Talking to Ted Alexandro About Standup and Why Comedy Shouldn’t Be a Competition

Sometimes it’s difficult to think of people we associate with telling dick jokes to drunken tourists as “artists,” but that’s not the case with Ted Alexandro.

And that’s not to say that Alexandro, one of New York’s top comics, avoids salacious material. It’s just that he brings a certain romanticism to his profession that it’s hard to think of him as anything but an artist.

Named earlier this year one of TimeOut New York’s “21 New York Comedy Scene Linchpins”, Alexandro is a comic you can find almost any night of the week performing at New York’s best comedy clubs, including the world-famous Comedy Cellar, where he’s a regular. He’s performed on nearly every late night talk show, opened for Louis C.K. at Carnegie Hall, and is someone his peers look up to for his work negotiating higher pay for New York’s club comics.

I recently had the chance to talk to Alexandro about his start, the comedian’s coalition he co-founded, and his upcoming web series.

Did I read that you were once a teacher before getting into comedy?

Yeah, I’d been an elementary school teacher for five years before comedy.

In New York?

Yep, I taught in two different schools in Bayside, which is in Queens. I split my time between two schools. It usually wasn’t full-time. It was kind of a big complement to my comedy career because it wasn’t really that taxing, it wasn’t 5 days a week and I was out by 3 p.m. I didn’t have take-home work; I pretty much left the job there because I was the music teacher so it wasn’t like I had to grade papers or anything like that.

Does teaching offer any preparation for comedy? Is there any correlation? With teaching, you’re sort of performing in that you’re speaking to an audience and you want them to listen to what you’re saying.

I think there is. I think there’s a direct tie-in because it’s public speaking and you have to work that muscle and you have to be interesting, ideally. I think there is a lot of overlap in terms of the preparation and the concentration that public speaking requires.

That had to be a difficult decision to leave a steady paycheck as a teacher and move on to doing comedy full-time. Was there one point where you decided you were going for it?

I think there were a couple points where I said I’m gonna go for it. You’re always trying to figure out when the right time is. For me, I think it was probably four years in when I was considering it and making money and I had money saved from my years teaching. The process of it was assessing if I was getting enough money and would I be able to get work? But at that point I had just gotten a manager and starting to get paid road gigs so it looked like it was the right time to do it, and it was. That was about 15 years ago.

You’re known for co-founding the New York Comedian’s Coalition. I’m interested on how that started. Is it still around today? Is it an actual union with benefits?

It kind of happened in stages. In 2002 I wrote a petition to the comedy clubs asking for a pay raise because there had been no pay increase since the 80’s. Comedians had been making the same $50 a set on the weekend shows. So in 2002 there was a lot of displeasure being voiced by comics that these clubs were full and doing 2-3 shows a night on the weekends and we were still being paid $50 like it was 1985. We had to assess that we were complicit in allowing this to go on and after having several conversations, I decided that I was going to write this petition worded to the clubs saying that we would like to be paid alongside with what we were bringing to the clubs. My argument was we are comedians that have been on all of the late night talk shows and have credits and are accomplished and are headlining across the country and would like to be paid a decent wage when we’re at home. So I got 120 – I forget the exact number – of comics to sign it. It’s pretty amazing. I was looking at it the other day, it’s got Lewis Black, Louis C.K., Greg Giraldo, Bill Burr, Jim Gaffigan - all these folks who were working the clubs at the time. So we got all these signatures and sent it out to the clubs and I think the pay got raised $65 at that point. A few years later in 2006 or 2007, Russ Meneve, a New York comic, asked me if I wanted to revisit the pay issue. And at first I was reluctant because it had been so much work to wrangle 120 people, but once I saw Russ’s commitment level I was comfortable doing it again. We started having meetings and this time it really mushroomed because comics were still upset about what they were making - $65 a weekend is not that much and I think during the week it was only $20. You’re still not talking about money you can live on. All these discussion started happing like how we should unionize and after some debate we decided to form the New York Comedian’s Coalition, which wouldn’t be a union because of the freelance nature of our work. We decided we would use our collective muscles to address issues as they come up and front and center was the pay issue. We felt that we were being underpaid and underappreciated.

There are no dues or anything?

