An Interview with Ted Alexandro
New York’s comedy scene can best be described as one big, dysfunctional family. Comedians see each other perform in clubs, they watch each other in bars, at birthdays, and at Bar Mitsvahs. If they are lucky, every once in a while someone in the family gets a chance to perform at Carnegie Hall, as Ted Alexandro did when he toured with Louis C.K.
In many ways Alexandro is a perfect foil for C.K. because his regular-guy stage persona is funny without being potty-mouthed or shocking. His stories are just the opposite—they revel in the pedestrian and the banality of every day life. His comedy is akin to the pitcher on the mound that does a wind up where nobody knows what ball he’s going to throw next.
It is natural then, with so many comedians performing at venues like the Comedy Cellar, Eastville, the Strand, or Upright Citizens Brigade—and countless other venues—that they should collaborate at some point. And some of them do. Following in the footsteps of Louis, Between Two Ferns, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and the late Joan Rivers’ In Bed With Joan Rivers, Alexandro has teamed up with his old friend Hollis James to create a comedy web series called Teachers Lounge. Recently they raised $50,000 in a Kickstarter campaign and have continued the tradition of featuring new comedians in every episode.
While many people will recognize names like Janeane Garofalo and Alec Baldwin, fewer will know Dave Attell or Jim Gaffigan, even though they have been in the comedy circuit for decades. Teachers Lounge promises to amuse and delight by bringing together the various members of this dysfunctional family whether they are known, unknown, famous or infamous. With Alexandro being in the middle of all of this, it seemed like a perfect time to hit pause to reflect on where comedy is right now and how his own philosophy informs what he does.
I. SOMETIMES IT’S FUN TO EXPLORE IDEAS THAT MAKE PEOPLE UNCOMFORTABLE
THE BELIEVER: Have you ever stood with a mirror to practice delivery and expressions and that sort of thing, or do you just have trusted friends you ask to see if something works?
TED ALEXANDRO: No, I don’t do the mirror thing; maybe once or twice when I first started out. But after twenty plus years of performing hundreds of shows a year, I prefer to try things out on stage rather than for friends. I don’t see the benefit in that, really. A crowd is the only way to know if something works. Telling a friend or two doesn’t matter. A crowd is what tells you what works or doesn’t, so I’d rather go in front of them cold and see.
BLVR: When you tell people you are a comedian, do they expect you to make them laugh right there and then?
TA: Yeah, that’s definitely a vibe you run into a lot. How many comedians do most people meet, right? People are excited and intrigued and either want you to be funny or they want to make you laugh. It doesn’t drive me crazy, because I’m not the type who’s always on. So maybe it drives them crazy because I’m not terribly amusing. But it doesn’t bother me. After twenty years as a comedian, you pretty much know the terrain.
BLVR: Actors go to acting school to study technique. Comedians don’t, right?
TA: Well, comedians have varying levels of training. It can range from classically trained actors (like Robin Williams) to people who took comedy classes to folks who just started doing it. That’s the beauty of comedy: it’s close to a pure meritocracy. If you’re funny, you can find a stage to get on. If you’re good, you’ll start to get work and eventually get paid.
BLVR: I may be over-thinking it, but comedians seem a lot like philosophers or public intellectuals. Like Socrates on a hill debating the meaning of virtue with other philosophers.
TA: I think you’re right. Comedians are thinkers. The best ones are akin to philosophers, in my opinion. Not that that’s the goal, but sometimes these funny insights can also be deeply profound. I think the more you hone your voice, take risks and talk about things that matter, the better chance you have of getting into the realm of the philosophers of stand up. But you have to be funny. People don’t come to a comedy club simply to hear someone’s thoughts, no matter how profound.
BLVR: Do you have a comedy philosophy?
TA: I don’t know that I have a single comedy philosophy. But talking about things that matter to you is a good place to start. Listening is a big part of it, too. Listening to your own sets and listening to the audience as you perform. It’s a conversation of sorts. There is an exchange. The more you perform, the more adept you get at the nuances of navigating that communal conversation.
BLVR: Like you said, crowds aren’t paying money just to hear some guy talk about nothing in particular—they expect some entertainment for their $25. I wonder if audiences are aware that American comedians would be arrested in other countries for some of the things they say here on stage?
