He’s famous for such catchphrases as “serenity now,” and she’s famous for her sharp wit. The husband-and-wife comedy duo Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara saw their careers take off in the 1960s with appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show; Jerry later became a familiar face for his portrayals of Frank Costanza on Seinfeld and Arthur Spooner on King of Queens, while Anne starred on Archie Bunker’s Place and had recurring roles on ALF and Sex and the City. These days, you can find the couple on their web series Stiller & Meara, produced by none other than their son, Ben Stiller. To learn more about the show, which focuses on current events and pop culture, we spoke to them on Anne’s birthday in September, when they were on their way to honor F. Murray Abraham (“Amadeus”) at the National Arts Club. — Rebecca Harper (), Editor
First, I wanted to talk about your new web series, and how it’s a family affair.
Anne: Yeah, it is, it’s good. We have doing it. Ben puts us at ease.
Jerry: He created it, which is kind of funny. One day, he just decided to put us on video, just a little test video, in which we sit down and the questions come up as to what’s going on during the course of the year or in front of us, and we try to deal with it in our own way, spontaneously and without a script. A lot of stuff comes out which is wild and crazy, hopefully. But Ben is not in the show; he is just the guy who’s created it for mom and dad, which is very nice for us.
It’s great, having him behind you guys and supporting you. Do you have any idea what is going to be asked of you when you go into these tapings?
Anne: You mean subjects covered? Not really, in the sense that there’s a blanket of subjects. You can take everything from the current culture if you want to call it that, which is like anything from Lady Gaga to Jersey Shore to Sarah Palin.
Jerry: You can pick up the newspaper and turn to Page Six, and everything is flying at you, you know. People who are in the news at that moment who are making it happen, like Justin Bieber, for instance, and then we start talking about Justin Bieber or Susan Boyle …
Anne: And he never mentions us.
Jerry: Yeah, it’s that kind of thing. So stuff flies and what comes out is spontaneous. Basically it’s true feelings, stuff that you haven’t monitored. You haven’t allowed it to go through a filter in your own mind, or tried to slant it your own way. It’s tough to talk about baseball, you know …
Anne: It is for me. I hate it!
Jerry: Teams like the Yankees, w hen somebody asks me about the Yankees, I tell them that I was a Yankee fan as a kid. I was also a Dodger fan. Now when I see the Yankees, all they have is players — their farm team is the whole American League. They pick a guy from the Chicago White Sox, they get a guy from Detroit, they fill in people. That, to me, is not even baseball.
Anne: Jerry, half of the people watching are like me! They don’t give a shit about baseball.
Jerry: I’m just telling you, you know. I get involved with the art of baseball, or the way it works.
Anne: I don’t want to talk about baseball anymore!
Jerry: Alright, you don’t want to talk about it, then. Do I have to talk about it then? Should I shut up?
Anne: Let her ask a question.
Jerry: Ask a question.
I feel like you guys could never run out of things to talk about. I see that there’s a Stiller and Meara Twitter account. What do you think of all this social networking stuff, things like Twitter and Facebook?
Jerry: I’ll let Anne handle that.
Anne: I don’t know about the Twitter and Facebook. I guess it’s OK. With the help of people who work with us, we do that Twitter stuff. I like plain old email, but Twitter — you can find out who’s sort of honed into you. I guess it’s good for something you’re trying to do, if you’re trying to do a show. Because even though this is the two of us sitting on a couch talking, you know, ruminating on the things going on in the world, two altakakas sitting there, talking …
Jerry: We’re not altakakas.
Anne: Alright, Jerry. Live in your own world, whatever.
Jerry: We’re 85 going on 2.
Anne: Anyway, Twitter is good. You get immediate feedback from people. I don’t know what they do all day. I guess they just Twitter.
Jerry: I don’t know if I want people to be too much into my life. I mean, I would be swamped. I have a lot of fans right now — I’m at a point in my life where this is called rejuvenation, and I really am amazed by everything that goes on. But I really couldn’t handle Twitter if it came my way. As far as the Facebook goes, I was just recently … My daughter Amy was cluing me in on Facebook, and it sounds like I’m a little bit retro, but I am. It occurs to me, why would you want to contact people? My age, they’re all dead! I mean the ones who might get back to me are the ones who might hate me or not like me.
Anne: But you have to take that. Not everyone’s gonna love you, dear.
Jerry: Yeah, but if some woman comes in and says I had an affair with her 25 years ago and there’s a child …
Anne: Then you would be lucky.
Jerry: Well, I don’t want to become what a lot of actors have become, you know, hit with lawsuits for patrimony and alimony. One thing we’ve got going for us is we don’t have palimony. If she left me today …
Anne: Who are you talking about?
Jerry: I’m talking about you. The only thing we could split is a rug! That’s already laid down, so you’d have to cut it up into sides.
