger-than-life famous father who I didn’t grow up living with so it created a whole bunch of stuff, like longing for the parent who wasn’t there. It probably set up a lot of unrequitedness so I didn’t always make the best choices with men. I say in my talks that when you grow up with a famous parent, as a child there’s a very strange phenomenon where you feel like you’re famous, too. And it’s kind of a wildly rude awakening to discover that you’re not. And that you have to discover your own specialness and then go ahead and put that into the world. And so I write about that, I think very poignantly. There’s a line in the book where I got to the point where I realized even if my coat was raggedy, I had to rely on my own coat rather than be on someone else’s coat tails no matter how sparkly theirs were. By the way, just to say, I don’t think it’s unique to famous kids. I mean, I think there is a phenomenon with celebrity parents but I also think that’s universal for a lot of us. For whatever reason, having to grow up and understand that you really have to rely on yourself. For some people it’s the parents, for some people it’s their spouse. But I don’t think it’s a completely unique thing to celebrity children.

GM: Sure. Everyone’s parents are larger than life and a celebrity to the kid.
MG: That’s right.

GM: So they have to get out from under that shadow.
MG: And there’s also a lot in the book, just piggy-backing on what you just said, about co-dependancy. For a lot of us, I think this is very universal, the process of evolving into your own identity and feeling your own sense of mattering, your own sense of specialness, and trusting that instead of affixing to someone else’s. Just to get referred to your whole life, and I still run into that – ‘Oh, she’s Charles Grodin’s daughter – and I’m 53 now. It’s like, well, I am and I’m very proud of it and I’m very proud of him but it’s kind of like after that it should be dot, dot, dot… but mostly she’s her own person.

GM: I’m interested in your start in standup comedy in New York and when that was and who you came up with.
MG: Absolutely. When I was in my 20s, I hit a very, very severe bottom with drugs and alcohol. I got sobered up and my mother died. It was just a horrendous time in my life. I ended up getting sober and after I got sober, I met my husband, I got married and I knew I was a comic but I was terrified to, as the title says, stand up. I was terrified to stand up in my own life. I was very enmeshed with my father. I was very enmeshed with my husband. There’s the whole journey of my marriage in the book, which is very much about co-dependency. There was a lot of love but severe, severe co-dependency that really wrecked the marriage in a lot of ways ultimately. So after a few years of living in my father’s shadow – I was working on his show on MSNBC and I was a producer and I was mostly behind the scenes. Sometimes he’d have me on the show but mostly not. I mean, he wanted to, just, you know, if he had Seinfeld on as a guest, I wasn’t going to pop in and make an appearance. And after a few years of this, I was very depressed. I realized that I had this job and I had health insurance and I had a husband, but I realized I was depressed because my own light wasn’t really shining. And I was sitting in the studio one day and I was watching my father interview Sarah Jessica Parker, who was very much shining in her own light. She was so talented and so sparkly charismatic and just living in the joy of her immense talent and success. And there I was sitting in the dark audience, just me and a few other people. We’d go down to the studio at MSNBC, we’d tape, and we’d provide a little audience, and I thought, ‘Why am I cheering on everybody else’s business and neglecting and abandoning my own?’ So I quit the show, which was fairly radical because I didn’t have another job, and I went down the street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan twenty-plus years ago to Stand-up New York, which is still one of my home base clubs on 78th and Broadway. And in order to get up, you had to bring people. So I made my husband and my two best friends come down. You get five minutes. And I killed. I mean, I got huge laughs. I found it to be extraordinarily nerve-wracking, upsetting experience because I’m very self-revealing and it left me just feeling incredibly vulnerable and weird and naked. My father was waiting by the phone. After the thing everybody was, ‘Great, great, great.’ I was in like an altered state. And I went outside and called my dad. He went, ‘How did it go?’ I said, ‘Well, I got a lot of laughs but I sure hope my experience changes.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, I thought like I was going to shit and have a heart attack but aside from that it was great.’ I mean, don’t quote the ‘shit’ part. That’s kind of raw. I mean, say whatever you want; I don’t care. I don’t care. I mean, that is how I felt. And I had to just keep getting up in order to get over feeling shell-shocked. Even though I was a huge performer in life, it was another thing to get on stage. And that experience left me and I’ve been doing it ever since. I think what really changes is your confidence and your comfort. When you’ve been doing it a long time, it just evolves to a place where sometimes you’re more comfortable on stage than off.

