Veteran TV writer Carol Leifer has tapped her storied Hollywood career as fodder for a new memoir, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying. She talks to EW about what it takes to succeed in an industry that’s so tough it isn’t funny. Jennifer Armstrong reports.
Carol Leifer’s career could be a mini-lesson in modern TV history. She started as a stand-up but segued into sitcoms by writing for her buddy Jerry on Seinfeld. From there, she talked her way onto the staff of The Larry Sanders Show, co-created The Ellen Show with future Arrested Development master Mitch Hurwitz, created her own sitcom (Alright Already), and even dabbled in reality in The Celebrity Apprentice’s third season.
In the process, she’s collected plenty of no-nonsense advice for cracking the sitcom-writing biz, and she’s assembled it into a memoir/life guide, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying. “When I thought about writing a book, all the stories I wanted to tell had a lesson,” she says, sitting down to dispense some wisdom over soup at Jerry’s Famous Deli in Studio City, Calif. “Like, the fact that I did stand-up on Johnny Carson is great, but the resonance of that story is that I auditioned 21 times to get it. That seemed like something important to write about.”
Throughout the book, she offers straight talk about what not to do on interviews (she did not get the job when she stole soda from Aaron Spelling’s office fridge) and how to turn social contacts into opportunities (“Be a squeaky wheel, but not a pain in the ass”). She also passes on words of insight from the likes of Seinfeld and Jay Leno. “Those two are my go-to Yodas,” she says.
How to Succeed marks a departure from her last memoir, When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win, in which Leifer shared more personal stories about staying true to her real age—now 57—and discovering that she’s a lesbian. Still, both books reflect her tendency to tell it like it is, says college friend and fellow comic Paul Reiser. “Our business is not for the timid, and she has always been fearless,” he says. “All of us started with five minutes of funny stuff and no career plan, but she has created opportunities for herself.”
Just because Leifer has written two books about her experiences doesn’t mean she’s finished. She’s joined the staff of Lifetime’s soapy dramedy Devious Maids for its second season and keeps as full a stand-up schedule as possible. “I get to do a little bit of everything,” she says. “I can enjoy the solitude of writing a book, but then when I crave people, I have a writers’ room to go to.” For his part, Devious Maids creator Marc Cherry says, “I always look for smart, witty women for my room,” adding, “I got my start on The Golden Girls, so we speak the same [sitcom] language.”
The new job — her first on a female-dominated show — allows her to take full advantage of the one trait that distinguishes her from most of her comedy buddies: being a woman. She has long served as an inspiration to female comics coming up behind her. Sarah Silverman cites her as an influence, as does fellow Seinfeld writer Jennifer Crittenden. “One of my favorite jokes is hers,” says Crittenden. “Carol, with male bravado, commenting, ‘I don’t have any kids … at least none that I know of.’”
Now Leifer’s got the chance to play Yoda to her readers and to her younger colleagues on Devious Maids. But mostly she’s just thrilled to have networked her way into yet another fun Hollywood gig. “This is one of those TGIM jobs — you know, Thank God It’s Monday,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll go to parties with my partner on the weekends and go, ‘You know, I have a much better time at work.’”