BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — Steve Solomon may prefer the title "comedy writer and performer" to "comedian," but talk to him for even a minute and it's clear that he's all three.
Solomon wrote and stars in his one-man show, which comes to the City Opera House today and Saturday at 8 p.m. "My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish And I'm in Therapy!" started out in stand-up after Solomon's career as a teacher and school administrator.
"When I was a physics teacher, they used to call me 'the mad scientist' because I taught with great humor," said Solomon, who eventually quit academia because of politics. Now some of those same fellow administrators who told him he needed to take things more seriously are coming to his shows.
In "My Mother's Italian," Solomon weaves a story that blends impersonation, dialects, sound effects and eccentric characters of the sort everyone knows — and sometimes wants to forget.
The result is a show that plays just as well in places like Bermuda and South Africa as it did off-Broadway.
"This is not just about Italians and Jews," said Solomon, who tours about 40 weeks a year with the show and its sequels, "My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish And I'm Still in Therapy!" and "My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish And I'm Home for the Holidays!"
"It's about the doctor you go to, the airport security," he said.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Solomon was inspired by the people in his multi-ethnic neighborhood and early on learned to impersonate them and their dialects. He also was influenced by the comedian Jonathan Winters, known for his repertoire of realistic sound effects.
But the biggest fodder for comedic material was offered up by Solomon's own family. The 20 memorable characters in his original show — "Unfortunately they're all real," he said — include his father, mother, Aunt Regina and Uncle Frankie, along with his grandmother, Angelina.
"I think the arguing was really funny between my very Italian mother and my old, very Jewish father," said Solomon, slipping easily into one of his dialects. "My mother would say, 'You don't believe Jesus walked on water.' 'I believe he walked on water, it was just winter,' my father would say. It was a lot of fun.
"One of my characters is my sister, the smoker — she's been smoking three packs since she was 4. I tell audiences she signed up for one of those dating services: gotamatch. com."
Even his ex-wife plays a part in Solomon's stories, often in improvised lines: "My ex-wife and I stayed together for the kids. Neither of us wanted custody."
When it comes to comedy, nothing's off-limits, the performer said.
"There are tons of things that can't be joked about, but you know what? I don't care," said Solomon, who at various times was told he might offend everyone from cab drivers to Muslims. "If you can't look at yourself and laugh, don't come to the show. I can't work on thin ice, not with comedy."
Besides the touring version, which sells out at major art centers around the world, Solomon's show enjoys regular theater runs, starring actors he trains himself. The hit comedy played for almost two years in New York City, winning the BroadwayWorld.com "Fans Choice Award" for Best Off-Broadway play. Currently it's playing in Phoenix and South Africa; it opens in Australia and New Zealand in the fall.
"Last year we had four shows running simultaneously around the world," said Solomon, who lives in South Florida and Georgia.
Tickets for the City Opera House show are $20 and $35 for adults and $15 for students. They're available at the Opera House box office, online at CityOperaHouse.org or by calling 941-8082.