Thursday, July 23, 2009

The voices behind Steve Solomon's My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish, and I'm In Therapy

Steve Solomon was a stand-up comedian for ten years before he wrote his first one-man show, My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, and I’m in Therapy. He thought audiences would love the characters and the material – he does roughly thirty characters drawn from his own life, all with different accents and dialects (including his sister, the favored child who has smoked three packs a day for years). It was successful enough in New York to spawn a sequel, My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, and I’m Still in Therapy, which meant Solomon was touring with two different shows, plus doing the occasional stand-up gig.

He’ll add a third show to that mix in November – My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, and I’m Home for the Holidays, which brings the total number of shows in his repertoire up to four, including his Yiddish revue, The Man, Music, Mishugginna. But when he opens the original one-man show tonight at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, it will be the first time Solomon has played Boston.

I caught up with him by phone last week to talk about stand-up and his one-man shows.

When did you first write My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, and I’m in Therapy?

Probably it was written in 2002, started touring at the end of 2002.

What was the impetus to write it as a one-man show?

To do a little more than stand-up. I wanted to hit a market that was more universal in appeal than just 18 to 25 year olds at a comedy club.

Did most of the material start out as stand-up?

Maybe twenty percent of it. Most of it was written for the show.

How did you approach writing the stuff for a one-man show versus how you would have written it for stand-up?

Well, it’s a play, so it had to have a storyline, it had to have characters. There’s characters in the show, thirty different characters. It has a setting and scenes, and the whole approach is completely different. When you’re doing a stand-up routine, it’s, “How do you like pizza?” and “What’s your favorite color?” It doesn’t matter. This was structured with a director and we approached it like a play.

How did you work the different characters together? It must be confusing to keep them all together in your head.

At the beginning it was almost impossible. You’ve got to remember that my mother speaks in a very heavy Italian accent, my father speaks in a heavy Jewish accent, so when the two of them would argue, going back and forth between the dialects and the tone took a lot of training.

What are some of the other characters and dialects in the show?

Oh, we’ve got my sister the smoker, who was a three-pack a day smoker for the past fifty years and talks like this [assumes deep, gravely voice], “It has nothing to do with the cigarettes.” My therapist is Indian, Italian, and American, the cops that stop you on the street, the doctors you interacts with, the kids, all those voices.

Are all of the voices based on actual people?

Yeah. The running joke that I always use is my family took me to court to have my artistic license revoked.

Obviously some of them have seen this, do they ever give you pointers on if you’re doing them correctly?

No, the only thing my daughter asked me, I had this line where my friend would yell at me, saying my daughter is spoiled, and I would say, “No, she’s supposed to smell like that.” So she said, “Daddy, take out that line.”

Did you take it out?

Yeah, of course.

You hear that a lot, anyone who uses their family or loved ones in their act, how they react to seeing themselves or hearing themselves onstage.

My biggest fear was that my sister would get ticked off at me. When we opened at the Shubert in New York City, a lot of the newspapers and television stations were there. I think ABC television interviewed my sister and said something like, “How do you feel that your brothers makes fun of you?” And she said, [affects the gravely voice again] “Well, at least he made me famous.”

Did that help you in the respect that your sister can do no wrong?

No, not really. My relationship with my family has been always, always very strong and very positive.

It would have to be. How many different shows do you have on this theme now?

I’ve got My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, and I’m In Therapy, the original hit, then I’ve got My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, and I’m Still in Therapy, which has been touring for a couple of years. Then there’s a brand new one I’ve got opening in November, which is My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, and I’m Home for the Holidays.

Does anything sort of seep from one play into the other, or is it all completely different?

The characters, a lot of the characters come back. Rocky I, Rocky II, Rocky III, what would they be without Rocky? The characters come back, but the material’s all new.

Could you do any of the three at will or do you have to rehearse them to get them back on the blocks?

I have to review. After I do Boston, I run to Atlantic City to do the other show, then I run and go right to Spokane, Washington to do the other show for one night, and then I come back to New Haven to do the other show. There are lighting cues and sound cues, and I have to be where I’m supposed to be, so I really have to keep on my toes.

Do you impersonate specific people or just different dialects?

I do thirty specific people in the show.

I mean in general – also in your stand-up.

I just do the accents. I found that a lot of the old great comics used to do phenomenal impersonations of all these people, these people died, and no one [remembers]. Frank Caliendo is fabulous – what’s going to happen to him when George Bush dies. He’s got a problem. The same thing happened to Vaughan Meader, who used to do J.F.K. IT was uncanny, and the man became a superstar in two years, but as soon as J.F.K. died, Vaughan Meader was ended. So I have a technique, I have a skill that not too many comic have. And I use that in my plays.

How do you balance the plays and the stand-up? Do you lean more towards one than the other?

It’s busy. The play is booked solid through 2011 already. I love to do stand-up, I really enjoy it. There’s no money in it, but I just do it because it’s a wonderful proving ground. It’s a laboratory for comics to work out. I look forward to doing it. Most of the major cities that I perform in, I can’t do stand-up. The performing arts centers can’t have me working for twenty dollars an hour, and then going to a performing arts center. Many of the bigger comedy clubs ask me to come play, and I just can’t. The proximity to the performing arts centers, and the time frame [don’t work out].

What were you expecting when you opened the show?

I expected people to love the material the way I love the material. Of course, if you’re a critic and you come see the show, most of the critics say, well, there’s no character development, we really want to know more about the mother, the storyline was very vague. That’s not the problem. The problem is, they don’t look at the audience walking out, standing, laughing, wiping tears from their eyes. The New York Times really didn’t care for my show, but it ran for two years in New York. So? That’s the bottom line, the bottom line is this is a business, so I don’t really care that the critics don’t like it, the point is that it works. People keep coming back and bringing their family and friends. Then I’ve succeeded.

How many of these shows do you think you’ll do? Do you see yourself just perennially writing a new show?

No, I’m going to pretty much wrap it up at the end of the Holiday show. Then I’ll have four shows out there, and that’s more than enough. And I don’t want my brain to explode.

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