TA: Comedians can articulate some important and profound ideas that address a lot of the hypocrisy we’re inundated with (in the media). Punchlines buy you a pretty wide berth in terms of what you can get away with saying, too. I was just listening to Carlin earlier today and he was talking about necrophilia in one of his bits. There aren’t too many jobs where you can spout off about necrophilia and bring it around to a larger point and people stay with you for the whole ride. Comics definitely embody the importance of practicing free speech. Comedy clubs are arguably one of the last bastions of uncensored, public free speech.
BLVR: When you have appeared on late night talk shows, and you do a five-to-seven-minute set, it seems like a lot of pressure, but it’s not live—so is that pressure real or is it all part of the act?
TA: Oh yeah, there’s pressure. It’s like a boxer getting a title shot. You’ve worked out in the gym, sparred, put your miles in on the road. Now you get your shot and millions of people are watching, more than have seen you your whole career, so it can be daunting. But that’s where your training comes in. You’re not thinking about millions of people. You’re going out and doing what you’ve done thousands of times before. That said, TV is a different animal. It’s not a club set. As you said, you do short sets on TV—about five minutes. So you have to get that rhythm down and also be aware of the camera so you’re connecting with the viewers at home as well as the studio audience. It’s a different muscle to develop.
BLVR: I’m thinking of the artificial-ness of that environment. Do the producers have those flashing signs telling the studio audience when to laugh, or are they free to not react whatsoever?
TA: No, there are no laugh signs. Those shows have a warm up comic to get people excited and keep their enthusiasm up throughout the show, but during your set there’s no prompting of the audience.
BLVR: In those situations, does it matter if an audience likes you? Some comedians don’t seem to care.
TA: Yeah, it matters. Some folks are instantly likeable and charming. That can help. Ultimately, an audience wants to laugh. That’s who they like, the comedian who makes them laugh. I’ve seen people who are likeable but bland. I’ve seen people who are not very likeable but hilarious. I think comedians get to a point where they know they’re funny, so they don’t care—in the sense that they know what they’re doing. They have a skill. A person riding a unicycle on a tightrope doesn’t worry about being likeable; they’re doing something amazing that very few people can do.
BLVR: So an audience either likes you or it doesn’t?
TA: To an extent, yes. Sometimes crowds start out not liking someone but then they shift and love them. Or vice versa. It can shift on a dime. I don’t really worry about a crowd liking me. Certainly, you want to be liked, but as you gain confidence and experience you’re more concerned with expressing yourself and what matters to you. Sometimes it’s fun to explore ideas that might make people uncomfortable. If you let it, there’s a lot of self-censoring that can go on in the name of remaining likeable, but I don’t find that an artistically interesting path to take. It’s harder to reveal sides of yourself that make you vulnerable but it’s another muscle that can be developed and one that I think is worthwhile. That said, everyone finds their style. It’s personal.
BLVR: And the personal can also be political. It seems comedians enjoy rocking the boat socially—Louis C.K. using the N-word, Amy Schumer’s fixation on taboo topics.
TA: No, I don’t think all comedians do. Comics can definitely be subversive on the whole, but it’s a stylistic thing. Some comedians are silly or goofy or straight joke writers who avoid anything subversive or political. Others are drawn to it. The beauty of standup is there is room for everyone, and years of performing in front of crowds will dictate what you can or can’t do. It always comes down to what the crowd buys coming out of your mouth, which differs from one comic to the next.
BLVR: You are doing your own web series now with Hollis James called Teachers Lounge and in it, as they say, everyone is a comedian. Do you feel comedians work well as actors?
TA: They’re great. Comedians act every night on stage, so they have great performing chops. They especially know how to play themselves, which is how we set Teachers Lounge up. Hollis and I specifically wrote the scripts for these comedians, to tap into their strengths and their voices and really showcase what each of them does. We also leave some room in every script for improvisation, which was phenomenal to watch with such high level comics.
BLVR: I was wondering if you could tell me where you think comedy is these days? I’m thinking of Louis C.K., Kamau Bell and Marc Maron each doing totally different things under the umbrella term of “comedy.”