I saw on Twitter, actually, Anne, that you were commenting on the Jersey Shore and Snooki. You called her a troll of all things.
Anne: I did, I did. I feel very bad about that. She’s not a troll at all. She’s a little person. You know, she has that little bump on her head, that little hairdo or whatever, and she’s like a very tall, thin, sexy woman who has been squashed down by something. She dresses kind of like, I don’t know. I can’t watch them too long. I don’t think they have — not that I have …
Jerry: I have a lot of Italian friends and …
Anne: I’m not talking Italian, I’m just talking about them. The other guy goes around, showing his abs and his washboard belly. See, I gotta tell you: When someone says “Look at me, I’m sexy,” that immediately louses up the deal. The moment someone becomes aware of their sexuality or the fact that they’re hot for the other sex, or the other sex is hot for them, they become unsexy. So this guy, this Situation guy, is the most sexless person I’ve ever seen.
Jerry: She’s right.
But did you know anyone like the Jersey Kids back in the day — did people like this exist before?
Anne: Well, I’m sure they did, but they didn’t become a “thing.” See, now everything becomes a thing. It’s labeled, it’s put on, it’s put in residuals, it’s syndicated, and people can make millions from it, so it’s an industry. When we were growing up, we had Jewish friends, Italian friends, black friends, Irish friends, all different.
Jerry: But you see, the whole nature of it, this was given birth from The Sopranos, and now we’re going to have another one called Boardwalk Empire from Martin Scorsese. Italians are becoming a piece of our culture today. In the old days, Italians were the people who were hard-working guys who came from the old country. They raised a family and lived on Mulberry Street. Now, with the Jersey Shore we forget these are the same people who were the great artists of the world.
Anne: Nobody on the Jersey Shore is a great artist, Jerry.
Jerry: What I’m saying is we’re missing out on Toscanini, we’re missing out on the great opera stars. These are some of the greatest people in the world, who have given us some culture. Some of the great doctors in this world were Italian.
Anne: But a lot of people watch this. It gets them off their own troubles. They say, “Gee, I’ve got more class than those people.”
Jerry: Yeah, but why do you always feel that it’s kind of labeled about Italians? My friend Danny Aiello, who I love, I asked him the question how he feels about all of this, I guess Danny being Danny, he said, “Why aren’t I in that show?” The thing is, Danny is a class guy. He wouldn’t be in that show.
Anne: Alright, can we move from Italy now?
Have you learned anything new about each other since working on the Stiller & Meara show?
Anne: Absolutely nothing.
Jerry: Not to interrupt Anne.
Anne: Absolutely nothing.
Jerry: Let her roll! Takes a few minutes to get her warmed up, but once she’s on it, the gems come out of her mouth, usually, and I just kind of stumble.
Anne: Nothing new, nothing new about Jerry.
Jerry: I tell you what it’s about, really. This is something Anne and I never really did, except for our personal appearances in clubs when we were starting out. So this is the first time we’ve done this in front of a hopefully national audience that’s going to be watching us. We talk like people …
Anne: Yeah, but we’re just talking on this show. Remember what Ben said? He said, “Just remember one thing: it’s a conversation.” That’s what it is.
Jerry: Nobody ever saw us converse.
Anne: Those that want to watch can watch. Those that don’t, the hell with them
Jerry: We might say something that’s valuable or intrigue you.
Anne: Or not.
Jerry: Yeah, it goes both ways.
Do you ever cross the line and hurt the other’s feelings?
Jerry: When we’re finished with this …
Anne: If you can’t hurt the other person at least once a day, then you’ve got no relationship.
Jerry: Listen, when this interview is finished, blood will flow. I mean, verbally.
Looking back over your careers, who are some of the funniest people you’ve worked with?
Anne: I thought Ed Sullivan was hilarious. He was such a block of granite. I really couldn’t stand him. Jerry liked him because he was afraid of him.
Jerry: No, Ed Sullivan …
Anne: Oh, you thought he was like the pope.
Jerry: No, you said he was the pope. I said he was the papal saint of our careers. But people who make me laugh? I’ll tell you who they are, and you might think I’m nuts. Patton Oswalt makes me laugh, because I worked with …
Anne: Patton Oswalt is very funny. He’s also very cerebral. Sarah Silverman makes me laugh. Wanda Sykes makes me laugh.
Jerry: Patton Oswalt has got a brain. Jason Alexander makes me laugh. He’s an incredible performer.
Anne: That’s right. I’ll tell you who we don’t see anymore. He quit his show, and he was brilliant. Dave Chappelle. What happened to him?
Jerry: I’ll tell you that people that I really adore, and I’m going to leave some of them out, are people like Jason and Michael Richards, who when I was doing Seinfeld, they literally turned the show over to me. They started feeding me, they started connecting. There was no air between us. Kevin James is another one of those people who I think is something between Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. He’s got a body that’s bigger than it should be, but he can move and say things and make you laugh. He’s a wonderful writer, and nine years with him was something special. And then there’s the old people who nobody on this show are going to connect with, people who have been nice to Anne and myself. People like Henny Youngman, who invited into his home.