GM: So that feeling of panic left shortly after that?
MG: It didn’t leave quick enough. Definitely the first year of doing standup or even longer than that it’s pretty nerve-jangling. I think part of what changed was also in order to get up in New York City and perform, you had to do bringers. You had to bring people. That was the way the club would make money. Why would they put you, an amateur, on stage? No one’s coming to see you. So after doing bringers for a while, I thought this is just shit. I have to, like, everybody I’ve ever met. I have to join a cult. Where am I supposed to get these people from? I instituted my own show at the Duplex, which is an iconic spot in the Village where Joan Rivers and all these amazing people used to get up, and still get up, on Christopher Street and 7th Avenue South. I started my own show. We had to flyer to get an audience. Everybody who was on that show went on and did very well. It was a very hot group of people. People who’ve gone on to write books and had shows. In that group was the phenomenal Jessica Kirson, she’s amazing. Karen Bergreen, who went on to write a couple books. Demetri Martin, of course, who went on to have his own show. My friend Danny Cohen. Some people you’ve heard of, some people you haven’t. But everybody was really talented and we got amazing guests to come down. Great New York comics like Ted Alexandro, Judy Gold. And I basically, through having to get up, my friend that I co-ran the show with, Becky Donahue, the first night she saw me have to take care of myself on stage with a heckler and come out from behind the dialogue, she said, ‘Oh my God.’ I was like, ‘What?’ That basically gave birth to my style on stage, which is that I love improv. As with most things in life, it came about from a difficult experience because I was getting heckled and I had to defend myself.

GM: The street fighter came out in you.
MG: Completely. I mean, I’m a Jewish girl who went to public school. That survivor came up in me that was like, ‘Fuck you!’ It was this Spanish woman and she was like, ‘Why you talking to me? You don’t even have jokes? I have to write your jokes for you?’ And then she started attacking what I was wearing. She was like, ‘Slut, your clothes is crinkly. You couldn’t even iron?’ And after that night, something in me snapped and I was like, I will never let that happen again. And I haven’t. I love improv. And Judy Gold said, and she’s right, ‘You have to know two things when you’re a comic, and especially as a woman: You have to know who you are on stage, and you have to let them know that you are in control.’

GM: It’s amazing that exchange you had with that woman stays with you after all these years.
MG: Well, yeah. Because it was such a shift. Up to then I had been doing written material and it would go great or well enough, but I discovered I had this power which I’d been doing my whole life, which is why everybody in my life always thought I was so hilarious, just riffing. Just being in a situation and just riffing. Just going off whatever they were giving me. And that’s what I do on the book tour and people love it. I definitely do material but I also go into the audience and have fun with them, which they love because it’s immediate and it’s happening in real time, they’re involved. I can’t wait. I’ve never been there and everyone says how beautiful it is.

GM: You’ve got this brash style yet your dad was pretty subdued in his humour.
MG: Right, dry and understated. I have that, too. When you watch me do longer time. I am very edgy. I call what I do ‘edgy affection.’ Because I’m very affectionate with the audience but it’s comedy so irreverent is ground zero. I mean, of course you’re going to be irreverent. But people say this all the time when they see me live, I’m a lot like him. First of all, I look a lot like him. I also have a very dry, acerbic thing that I do and I look so much like him and I have mannerism like him. In fact yesterday I was in Virginia doing the JCC there and I was rounding the corner and a man who worked there stopped dead in his tracks and he looked at me and went, ‘Woah!’ I had no idea what he was going to say. And I’d never had this happen. He said it’s unbelievable. I was like, ‘What?’ He goes, ‘You look exactly like your father.’ I’m my version, he’s his version. But you’ll see. Hopefully you’re coming to the show. Are you coming to the show?

GM: I hope so.
MG: That’d be great. I’d love to meet you.

GM: Your dad was a serious actor first then did some comedies. But I first really noticed his comedy chops on Carson.
MG: He was under contract with Carson. That character was so impactful that Johnny Carson had my dad under contract to him, which was a huge compliment after he did The Heartbreak Kid. That whole acerbic sort of antagonistic, eccentric personality that he also became famous for on Letterman. People were just floored by it. It’s interesting because there’s a similarity between he and I because ultimately of course he has a good heart but he’s doing this thing where he’s completely giving you shit and that’s sort of similar to my thing on stage, too. So there is similarity there. I suspect if he were a comic, there’d be a lot of similarity because the whole thing he got famous for was being difficult. In essence when I’m on stage I’m giving the audience a hard time. I’m being difficult except that’s my job.

