“Maybe Jews are funny because we’ve always faced such profound adversity and we carry a spirit of survival.”
By Cindy Mindell
Marion Grodin is the daughter of comedian, actor, and writer Charles Grodin, who hails from a long line of Russian rabbis and funny people.
Growing up, Marion split her time between the homes of her divorced parents, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her mother, and in Wilton and Los Angeles with her father. After graduating from Wesleyan University, she worked as a staff writer for the network sitcoms, It’s a Living and Princesses, and wrote and sold six screenplays. Finally, it was time to start saying all the funny things she was writing for other people to say.
For the last 15 years, Grodin, now 53, has been performing nationally as a standup comic and M.C. She has toured with Linda Ronstadt and shared the stage with Jerry Seinfeld and Robin Williams. Grodin also works to raise money to provide housing and high-quality medical care for poor and homeless children and their families. Combining philanthropy and entertainment, she produced two highly successful fundraisers, starring Martin Short, Lewis Black, Regis Philbin and Charles Grodin.
Grodin will talk about her new book, Standing Up: A Memoir of a Funny (Not Always) Life, on Saturday, Jan. 25 at the Mandell JCC in West Hartford.
She spoke with the Ledger about the life experiences that inform her comedy.
Q: You once introduced yourself to the audience as “a really neurotic, tortured, broken Jewess.” Explain.
A: That was a description of myself in a standup comedy setting, exaggerated and inflamed. For the comedic punch, you amplify, so that’s me being exaggerated and comedic. I identify with “Jewess,” but I would not describe myself as “broken.” My grandmother kept a kosher home but by the time I was on the scene, I wasn’t raised in an Orthodox home and most of my experience was more social and cultural than religious. My mother is not Jewish, my father is, and I feel Jewish. I’ve been told, “You’re not Jewish if your mother’s not” but it doesn’t matter to me: if you have a black parent and a white parent, you’re allowed to identify however you want. I’m much more someone who’s sought a spiritual connection to a higher power of my understanding than being interested in any religion, and I don’t want to be told how to find it. I think spirituality is about how you’re living and how you conduct yourself. My message is about not being broken, no matter how much stress life hands you, and developing an ever-evolving faith in a greater being that supports you. Spirituality and comedy are what get me through.
The title of the book reflects the fact that I’m a professional comic, privileged to be part of a very cool, impressive group of women; it’s also about standing up and not being broken, continuing to journey on, and understanding that you are not the sum of the worst things that have happened to you. It’s hard when you’re too close to it always to see the humor. I’ve been very blessed that I come from a family that shares the ability to be funny about difficult stuff. My father was doing some familial excavation and found out that his grandfather in Russia was known for giving humorous talks based on the Torah. I grew up around funny, charismatic grandparents, all of us extroverts and empaths who liked to connect with and help others.
Q: Your book was recognized by the Jewish Book Council. What was it like to present to them, and to Jewish audiences in general?
A: You get two minutes to talk about your book; they’re very strict about the time. I had left my parking ticket in the women’s room and the facilitator said, “Before we begin, somebody left a parking ticket in the bathroom.” I went up to the podium and as I took the ticket she said, half-jokingly, “We’re going to shave 30 seconds off your time.” I took the ticket and started walking back to my seat, then turned around and threw the ticket at her and said, “You can keep it, then!”
When you go up to speak about your book, you’re supposed to introduce yourself. I said, “Hi, I’m Marion and I’m an alcoholic. “Oops, wrong room.” I did two minutes of standup and had rabbis in the room doubled over, so my great-grandfather’s spirit is alive and well. Jews are inherently – this is not an original observation – some of the funniest people on the planet. My mother’s family was also funny but in a different way. When I started spending more time around my dad’s family, as a preteen, there was this kind of robust and big-spirited jocularity. At Wesleyan, I felt the antennae in me seeking and yearning for the Tribe; I felt comfortable with the Jewish students and that’s whom I hung with. I was also active in my drug and alcohol addiction and would hang with whoever was getting high.
When I do Jewish events, I find a shorthand, a bigness of spirit. Maybe Jews are funny because we’ve always faced such profound adversity and we carry a spirit of survival. With Jewish audiences, you can never go wrong if you talk about body issues. I talk and write about the torture of shopping for a bathing suit. Jews appreciate that in a deeper way, they connect to the psychological landscape. It’s the only group you can start with “Does anyone feel a draft in here?”
Q: In your standup and your book, you talk very openly about your struggle with addictions and the recovery process, as well as surviving breast cancer and divorce. How are you able to be so honest with an audience?
A: I was a full-blown addict at 17 and I got clean when I was 28, after my mom died. I couldn’t get through the experience and trauma of losing her and hit a bottom and came into recovery and you have to talk about addiction in meetings. There’s an expression in the recovery community, “You’re only as sick as your secrets,” so I had to communicate about what bad shape I was in. I’ve gone 25 years without a drink or a drug.
I’m not uncomfortable at all talking about it because the recovery community also promises to use our experience, strength, and hope to benefit others. If somebody can identify with me and see themselves in me, that’s a good thing.
Our lives are supposed to be a service to others. I’ve survived, and there’s all this really difficult stuff that I’m honest about in my book and I’ve come through it and I want to help others. I also want to show that no one is unique in their suffering. The sister-in-law of a good friend died fairly quickly of breast cancer and he told me that, at the end, she said, “Why not me?” I don’t know if I’m that evolved yet, but I realized that life is really difficult and so, when things are good and you’re happy, hold onto it.
Marion Grodin at the Mandell JCC: Saturday, Jan. 25, 8 p.m., 335 Bloomfield Avenue, West Hartford. Tickets/info: mandelljcc.org / (860) 236-4571.
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