Wendy Liebman still throws a good punchline

Wendy Liebman still throws a good punchline

The comedian who’s never really been away returns with unhurried timing

Wendy Liebman
Wendy Liebman

Comedian Wendy Liebman remembers her first appearance. It was at a family Thanksgiving gathering.

“I was more of a prop comic then,” she said in a recent Zoom call. “I remember putting my socks on asymmetrically, pulling one sock up all the way and pushing the other one down. I was 5, and thinking this will get a laugh.”

“I had a great childhood…My mother asked me to tell you.”

Her material has become a bit more sophisticated since then, as she demonstrated during a recent set at Crossroads, a bar, restaurant, and performance space in Garwood. That evening was part of what she hopes will mark a career resurgence, following forced time off after serious injuries in an accident and, of course, covid.

Ms. Liebman was ubiquitous in the 1990s and early 2000s. Her observational, often self-deprecating sense of humor won her legions of fans. In 1996, she was named Female Stand-Up of the Year at the American Comedy Awards. Artists like Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman told Wendy that she had inspired them.

“I don’t know if I’m psychic, but I can always tell — well usually always tell — when a man is undressing me … with his hands.”

But she married relatively late and became stepmom to her husband’s two young boys. So she cut back on her travels. Still, there were appearances on late night TV, specials on Showtime, HBO, and elsewhere.

“When they were little, [my stepsons] used to say things like ‘I don’t have to listen to you. You’re not my mother.’ Cause they heard my husband saying that to me.”

Then the first of two accidents she was involved in changed her frame of reference by spurring her ambitions. It was a seven-car pileup caused by a drunken driver. A woman in the car next to her died. Ms. Liebman wasn’t hurt, but she considered the incident “a wake-up call. I remember sitting on the bus bench, waiting for the cops, and thinking I have to get back out there. This can’t be it. I could have died. I have to get back out there.”

She went on “America’s Got Talent” and made it to the finals (thanks to a golden pass from Howard Stern). And she was off and running. But in one of those if she didn’t have bad luck she’d have no luck at all incidents, she was sidelined again. In 2018, she was crossing a street when she was struck by a car, suffered many fractures, and was out of commission for 18 months. Her recovery was almost perfectly timed with the start of the covid shutdown.

“One time my husband asked me to dress up as a nurse because that was his fantasy — that we had health coverage.”

Fortunately, a producer who used to book her early in her career asked her to participate in a multi-comic special he was putting together for last month, a show he hopes to sell to a streaming service or cable network. Ms. Liebman flew in from L.A. and brought her A game with her. Her timing was impeccable. Her approach was too — set up a joke and then do a punch line that goes in an unexpectedly different direction.

“A friend suggested I go on a diet and I immediately lost — one friend.”

I asked her what had changed between then and now. “I like myself better now, so I’m more comfortable with silence on the stage,” Ms. Liebman said. “And I take my time now. I don’t know if you recognized that. I used to just rattle off jokes, jokes, jokes, because I didn’t want to be standing there in silence. It changed gradually, like erosion.”

It is certainly a long way from asymmetrical socks. That happened in Roslyn Heights, on Long Island, where she grew up in a family that was not religiously observant. Even her grandfather, who was president of his synagogue, was not particularly observant.

She remembers going to his shul once on Rosh Hashanah and “I found the afikoman in a woman’s fur jacket pocket.”

Excuse me? “Passover, of course,” she corrected. “And of course, it wasn’t the afikoman. It was a piece of matzoh the woman was taking home to eat later. But they still gave me the silver dollar.”

About eight years ago, “someone approached me about playing a female rabbi on a show. We were writing it together, so I read a book, like Judaism for Dummies, and I became overwhelmed with how much I like our religion. I’m still not a practicing Jew. I’m sorry. Is that going to ruin your article?

“But it’s really interesting how most of my friends are Jewish. Not on purpose.

“It’s just that we speak the same language. We have the same ethics and the same sense of humor.”

After Dummies, “I just felt more connected to my Jewish roots,” she said. “To my Jewish friends. I appreciate who I am more.”

“I was supposed to go to my kindergarten reunion but I didn’t want to go because since kindergarten I’ve put on like 100 pounds.”

Ms. Liebman graduated from Wellesley with a degree in psychology. After graduation, she took a job at Harvard Medical School’s mental health center.

“I was doing psych research,” she said. “This was to get some experience before I applied to graduate school. It was intense and depressing, and I thought maybe I should be doing something else.”

Fate interceded. She inadvertently picked up a downstairs neighbor’s mail, which included a brochure for the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, which offered a course on stand-up.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever had one of those flashbulb moments in life, where things suddenly make sense,” she said. “I thought I should do that.”

She took the course and soon was off and walking.

“No, I’ve never been pregnant. I couldn’t have kids, according to my lease.”

It was different then. It was a tough business, then as now, but it was different then. There were more venues and fewer comics. “I used to know every single comedian,” she said. “I mean not personally, but I knew of them.

“Now there are hundreds of comedians. I think because of all the streaming sites and YouTube, it’s much easier to present yourself. I did a gig the other night, a fundraiser for Adam Schiff, who’s running for Senate in California. And there was a woman on the show who was famous on TikTok, and I’d never heard of her before. But she got booked on the show because of her online presence.

“We didn’t have that when I was young. When I was starting, we didn’t have GPS. I was always more nervous finding the gig than I was actually performing stand-up comedy. It was scary. All I had was a scribbled down address and directions on a piece of paper, on a napkin at lunch.”

But she has a GPS now and she is finding her way around the circuit again. She’s also written a play called “What to Wear at Therapy: A Play in One Session,” and it also seems to be moving forward.

“In Alaska I stayed at the One Season Hotel. It was very fancy. The health club had a spiral Stairmaster.”

read more: