The Real Deal: "What is Comedy?" Q and A with Ted Alexandro
What is comedy? Is it satirical, acerbic, scathing, goofy, silly, slapstick, wry, obscure? In talking with Ted Alexandro, and seeing his standup progress from his early efforts, I have come to understand that comedy takes many forms, and the art of standup is malleable likened to a clay that a master sculptor uses. Ted is a master sculptor and he generates physical and mental abstractions to create his own style. A blend of dead-pan nuance and in-your-face revelation, Ted brings forth the ingredients needed for society to look at itself, which transcends his jokes….but with all the social commentary, Ted’s work is in a word, “Funny.”
I’ve known Ted since he was a young amateur, and to quote “This is Spinal Tap,” his “comical” growth cannot be charted, only in reality, it is because his development has broken the mold.
Ted has performed on Conan, Letterman, Kimmel, Dr. Katz, Comedy Central, and has travelled extensively in the middle east, performing comedy, and has performed all over the world. He remains active in contentious and controversial causes.
I caught up with my friend and asked him a series of questions about his craft, his influences, and his continued growth as an artist.
1. How did you get started into Stand Up?
I got started as part of a duo with my friend, Hollis James. We had done sketch comedy at Queens College and when we graduated we started going to open mics around NYC together. We had some moderate success but we didn't perform regularly enough to make a real go of it. You really have to go out every night. Then after a while, I found myself wanting to try solo stand up and I was writing more and more material in that direction. The experience of having already been in a duo made the transition to doing it solo a lot easier because I already knew the lay of the land and had been on stage a decent amount.
2. What comedians did you admire when you started? Who do you admire now? What is your favorite bit of comedy?
I always admired some of the legends like George Carlin, Bill Cosby (before we knew he was a rapist), Steve Martin. My parents had a great collection of comedy albums so I was lucky to hear those from a young age. I remember Flip Wilson was another one I loved listening to. And in later years, guys like Eddie Murphy, Steven Wright and of course, Richard Pryor.
Then once I started doing it full time, I loved guys like Brian Regan and Dave Attell. They were such masters who I got to see a lot around the NY scene and performed with them quite a bit as I came up the ranks. They were great guys and very generous of spirit. They showed by example how to be a great comedian, mostly by always having hilarious new material.
I don't have one favorite bit of comedy. There are so many classics. George Carlin has a classic bit about The American Dream and how you have to be asleep to believe it. That is funny, biting and insightful.
3. How would you define your "Style"?
I think my style has evolved over the years and will probably continue to. But I'm pretty relaxed and laid back, not loud or high energy. But I am also physical at times, when it can accentuate a bit. I do mix of personal material and social commentary. Other people can probably define my style better than I can.
4. When I listen to some of your more politically related satire I am reminded of Lenny Bruce? Did he have an influence? what are your thoughts on him? What about early pioneers?Any influence? Mel Brooks, Jerry Stiller, Seinfeld, Dangerfield, Henny Youngman, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner,
or the Christopher Guest ensemble pieces? Or Andy Kaufman (what was any of their contributions?)
Lenny Bruce was definitely someone who shifted what standup could be. He took it from set up/punchline to more personal, conversational and confessional. As a student of standup, I think I've been influenced by everyone funny, from Seinfeld to Dangerfield to Joan Rivers to Andy Kaufman to Bernie Mac. What you discover is that all the greats have their own voice. They're authentic and original. They're not trying to be anyone but themselves. You can learn from everyone, even if your style is different.
On the movie side, I definitely loved Christopher Guest. He had a sketch background with SNL but he created these unique little worlds with his films. They were so funny and fresh, partly because he had a troupe of actors he trusted and allowed them to improvise. That allows unexpected things to happen. That freshness and unpredictability definitely impressed me.
5. How can comedy be used for purposes of social justice and change?
I always try to find what is funny about whatever I'm discussing. It's not enough to just talk about an issue if you're a comedian. But that said, if you can say something funny and thought provoking about an issue, it can shed light on something or make people think about it in a different way. I've been involved in social justice movements so the things I talk about on stage I've spent a lot of time not only thinking about but giving my time to. That helps me process it to the point that I can maybe find a funny, unique angle to talk about it. The funny has to be the foundation but those other things can come as a by product.
6. Have you ever been heckled? How did you handle that?
I've been heckled plenty of times. Responding to a heckler is something you learn how to do over years. In the early years I would be more defensive and try to shut it down or make fun of the person. You don't want to show any weakness or vulnerability. But now I'm not as scared so I'm able to engage with the person, maybe have a little back and forth. I'm confident in my ability so I don't worry that I'll be thrown off track. That said, often times the best thing you can do to a heckler is ignore them. Just don't give them the attention. But if they are disruptive and the whole crowd hears them, you do have to address them and get the room back.
7. Do you think there are taboos in comedy?- lines that shouldn't be crossed?
I think that is different for everyone. Some people have no lines or even actively seek to cross every line they can and shock people. Again, it's a stylistic thing. I do some stuff that is maybe edgy or provocative but I try not to be hurtful or make fun of the powerless. When you're starting out you go for the laugh any way you can, but as you get more experienced you start to realize that certain kinds of laughs aren't worth it. I know when I've said something that sort of violates my core values. It happens, sometimes in the spur of the moment, but for the most part I try to make sure I'm speaking from my integrity.
