The July 19th comedy show at the Academy of Music theatre in Northampton is just around the corner, and Mass Laughs Comedy had an opportunity to sit down for an interview with the headliner Ted Alexandro. Ted is a highly-esteemed comedian out of New York City.
Ted's credits include The David Letterman Show, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson, The View, two half-hour specials on Comedy Central, Carnegie Hall; co-creater of Teachers Lounge; appearances on “Oz”, “Dr. Katz”, “Louie”, “Entourage”… really, too many to list.
“One of the funniest comedians working today.” –Time Out NY
Now, you were born and raised in Queens. Has New York always been your home base for comedy?
Yes, NY has more or less always been my home, comedy or otherwise. I lived in Los Angeles for a couple of pilot seasons but never actually moved out there. My family also lived in India for a year when I was about 4-5 years old. My parents were teaching there at the time. My earliest childhood memories are India.
Many people try standup comedy for a variety of reasons, whether it be a lifelong dream, a way to vent after a traumatic experience, etc. What made you start?
I always loved standup. My parents had good taste, so I was exposed to George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson and Woody Allen early on. I loved to sit in the living room and listen to those old comedy albums. It felt so intimate and also adult, like a secret world where adults had fun.
I think that notion that comedians are adults who remember how to have fun and be silly impacted me viscerally.
When I got to college I joined the sketch comedy group, where I met Hollis James (whom I created "Teachers Lounge" with). After graduating, we performed as a duo at open mics around NY for a year or two. Then I started doing solo standup and I've been doing it ever since.
As a former elementary school music teacher with a major in Jazz Piano, education and music have undoubtedly played underlying roles in your life. How have the two influenced your development and the direction of your comedy?
Being exposed to/immersed in jazz during my college years and beyond really shaped my artistic sensibility. Similar to when I discovered those comedy albums, discovering jazz and devouring a lot of the music, history and personalities gave me a profound respect for the music and those who create it.
There is a deep integrity to jazz musicians that resonated with me, too. It was about having something to say, discovering your voice and expressing something personal in a unique way. The jazz world is very un-show biz, too, which is refreshing. You've got artists of the highest order operating in the shadows, to a large extent
Do you still play the piano?
Yes, I play for fun. Sometimes I'll play at local open mics just to feel that nervousness and challenge myself. It's nice now because there's not pressure of trying to make it my life's work.
Some comedians talk about the Mount Rushmore of comedy, with George Carlin and Richard Pryor consistently topping the list. I don’t have a list per say, but I have always admired the irreverent Bill Hicks- specifically his ability to pull punchlines from positions he almost seemed too invested in. What about you, who are some of the prevalent comedic influences in your life?
Those three are great. I'm definitely a fan of all of them. Dave Chappelle is brilliant. I'm glad he's doing standup again because he's as gifted as it gets. Dave Attell, Brian Regan, Janeane Garofalo; these are all people who are masters of their voice and craft.
So ahh (obligatory), what’s the deal with hecklers?
Hecklers are part of the terrain. Comedy is essentially a conversation with a roomful of strangers, some of whom have been drinking to excess. I'm always astounded more people don't heckle. In this day and age, that anyone listens to anyone is a miracle.
You have been doing comedy for 20 years now. Are you constantly revisiting jokes and material from previous years?
It's a combination of always writing new material and phasing out older material. But I also keep things I love in the act. I don't retire everything and start from scratch. It's an ongoing process of exploring and reworking new stuff mixed in with favorites.
Ever have a bit you wrote or started that you couldn’t quite figure out how to use until 5 or 10 years later?
Yes, that's happened several times. Sometimes you have a funny idea but you haven't figured out the punchline. Or sometimes you don't have the comedic chops to pull off certain jokes yet.
You can write a great joke, but the telling of that joke might require more skill than you've got at that time. But years later everything coalesces and you figure it out.
It's gratifying and a good metaphor for remaining patient in life, in general.
Sometimes, I hate revisiting my material from six months ago. It’s hard to imagine what I will think of my material 10 years from now…
Yeah, it's like old photos. You always wonder "Why did I have my hair like that?" Or "How could I wear that?" In comedy, it's even worse because your thoughts are recorded, so it's like "How could I have said that into a microphone in a roomful of people?" But you learn to embrace the process of evolving, and there should be a public as well as a personal evolution as you mature. That takes work on and off stage, to find your voice and continue evolving.
Your comedy career has transcended the rise of social media. How has this “movement” (using the term lightly) affected your career and approach?
Social media allows for a much larger and immediate reach. We perform in front of hundreds of people nightly but a tweet can reach thousands or tens of thousands (or more) instantaneously. So it's definitely a cool way to engage with the larger consciousness, of sorts. But it can also be excessive. I pick my spots and use it when I'm inclined, not all day, every day.
Social media has provided people with a soapbox to express their opinions- for better or worse. Someone sees a joke/premise he or she doesn’t like, and you could be hearing about it the next day. Is this type of backlash or censorship ever in the back of your head when developing/testing a new bit? Should it be in the back of any aspiring comedians head when they come up with their next joke?
No, I say do whatever you want on stage and tweet whatever you want. If it's funny, you'll find out. If it's not, hopefully you'll learn from it. But don't hold back on an idea that excites you.
You’ve had the opportunity to perform standup across the World (Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Jakarta, England, Holland, Israel, South Africa, and Qatar). I’m sure each experience was unique, but when you look back at your international performances, what sticks out the most in your mind?
That people are people. I thought I'd have to alter my act for Arab audiences or that they wouldn't understand my humor but not only did they get it, they were some of the most appreciative crowds I've performed for. It was great life experience as well as comedic.
Outside of standup comedy, you’ve been pretty active, whether it’s something like appearing on TV shows or actively participating in grassroots movements (in this case, not using the word lightly) such as Occupy Wall Street and The New York Comedians Coalition (an effort to raise comedian wages in New York). What other endeavors have you recently been working on/with?
In 2011/12 I co-founded Occupy Astoria, a neighborhood group of activists and like minded folks. We are in the process of building a community space/library that will have events, workshops and film series, as well as arts classes for kids. It's a way for the community to engage with one another in a more creative, proactive way.
In your standup comedy, you’ve mentioned living in your 40s with no family commitments. I’m 31 years old, with no kids, no wife, but do have a girlfriend (who I hope isn’t reading this)- is life on the other side really that amazing?
Ha, I'm enjoying my life as a single man right now. That said, I've loved the relationships I've been in over the years, as well. I'm not advocating for one over the other. I'm just saying that there are options in life and here are the reflections of a happily single 45 year old. It's a different perspective than what is often represented in the mainstream. But if the right woman comes along, I suspect I'd happily join the mainstream and write some jokes about that.
Have you ever performed/visited the Northampton area before?
I've never performed in Northampton. I look forward to meeting everybody.
You can buy tickets to see Ted Alexandro perform at the Academy of Music here.