You may remember Jaffe Cohen from his Stand Up work with the Funny Gay Males Comedy Trio (alongside with Danny MacWilliams and the late Bob Smith). You may have seen his humorous novel, Tush on the shelves of your local bookstore. But, you most definitely should know his name as one of the co-writers of the Ryan Murphy hit television series, Feud: Bette And Joan. With a husky New York accent, a subtly sharp wit, the self-described ‘Half-Jewish and Half-Gay Schlomosexual” possesses an easy flowing, rhythmic gift-of-the-gap. Cohen is truly a delightful man.
Eric Andrews-Katz: Who were your earliest influences?
Jaffe Cohen: As far as comedy goes, I would have to say Woody Allen and Joan Rivers. I came to comedy late and had already seen Joan as having perfect timing with her jokes. Her voice is like a musical instrument; Woody’s too. They embody their comedy, and were great comic performers. There was also Rodney Dangerfield and Jackie Mason – all the great Jews. I never felt more Jewish than doing standup comedy. I became this “Jew. Jew. Jew. Jew. kind of guy.” I adored Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor. Eddie with those big banjo eyes and the way he moved around the stage. Back then in Vaudeville, whether they were gay or not, there was an effeminacy with certain theatre performers. They weren’t as bound by masculine stereotypes and they seemed to be having a good time.
My other influences were show tunes. My parents had the cast albums of My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof. My mother loved Gilbert & Sullivan so my first introduction to [witty] writing were many of their funny songs. There are other songs like “I’m Just A Girl That Can’t Say No” that are just funny.
Andrews-Katz: When was the first time you realized you were funny?
Cohen: While lying around the house memorizing these lyrics, I realized I wasn’t like anyone else. I was different from everyone else. All the different parts of my personality, gay, Jewish, historian…they all create the desire to be delightful. I had a built-in audience with the Christian parents of my friends. I would go over to their house and their parents would ask me questions: “So how’s your family?” I would answer them with the truth. I wasn’t funny within my family. I was a comic character more than a jokester. I put my own spin on things. I was fortunate in some ways because my family fought constantly, so I learned how to subtext early. My father would say something in the front seat of the car and my mother would misread into it. My father would then misread the response my mother gave, and I would be sitting in the back seat playing translator. I became very aware at a very early age, about the pathos of being misunderstood. The irrationality of intelligent people being emotionally out of control. There was something about that irony that filled me with a sense that logic doesn’t work.
Andrews-Katz: In your comedy act you’ve talked about the horrors of a gay child in high school gym class, but in a funny way. Was high school a good time in your life?
Cohen: No! No. No. No. No [he said emphatically]. No. I hated it. My childhood wasn’t all that great because I didn’t know where I fit in. There was nothing I wanted to do. There was no seeing any direction. I didn’t see the suburban neighborhood because it was so bleak. It was like…Levittown, or a place that wanted to be Levittown. I didn’t like sports. There weren’t many people I felt I could talk to. People thought I was ‘adorable’ so people didn’t pick on me. I had this hangdog expression so most of them thought I had already been picked on, and had had enough. I wasn’t included in things either. I did my homework. I read. I had a couple of friends. High school was definitely not a happy time for me. I appeared on the stage for the first time in high school, so there was that. I auditioned for the musical Oliver, as ‘one of Fagan’s boys’. Now I can do Fagan. There was an incident where I jumped back with surprise and the director liked the improvisation that I did. It was the first time I got a laugh and I thought; ‘that’s what I want’.
Andrews-Katz: How did the Funny Gay Males Comedy Trio form?
