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Island Profile: Two comedians tell a tale of one comedian’s conversion
How did a chance encounter between two guys in a Manhattan gym three years ago develop into a deep and warm friendship as well as an ongoing collaboration? The answer is, “easily.” With so much in common, the only thing to wonder about the friendship is why it didn’t happen sooner.
Comedy writers Bill Persky and Tom Leopold share a deep love of the comedic and they both have been fortunate in earning their livings making other people laugh. Those who come to the Shelter Island Library at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 7 will get the chance to laugh along with them when Mr. Leopold presents a stand-up routine, “A Comedy Writer Finds God,” for which he’s asked Mr. Persky to join him because he collaborated on it.
Bill, whose credits make him one of the top TV sitcom writers and directors ever, lives on Shelter Island and in New York. Born in 1931 in New Haven, Connecticut, he’s been married for 17 years to his wife Joanna. He has three daughters from an earlier marriage: Jamie, Liza and Dana. He has five Emmys to his credit for writing and/or directing comedy episodes on the various shows.
Graduating from Syracuse University in 1953, he moved to New York City and began work at an advertising agency. At the same time, he began writing sketches for comedians doing stand-up, often for the grand sum of $20 each. Relatively soon, he moved to Los Angeles and working with a partner, he had what he considers a really lucky break.
“We got very fortunate,” he recalled. “Carl Reiner loved the way we wrote and we ended up doing three years of ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show,’ 70 scripts. That was the most magical experience. It was everyone’s dream show so afterwards we could do anything we wanted.” He and his partner Sam Denoff went on to create “That Girl” for Marlo Thomas. When Bill decided he wanted to be a director, the partnership ended amicably.
Although it was a little hard getting started as a solo, he eventually got some directing jobs and, wanting to return to New York, he landed the job of directing “Kate & Allie,” which was shot there. He recently finished a book, “My Life as a Situation Comedy.”
Born in Miami Beach in 1949, Tom was one of four sons. Married to Barbara for 25 years this October, he’s the father of two daughters, Olivia, 20, and Augusta, 17.
Tom had been studying comedy since he was a young man. “I was in love with show business since I was 5. I wanted to be an actor. I was a sickly kid, watched a lot of TV and went to a lot of movies and I learned everything I needed just watching ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘The Honeymooners.’ That was it, that was school for me. I wanted to leave high school early but my parents wouldn’t let me.”
He graduated from high school in Coral Gables and was admitted to what’s now the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University to study acting. Leaving behind his high school magic act, “The Amazing Leo and Curly,” he arrived in Greenwich Village to go to college at the age of 17, never having been away from home before, “wearing my Miami loafers and my pinkie ring, with a monogram on my shirt. Everybody else is living with people, having sex.” It was 1967.
Olympia Dukakis was his main acting teacher. “She wasn’t into comedy. If you were into humor, you were lesser somehow, if you weren’t doing ‘The Seagull’ and weeping on the floor.”
But his success and good luck were almost immediate — clearly he had talent. Before the end of his first year in college, he had an agent, did two commercials, three the following year, managing to pay his entire college expenses. He was cast in a number of plays and worked constantly. He started writing for the National Lampoon, a ground-breaking humor magazine.
His big break came through the actor, Chevy Chase. They were at a party together after a “Saturday Night Live” performance, “and Chevy sat next to me and said, ‘Everybody tells me you’re the funniest guy and I want you to write my first special when I leave SNL.’”
After that, the writing became central. In 1980, he found work with Steve Allen, whom he had idolized as a kid, writing for “The Steve Allen Summer Show.”
On his first day at work, he noticed one of those little round Band-Aids on Allen’s neck, presumably from a cut while shaving. Without hesitation, Tom reached up, pressed the Band-Aid, and proceeded to issue instructions in loud tones to an imaginary listener, to “bring the limo around, cancel my barber appointment” and on and on. When Allen fell over laughing, not only was Tom beside himself with pleasure, he also was given a gig on the show itself. He went on to write for Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart and others and, in 1991, went to Los Angeles to begin writing for “Seinfeld.” After that, it was “Cheers,” “Will and Grace” and a return to New York in 2000.
But real life wasn’t all laughs. Tom and Barbara were faced with an almost crushing problem when their younger daughter, Augusta, developed a very serious eating disorder. Tom’s experience of trying to find the strength to cope with that, is at the heart of the program he’ll present at the library. “A Comedy Writer Finds God” was written in collaboration with his friend Bill. “It’s very funny, believe it or not, even though it’s about my coming to faith through suffering.”
“There was a particularly sad, painful point when we were in the desert on Christmas Eve three years ago. My daughter was in Arizona at a hospital there and we could only have her for one day, Christmas Day, and she’d been there four months. She was in a bad state and it was a particularly painful Christmas Eve but that night I went to bed and I found myself praying for the very first time, saying, ‘If You’re up there, You could throw me a sign, ‘cause I really can’t make it alone.’ And the next morning in the desert, these very unusual things began to happen. Maybe I should leave it for people to come see the show,” which recounts what he describes as “these amazing coincidences one after another.”
He was baptized recently as a Roman Catholic.
When asked what made him choose Catholicism out of all possible choices, he laughed and said he didn’t choose it: “It chose me. It was like I prayed and Catholicism showed up.”
Asked about his family’s reaction, he laughed again. “I’ve always been very culturally and ethnically Jewish and still feel that way. My wife is Catholic and my mom said, ‘If it makes you call me more often, great!’ My brothers are okay with it and my friends in the comedy business, almost all of whom are Jewish, are very happy for me.”