She's a successful TV comedy writer and producer in Los Angeles ("Ellen," "Roseanne," "Home Improvement") as well as a stand-up performer and entrepreneur, but Maxine Lapiduss remains a Pittsburgh girl at heart. On Thursday, she will be at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland to judge Campus Superstar, the talent competition for college students sponsored by Hillel Jewish University Center (hilleljuc.org). She has judged the event before, but this year's edition is especially meaningful to her as it honors Ellen Weiss Kander, her best friend from childhood, who died in June. Ms. Kander was a chair of the Superstar event and co-founder, with Ms. Lapiduss and Carl Kurlander, of Steeltown Entertainment, dedicated to making show business a mainstay of the Pittsburgh economy.
Also while in town, on March 23 and 24, she will offer branding workshops for small-business owners, artists and entrepreneurs. "I show people how to find what's unique about them and figure out how to make money from it," she said. "It's a really fun day." The courses will be at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill for $250 per session. Registration is at www.lapidusscreative.com.
Comedy and Pittsburgh are in Ms. Lapiduss' genes. Her mother, Esther, now 92 and living in L.A., was a well-known local singer and comedian, and her sister, Sally, is also a comedy writer/producer ("The Nanny," "Hannah Montana"). After graduating from Taylor Allderdice High School and Carnegie Mellon University, Maxine moved to New York and then L.A. But she's been traveling a lot recently, rebooting American sitcoms for other countries.
"I just had a wild year working in Moscow for Sony on a Russian version of 'The King of Queens,' " she said. "I also did pilots of 'The Cosby Show' with all white people -- that was hysterical -- and I may be going again soon for a version of 'Roseanne.' "
You perform, write and produce. Which do you like most? Ellen Burstyn once told me that I could eat pastry or be an actress, since they have to be skinny. I'm a zaftig Pittsburgh girl. I wanted to eat pastry. So behind the camera is better.
Who's the funniest famous person you've known? Phyllis Diller, who was a friend and mentor to me. My mom opened for her at the Holiday House when I was like 8 years old. Sally and I sent her some lame jokes, and she paid us $5. When she was in her 90s I went to her home for dinner. She needed four martinis to get her started, but she was hilarious.
Did you and your sister crack each other up as kids? No, we hated each other's guts. She was mean to me and didn't want me hanging around. I was five years younger. When she went to college and I got her room -- it was the best room in the house -- we started to become friends. In New York we began writing together and grew very close. We actually went to couples therapy for a while to break up as a writing team. Now that's a sitcom.
Did you compete with each other? Sure. We're both comedy writers, but I'm an extrovert, and Sally is much more content behind the scenes.
Did people tease you about your last name? Are you kidding? They still tease me! I get called Maxipad Lapenis and everything else you can think of. It happens to be a good comedy name -- there's an odd number of Lapidusses in the business, but with different spellings. How else are you gonna cope with a name like that?
Is it true that humor comes from pain? Does yours? When you consider yourself different, you can let others get to you or you can mock your circumstances. Growing up, I was 5-foot-10 when everyone else was 5-foot-1, I got huge boobs early, I knew I was gay at a time when you didn't discuss that, so I deflected people through humor. Later on I channeled all of that into work. I brought a gay character onto "Roseanne," I did the Ellen DeGeneres show when she was coming out. The things that can crush you in early life are the ones that propel you later if you use them properly.
Thoughts on the assertion that men are funnier than women? That whole thing is so stupid. The style of what women laugh at and relate to is just different. Women's humor is approachable and inclusive, men's humor is exclusive. I have been the only woman in the room for years at a time so I can play in that sandbox, but there are a million ways to be funny. It's all valid. Personally, I thought Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on the Golden Globes were so much funnier than that jackass Ricky Gervais.
Favorite TV comedy besides your own. "Downton Abbey" makes me howl. I'm obsessed with it. I also enjoy "Girls" on HBO; it's a fresh and different take. Historically, it has to be "I Love Lucy."
Famous person you'd like to have dinner with: Gloria Steinem, Billie Jean King, Greta Garbo.
Biggest cultural difference between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles: Oh, so many, where to start? Pittsburgh is a real hard-core reality check, you don't have to question people's friendship. L.A. is very surfacey. The sincerity level [in L.A.] is profoundly lacking.
What's with that bikini-clad photo on your website? It's my head on Nancy Sinatra's body. I saw the photo and sooo wanted it to be me. Is that wrong?