No, the coalition is effective largely because there were no dues and it was really open to any comedians. We had people from open mic-ers to Colin Quinn and Dave Attell were coming to meetings. And it was important that we had that scope from the newest to the most established because what wound up happening was we were on the verge of striking on like Valentine’s Day 2007 because there were two clubs that didn’t want to play ball. We got a big inflatable rat and police permits to protest in front of the clubs but then in the end they all raised the pay to between $75 and Gotham went up to $85 at this point. We asked for $100 because it was really a cost of living adjustment. The Cellar has gone up to $85 as well. There’s been progress, not as much as some would hope, but that’s the nature of progress.

Are you guys still active with the coalition?

Not active in terms of meeting and discussing issues, but the important thing is we formed that body and network so that we’re just an email away in case we need to organize at a moment’s notice.

Did you run into any problems with any of the club owners when you were trying to get them to raise pay?

There were a couple clubs that stopped booking me for a while, which was frustrating at the time, but by the same token I’ve always taken the approach that if clubs don’t want to use me, then I don’t want to be there. And fortunately I have enough work and I’ve been around long enough that I can rotate around and work the places that are welcoming environments and don’t feel abusive or toxic. I put myself out there and did what I thought was right and what I knew was right and certain clubs were kind of petty about it, but I didn’t sweat it too much.

I wanted to ask about you working at different clubs. I read that article in the NY Times about the club wars and I’m sure they were trumping it up a little bit, but do you see any of that happening? Are there any clubs that won’t book you if you work at another?

Well I didn’t read the article so I don’t really know the context of how they were framing it, but I don’t really see that much of that. I work mostly clubs now, and I don’t feel any kind of rivalry. I tend to notice that the clubs seem to be thriving. Clubs are doing new shows and new clubs are opening, even though one just closed because the rent got too high, so that was unfortunate, but then two other clubs opened. To my eye it seems like the clubs are doing pretty well. I was at a club in New Jersey recently and the club owner came over to me and told me that they’ve been open for 30 years and just had their best year ever. So it’s kind of funny when clubs will cry poverty but what I hear is this is the golden age for comedy clubs.

Do you have home club that you consider or one that you enjoy performing at most?

New York is really my home. I’m at the Cellar a lot, but I kind of consider all of them home. I started in NY and I am from NY so all of them feel like home to me.

It seems like with your style, you’re not afraid of longer pauses and taking a minute to see where you want to go with something. Did that take time – the ability to slow down a bit and not feel the need to have constant laughter?

I think it did develop over time. I’ve always worked somewhat deliberately, but in recent years I think that’s probably become even more pronounced. I like to take my time, I like silence, I like to take pauses, I like to think on stage and even listen on stage. I’m listening to hear if any inspiration is coming. It’s like a conversation; you have to listen to the other person. I think there’s a lot of intimacy in silence if it’s properly used. Silence in a comedy club can be very awkward or disturbing or it can be very interesting. Awkward can also be interesting. People are forced to feel their own thoughts and their own feelings. If it’s just a constant barrage of jokes and laughter the person watching is removed from the process in a sense because they’re not active in it. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just a stylistic difference. It’s harder because with a slower pace you’re almost waiting for the humanity to re-enter the room.

That’s interesting.

It’s definitely a process. When you’re starting out and you’re newer and younger, you’re just trying to figure out how to get laughs. That is important but then once you know how to get laughs, it becomes more important to figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it. It’s important to just deconstruct every aspect of it. Why do I talk like this? Do I talk like this because this is how comedians are supposed to talk? And once you assess all of that you can look at it and think, “Can I be more conversational? Can I be more still at certain points?” I also think that stylistically the crowd will buy it if you believe it yourself. The main thing is not to be worried.

You said you’ve been working the clubs mostly. Do you go on the road much anymore?

I’m on the road about 25% of the time. I do like to mix it up. I’m not a road dog who just loves to be on the road, but I debate with myself about what the benefits are of life on the road. Because on one hand you are working that muscle and doing 45 minutes to an hour as opposed to doing shorter sets and you’re the headliner, which is great. Also for me, if I get too many consecutive weeks on the road I feel disconnected from my own rhythm of life. I like to be a little more grounded in a home base and having other goals in my life so it’s not just a relentless pursuit of this career goal. I try to balance career growth and personal growth as opposed to just having a career. For me I have to have that balance.

