Stiller and Meara

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Stiller and Meara

For 35 years the comedy team of Stiller and Meara—five-footsix Jewish actor Jerry Stiller and his five-foot-eight Irish-Catholic wife Anne Meara—have been best known for wringing laughter out of improvisational situations, appearing 36 times on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1950s and 1960s. They have also acted on Broadway—separately and as a team—and have each starred in a number of television sitcoms and motion pictures. Jerry's role as George Costanza's short-fused father on Seinfeld in the late 1990s sent his revitalized career to a higher level, leading to further work on Broadway and in network television commercials. In recent years Stiller and Meara have also been known as the parents of talented writer-director-actor Ben Stiller and actress Amy Stiller.

Both born in New York City, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara were stage-struck in their teens. When they met in the early 1950s at an agent's office in Manhattan, Jerry had already acted in a number of plays, including Peter Pan with Veronica Lake. The pair signed with a comedy improv group, the Compass Players in St. Louis, and set out on their own as a "boy-girl" act in comedy clubs. They appeared first in a small Greenwich Village club, then moved to the popular Blue Angel, followed shortly by bookings into other major nightclubs and guest spots on television. The first comedy sketch they wrote was called "Jonah," with Anne playing a TV news reporter and Jerry an older Miami Beach man who had been swallowed by a whale.

They were married in 1954 at a time when Jewish-Catholic marriages raised eyebrows. Stiller explains: "But when I met Anne, nobody of my own background wanted to marry me. I was an actor, and an actor had no credentials. Anne was an actress, and she had no credentials either. What brought us together was unconditional love." They were also attracted to each other's comic talent and offbeat humor. Besides performing on stage, the couple wrote and performed radio commercials. The best known of these—a commercial for an obscure wine called Blue Nun—increased the product's sales 500 percent overnight.

Honing her talents by writing comedy routines and commercials, Anne Meara has become a successful playwright. Her comedy, After-Play, had a long run on Broadway as well in major cities coast-to-coast. She and Jerry starred in this comedy about two New York couples, the Shredmans and the Gutemans, having dinner, many drinks, and tossing around hundreds of witty one-liners, after seeing a Broadway play they reviewed in total disagreement.

The couple has also enjoyed a varied career in films. Anne has appeared in nine movies, including the recent Jetters (1997), The Search for One-Eye Jimmy (1996) and The Daytrippers (1996). Jerry has appeared in eighteen, ranging from The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and Airport 75 to the more recent A Rat's Tale (1998), as well as three films in 1997: Camp Stories, The Deli, and Stag.

The comedy team has appeared in a variety of television sitcoms, both together and separately. They were regulars on The Paul Lynde Show in the 1970s, and made numerous guest appearances as a couple on Love, American Style, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, and The Love Boat. Jerry was a regular on two sitcoms in the late 1980s, Tattinger's and Nick and Hillary, and in the 1990s, on The King of Queens in addition to Seinfeld. Anne was a regular on such popular sitcoms as Rhoda, (1976-1977), Archie Bunker's Place, (1979-1982), and ALF (1987-1990).

—Benjamin Griffith

Further Reading:

Inman, David. The TV Encyclopedia. New York, Perigee, 1991.

Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy in American Culture. New York, Blackwell, 1997.

Schleier, Curt. "Jerry Stiller's Youth in Brooklyn Set Stage for Lifetime of Laughs." Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. March 20, 1998.

Waldron, Vince. Classic Sitcoms: A Celebration of the Best in Prime-Time Comedy. New York, Silman Jam, 1998.