Stiller & Meara (Jerry Stiller & Anne Meara)
Comedians Stiller and Meara still laughing and loving.
The comedic couple enjoys an enviable relationship both on and off the public stage, where their haimish sense of humor has been at home for over 40 years.
Both members of this talented team -- which performed more than 30 times on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and created many award-winning commercials, including one for Blue Nun wine -- are dynamos in their own right, with independent projects proving that, when it comes to punch lines, these two are separate but equal.
For this interview, Stiller and Meara do solo acts, separated for the day by hundreds of miles yet bound together by their trademark humor.
Meara takes a break from her role in "After-Play," a theatrical look at the afterlife.
Stiller, meanwhile -- on hiatus from his featured role as George Costanza's curmudgeonly dad on TV's "Seinfeld" -- is ensconced in the couple's Nantucket home, just a cobblestone's throw from the postcard-perfect harbor.
With "After-Play," author-actress Meara just might upstage herself. Off-Broadway at Theater Four, her wittily crafted play is enjoying a life of its own.
"I would love to see this play done all over the world," Meara says of the otherworldly comedy in which couples crash a restaurant after attending a play, only to discover their server is actually an angel in apron strings.
Down-to-earth Meara heads from her dressing room to the street, where a car comes screeching to a halt, packed with passengers who scream out her name.
Meara obliges their requests for her autograph -- proof that the funny lady is making a new name for herself as playwright.
At this stage of her life, starting fresh affords a special kind of social security.
"I'm 65. Why lie about it?" says Meara, moving at a fast clip toward a favorite Manhattan Irish pub-restaurant.
Her Irish Catholic roots are showing, but they exist side-by-side with her Jewishness. Meara converted to Judaism decades ago, early in her marriage to Stiller.
Funny, she doesn't look Jewish. But she certainly sounds it, spouting Yiddishisms and yuks in the same breath.
"You know," says Meara, veiled in a persistent cloud of cigarette smoke, "Jerry and I are honorary members of the Loyal League of the Yiddish Sons of Erin," an unlikely group comprised of Irish Jews.
She delights in her membership -- and in the green-matzah balls in the soup that marks the group's annual St. Patrick's Day lunches.
These days, Meara feasts on accolades. They haven't always been in such steady supply, however.
She offers a sobering account of bygone days ruined by drinking bouts and family tragedy. When Meara, an only child, was 11, her mother committed suicide. The comedienne has been dealing with that ever since.
"I am happier at age 65 than I was at 45," she confesses.
The past six years of therapy have been, well, therapeutic, she says. "We're better parents now," says Meara of herself and Stiller. When the couple's children, Ben and Amy, "were six, I was emotionally three."
She acts her age now, onstage and off.
"I don't have anxiety about performing now. [I] used to get such dry-mouth," says the star of such Broadway shows as the Tony Award nominee "Anna Christie" and "Eastern Standard," as well as the films "The Boys From Brazil" and "Fame."
Though she first found fame with Stiller on "The Ed Sullivan Show," Meara is still recognized by many for her solo work in TV's "Archie Bunker's Place."
The four-time Emmy Award nominee also gives it her all in the TV soap "All My Children."
All her children are proud of her. Daughter Amy is a stand-up comedian and actress. Director/actor son Ben cast his mom in his 1994 film, "Reality Bites."
Reality for Meara is the stage these days, as she performs her own work nightly. "I wanted to write something that I would want to see," she says. "I wanted to be surprised."
Is she surprised at the positive reaction to her play, in which the characters solve some of life's mysteries after it's too late?
Well, says Meara, it certainly beats the impact of her first play, "Victims: Blood From a Stone."
"That couldn't get produced," she says. "It was too mean-spirited."
"After-Play," meanwhile, is wickedly naughty but nice.
"I wasn't interested in writing `Leave It to Beaver,'" laughs Meara. "I write what I feel. Jerry is very happy about the play. I'm sure he'll play it in some production."
The play focuses on its characters' Jewishness, but everyone will get the humor, says Meara.