TA: I think comedy is no different now than it was at other points. It takes a long time to get good and know how to distill what makes you funny beyond the realm of standup, which is what I’m trying to do with Teachers Lounge. It’s a constant process of honing and discovering your voice; a specific point of view evolves over time and a lot of trial and error. The guys you mentioned have all been doing it for decades. Louie and Marc, close to three decades.
BLVR: Going back to Teachers Lounge, what did you do when you saw your Kickstarter hit the $50,000 mark?
TA: I celebrated with Hollis, Matthew L. Weiss, the director/editor, and Mary Borello, the producer. We were actually at a party celebrating the launch of www.thundershorts.com, the site that is home to Teachers Lounge. We were at the party when we passed the $50k mark, which made for an even better party. We were within a few thousand, but there were less than twenty-four hours left. We were both elated and relieved when we hit the goal.
II. INHERENT IN MOURNING IS CELEBRATION
BLVR: Despite all the strange and sometime tragic things that happen to comics (Richard Pryor catching on fire, Marc Maron doing podcasts from his garage, Andy Kaufman getting into wrestling) is comedy ultimately an optimistic art form?
TA: Yes, I think it is. Laughing at something is a form of accepting it, or at least making peace with it. It’s like the blues. The blues is a hopeful music. It helps you process something rather than avoid it. It’s like mourning, in essence. Inherent in mourning is celebration. Mourning without celebration or some form of acceptance leaves you stuck. So comedy takes all of life and puts it through a lens of acceptance, just by the mere act of talking about it on stage in a communal setting. It’s very primal and ritualistic in that sense.
BLVR: It must be strange, too—in clubs—where you end up both performing and being part of the audience while you watch others on stage before or after you. At this point what do you find funny?
TA: Dave Chappelle is about as gifted as it gets, as a performer and comedian. He was in town recently doing a sold out run at Radio City, so he would pop by the Comedy Cellar to run his set. It’s always great to watch him work. He started around fourteen and he’s in his forties now, so he’s probably been doing it for close to thirty years. He’s brilliant. I love Dave Attell, Brian Regan, Todd Barry, Tig Notaro.
BLVR: With Teachers Lounge—I am not sure people understand what all goes into pulling off a production like what you and your group are doing—something with so many moving parts. Can you talk about the work that goes into it?
TA: I think there comes a time in any comedian’s career where they can either coast or keep growing and evolving. Chris Rock went from a guy whose name you knew from SNL to a legendary comedian by working his ass off. Louis CK went from a writer/comedian to winning Emmys for his own show because he works his ass off.
Both of those guys were good comedians making good livings in show business but they made that leap to the cream of the crop through a lot of hard work and risk-taking. Hard work is a muscle that you develop, as is taking risks. At a certain point, those muscles combined with twenty plus years of experience can take you to another level.
In terms of my own work ethic, I’ve always been a determined person. When I’m focused on something, I try to see it through. With Teachers Lounge, I had the added benefit of collaborating with Hollis, with whom I have a long history. Between us, we are very focused and prepared but also mindful of enjoying the process and having fun.
With a project of this scope—as you say, there are so many moving parts and so many decisions to be made that you lean on one another. Hollis and I joke that we’re like an old married couple. We’ve been like brothers since college, so we’ve been through a lot together, both personally and professionally. That enables us to have an implicit trust and ease to our decision-making. It’s a constant process of bouncing ideas off of one another and intuitively arriving at the right decision in the moment. We also have a great rapport with director Matthew L. Weiss, who also edited. His contributions, as well as those of Michael Huss, who directed four episodes, were invaluable to our show becoming what it is.
With a project like Teachers Lounge, you’re wearing a lot of hats, so it demands hard work and focus if you want to do it right. We also had to organize our Kickstarter campaign, which was like another job as fundraisers and marketers.
A million challenges come up, and a million opportunities to quit or compromise. But that’s where hard work, discipline and years of experience kick in and there starts to be an ease to navigating all of it.
BLVR: Because storytelling is such a big part of it, do you feel comics tend to view themselves as characters in a novel? I am asking about a performing self as opposed to a real self.
TA: I don’t think comics necessarily think in literary terms. There is an element of developing your stage persona and your comedic voice, but I don’t think comics see it like a character in a novel. Your stage persona is usually a version of yourself, to varying degrees. Some folks do a full-on character, so that’s different. But most comics do some version of themselves.
