Last week I had the opportunity to go see Monica Piper's one-woman show Not That Jewish, a hilarious heartfelt show about her life in comedy, the Bronx, and being Jew-"ish." From family to relationships to laughter, Not That Jewish has something for everyone! If you want advice on being a comedian, Not That Jewish has it. Have a broken heart, Not That Jewish will help heal it. If you want to see a show with laughter and substance, Not That Jewish is the one to see!
Monica's performance was fantastic. There were so many moments my jaw dropped from laughter, I eventually lost count. Monica knows how to deliver a comedic moment like Willy Wonka knows how to make candy, perfectly! Monica's writing is strong (She has written for such hit TV shows as Rugrats, Roseanne, and Mad About You), which is what obviously made her an Emmy Award winner and Golden Globe nominee. Through the tears and laughter, Monica still shines bright, center stage, where she belongs!
I love all the behind-the-scene stories Monica shares with me in this interview about her life and the show. Not That Jewish plays at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street, between 8th & 9th Avenue) through April 30th only! Click here for tickets!
1. After seeing the show recently, I'm so excited to be doing this interview with you. What made now the right time to write & premiere Not That Jewish? I had written several stories for the Jewish Women’s Theatre Salon Series in Los Angeles and they were received very well. In about 2008, Ronda Spinak, the artistic director of Jewish Women’s Theatre, said, "I’m starting this new theatre; cutting edge writing and performing of the Jewish woman’s voice and I want you to write some original pieces." I said, "But Ronda, I’m not that Jewish." She said, "Yes you are, just create from the heart. Someday that’s going to be the title of your play," and that was in 2008. Anyway, I just kept writing stories for them and performing and we just suddenly started realizing that this whole body of work was really centered on this theme of passing it down and family. I was approached by one of the patrons of Jewish Women’s Theatre who said, "I love your stories and I want to commission you to write a play," and I started writing it in 2014. It opened in Los Angeles, and it was supposed to run for five weeks but it ran for sixteen months.
2. Being Jewish myself, there was so much I could relate to, especially the importance and love of family. In the show, you re-create your family throughout the show. When you are playing them (whether it be your mother, father, grandmother), what goes through your head during these moments? Does it make you appreciate them, miss them more, or just happy you have those memories? I appreciate them more and I think what has gone through my mind so many times is how they would’ve loved seeing this show and how they would’ve loved that I’m honoring them in this way. Every audience is different and they laugh at different things, but they always laugh at something my grandmother says, something my father says, and something my mother says. To me, that’s great because I’m honoring them and that feels really good.
3. In the show you, you say that Jews tend to laugh even during the darkest times. I definitely agree with that because I tend to find a lot of my humor during rough times and I see that in my dad a lot as while he was undergoing/recovering from triple bypass surgery, he kept his spirits up with his humor and that has definitely made an impression on me. After your mother passed away, how soon after did you and your father find that moment of laughter you portray? How did you feel to laugh again after such a tough moment? It took a day or two, obviously, to get over the shock, but we were sitting Shiva and it was during that time that I said, "Dad, we gotta laugh." There are moments in my life that, just because of time we couldn’t include everything in the play, but when I was growing up my father and I would sit and watch sports together and we would always make fun of the commercials, this was before DVRs when you couldn't fast-forward the commercials and had to watch them. There was an IBM commercial called "What if?" It showed a guy taking a shower and in the middle of the shower he clearly gets an idea and a voiceover says, "What if?" My father shouted at the TV and said, "What if you left me alone and let me take my shower?" Then I shouted, "What if I called the cops? I don't know you and you’re in my bathroom." We would just riff and laugh. The reason I’m bringing this up is because when we’re sitting Shiva and I say to him in the play, "Dad, we gotta laugh. Come on, let’s play." That’s what I meant, I meant let’s do what we’ve done in the past to make each other laugh and that’s what we did.
4. You also mentioned that when your dad passed away, you missed calling him when you wanted to bounce a joke off of him or had news to share about your professional life. Who became your substitute for him, if anyone? Yes, I also have great friends. Because I’m an only child, some of my friends are like my sisters. Not only do I have close friends, but I have an entire family of comedians, it’s like a tribe. The comedians that came up in the 80s or 90s, we traveled so much to comedy clubs that we knew each other. Now especially on Facebook, it’s so great. Even if we haven’t seen each other in twenty years, we’re still making each other laugh. Not only do I have great friends from my life as a civilian, but also from my life as a comedian. I had any number of people who could make me laugh on a daily basis. It was different with my family because he came from an old school way of thinking and laughing at things.
5. In writing this show, what is something you learned about yourself or your family that you didn't know while it was happening? It’s really very simple. What I didn’t realize while things were happening in my life is that things were being passed down. My father was not only passing down his humor to me, but his values, and my grandmother had passed them on to him; these ideas of humor, good deeds, acceptance, and compassion. My father always said, "Always think of the other person, kid," and I had passed that down to my son.
6. There are a few moments throughout the show where you pay homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Pyscho which got me every time. What made you want to format those instances with that tip of the hat? It happens twice: when my neighbor tells me I’m not that Jewish and then my husband tells me later on that I’m not that funny. Those are the two times where the only thing I could think of was the shocking horror, I wanted to show that it was like a horror movie to me. When my husband said, "Did it ever occur to you that you’re not that funny?" Ugh! Like stick a dagger in my heart, why don’t you! I just thought it was a very funny way to communicate to the audience very quickly and unmistakably that this was a moment of horror for me.
