Jeff Kahn makes his living by making people laugh, so it’s no surprise that when he is asked how he met his future wife, Annabelle Gurwitch, he tells a joke:
“Twenty-three years ago tonight, against my better judgment, I went to a Rosh Hashanah party, where I met the woman of my dreams. I thought, maybe God does have a plan for me. Twenty-three years later, that woman is my wife — and I’m a total atheist.”
Maybe it was the promise of the new year, maybe it was the intoxicating smells coming from the latkes that Gurwitch was frying up that evening in a Los Angeles residence, but that chance encounter led to a union that has produced a burgeoning entertainment empire built around their unusual approach to all things marriage.
Philadelphians will be treated to the full extent of the couple’s wit and wisdom when their play, You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up, opens on Sept. 18 at the new Penn’s Landing Playhouse, located inside the Independence Seaport Museum.
The play is based on the book of the same name, which is an unflinchingly honest, frequently humorous “he-said, she-said” account of the lengths and depths Kahn and Gurwitch have gone to in order to make their marriage work over the past 17 years, including learning to like meowing like a cat, parenting as a competitive sport and unfriending each other on Facebook.
The two-person show actually represents a return to the couple’s beginnings. “The whole thing started with performances,” says Gurwitch, 51, an actor/author who was the longtime host of the TBS series, Dinner & a Movie, as well as the author/director of Fired! and a columnist for The Nation. “We each used to read pieces at a comedy night” at a club in Los Angeles.
One night, Kahn, also 51, decided to change up his routine. “I thought I would surprise Annabelle with this story I had written about how difficult it was to get into her pants after being married for so long,” recalls the writer/actor who won an Emmy for his writing on The Ben Stiller Show. He has also written and produced numerous pilots and has acted in films like Tropic Thunder, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and The Cable Guy.
The crowd loved it, and Gurwitch immediately began changing her own routine. “I was planning to read a story about taking our kid to Disneyland,” she says, still sounding somewhat incredulous at the gauntlet thrown down by her husband. “I thought, I can’t let this stand. I’ll have to write my own piece!” After they had come up with more material — like the reaction of Kahn’s father, a divorce attorney, to his son’s engagement announcement (“There was a pause, and then he told me, ‘You know that half of all marriages end in divorce, don’t you, Jeff?’ ”) — they realized they had enough for a book that reflected their own counterintuitive take on the institution of marriage.
Gurwitch, whose great-grandparents lived above their shop, Menashe’s Notions, at Fifth and Pine Streets after immigrating to Philadelphia from Russia over a century ago, says, “We really reveal a lot” in You Say Tomato. As an example, she talks about her need to keep a copy of her marriage certificate prominently displayed in the kitchen “because I’m just not that good with dates.”
One of the reasons why she and Kahn are so frank on the page and onstage, she says, is because they feel “there is a lot of entertainment out there that makes marriage seem like the destination point. We always think it’s the beginning of your problems. You always hope that marriage brings out the best in you, but you also get to see the things that aren’t attractive — and I think there’s something really relatable about the imperfect. It’s empowering to show the things that are unflattering.”
Now that the play has become so successful it requires multiple casts in multiple cities to satisfy demand — the Philadelphia production is helmed by music industry veteran Phil Roy, and stars Robin Abramson and Gregory Johnstone — the L.A.-based couple have returned to their respective solo careers, which is just fine with Gurwitch.
“Our only collaboration now is our family,” she says. Her latest book, a humorous look at hitting the half-century mark called, I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities and Survival Stories From the Edge of 50, will be out early next year. For his part, Kahn is currently working on getting two different pilots picked up for the new season.
Regardless of how busy they are with their work, the couple are emphatic that they still make time for what they say is one of the keys to staying together: date night, even if, as they so memorably chronicle, one time the evening wound up with her falling asleep while getting ready, and him falling asleep while waiting for her.
Blips aside, Gurwitch swears by the practice, especially its money-saving aspects. “Not to take any business away from the Jewish therapists out there, but we think it’s better to go on date night than to go to therapy. And cheaper!”
IF YOU GO
You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up
Opening Sept. 18
Penn’s Landing Playhouse (at Independence Seaport Museum)
Columbus Boulevard and Walnut Street