Sharon Geller doesn’t remember the first time she realized she was funny.
She knows she always loved to laugh and recalls watching The Carol Burnett Show and The Red Skelton Show with her father, Jack, even playfully dancing on his feet.
But once she left the house she was a different person, hardly someone who would go on to have a 30-year career as a comedic actress. Her resume includes four appearances on Saturday Night Live and being in the East Coast touring company of the off-Broadway hit Old Jews Telling Jokes.
“I was the shyest kid ever born,” said Geller, who’ll play Sarah Palin moderating a Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump “debate” on Oct. 30 at the Hilton Philadelphia City Avenue to benefit Hadassah. “In the house, I was always laughing. Outside, I didn’t say ‘boo.’ I don’t know why. The idea of me being onstage, no, that was not happening.”
Unexpectedly, it did.
Shortly after her father’s death in 1985, Geller, who’d worked in the less-than-glamorous field of medical public relations for a decade, had what she calls her wakeup call.
“I realized life is short, and I don’t want to be 50 saying ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda,’” said Geller, who teaches improvisation for lawyers at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law and runs corporate team-building sessions.
“Then I watched a Phil Donahue show about six CEOs who’d left their six-figure incomes to pursue their life’s interest. I said to myself, ‘I’m not making six figures doing medical PR, and I don’t even like it.’ I was gone within a month.”
That was three decades ago.
“I know how lucky I am to earn my living as a comedic actress when most people are not able to do that,” said Geller, winner of the 2007 Manhattan Monologue Slam competition and several Fringe Festival awards. “But I always feel I can do more.
“I try to leave no stone unturned about my career. Since improv is my background, I certainly want to leave myself open to the possibility of what could be. But I love comedy and would much rather do that than anything else.”
That leads right into the Debate of the Century, which is part scripted, part improv and — she hopes — all funny.
“This election is so ludicrous,” she said, hours before rushing home to watch the final presidential debate, hoping to pick up new material. “What I’ve been saying for years is the beauty about Sarah Palin is you don’t have to write any material for her.
“You just have to say what she says. Now with Trump, you can’t be any funnier than what’s going on. There’s a definite script, but there’s also improvisation not just because we take questions from the audience but because the three of us [Holly Faris as Clinton and Bob Heck as Trump] are so skilled, I have total confidence we can handle anything that comes up.
“And since the first rule of comedy is know your audience, I’ll be saying things that day that I might never say that way again. It’s definitely tailored to a Jewish audience.”
“Sharon kind of makes the whole thing even more crazy and bizarre than it already is,” said Faris, who’s also Jewish and has worked with Geller for more than 15 years. “The fact that Sarah Palin would be moderating a debate and getting her 2 cents in between the candidates takes it up a notch in the level of bizarre.”
For Geller, it’s an opportunity to be in her comfort zone, although she insists impersonations really aren’t her thing.
“Gilda Radner and Madeleine Kahn were my idols,” said Geller, who played Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella at Gilda’s Club, a South Jersey cancer support club created by Gilda’s husband, the late Gene Wilder. “I could relate to their humor.
“They were also very good at improv, which is what I teach at the Walnut Street Theatre. With comedy improv, you don’t have to be funny. It’s about communications skills. Those are the same things that made Tina Fey and Amy Poehler famous.”
Speaking of Poehler, Geller once played alongside her as an Icelandic delegate in a Saturday Night Live sketch. She was also a mom whose daughter was about to receive a prize for winning a pumpkin-eating contest — only to have it snatched away by the real Kanye West in a takeoff of the Taylor Swift incident.
And then there’s her movie career.
In The Sixth Sense she’s in the scene at a shiva house when they realized the mother poisoned her daughter. Other cameos include Twelve Monkeys, Philadelphia and Rocky V.
Geller’s versatility goes beyond acting.
In her rare spare time, she’s a producer for the Anne Frank Theater Project, which brings an abridged version of The Diary of Anne Frank and another Holocaust-related show to local schools and synagogues. Or you can hire her to perform a comedy murder-mystery through her company, SG Entertainment.
Even now she finds it hard to believe how far she’s come from the sky kid who felt so out of place when her family moved from West Oak Lane to the Northeast. “I always knew I had a sense of humor, brought on by the fact my father had a great sense of humor,” said Geller, who’s had brushes of greatness of various sorts with Steve Martin, Peter Lawford and Jackie Mason among others. “but outside the house I felt more introverted.
“I was shy until I met a guy named Steven Cross. It was strictly platonic, and we’re still great friends today,” she said. “We would make each other laugh. We called it ‘dribbling.’ He was the guy who let me be funny and loud outside the house.”
It led to a career that’s had a bit of everything for Geller: TV, movies, commercials, improv, even a stint on QVC. But most of all, fun.
For Sharon Geller, you see, laughter makes the world go round.
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