GM: Yeah, that persona isn’t foreign to comedy clubs but nobody had seen people act that way toward Carson before.
MG: I can’t even think of anyone who did or has. He was so ballsy. I can’t to this day even think of anyone who would come on and look at these iconic and beloved comic talk show hosts and say things like, ‘You don’t care about whether or not I have children. Why are you asking me that?’ It was so explosively funny. Talk about challenging authority to say that to somebody like Johnny Carson.

GM: I guess some people might have thought he was serious, but we saw what he was doing and there was respect and admiration there.
MG: I would go to school and he was so convincing. I’m getting high and smoking pot as a young teenager and I go to school and there was this one kid, Jesse, who was constantly challenging me, saying, ‘Why is your father so hateful to Johnny Carson?’ Or ‘Why did your father give Mia Farrow back to the devil in Rosemary’s Baby.’ Or ‘Why did your father leave his Jewish wife on their honeymoon for a shiksa?’ I’m like, ‘What is wrong with you? He’s not a documentary film maker.’ They’re crazy. He went on Carson talking about washing his cheese because he’s germophobic. I mean, no more than I am or most people. But he was joking. And Carson said, ‘You wash your cheese?’ The two of them, their timing and delivery were so impeccable it was so phenomenal, the next day everybody single person couldn’t wait to ask me if he washed his cheese. I couldn’t get over it. I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s washing his gouda. He’s home laundering his cheese.’ But it’s funny because I’m such a germophobe that I’m more likely to wash my cheese.

GM: I don’t know if it’s because I’m not Jewish and live on the west coast of Canada, but I never even knew Charles Grodin was Jewish.
MG: People don’t think he looks Jewish. And in the most stereotypical way he does not. And I don’t either. But we’re Ashkenazi. My grandmother, who was so Jewish, you wouldn’t know it until she opened her mouth and then you could not know it. She had blond hair and light skin and blue eyes. But it’s like anywhere. You can go to Italy and see people that look like that and you think they don’t look Italian. One of my favourite chapters in the book, which I’m dying for you to read, is I’m trying to lose weight, I’m fasting and I fly to Texas and it turns out I have landed inadvertently in a little pocket of anti-Semitism. And one of the things that happens is I get confronted by a woman at one point who said, ‘We didn’t know you were Jewish. You don’t look Jewish.’ And that really happened. It’s so offensive. I understand that, but to actually say that to somebody… I mean, are you going to say to a light-skinned black person, ‘You don’t look black’? I mean, it’s ridiculous. But I don’t mind you saying it but they were anti-Semites. But the minute I open my mouth, everybody knows I’m Jewish.

GM: I can’t believe his MSNBC show was twenty years ago.
MG: It’s crazy. Yeah, it was. Because I was newly with my husband and fairly newly sober. People loved it because it was super left to the left to the left. It was amazing. I was the field producer and I’d do these man-on-the-street interviews. I’d go out on the street during the OJ trial and all I had to do was constantly go up to black and white people and ask the if they thought OJ did it. It was ridiculous and not what I wanted to be doing. But it also helped me become a comic because I just thought I can’t ask one more person if they think OJ did it or I’ll kill myself. I didn’t give a shit if they thought OJ did it. It was like, what about my life? I wasn’t standing up in my own life. I was off to the side of my own life. And it felt bad, especially if you’re an artist and you’re not really pursuing your art. It feels lousy because you know you’re in the wrong life. You’re supposed to be painting and you’re not painting, you’re whatever, cleaning toilets. Nothing against cleaning toilets but it’s very depressing because you know your light isn’t shining.

GM: When did you write the book?
MG: I wrote the book a little over two years ago. I got a book deal because I was headlining Gotham Comedy Club and my publicist at the time invited columnist Cyndi Adams, who was blown away by me and devoted her entire column to telling people this girl should have a show, she’s unbelievable and blah, blah, blah. But she brought her very dear friend, who’s a huge literary agent and she took me on as a client and said, ‘That girl should write a book.’ I went into her office the next day, I performed my entire story in about 45 minutes. Everybody laughed and cried and at the end of it she said, ‘Where do I send the contract?’ The rest is history.