How did it feel to be named one of the “linchpins of the New York comedy scene?” That had to be a pretty cool honor for you.

Yeah that was nice. It was nice because I didn’t know anything about it; I think someone just sent me the link. I don’t have much use for awards in general. I don’t like the competition vibe in the arts, to me that’s kind of hollow, but it was cool to be acknowledged as part of the New York scene. There were a lot of great people mentioned, a lot of friends.

Can you talk a little bit more about your problem with comedy as competition? Were you always wary of comedy competitions?

Yeah, I don’t see the arts as being competition, and I don’t like the hyper competitive culture that it fosters in general. That’s why I didn’t go into other fields like business. It’s not to say the arts are devoid of competition, there’s a healthy aspect to any kind of competition in that seeing somebody talented or maybe better than you in some instance can inspire you. It inspires you to explore and look at other aspects of your performance. Within a context of a competition, I don’t respond to that, I think it’s silly. People are watching differently then. People don’t go to a comedy club and see 5 comedians and think they have to judge the best one; they’re just enjoying the vibe each person brings and their nuance and idiosyncratic approach. You’re not naming one better or more worthy than any other. That’s why the arts should be appreciated, I think. I get that it’s a way to advance your career if you go on this show or do this competition, but that’s not the only way. I was wary of this cookie cutter path of “this is what you do next, now you go on the road, now you go on a TV show,” instead of saying why is that the next step and why does that need to be the next step?

I want to ask you about the Occupy movement, are you still involved with that? How did you get started?

I got started September 19th of last year, I read in the paper that people were protesting Wall Street and the corporate takeover of the government and got intrigued by it and went down and it was one of those things where it just felt like home. It was the only other thing aside from comedy and the arts where I thought, “This is where I will be spending time.” Because it was so ballsy of these activists to set up camp in a park on Wall Street and just live there. It’s just a simple act that was almost like David and Goliath. I went that first day and then I kept going back. There were so many smart, interesting people there that the media failed to show – they tended to show the trite, hippie protestors without any focus. I met a lot of people that really cared and were real artists. As a comedian I can’t just go on TV and say whatever I want. It has to be edited by the advertisers. In my life, my art is first decided by corporations. Everything that you see on TV has to be vetted by standards and practices, which answers to advertisers. That’s true of everything. I think it reached this critical point where people had enough of the suffocating, ubiquitous nature of the corporate hold on every aspect of life and government, and it was very empowering. To me it was life-changing and I’ve made some real dear friends in the last year of doing it… At the end of my life I don’t want to be a heap of what I did on stage. I want to have relationships, and things where I helped, and things where it’s bigger than me. The Occupy movement has definitely rejuvenated that part of my spirit that had been dormant.

Do you have any upcoming projects? What’s next?

I just shot a web series called “Teachers Lounge” that I co-wrote with my longtime friend and collaborator, Hollis James. We went to college together and actually started in comedy together. We’ve been collaborating for 20 years. I play the music teacher and he plays the janitor and we just hang out in the teacher’s lounge and then other teachers come in each episode. We had Lewis Black one episode to play the principal, Judah Friedlander played the computer science teacher, Judy Gold played the gym teacher, Ted Leo played himself in one episode, and Janeane Garofalo does the voice-overs that begin every episode.

That sounds really funny.

Thanks. We shot the four of them and we’re editing them and then we’ll see where they go from there. We’re gonna try and sell them to a website so we’ll be talking to some people. And the other thing is I’m shooting a new hour in February or March. I’m just now talking to the producer and director about starting that process.

For Comedy Central?

I’m not sure where we’re gonna sell it yet, it just depends on where the best deal is. I’m gonna stream it through my site but also the intention is to sell it to either Comedy Central or Showtime or wherever we can find a home for it.

Cool. Do you know where you’re gonna record it?

We have a few spots in mind, possibly the Bell House in Brooklyn, but we haven’t announced the specific location yet. I’ll be sure to post the information once I have it.

Phil Davidson writes about, performs, and produces comedy.

Talking to Ted Alexandro About Standup and Why Comedy […]