"The characters are Jewish ethnically. But I have Oriental friends who toast with l'chaim, so you never know."
What Meara does know is how proud she is to be Jewish.
"There's a lust for life in the Jewish community," she says. "I love it. People aren't there to knit their shrouds. They enjoy life."
Meara also has her share of TV credits: She and Lila Garrett won a Writers' Guild Award for CBS' "The Other Woman."
Is there yet another woman lurking inside -- someone besides the writer/actor/humorist?
"I do The New York Times crossword puzzles in pen," she adds smartly. "Of course, I have White-Out nearby."
And Jerry is always at hand.
Not that the two share everything. "Jerry loves to travel," she says. "Me? I love to sit."
Jerry Stiller is at home on Nantucket, that perfect, placid Massachusetts island where TV's gruff and grouchy "Mr. Costanza" would probably feel out of place.
But Stiller feels -- and is -- right at home here. His voice is soothing and calm, quite different from his TV character's staccato scream.
And how about that "Seinfeld" character? In one episode, the Costanzas are talking about kasha; in the next they're talking pasta. So are they Italian or Jewish?
"This," says Stiller with authority, "is a Jewish family in the witness-protection program."
The entertainer's resume spans Broadway ("Hurlyburly"; "The Ritz"; "Three Men on a Horse"), film ("The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three"; "Nadine") and TV (PBS' "Great Performances: `Seize the Day'"; "Tales From the Dark Side").
Whether the make-believe Mr. Costanza is Jewish or not, there's no doubt about Stiller's heritage.
"Every time I play a role, it's a Jewish character, because I'm Jewish," he laughs.
Facts are facts, he kibitzes, and ancestry is ancestry.
"As you get older, your face becomes more and more like your grandfather's."
Mention Meara's name and Stiller's voice grows softer. Love and respect rolls off his tongue.
"You know," he says, "being married to Anne has made me more Jewish. She really believes in the belief system of Judaism. Her observance of the holidays -- I had taken them for granted."
So when his wife asked, years back, why Passover's nights are different from other nights, Stiller had to come up with an answer.
"I had to learn everything for the seder."
The night itself was different. "We had Rodney Dangerfield, [playwright] John Guare. It was an unusual seder," he says.
"Of course, I learned the Haggadah when I played in `Beau Jest.'" Stiller co-starred with his daughter in this play about a Jewish family whose daughter falls in love with a non-Jew, who converts.
"So between my wife's influence and show business, I know my Jewish!"
He also knows from the pain of prejudice.
"My experience...was not particularly pleasant," says the New York City native. While he was growing up, non-Jewish neighbor kids taunted him.
"It's not like there was a pogrom, but you were constantly reminded that you were Jewish."
Still, he's proud of his people's past. That pride informs his sense of tzedakah (justice).
"When I was a youngster on the Lower East Side, we started this group, the Boys' Brotherhood Republic. [It was] a settlement house for all us kids," he recalls.
Stiller and Meara both serve on the facility's board today, and help raise funds.
"It gives me a warm feeling," says Stiller. "I like the idea of payback.
"The best way to go through the world," he notes, adding that he learned this philosophy from his wife, "is to try and submerge the need to be the biggest at what you do."
Straining for stardom "can wipe you out. Once I gave up on a desperate need to make it, that's when things happened"
As for their children, he reflects with a smile in his voice, "All my hopes are that they find peace and happiness."
Stiller appeared in Ben's 1988 Oscar-nominated student film "Shoeshine." Dad and daughter shone onstage together in Neil Simon's "I Oughta Be in Pictures."
Father and daughter will do a reading of various works Aug. 9 in Nantucket.
Stiller's not worried about attracting a crowd on the island: "I feel people will come because `Seinfeld' has had such an impact."
Stiller's thoughts return again and again to Meara.
"My wife," he sighs contentedly. "She is my example for the way a life should be lived."
And hundreds of miles away, returning to her dressing room to prepare for the evening's performance, Meara marvels at the life she and her soulmate have lived.
"Jerry," she says, "is one wonderful man."
MICHAEL ELKIN - Phila. Jewish Exponent