Cohen: Well, first I have to explain how I became a comedian. I had no desires to struggle and do … well, anything. Usually, I got around to ‘be’ something that I had already developed some kind of skills in doing. I tended to ‘become’ things [more than create them]. Since I changed my venues so often, I was always handed “beginner’s luck.” I had written some plays but couldn’t get around to finishing my third play. Late in the 1980’s my friends were dying of AIDS, and there were so many spiritual groups and support groups forming. There was an acting teacher named Sally Fisher and she used acting techniques to help [people] heal and deal with it. It provided a space for people to voice their thoughts and they could grieve. Whenever it was my turn, I found a way to put a twist on things so people would laugh. I made people laugh all weekend. Some guy said, “Ever thought of doing comedy?”, and I thought I could do it. People always found me amusing and delightful, and I already established I wasn’t good enough to write a play or be an actor, and this was a way that I could combine both of those interests. As I approached my 30’s I discovered I was better than a lot of others out there. In 1986, AIDS was very much in the news and people were stereotyped like characters in a play. I would use schtick in my act, “I can’t swallow cum – it gives me gas”, so was out being gay. I remember one night after my act, the MC wiped off the microphone. That was his idea of a joke.
There were two others, Danny McWilliams and Bob Smith, and we would go to these cabaret clubs in New York. There was a woman named Helene Kelly and she saw me do a routine, and suggested I appear at The Duplex. I had only been doing comedy a year or two, so I got the other two guys, and we did a solid routine. I thought it would end after a week or two, and we went on for over two years. The audience kept coming. Joan Rivers invited us to appear on her show, and we did a local TV and radio program. We were the most famous gay people in NYC for about a half-hour, and it was delightful. It was the happiest time of my life because I found something I was successful and happy to do, that also had some social meaning. We helped one another. I listen to what people on the streets say, and use it in my act. I remember this one guy was talking to his friend. “You like my hair? It was all done by the sun”. His friend took one look and answered, “Where? On Mercury?”
Andrews-Katz: What do you think of queer comedy today and whom do you find funny?
Cohen: That’s a surprisingly hard question to answer. I’m not really a big fan of standup comedy [he sheepishly confesses]. I have to give a shout out to Sarah Silverman. She isn’t necessarily a gay comic, but I enjoy her work. The comics I like are those that can surprise me. Sarah, when she isn’t being too pedantic or weird, does that. She comes up with something brilliant. Louis C.K is another. [That kind of makes me feel that I like the Harvey Weinstein of comedy] It’s weird and hard to answer because as a comic you are so critical of the work. There is nothing more humiliating than someone trying to be funny, and failing. It’s like nails on a blackboard. Randy Rainbow is very talented. I spend more time watching MSNBC than watching entertainment [shows]. A lot of the people I like are those I’ve always liked; they are all there on Turner Movie Classics. There are even some non-Jews I like, too. WC Fields and Mae West were geniuses beyond genius. They took comedy to the next transcendent level. Good comedy has an elegance and sublimity to it. WC Fields is magical from the sound of his voice to the purity of his focus. Mae West had timing down to perfection. I find that a lot of comedy is too sloppy or too lazy to match the sublimity of the people who came up in Vaudeville. There are the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello who were rougher, but brilliant. A good joke is a joy forever.
Andrews-Katz: When did your appreciation for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford start?
Cohen: I would say that first year we [the Funny Gay Guys] were in Provincetown. I was familiar with the actresses and it was rainy one afternoon, so there was no beach. We watched all the great classics like All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard. Danny was instrumental in getting me to take another look at these films and I didn’t realize how sublimely funny Bette [Davis] was, especially in All About Eve. When she discovers Anne Baxter with the dress, and Bette opens her eyes wide with the “Gotcha”. It’s hilariously funny. It’s funny but it’s clever and well thought out. I see something good like that and I literally cry, sometimes. There is so much in life that is shifty and people can act stupid, and TV can be stupid, and so much of our culture is crap or midland. It’s a distraction; it’s not entertainment.
Andrews-Katz: How did you meet your eventual writing partner Michael Zam?
