#66 Carol Leifer

James Altucher interviewed Carol Leifer (@CarolLeifer) to talk about writing, being funny, and that our dream job isn’t the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Before the interview I had never heard of Leifer, and after looking up her IMDB profile realized that I had heard of her work. Her writing credits include; The Emmy Awards, Modern Family, The Ellen Show, The Larry Sanders Show, Seinfeld, and Saturday Night Live among many others.

At the start of the interview Altucher and Leifer talk about the “sweet spot of nervousness” and Leifer says, “I’m always anxious whenever I do a show. I think it’s good. I think it’s part of the process.  You should be a little scared. You’re going on TV in front of billions of people. You shouldn’t be relaxed.”  She tells Altucher that she ends up with a good mix of nerves and excitement.

Here is Leifer, seemingly quite calm, in a 1989 interview with Letterman (26:45):

Leifer is talking with Altucher to promote her book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying.  In the interview she tells James that, “you should be failing in your career because everybody fails and if you’re not failing then you’re not doing something right. Because it’s through these failures that you really get better.”

Past guest Shane Snow has similar things to say in his book, Smartcuts, even using another comedian as an example. Snow writes, “In his depression as a failing comic,(Louis) C.K. turned to his childhood comic icon, George Carlin. He resolved to tick like Carlin ticked. So he started to mimic Carlin’s process, memorize the details of his life. He soaked in Carlin’s style of telling raw, honest stories about himself— jokes that exposed Carlin’s human vulnerabilities— and began telling similarly vulnerable jokes about himself. When C.K.’ s long-distance connection with Carlin became more than mimicry, it transformed him. And that’s when his career finally took off.”

For C.K. it took failing in one vein of comedy to find success in another. Scott Adams wrote an entire book about “failing at almost everything.” The right failure seems to move us forward.

Leifer’s career had the right failures because her circle of comedians was a who’s who of comedy. Even in the interview she says that part of her success in writing was being around funny writers. Snow would suggest that Leifer saw the causes of other comedians failures and learned from them.

Leifer tells a story about an interview for The Larry Sanders Show, where after some back and forth and being strung along she was told she didn’t get the job. Rather than hold a grudge she kept working and chose not to have “an attitude about it.” Later she ran into Gary Shandling and it turns out the person they had hired, hadn’t worked out and he offered her the job. She tells Altucher that if she had whined and complained, they probably wouldn’t have wanted to hire her and that “bringing her A game” was the best thing to do.

Prior to working with Shandling, Leifer wrote on Seinfeld and tells Altucher that the process was pretty clear for pitching to Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. “All the writers were anxious when they had to pitch to Larry and Jerry. It wasn’t easy. You could tell quickly if they loved an idea or if they didn’t respond to it. But I, like every writer there, got a lay of the land, of what to do when you pitched. It wasn’t too much bullshitting up front, it was kind of getting to it.”

At the time, David and Seinfeld were looking for people who hadn’t written on sitcoms before and Leifer fit that role (this was circa 1993). She tells Altucher  that writing jokes for stand-up and sitcoms are “two different animals…writing stand-up doesn’t really translate to writing for a TV show.” Leifer isn’t the only way to express this. Stand-up comedians churn through jokes, Joan Rivers said on NPR that she collected thousands to hope that one would work. Dave Berg, who worked with Jay Leno, said that Leno went through 1,500 jokes a day. Louis C.K. and George Carlin told stories. Simon Rich writes books based on biblical themes and eternal stories. For a single idea, comedy and its creation is quite nuanced.

One theme of Leifer’s business success is giving and reciprocating to others. She tells Altucher that because he reviewed her book on Amazon, she came on his show. She says that this attitude was picked up from Jay Leno, “for every person that he (Leno) gives an autograph to, it’s really not just one person he made a fan of, it’s kind of ten people. That person will go back and tell people ten people that – wow, Jay Leno was really nice.”  Adam Grant takes the business angle on this idea and suggests that these connections, the ten additional people that Leno and Leifer are kind to, are some of the best connections we can make. Grant proposes that it’s not the strong, intimate connections we call on, because those people have a many resources that overlap ours. Rather it’s the wide net of diverse people that can help us the most.

Though short, the interview between Altucher and Leifer was wonderful. On a per minute basis it was one of the best ones.

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