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Keep laughing
A conversation with comedian and author Eddie Sarfaty about his new book and a life in comedy.
Eddie Sarfaty

Already a successful comedian who has appeared on Comedy Central's Premium Blend and the Today Show, as well as a laundry list of high profile festivals and clubs, Eddie Sarfaty was bitten by the writing bug after having a short story published in an anthology in 2003 titled When I Knew.

His new book, Mental: Funny in the Head, has garnered wide critical praise for Sarfaty's humorous, yet highly personal writing style, which has drawn comparisons to successful memoirists like David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs. On Thursday, November 5, he'll be performing at the Sentient Bean, along with local favorite Kristina Foxx, as part of a benefit for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the First City Network.

As someone who studied acting, what made you decide to pursue comedy as a career instead?

Eddie Sarfaty: I decided to be a drama major in college because I had a blast performing in shows in summer camp and in high school. But during my junior year, I realized that what I really enjoyed most about my theatrical experiences were the camaraderie and silliness backstage. Somehow, it just didn't seem like horsing around in the dressing room and the fantastic cast parties were good enough reasons to make acting my life's work. But after three years at a very expensive school, I couldn't really afford to change my major. My final semester, I was in a Shakespeare class butchering a soliloquy from Henry IV. The instructor - a VERY serious woman who was a founding member of the Group Theater in New York - was desperately trying to get through to me. I didn't understand any of what she was talking about and just started goofing off. My classmates howled, and a woman named Amy came up to me afterward and said, "That was hilarious! You should be a stand-up comedian."

How different was writing a book as opposed to writing some standup?

Eddie Sarfaty: After writing one-liners for years, the idea of sitting down and producing a 75,000-word book was terrifying. The last time I'd written something of any substantial length was in college. Mental is a collection of essays, and by focusing on one piece at a time, I was able to plow through my fears. Writing comedy is like writing poetry -- it requires you to be extremely meticulous. Years of fiddling with jokes, attempting to make them perfect, got me in the habit of examining every word to death. I think that specificity is the key to good writing.

How much of the stuff in the book really happened? Have you changed the names and faces to protect the innocent or were pretty liberal in what you fictionalized?

Eddie Sarfaty: The stories are true, although in a few places I've changed the order of things to make the narrative flow better. Aside from my parents and my brother, almost all of the names have been changed to protect the innocent (and me - from a lawsuit). The only name I didn't change was that of Abraham, the cross-dressing candy striper named Candi Striper. I just couldn't resist getting in a shot at him.

Your writing has drawn a lot of comparisons to David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs. How much did their work influence your own?

Eddie Sarfaty: About three quarters of the reviews Mental's received have compared it to the work of one or both. Of course that's a huge compliment - who wouldn't be flattered? I'd be thrilled if Mental sold one tenth as well as any of their books. I have to say though, that I don't really feel like their writing influenced me much at all. I've actually only read one book by Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day, and I've read Burroughs' Running with Scissors and his collection of essays entitled Magical Thinking. I enjoyed all three books, and I look forward to reading more of their work, but I think that my family and friends - especially my fellow comedians Bob Smith, Jaffe Cohen, and Danny McWilliams - have had a much bigger hand in shaping my comedic sensibilities.

Where did the title of the book come from? As a comedian, aren't you funny outside your head if you're making people laugh? Or do you have to be crazy to want to be a comedian?

Eddie Sarfaty: You don't have to be crazy to want to be a comedian, but I do believe that the best comedians are people who've had a profound experience of being an outsider. "Mental" is a term I'm quite fond of. I know that some folks object to it as trivializing psychiatric illness, but to me it has an irreverent colloquial charm. In the book, I discuss my own experience with severe depression as well as the pain it's wrought on my family. Because of my experience, I felt it was appropriate to take ownership of the word and use it in a provocative, humorous, and joyful way. I wanted to call the book Mental, but my editor insisted I needed a subtitle to clarify what it was about, and so "funny in the head" was added.

Being gay plays a big part in your book and standup. Was there a point when you had to decide whether or not to use that aspect of yourself in your material, or was it never a question?

Eddie Sarfaty: I didn't set out to be "the gay comic," and I'm sure there have been times when I wasn't hired for certain gigs because I was out, but I believe that stand-up's about being who you are - unapologetically. If I wanted to be someone else, I'd be an actor. I could pretend to be straight - or avoid my sexuality altogether - but my job as a comic isn't to connect to an audience by trying to be more like them. It's to show them, that even though the specifics of my story might be very different from theirs, we can experience a moment of non-threatening intimacy that happens when you share a laugh.

America has a strange relationship with the gay community right now. On one hand, you've got Ellen Degeneres and Wanda Sykes, among others, who are widely accepted and successful, and on the other hand you've got gay marriage bans and hate crimes. Is reaching some semblance of social equality just a matter of time while old prejudices are worn down, or does something bigger need to happen?

Eddie Sarfaty: Yes, huge gains have been made in the public's acceptance of, comfort with, and support of LGBT people. People are dissatisfied that only Iowa and part of New England have gay marriage, but a few years ago, who could have imagined it would be allowed anyplace? The real change, however, is actually happening one person at a time. Your reference to the success of Ellen and Wanda - and to Sedaris and Burroughs - speaks volumes. Unfortunately, the power of comedy as an instrument of social change is completely under appreciated. Ellen, Wanda, Sedaris, Burroughs, and others, all using humor to connect with people, one punch line at a time, are a potent force.

Eddie Sarfaty and Kristina Foxx

When: November 5, 7:30 p.m.

Where: The Sentient Bean, 13 E. Park Ave

Cost: $20