8. What do you say to those who say "you're a comedian…just be funny. don't be political"?
It's really up to the performer to decide what they talk about. You have to be true to what excites you. People can listen or not. And they can have their opinions. But I think it's up to the comedian to be true to themselves. That's why there are different styles, and that's a good thing.
In my latest special, "Senior Class of Earth," I talk about a mix of personal and social commentary. It's not a plan, it just comes out that way because those are the things that are on my mind. Each special is almost documenting where you're at in life at that time. I just got married fourteen months ago so maybe half of my special talks about my relationship and things related to that. It's fertile ground for comedy.
9. Can you talk a bit about "Teacher's Lounge"? What inspired that? You taught for DOE NY for a period right?
I was an elementary school music teacher in NYC for five years when I graduated Queens College. I was working part time at two different schools in Queens and pursuing standup at night. Once standup started paying, I quit teaching and focused on comedy full time. Years later, I wrote the web series "Teachers Lounge." I collaborated with Hollis James (who I used to perform in the duo with); I played a music teacher and he played a janitor who were always hanging out in the teachers' lounge. Every episode had a different comedian playing a faculty member. We had Jim Gaffigan as the school nutritionist, Dave Attell as the photographer, Michael Che as the talented and gifted teacher, Judy Gold as the gym teacher. We did ten episodes altogether and it was a blast.
It's funny you asked about Christopher Guest earlier because his style definitely had an influence on Teachers Lounge. We scripted the scenes but we also encouraged the actors to improvise. We would give them a scenario or certain things to hit on and just go from there. It was a blast to work with so many talented comedians and friends.
10. A piece I admire, is a short mockumentary called "Nobody's Dummy"? Can you speak to your intentions in that piece? https://youtu.be/6UjWiMZPdBY
Thanks, I loved that one. Again, Hollis James and I collaborated on that. What's funny is the idea for that originated out of a Christmas gift I got when I was 9 or 10. I wanted a ventriloquist dummy, specifically Lester, who was a Black dummy who the ventriloquist Willie Tyler worked in the 70's. He and Lester were on the late night shows like Johnny Carson. I was looking through a JC Penney catalog and saw Lester for sale and begged my parents for one. They got it for me and I was elated. About twenty years later I still had the dummy and came up with the idea for "Nobody's Dummy." Hollis and I wrote a mockumentary about the first integrated ventriloquism team, "Horace & Huey." It was fertile ground for comedy because it felt like it could all be real but it was made up.
11.Are there any movies, music, literature that have moved you recently, influenced, or inspired you?
I enjoyed "Nanette," Hannah Gadsby's comedy special. It was unique, personal and very funny. It was personal, confessional and hit on some different colors than the typical comedy special. I found it inspiring because it served as a reminder that you can always dig and explore any topics you feel compelled to explore, even if it's outside the norm. When it comes from an authentic place that makes the best art.
12. What would be an an ultimate goal for you as a comedian?
I'm already making a living as a comedian and traveling the world, so I feel very lucky. I tour with Jim Gaffigan as his opening act, which is awesome. Jim is a good friend, so not only is it fun to hang out and travel the world but we get to perform in front of thousands of people. I would love to do more acting, writing and maybe even directing down the line. I'd love to work with talented people who inspire me.
Hollis and I are currently collaborating on a Christmas screenplay. He's in L.A. now so we use google chat to write together a couple of times a week. And comedy-wise, I plan to keep putting out new specials and challenging myself to keep growing.
13. What are you doing now-working on? Promoting?
I'm still promoting my special which just came out. I was out in L.A. to promote an did "Conan" and WTF with Marc Maron, which was a lot of fun. And Vulture just named it one of the Top Ten specials of 2018, which was a thrill.
Now I'm starting a new podcast called "A Little Bit Me," which will be coming out before the end of this year. I joke around that I'm the last comedian who didn't have a podcast so I had to do one. It's another challenge and a way to speak to people in a personal platform that is a little different than stand up. I'm excited to explore that and see how it develops.
14. Describe the typical week of a comedian?
There's no typical week, really. It varies if you're home or on the road. But for me, the things that usually happen in a day or in a week are writing and performing. Exercise is also very important to stay in shape and feel good, mentally and physically. Since you're on stage alone, sometimes for up to an hour, you need to be up to the task physically and have enough energy. Your body is your instrument.
Most of the writing takes place during the day and that's the discipline, because you are you're own boss so you could waste the whole day if you wanted to. You have to make time to sit and explore new thoughts and ideas. Then at night you go out and try it out on stage. Some writing takes place on stage in the spur of the moment, too, but it's usually based on ideas I've already come up with.
And it's important to record your sets, too, so you can listen or watch them afterwards and take notes. That is where the work comes in and that's how you build new jokes and ideas.
Bill Blick is a freelance writer, Assistant Professor and Librarian at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York. He has an M.A. in English literature and M.L.S. from Queens College. He has previously published several articles in Senses of Cinema, and in several other venues on such topics as film, popular culture, education and librarianship, crime fiction, and literature. He has also presented at academic conferences in Ireland, Poland, England, and other symposiums on crime fiction, film, and literature.