GM: What was the process?
MG: The process was excruciating and laborious and arduous and challenging on levels I had never experienced, as well as exhilarating and thrilling and gratifying and nourishing. It was just the most monumental, mighty process because the book is outstanding for it to be at the level it’s at, it took so much writing and rewriting and oftentimes having to hang in there with material that was really difficult. I led a monastic existence. I didn’t have a social life. I had to stop every form of how I earned money because I just needed the time to write. I couldn’t take a road gig and be gone for four days because that was valuable writing time. It was just an enormous opportunity and it had to be fantastic. And it is. I basically wrote in Starbucks and this cool vegan restaurant near my house. There was just a lot of writing and rewriting. The first draft of the book was twice as long. I have a really great editor. We worked meticulously. I’m just thrilled with what it yielded. The book is fantastic. I really just devoted myself to it and frankly, given more time I would have taken more time. I wouldn’t have needed it but it’s hard if you’re a perfectionist. At a certain point it’s diminishing returns. You’re not even making anything better; you just can’t leave it alone. It’s miraculous that at some point it’s done and it goes to print and it’s out there. And people are just loving it. I mean, deeply loving it.

GM: And is your dad? I read the funny quote he had on it.
MG: Yeah, he thinks it’s amazing. Interestingly, and uncommonly, my father is and has always been my biggest champion. He sees my talent completely, believes in my talent completely. He’s just proud of me. He thinks I’m a fantastic writer and all of that. I mean, he comes off great in the book. A friend of mine at one point actually referred to it as a tell-all, and I was like, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ It’s just not who I am. I confess so much about myself in this book but in terms of other people’s stuff, which everyone has, I’m not going to divulge that, about my ex-husband or my father. That’s not mine to do.

GM: It’s not a Daddy Dearest.
MG: No! You sell more books and then your father never speaks to you again. I’m not in touch with my ex-husband so it wouldn’t be a matter of him not speaking to me – we’re not in touch, not contentiously; we’re just not in touch – but I certainly wouldn’t want him to read it and feel like, ‘Oh my God, I wish she hadn’t said that or revealed that about me to the world.’ I mean, if I want to reveal stuff about myself, I can. And you draw your own conclusions. I mean, I don’t have to say that it was fucking horrible that he left after 16 years while I was still going through breast cancer treatment. I don’t have to say those words. You’re gonna read it and draw your own conclusion. The problem is if you vilify someone or you state the obvious… I don’t know. It felt base to me. I just didn’t want to do it. And things are complicated. I just told the truth in this book. I didn’t really make a lot of determinations or judgments, quote-unquote. I just really told the truth. My therapist gave me a very big compliment. She said, ‘the thing I like most about this book is it’s so frank.’ Like, it’s just no bullshit. But it’s also deeply funny and moving.

GM: Sounds like a winner.
MG: It’s a winner. It is! (laughs) I can’t wait to meet you.

GM: Likewise. What’s your dad doing now?
MG: He’s doing great. For the last chunk of years he’s been very devoted to working with things like the Innocence Project and is trying to and succeeding in getting people out of jail and in particular women of colour who shouldn’t be there or not as long as they are. He’s actually succeeded in getting a number of women out of prison, which is unbelievable. He does a lot of philanthropic work. He’s always writing, he’s always got a book. He had a book come out recently, I don’t even know the title of it. He’s very prolific so I don’t know the title of this one. But he’s also back in movies, which I think is fantastic because he’s so beloved by his fans. He’s actually coming out playing Al Pacino’s agent in the new Barry Levinson movie, so I’m sure that’ll be hilarious. He’s also playing Ben Stiller’s father-in-law in the new Ben Stiller film. He plays Naomi Watts’ father. And he’s also Michael J. Fox’s father on the Michael J. Fox show and will be seen on the Thanksgiving episode. So he’s definitely back. So that’s great. People love him and they miss him. He just did a Law & Order: SVU, which is very weird because he’s a comedic actor. But he’s a great dramatic actor. He’s playing a very serious role. But yeah, he’s on CBS radio multiple times a day and he also does an online article. He’s devoted one to my book, which is really really nice. He’s done a couple of things for the book.

GM: That’s great to hear. I didn’t know all that. I gotta get a copy of your book.
MG: You most definitely do. And you have to come to the show so I can sign it for you and thank you so much for your time.

GM: Definitely. Thank you very much.
MG: I wasn’t ending the phone call. I mean, if we’re ending it, it’s fine but I meant thank you for your time in the book.

GM: No, I think I got lots here. And we have to save some for the radio/podcast.
MG: Oh, believe me, there’s more where that came from. I never run out of stuff.

GM: Excellent.

MG: Okay, honey, thank you.

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