If you wanted to have a conversation today with a real-life version of the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, it would probably be a lot like talking with Renée Taylor.
Now most widely known for her role as Fran Drescher’s mother on “The Nanny,” the 86-year-old comedian, actress and writer has lived a career that spans back much further, to her days as a stand-up in the New York club scene of the early 1960s. Just like Mrs. Maisel, she was an attractive young Jewish woman breaking into a male-dominated profession. She even knew Lenny Bruce.
It was a heady time and place, and a lot of young up-and-comers were earning their stripes.
Consider, for instance, the case of a young singer named Barbra Streisand, who was working as an opening act at the now-legendary club Bon Soir when Taylor was first hired there.
“I just thought she was extraordinary, even then,” Taylor says of her former co-worker. “She was seventeen, and she was extraordinary, and I thought she couldn’t get better. But she has.”
While she may not have achieved the level of superstardom that Ms. Streisand would later enjoy, Taylor certainly has had no reason to complain. Alongside her success in comedy, she’s had a long history as an actress. She’s spent six decades sharing the stage and screen – and rubbing elbows with – the biggest names and talents in the business, from Jerry Lewis and Mel Brooks to Tyler Perry and Adam Sandler, and she’s still going strong. She’s even got a recurring role as the voice of Linda Belcher’s mother on the long-running animated sitcom, “Bob’s Burgers.”
Not surprisingly, a woman with such a storied past has quite a few memories to share and quite a few stories to tell; her current project, “My Life on a Diet,” is a one-woman stage performance, based on her own 1986 book, in which she does exactly that – but with a unique twist.
“Nora Ephron, whose show I was in, she said she remembered her life by what she was wearing, and what everybody else was wearing,” Taylor explains. “I remember what everybody was eating, and what I was eating.”
“I’ve always been on a diet,” she continues. “I’ve been on just about every diet I talk about in the show – the Scarsdale, the Last Chance, the South Hampton – all of them. And I always asked people, ‘What diet are you on?’”
In the play, that’s the thread she uses to tie together her life story – and the springboard that gives her the opportunity to reminisce about some of her famous friends.
“Whenever I met a movie star,” she says, “I’d ask, ‘What do you eat?’ I’d think, whatever they were eating, that’s what made them look that beautiful, so I asked – Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, all of them – what they were eating.”
“Then I ate like them, and I thought I would look like them,” she chuckles, “but I didn’t quite.”
When asked which diet she liked the best, Taylor says, wryly, “I was on the Vogue ‘champagne diet,’ which I loved – because they said you could have two glasses of champagne before each meal.”
“But,” she adds, “it had to be expensive champagne, because the cheap champagne had more calories. So, I became a $200 a day Cristal drunk. And that was my addiction.”
Ever the comedienne, she’s making a joke; but there’s a truth in it that reflects some of the deeper threads she weaves together with the celebrity anecdotes and showbiz war stories that make up her show.
“I have an obsessive personality,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I was obsessed about being famous, I was obsessed about love – and I was obsessed about food and weight loss.”
“Gradually, when you feel your feelings, you lose your obsessions,” she goes on. “When you’re eating, you’re just repressing all your feelings – so you figure out that you’re not really hungry for food, you’re hungry for love, for approval, for acceptance. And then, I think, you don’t eat as much.”
She doesn’t just apply these observations to eating. Though it’s not covered in the show, she mentions her old friend Joan Rivers – with whom she worked in the early days of both their careers, and with whom she once took a ferry ride to Fire Island “to meet guys” before realizing they were definitely “in the wrong place.” Rivers, famously, had a fondness for plastic surgery.
“Joan was pretty,” she says. “I thought she was fine when she started out, but she just kept fixing herself. Talk about being obsessed with not being good enough – I know a lot of people who just keep doing these things, and I just want to tell them, ‘Go back three noses.’”
“My Life on a Diet” debuted off-Broadway last year, the culmination of a project Taylor initiated with her husband, Joseph Bologna – also a successful comedian, actor, and writer, whom she met while working at the Improv and married – on TV’s “Merv Griffin Show,” no less – in 1965.
The two went on to enjoy their most personal and satisfying successes as a couple, together creating 22 plays, four film screenplays and nine TV movies and series. They got an Oscar nomination for their screenplay, “Lovers and Other Strangers,” and won an Emmy for writing “Acts of Love and Other Comedies” in 1973.
“My Life on a Diet” was their final collaboration. They wrote it together, and Joe directed it before passing away on August 13, 2017. Now, after its successful off-Broadway run, Taylor is taking it on a nationwide tour – partly to preserve the memory of her late husband.
“I love going to new places, meeting new people,” she says, “and it’s like I’m bringing Joe to them.”
“There’s a lot of Joe in the play,” she adds, wistfully. “It’s like I’m with him every night. I talk to him when I’m in the wings. Sometimes, he talks a lot to me, gives me directions. I tell him, ‘just kiss me, don’t talk.’”
With that touching – and intimate – revelation, Taylor the showbiz icon perhaps becomes more like Taylor the old-fashioned grandmother figure. That side of her personality also comes out when she’s asked what she thinks of comedy today.
“It’s a confusing time, so I think people are confused about what’s funny, and what’s politically correct, and all that,” she says. “The thing that I don’t understand is why people don’t think it’s more important to be funny than to be dirty. It’s easy to be dirty, to use four-letter words in your act – you don’t even get laughs with them anymore, they’re just used to shock.”
And what about her old friend, Lenny Bruce?
“He was shocking with his language,” she proclaims, “but he was funny!”
The Los Angeles premiere of “My Life on a Diet” runs in the Lovelace Studio Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, April 5 – April 14. For tickets and more information, go to thewallis.org.