Anne: Oh, you’re going to get into the deceased now.
Jerry: But they were great. These are the people that I would put up on a special plague.
I wanted to ask you, Jerry. How are you and Frank Costanza similar? Is he you? Are you him?
Jerry: Well, I’m always asking myself that. I think I’m channeling somebody, and I know who it is. He’s really my father, but not the way my father is as Frank Costanza. He’s what’s underneath the iceberg, my father. He’s the kind of man who, if he let it out, would be Frank Costanza. The kind of man who could talk to you and say,” Yeah, I’m in the world that has been pushed down, been suppressed, by life, by social values.” He goes into Christmas being commercialized, and he picks up on Festivus, which was an old Roman holiday, which actually did exist in the 1500s, with the masters and the kings.
Anne: Are you going to go through all the old Seinfeld shows now?
Jerry: No, I was asked a question.
Anne: I think Jerry was the real Frank Costanza. I think the real Frank Costanza is Jerry. They all say he’s so quiet and nice. He’s the good cop, and I’m the bad cop. In reality, he is Frank Costanza, screaming out of his mind.
Jerry: No, I’m not like that at all. Let me just interject. A couple of weeks ago, the Daily News wanted to go to the home, the Costanza home in Queens. They said would you want to go over there and make a comment about what it was like. We went over the bridge, road out to Queens, got to the apartment — it wasn’t an apartment, it was a little house. At that point, I suggested to the reporter that we go upstairs and say hello. I never in my life thought I could do something like this, but since I’ve become so free — that’s what Anne’s and my show is all about, freedom — we actually knocked on the door. There were these two people, their names were Bessie and Jack Lopipero, and they said “Come on up.” They were both in their cups, in their ’80s.
Anne: In their cups?
Jerry: Yeah, they were so happy.
Anne: When you say you’re in your cups, that means you’re drunk.
Jerry: With love.
Anne: Oh, OK.
Jerry: They went crazy, and we talked for about two hours. Not about Seinfeld — it was interesting how Seinfeld was the hinge, kind of the catalyst that brought us into talking about life. I guess that’s one of the nice things about this situation I’ve got in my later life, from being this character. It’s brought me in touch with people. I can’t believe what people say to me on the street, because I am this guy. “Hey, you want a piece of me?” and “Festivus for the rest of us,” and “serenity now.” I mean, these things go on, and I’m absolutely thrilled. It’s nice to be an actor. I mean nobody pays you for anything except for when you’re working, but here I am, getting paid every time somebody opens their mouth to pay me a compliment. I’m so needy, I’ll invite them over for dinner. Anne used to use that joke.
Anne: You’re desperate.
Both of you have worked with Ben on various projects, so I wanted to ask you: what’s it like working with your son?
Anne: I like working with my son. I like working with my daughter, too. She’s a very talented actress. Ben is a very wonderful director to work with. I worked with him on Night at the Museum, the first one, and I actually got the part through sheer nepotism, since I’m his mother — which I’m all for. He came looking for a job and I was the employment lady. It was a lot of fun. Well, he didn’t direct that one, but he and I did that scene together.
Jerry: He directed that movie we did, what’s that one based on a male model?
Anne: Zoolander. Oh yeah, I had one line in Zoolander. I threw an egg at Will Ferrell.
Jerry: Well, Ben … I can’t get over the fact that Ben can act at the same time. He directed me and was in the same scene with me. I was in terror, to be honest with you. I said, “My god, that’s my kid. That’s the boy I gave a Super 8 camera to when he was like 8 years old.” Now he’s a director and he’s pushing his father around. He was not an easy guy to work for, because he kept telling me to do it this way, to do it that way. Finally, the crew said “Ben, leave him alone. He’s your dad. He’s doing fine.” But he was also in the scene. I never asked him to be in any of his movies. I did another with him, which was Heartbreak Kid, and we did something years ago, which I thought was really wonderful, called Shoe Shine, which was a film done by a Columbia University student that got nominated for an Academy Award. It was a short subject about a guy who shines shoes — that was me — on the Staten Island ferry and each morning, I would pick up shoe shines as people came in. There was this one guy, and we talked about this and that. It turns out that he’s a stock broker. And who is he? He’s my son. Ben got me that role. They wanted him to be the guy, but they needed someone to play his father, so he said “Why don’t you take dad.” I’ll never forget that. It was a lovely piece.
Anne: You were the shoe-shine guy and Ben was the stock broker. This is like an episode of the Twilight Zone.
Well, we’re looking forward to seeing the show. Thanks for talking to us — on Anne’s birthday, no less!