7. If you could have a conversation with your parents and Grandma Rose today, what would you want to tell them? First, I would thank them. I would thank them profusely for just giving me these values that are inherently Jewish without being outwardly Jewish. I would thank them for the view of the world they had, and for giving me a funny and compassionate place. I’m really lucky. A lot of comedians say that you can’t be funny unless you had a disastrous childhood, but I have to disagree. I had a funny childhood and that’s what I would thank them for.
8. What has been the most heartwarming story you've heard from an audience member after they saw the show? I have heard a lot, people relate on different levels. I’ve heard women talk to me about being adopted or being an adoptive mother and how that hits home. I had a birth mother thank me profusely with tears in her eyes for giving the birth mother’s side of the story. I’ve had cancer survivors, people who just lost their father or mother and this helped them get through it because it made them laugh and have a good cry, but I honestly think that the comment that really got to me was from a man who said, "I just want you to know that this is the weirdest thing. I had no idea when I came into the show that it was going to make me feel this way. But I know that I’m now going to be a better husband and father," And that blew me away.
9. When you were climbing up the comedy ladder, what was the most challenging part about being a female comedian in a male dominated industry? Them just always assuming that the female could not be as funny as a male. It was just a natural assumption. You were in these people’s presence knowing that attitude was there, even though you were killing it on stage. It was like that had to be a fluke. It was also challenging when I wanted to get booked at a certain club at a certain time of year and they would say, "We already have a female on the bill that week." There could never be two females and one male, that would be crazy to them and you were either the one female out of three, because there’s always three acts: an opening act, a middle act, and a headliner. It was either that you had one female or it had to be an all female show, "Look at us doing something wacky this week, we have all females!" It was really like that.
10. What was the best part about being the head writer for Rugrats? What did you learn from being a writer on Roseanne? The best part on a personal level was being able to share what I did with my son. In other words, when I wrote on sitcoms, the hours were really long and when I had a script due, they would send you home. I’d be home writing with a deadline and I’d have to tell my son, "Jakey, I have a script due, I can’t do anything right now, I have to write." Whereas on Rugrats it was the greatest thing in the world, I would say, "Jakey, come here. I need a joke for Chuckie." He would be so excited to talk about Rugrats with me and I think the coolest thing was once he gave me a germ of an idea that I thought was pretty good, I made some changes and pitched it to the producers and they liked it, so I turned it into a story, then an outline, and then a script and I gave Jake story credit when he was seven years old. The show was produced and it said, "Share and Share a Spike: Based on an idea by Jake Piper, written by Monica Piper." I had that credit framed and when he woke up on his 8th birthday, it was hanging on his wall. That was the big difference between writing on sitcoms and writing on Rugrats.
Writing on Roseanne was my first experience writing for a show. It was like being called up to the majors, and it was the number one show in the country so it was pretty cool. However, they kept you there until four in the morning. That was tough because Jake was very young when I was writing on Roseanne. I had a daytime nanny and a nighttime nanny so it was a difficult time for me. On one hand, I was thrilled to be writing for the number one show in the country, but I had made a promise to the birth mother that I would be a great mom and I was feeling guilt about the time I spent away from him. So as soon as Roseanne was over, I left the whole writing world and took my kid with me on the road for two years and it was great because we were never apart. But on the positive side, what I learned from writing on Roseanne was how to structure a story, how important it was to have an arc and a real beginning, middle, and end, and how jokes are not interchangeable. You can’t give a joke for "Darlene" to "Roseanne’s" sister, "Jackie." I learned to write for characters and how the character makes the joke funny. I really believe it was the beginning of me learning to be a really good writer, plus the thrill of getting your joke in a script and having other comedy writers laughing at what you wrote, and I also learned that male comedy writers have no problem farting in the room.
Monica Piper was a Campfire Girl…in the Bronx. "You sense your life isn’t normal when you’re sitting on the D train with a bag of marshmallows and a twig." Monica began her career as a high school English teacher. While finding it rewarding, she had to move on. "I couldn’t handle the money and prestige." She realized her passion was making people laugh. She studied improv with Second City in Chicago, and performed with Spaghetti Jam, Sons of the Sunset and Papaya Juice in San Francisco. Monica then went solo as a standup and soon became one of Showtime Network’s "Comedy All Stars." It wasn’t long before she landed her own Ace Award-winning Showtime special, No, Monica…Just You. Monica was nominated for an American Comedy Award as one of the top five female comedians in the country. She has opened for Gloria Estefan, Neil Sedaka, Glen Campbell, The Smothers Brothers and Lucie Arnaz. Monica was recruited by Roseanne herself to write on Roseanne. Thus began her career as a sitcom writer. She went on to write for Mad About You and Veronica’s Closet. Now a mother, sitcom hours meant too much time away from her son, so Monica turned to animation. After writing for the adult cult favorite Duckman, she became the showrunner of the #1 children’s animated series Rugrats, for which she won an Emmy. She went on to develop and write series for Nickelodeon, Disney and Cartoon Network.
Monica has returned to her first love, performing. As a stand-up, she headlines clubs and organizations around the country. An artist-in-residence with the Jewish Women’s Theatre, Monica performs original comedy pieces for their acclaimed In-Home Salons. It was there that Monica developed her solo show Not That Jewish, which ran for 16 sold-out months in L.A. and was nominated for Best Solo Performance by the L.A. Drama Critics Circle and Stage Raw. Born and raised in the Bronx, Monica is thrilled to be returning to her NY roots with her show. "I’ve lived in California for 25 years but am still, and always will be, a New Yorker." Monica lives in Santa Monica with her son, Jake, whom she loves and adores almost every day.