Cohen: I have never met anyone before or since that shared so much interest in what I’m interested in as well. We met many years ago, in 1980 NYC while he was an undergrad. He is the most intellectually compatible person that I have ever met. We are both Jewish, smart kids from Long Island, that love show biz and history. We would talk about so many things because we both loved the same things. We are both writers and teachers. Emotionally we are different but we have so much in common that we can still relate to each other. We approach things differently but we always arrive at a similar place. I never considered myself a screen writer and didn’t want to be one but Michael always wanted to write for TV. He studied it, and really studied it. He’s been one of the most sought-after teachers for years. I’m the luckiest person who gets to write with someone that is a great writer and a great writing teacher; I learn a Hell of a lot by writing with him.
Andrews-Katz: Originally titled “Best Actress”, your screenplay made ‘the Blacklist’, what does that mean?
Cohen: Those are a list of unproduced screenplays. Agents and producers (and the people who are in the business to find good scripts) vote on several dozen screenplays that are considered Best of the Year. It’s a way to let other people know what to look out for, for that year.
Andrews-Katz: When Ryan Murphy took on the project (now titled Feud), how involved were you with the project?
Cohen: We met with him and we liked that he was obviously a fan of the work. He told us that he would protect our story, protect our material and we believed him. He’s been a big success with deep pockets, so why not? We also liked Ryan Murphy because he didn’t think the characters [Bette Davis and Joan Crawford] were too old. Others wanted to cast [our story] with younger actresses. [Anne Hathaway was mentioned for Joan Crawford]. He optioned the script, and initially it wasn’t going well. He tried to sell it as an HBO movie, but they weren’t interested. (They were straight men – what did they know? ‘Who wants to see a movie about old actresses?’) Ryan bought the script and we [Michael and Jaffe] had a chunk of cash. The script was sitting in a drawer because Ryan was busy with Glee and American Horror Story. Then he did the OJ Simpson Story. He’s invented a new genre; the anthology series with rotating themes every season. The plan was to have a different Feud starting with Bette [Davis] and Joan [Crawford]. Ryan would write to us and ask about our input for ideas. It was unclear how much we would have to write. We were acting more like consultants and he was hiring others to write the screenplay. Ryan wanted to use a lot of our material in the actual show. Ryan definitely preserved the structure of what we wrote. He’s a visionary and what I love about him is he’s been very gracious to us; he took this little gay movie, and turned it into a TV event. Now there are other stories that I want to tell and I have the doors open to me. I say this from the bottom of my heart, God bless him; there’s much more gay material that is now possible.
Andrews-Katz: Since Feud will be a series [rumors say Prince Charles/Diana are next] what would you like to see as potential sequels?
Cohen: That’s a really great question. I would love to see Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine. What better Feud than two sisters who, allegedly, didn’t get along and were very jealous of each other. There’s Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Riley – they had similar careers yet very different views and dispositions. I find that fascinating. Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh could be a Feud…or Feud 2.0. There are two actors that are competing with each other’s success, and yet are married to each other. I’d love to write one about Truman [Capote] and Gore [Vidal]. Or Vidal and William Buckley would be even better. I would rather do Buckley than Capote because Vidal was brilliant; a liberal with progressive thinking, and I’d rather see him fight an asshole like Buckley. Charles and Diana is happening; it’s already been cast. I’d like to see Magic Johnson and Larry Byrd. (There’s the butchest version you’d ever see!) I love that story. Byrd was a self-hating, white trash guy from Indiana. He worked hard at basketball and he was as good as this black guy, that had natural talent and charisma. But when Magic Johnson developed HIV, Larry Byrd was one of the first to reach out.
Jaffe Cohen’s 1999 screenplay Hit and Runway earned him the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival nomination and win for Best Writer. In 2000 the film earned him the US Comedy Arts Festival nomination and win for Best Screenplay. Mr. Cohen’s work on the television hit Feud: Bette and Joan (along with Michael Zam) earned two Prime Time Emmy Nominations for Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special in 2018. He was also nominated for the 2018 PGA Award for Outstanding Producer of Long-Form Television, and again for the Writer’s Guild of America for Television: Long Form – Original. Mr. Cohen is currently working on a screenplay biography of Vivian Leigh, as well as a musical bio of Mama Cass, staring Chrissy Metz from television’s This Is Us.