BLVR: Marc Maron was doing WTF, Seinfeld is doing Comedians in Cars, Joan Rivers was doing In Bed With Joan, Galifianakis is doing Between Two Ferns and you and Hollis are doing Teachers Lounge. Are we witnessing a new genre?
TA: That’s nice of you to say, but I don’t think it’s new. I think it’s pieces of a lot of different things that we’ve absorbed over the years. It has elements of old comedy teams like Abbott & Costello in the interactions between Hollis and I. It has aspects of Curb Your Enthusiasm in the improvisation. It has some of the feel of work place comedies like Barney Miller or Cheers or The Office, in that people are thrown together at a job. So it’s a comedic stew that hopefully results in something unique and fresh.
III. WHAT YOUR BRAIN MIGHT STUMBLE UPON
BLVR: What exactly is Teachers Lounge?
TA: Teachers Lounge is a web series I co-created with Hollis James. We intentionally left the apostrophe out to turn Lounge into a verb. The show is about teachers lounging around, wasting time.
I play the music teacher and Hollis plays the janitor at a school and we’re always hanging out in the teachers’ lounge. We have guest comedians playing faculty in every episode, like Jim Gaffigan as the nutritionist, Lewis Black as the principal, Judy Gold as the gym teacher and Dave Attell as the school photographer. We’ve shot ten episodes and they’ve begun to come out weekly on www.thundershorts.com.
BLVR: Can you tell me a little bit more about Hollis?
TA: Hollis and I met in the drama department at Queens College. He founded a sketch comedy group there and almost singlehandedly wrote and directed several sketch shows. He was a wunderkind in the department. He was like a comedy savant. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things comedy, from Monty Python to Mel Brooks to Kids in the Hall. He has immediate recall of lines, scenes and characters. And he’s incredibly smart and quick.
BLVR: Sounds impressive…
TA: I wasn’t in the drama department, but I auditioned anyway and he not only cast me but also included a few sketches that I wrote, which really sparked my pursuit of comedy. So we eventually started going to open mics around NYC as a duo. We’ve been friends for over twenty years and I think the show embodies our friendship and the ways we complement one another.
BLVR: Do you have a writing routine? You once told me that you tend to work on one project at a time. Is that how you mainly work?
TA: With standup, I’ll sit down for an hour or two a few days a week in a quiet place and brainstorm. The earlier in the day, the better, before the parade of distractions starts. Plus, that allows my brain to operate uninfluenced by outside forces. The second you check your phone or the computer, you’re influenced by what other people want you to think about rather than what your brain might stumble upon on its own. I also do a certain amount of talking through material on stage, to see what happens and allow interesting ideas to manifest. Louie told me that your brain operates differently in front of an audience than it does sitting in a quiet cafe writing in a notebook. That heightened dynamic can produce interesting, funny ideas that are phrased in ways that surprise even you, as the performer.
BLVR: And for the show?
TA: For Teachers Lounge, Hollis and I write everything together. We sit down at his apartment or mine with notebooks and throw ideas back and forth. But it usually starts with the comedian and the ideas flow from there. Like once we picked Jim Norton as the head of security, the writing flows pretty easily.
BLVR: You have done so much over the course of your career. Do you have any Zen-koan-like advice from anyone you’ve worked with?
TA: Opening for Louis C.K. during his “Hilarious” tour was a great experience for me. He is the generation just ahead of me, because he started so young. So it’s like he’s sort of a senior and I’m a junior, in terms of the business. He’s done so much—from writing on Conan and Chris Rock to writing and directing movies, having his own HBO show, “Lucky Louie,” and now having “Louie” on FX. I learned so many things from Louie, but the most impactful thing was witnessing his work ethic. He works harder than anyone I’ve ever been around in comedy. And he takes risks and doesn’t dwell on what might be perceived as failures. He keeps moving forward and keeps working. It was incredibly inspiring to be around him and pick his brain. I was very lucky.
Chris Cobb is a writer and artist living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. He writes an Arts and Culture column for the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco and has written about music, art and culture for the Believer, Flash Art, Leonardo Magazine, Clamor Magazine, and for the the KQED Arts and Culture Blog. His most recent art show was at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, a series of about the workers who install Sol Lewitt’s Wall Drawings.