As complex as relationships are, marriage takes it to a whole new level in every way. Emmy award-winning writer for ‘The Ben Stiller Show,’ playwright, producer, actor, and teacher Jeff Kahn along with successful comedian, actress, writer and wife, Annabelle Gurwitch, tackle the tumultuous, absurd, and incredible journey that is spending life together. Based on the book, ‘You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up: A Love Story,’ the relationship comedy ‘You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up’ makes its Boston debut on Wednesday, April 13 and continues through Sunday, May 22 at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, Massachusetts in its centennial season. Click here for more information and for tickets!
Starring Michael Greer as Jeff and Mara Newbery as Annabelle, ‘You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up’ explores the ups and downs of love, a relationship, and all of its parts. Jeff Kahn talks about his Emmy win, creating the book and show alongside his wife, and watching others become Jeff and Annabelle.
Jeanne Denizard: You won an Emmy award for ‘The Ben Stiller Show’ which must have been a proud moment for you.
Jeff Kahn: It was shocking, proud, and surreal because the show had gotten canceled. It was not what I was working on, we had to say goodbye to the show, and start thinking about what I was going to do next. I got on some terrible sketch show. I went from some great sketch show to the worst show I had ever worked on. When we got nominated, it seemed like a weird mistake. We didn’t expect to win and joked about why were even there. Suddenly we were onstage.
JD: Isn’t that how it always goes though?
JK: It’s a thing about not wanting something. When I wanted Annabelle, she didn’t want to be wanted. When I stopped wanting her, then suddenly she wanted me. It only took me five years to figure that out.
JD: Ben Stiller offered his recommendation to read your book, ‘You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up.’
JK: Ben read the book and when Annabelle and I were out book touring, we were developing the show as an act. We performed it at Caroline’s Comedy Club. We asked Ben’s parents, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, if they would introduce us and if they wanted to perform together, we would be honored. They performed for about 20 minutes and it might have been the last time they did stand up together. They were great and it was so sweet to see them. Ben came with his sister to watch so that was really nice.
JD: They were hilarious together and I loved watching them on the show, ‘King of Queens.’
JK: Jerry Stiller had a second career and Anne Meara was always writing and acting. She was really smart.
JD: That’s wonderful. You have a few writing pieces on freshyarn.com such as ‘Zen of Mediocrity’ and ‘The World’s Worst Waiter Ever.’ They are so funny, smart, self-deprecating, and incredibly relatable. Were you and your wife’s writing styles similar?
JK: The book is a “he said she said” so it is very separate. I would write a chapter and she would answer it. She always wondered why she was always answering and why doesn’t she start writing the chapters. We argued about that and then I said it was fine for her to start writing a chapter and I’ll answer it. I added that it was much better to answer than to start it. Then she wanted to switch back and I said it was too late.
Stories like the ‘Zen of Mediocrity’ and ‘The World’s Worst Waiter Ever’ were originally written to be performed. Annabelle and I performed these storytelling evenings called ‘Sit ‘n Spin’ that the great Jill Soloway from ‘Transparent’ started 17 years ago. These evenings with Comedy Central had writers come and read the stories so writers in entertainment could have a place to just write personal stories that weren’t scripts or needed to conform to the Hollywood writing style. It became very popular and ‘Sit ‘n Spin’ still goes on to this day.
I wrote a story called, ‘After the Footsie’ and it was about how difficult it was to get into my wife’s pants. I didn’t tell her I was doing that and she happened to be on the same show that night. I read that story and my wife said I was so funny and what a great fiction writer I am. Then, she did a sweet story about taking our son, Ezra, to Disney Land. When she heard what I wrote, Annabelle said she wouldn’t stand for that and was going to have to write her own side of that story. She wrote a rebuttal and then we started to do those pieces together. Then we decided to write a couple more. That’s how the book started.
Eventually we had enough material for a book. We put it together and sent it to an agent in New York who liked it and worked with her on it to get it published. We would have something to perform when the book came out other than just reading. When we would go on a book tour, we would sometimes do a show like in Boston and my hometown in Albany, where we would have 300 people come to the performance. We did it at Joe’s Pub in New York and a bunch of other places. Then we performed it for the New York Comedy Festival and that’s when this producer saw it suggested we make it into a stage play. We changed the show from an act into a theatrical story.
‘You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up’ appeals to everyone whether you’re in a couple, single, divorced, engaged, or having a baby. It is not just about a marriage because it covers the entire process of the relationship from the first meeting to the courtship to the engagement to a baby. It really covers 15 years of their life, an important chunk of time. The thesis of it is that two people can be in the same place at the same time, experiencing the same moment, and see it totally differently.
JD: It’s great that Michael Greer and Mara Newbery will play you and your wife in this Boston production. They are married!
JK: I think it is phenomenal. In many ways, it is the closest you can get to Jeff and Annabelle because they are married so they bring their own, special take on it. It’s not me anymore. It is this character living his own life onstage and to have a married couple actually do it is just going to make it unbelievably great. The casting was first done out of New York and I worked with them. They opened in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was really happy with it because that Jeff is really funny and portrays a frat boy version of me. He has great energy. We’re not involved in the casting, but we have seen a bunch of different casts do it and they all bring their own talents to the part and I’ve liked them all. Usually the Jeffs that I’ve seen are taller than me and I like seeing a tall Jeff. Then I say that he is doing something completely different with the role. He’s bringing some height to it.
This Jeff has done the part before, but this is the first time he is doing this role with his wife. He was great in Phoenix and got very strong reviews.
See the heartfelt and humorous relationship comedy, “You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up” at the Regent Theatre, 7 Medford Street in Arlington, Massachusetts from Wednesday, April 13 through Sunday, May 22. The Regent Theatre is offering an opening preview week special for this production. Click here for details and for tickets!