Mende as Carol.
There are more iconic catchphrases that emerged from “Seinfeld,” Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s long-running, famously acerbic sitcom (see Blake Aued's listicle for more examples of the show’s pop-culture staying power). But actress Lisa Mende’s character, Carol—she of the exaggerated Jersey accent and luxurious Stay-Puft bouffant—remains a fan favorite for her nasal variations on a classic line: “Jerry, ya gotta see the bayy-beee.”
In advance of Seinfeld’s appearance at the Classic Center Friday, we sat down with Mende—in real life a friendly Athens-area creative type who runs the Circle Ensemble Theatre group, which will present “Hamlet” this spring at the State Botanical Garden—to chat about her most well-known character and life post-Hollywood.
Flagpole: How did you get into acting?
Lisa Mende: I did my first play in Yiddish when I was a little girl, because my parents sent my brother and me to something called The Workmen’s Circle. I was in all the school plays. It was the only thing I ever wanted to do. I took classes, and I majored in theater, which was a great mistake, in particular because this was the ‘70s: I majored in shooting pool, learning how to roll a joint, going to great concerts.
In my first company, I worked with Danny Aiello. He played my dad. I met a group of people who were doing improv, one of whom was my ex-husband and best friend, Dom Irrera, and Michael Patrick King, my comedy partner, who went on to [do] “Sex and the City” and “2 Broke Girls.” Then Dom and I did a film called Hollywood Shuffle for Robert Townsend. It was a labor of love. We had no permits, no money, so we basically did one take and fled, and did it for free because we were all friends and loved hanging out.
I started getting phone calls saying I’d better move to Los Angeles, because [the movie] was getting a lot of buzz. We moved out there and I started getting parts. My first big film was Scrooged with Bill Murray, which was really exciting. I worked steadily as a journeyman actor, a guest star. I made great money when I was working and then nothing for months in between.
FP: How did you meet Jerry, Larry and that crowd?
LM: We all hung out at the Improv in New York. Larry and a bunch of us would play Trivial Pursuit until 5 o’clock in the morning. And Jerry and Dom were sort of in the same graduating class as stand-ups. We saw [Jerry] a lot when we were married, and Dom has remained friends with him. The stand-up community in the ‘80s was really tight.
I had actually read for “Seinfeld” in its initial incarnation. Larry said, “I’m writing this show for Jerry, and there’s a part of a waitress.” And I read for the part, which never ended up in the show. I didn’t hear anything for a while. It was slow-moving. It wasn’t a huge hit [at first]. Then my agent called with the audition for [Carol]. There’s a certain audition, it’s called the kiss of death, where the writer-producers on the lower rung of the spectrum have to convince the other producers that their stuff is good. So you say a line, and they go: [exaggerated laughter]. And that’s the kiss of death. You know you’re not going to get the part, because they’ve had to force the laugh to convince the other producers it’s funny.
But this audition… when I saw the script, it was the first one, where she keeps saying, “When’s he gonna see the baby?” And I read it and thought, “Jesus, I went to school with these people in Teaneck, New Jersey.” It required nothing. In the room were George Shapiro, Larry, Jerry and a couple other people… I started reading, and—this doesn’t happen very often—they were crying, leaning over their knees laughing. Because I knew these girls. I’d just seen them at my high school reunion.
FP: Did you have any sense that the role would become so famous?
LM: No! And how incredibly exciting is that? That’s great writing. A lot of stuff you read for is not written so well. Larry’s a brilliant writer, and so is Carol [Leifer]. [My] first [appearance] was on an hourlong episode, and there were two other subplots, one of which involved a Mets player…
FP: Keith Hernandez.
LM: Yes. Who was adorable. And then there was the Kennedy assassination thing. It was beautifully put together. And it was just relaxed and delightful. But I didn’t have a clue it was going to be a hit. I moved here and I would meet people and their elderly parents and they’d say, “My mother’s a big ‘Seinfeld’ fan.” I was always amazed, because I thought it was very Northeast-centric. Not so. Why is that?
FP: It does have a universal appeal, in that it pointed out how awful people can be, but in a funny way.
LM: It’s so mean. They’re so cold and mean. That’s the great part of it. They’re ruthlessly cold. The writing was extraordinary, and they surrounded Jerry with the best actors on television. Jason Alexander, besides being a really lovely guy, is one of the best actors on TV. Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] is terrific. I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about Michael [Richards], but he’s very good. And Wayne [Knight]. Just great actors.
FP: When did you move to Athens?
LM: Eleven years ago. I have a daughter, and she was about to go into the fifth grade. She went to a very nice private school [in L.A.] with the children of the very famous and very rich. We rented a house, and she was a scholarship kid. She went to school with very entitled children. Every year there was an end-of-the-year party at the house of a writer-producer. There was a beautiful pool, and the parents would sit and have their cocktails and the kids would swim and play. And I saw three little girls my kid’s age, you know, 10, in heels and string bikinis, talking on their cell phones as they were walking past the pool. And I thought, “I can stay here and she’ll go to high school on scholarship, and she won’t have a terrible life, but I can also give her the chance to have a childhood.” My brother, Nathan Mende, who a lot of people know, had lived here for years. We visited, and I asked her if she [wanted to] move here, and she said yes.
FP: How closely have you followed Jerry’s career?
LM: I don’t follow anyone’s career. I don’t know who most people are, I almost never go to the movies, and I don’t watch television. There’s always something else I want to do. Here in Athens, it’s music. I’d rather go hear live music than sit in a theater, no matter what the movie. I get them through the Screen Actors Guild, but I don’t have a DVD player. And my parents raised me and my brother without much TV, so it’s never been second nature to me.
FP: Do you think, on some level, you feel disillusioned by your experience in Hollywood?
LM: Oh, no. I don’t feel disillusioned at all. I had a great run. I actually earned a living and supported three people without being famous. Which is amazing. It’s so much [a part of] my life. I think that’s also why I don’t watch TV and movies, because I watch with the hideous eye of an insider: “Her hair was parted on the left,” that sort of thing. It’s not snobbery, it’s not boredom, it’s not disillusionment. I like living my life. I have so many friends who are musicians, and I love to go see them. Conner Tribble has a band that I sing with. I’m very busy. I have no regrets and no animosity at all. With the exception of maybe three people, everyone I ever worked with in Hollywood was delightful, kind, generous and human. Except the people on “Friends.”
Professional stand-up comedian best known for playing a semi-fictional version of himself in the sitcom "Seinfeld." See story on p. 10.