Q&A: Carol Leifer, Late Bloomer

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Harry Langdon

Carol Leifer

When it comes to comedy careers, Carol Leifer has been there, done that. Besides being a popular stand-up comedian, Leifer, 52, is an Emmy-nominated writer and producer for work on shows like Seinfeld, Larry Sanders and Saturday Night Live. But it's her personal résumé that is the main focus of her entertaining new book, When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win (Villard). Leifer's notable relationship history has included two famous former boyfriends (comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser), one not-famous former husband, a female partner for the past 12 years (Lori Wolf) and one adopted 3-year-old son (Bruno). TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs reached Leifer at her home in Santa Monica, Calif.

TIME: You describe yourself as a late bloomer for having come out after you were 40 years old.
Leifer: I'm finding, especially with women, a couple of different kinds of gays. I've met people who say, "I knew I was gay my whole life, and I lived this lie, and then I finally came out." My kind of gay is like the late-breaking-lesbian kind of gay. I mean, I was attracted to boys. My first crush was on Davy Jones. My kind of gay, meeting a woman and falling in love, is a different experience because it wasn't anything about "Oh, I've always been gay and I'm breaking the chains." The whole experience spun me around. I really thought this was going to be a fun fling, and I had no idea that it would become this finding my soul mate, the love-of-my-life sort of deal. It does make you feel reticent about talking about it at the beginning because you're not sure if it's real, if it's going to stick. I didn't want to pull an Anne Heche, sheepishly heading back to the car dealership.

You've been together 12 years now. Are you thinking of getting married?
We're kind of die-hard holdouts. We have so many friends who got married right before the election, and it was a really fun time. We went to a zillion parties. But I [could] see the writing on the wall, and I had a feeling that Prop. 8 was going to pass. It was a really crushing blow to our friends to go from this kind of high of exhilaration to this stunning defeat. So Lori and I feel we're going to wait until there's one marriage across the board, and it might be awhile. We just feel strongly about it.

You have another member of the household, your 3-year-old son Bruno. Tell me about him.
We made a very late-in-life decision to adopt. I was 50 when we adopted him, and Laurie was 43. I have to say that it's awfully strange to get Parents magazine in the mail along with AARP magazine, but it has really been an amazing thing. I never thought I was going to have children. I just thought after 45, that was it. But I like the surprises in life ... I never thought about having kids at 30, but I think I'm a much better mom now at 52 than I ever thought I could be. The pace of this age is really good and fits well with a child, especially because we have a lot in common, my son Bruno and I. We both like books with large print, and napping is always on the agenda.

Tell me about the beginning of your career. Was it really hard to get started as a female stand-up comedian?
In those days, when I started stand-up in the late '70s, it felt so easy to get into stand-up because there were so few people doing it and so few women. I always saw it as a tremendous advantage, and I always tell women that if you're in the minority in whatever you do, there are advantages to that which I think are enormous. Especially in a performing way. It sets you apart. It was kind of sexist in my early years, but they would put together a show, and it would be like, Well, we need the guy, we need the ventriloquist, we need the monkey act, and we need the woman. Well, at least I got on. And I really also felt and still do feel that the guy comedians that I came up with, and boy did I come up with a great class — Jerry Seinfeld was the MC the night I auditioned at the Comic Strip along with Paul Reiser, whom I went to college with. Jerry introduced me to Jay Leno when I moved out to L.A., and we quickly became friends. I think of them all as big brothers to me to this day.

What was Jerry Seinfeld like as a boyfriend?
Oh God, it's so long ago! We had a really fun, happy time. We dated for less than a year. We had a really great time. The thing that always stands out to me about Seinfeld that I'm just blown away by is he's the most together person I've ever met who has not had a day of therapy. It's staggering because he's so together and very sage. He's a great person to ask advice from, be it personal stuff or career, because he's always right on and he always knows what the right thing to do is ... He's the hardest working of all the comedians I came up with. I remember when we were all partying until 4 and getting up at noon. He always cut out time during his day as a young comic to make sure he sat down and wrote ... So his success, I think, for the people who knew him from when he started, is so not surprising because he was always kind of a rock star to us.

How did you meet David Letterman?
I was performing at the Comic Strip in 1979, I think, and I came off stage, and the manager at the club said, You know, this guy named David Letterman just saw you. I was like, Wow! I was excited because he didn't even have his morning show yet, but we knew he was a great comic. But I got a call the next day from the talent coordinator of the Tonight Show who said, David Letterman said he saw you and that you might be a good candidate for the Tonight Show. I didn't get on until 12 years after, but once Dave got his NBC show, which was a little bit later, they just booked me. It was a really terrific break for me, because David Letterman basically said to me the first time I was on the show, I think you're terrific, and any time you have a set ready, come on. Just come on the show. So I think I did it 25 times through the '80s and early '90s.

Are you doing stand-up now?
Yes. I'm still doing my stand-up. I learned very quickly in my Seinfeld years — I got a little lax about it, and then I went onstage after not having been onstage for a while, and it was like, oops. If you don't use it, you lose it, and I saw that it's a really nifty skill to have learned, especially so early in my life when you're not fully formed, to have all the fear mechanisms in place. I feel I've always got to keep my stand-up because I never want to lose it.

Your mother was a shrink when you were growing up. What was that like?
Well, Andrea, it's hard to picture my mom solving other people's problems when she's the root of most of mine. It's a challenge. In one way, I do feel that my mother did instill in me the old get-ye-to-a-shrinkery, the value of therapy and its good effect on your life. I think that's been great, but shrinks as parents is a little tough because they're not that adept at switching out the shrink hat with the parent hat, which are two very different roles. Everything is always, Well, how do you feel about that? Well, I'm hungry. My mother is 89 and stopped practicing as a shrink at 88. It's really something. I do remember that when I was learning to drive — talking about keeping the shrink hat on all the time — we were driving together, and I accidentally hit a squirrel and felt horrible. My mother was like, Don't worry about it; the squirrel clearly displayed suicidal tendencies anyway.

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