Writing Jokes with Ted Alexandro (Teacher’s Lounge)
Ideally it’s a combination of great writing and great performance. But it’s a mysterious thing.
[@tedalexandro on Twitter]
How will you react if the Mets win the World Series?
The last time they won was my senior year of high school. That was euphoric, especially the way that they came back on the Red Sox to win. It’s hard to believe but it’s almost thirty years later. So there’s a certain amount of nostalgia and life inventory that accompanies a run like this. That said, I’m enjoying the hell out of this and it makes me feel like a kid again. I’m sure I’ll go nuts if they win.
What’s your name and where did you grow up?
Ted Alexandro. I grew up in Bellerose, NY which is in Queens.
What’s interesting or uninteresting about Queens?
Queens is interesting because it’s hailed as the most diverse county in the United States.
What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid?
My mom was a stay at home mother, raising five kids. She later taught high school religion, health and sex education.
My dad taught in Bushwick for thirty years at an elementary school. He also caddied at a golf course during summers.
Why did you first want to start performing comedy? What was the first joke or bit you tried on stage?
I always loved standup comedy. My parents had a lot of classic albums; stuff by Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Flip Wilson, Steve Martin, Woody Allen. I absorbed a lot of great comedy throughout childhood and it stuck with me.
I did a lot of acting and sketch comedy throughout HS and college. I started going to open mics with my friend, Hollis James, after graduating Queens College. We performed as a duo for about a year. Then I started going out on my own. I wanted to try it as a solo act. One of my earliest jokes was, “I often think about my future wife, and how lax she’s been about getting in touch with me.”
Can you talk about the transition from doing open mics into becoming a paid regular? How does a comic’s life change during that stage?
It took me a couple of years to go from open mics to getting some paid work. I think change, by and large, is incremental. Sometimes you’ll have leaps but mostly it’s about working steadily, getting up every night, writing new stuff, taking risks, developing your style. Without realizing it, all of those muscles continue getting stronger.
If you’re expecting life to change overnight, it doesn’t really. Once you commit to a life in comedy, you take the ride and I recommend being patient and appreciating all of the steps and friendships along the way.
You’ve been a guest and performed on several late night talk shows. What advice would you give a comedian that is going to make his or her first appearance on TV?
First off, I’d say, “Congratulations.” Getting a TV spot is exciting and the culmination of a lot of work. Before I got my first Letterman appearance I would study my favorites. I’d watch their sets on video or DVD (this was pre-YouTube). I would take notes, watching their body language, facial expressions, their vocal inflections. I’d even watch their performances with the volume muted, just to analyze the non-verbal communication. I think with any artistic endeavor, preparation is important. Then over time you eventually get to a point where you integrate all that and have your own style.
What was the inspiration behind Teacher’s Lounge? Why do you and Hollis James work well together?
Hollis and I have basically been best friends since meeting at Queens College. We did sketch comedy there and starting writing and performing together. Once I graduated, I was an elementary school music teacher for five years and Hollis was a janitor for a summer job. We had the idea for Teachers Lounge, combining elements of our experiences on those jobs. So we set the show in a teachers’ lounge and brought in other comics like Jim Gaffigan, Lewis Black, Janeane Garofalo and Dave Attell to play faculty members.
You’ve performed internationally in places like Egypt, Hong Kong, Jakarta, England and Isreal (among others). How does the reception of stand up differ abroad compared to within the United States?
There’s a genuine excitement for standup internationally that feels different because the art form is new to many of these places. In the States, people have consumed a lot more standup comedy so people are both savvy and perhaps a bit jaded at times.
What do you like or dislike about the comedy scene in New York?
I started here and I’ve loved it from the get go. I love that the best comics in the world work here regularly. This is where they come to work, not to get a paycheck. The emphasis is on the art in NY. I’ve been fortunate to come up watching and learning from the best, as well as the influx of young talent year by year.
What I dislike is that there are so many comics here now, exponentially more than when I started in the 90s, so there are a lot of free shows that are unpaid. I understand the need for that, comics wanting stage time, but I also believe that artists should be paid. If you’re working the top clubs, you should be paid well.
Who is the funniest person you know?
Dave Chappelle might be the funniest comedian I’ve seen. He’s just preternaturally gifted as a performer and a hilarious comic. Artists make it seem effortless, and he does that.
My friend Gil might be the funniest person I know.
What’s the dumbest superhero name you can think of?
Why are jokes funny?
I don’t really know. I don’t think it’s one thing. I guess a lot of times there’s an element of surprise or a twist that people don’t see coming. Ideally it’s a combination of great writing and great performance. But it’s a mysterious thing. It’s not like music where you’re dealing with notes and chords.