Comedian’s Soft Sell Masks Driving Need to Succeed

On stage and off, comedian Steve Mittleman is the epitome of understatement, which belies the ambition and career drive that have given him, at 33, numerous impressive credits and may propel him to even loftier career heights.

His list of credits is as long as Kareem’s arm and includes the two top stand-up showcases on television (“Late Night With David Letterman” and “The Tonight Show”), as well as acting work in top-drawer comedy films (Steve Martin’s “Roxanne” and Woody Allen’s “Radio Days”).

These achievements are the product of a burning desire--make that burning need --to perform that first lured him on stage in New York almost 13 years ago.

“I was addicted,” Mittleman said. “Every night I went on stage, it was getting a fix. I really needed it. I wanted it so badly when I started, that if I didn’t get on (stage that night), I would go on after the show and do my act to nobody.”


This compulsion was so potent that he decided he didn’t have the time or interest to pursue stand-up and continue attending classes at the University of Buffalo. So he quit school.

Mittleman--who performs this weekend at Coconuts in Anaheim--then plunged headlong into learning his craft, constantly writing and performing around town before hitting the road and further honing his act in various American, Canadian and European venues.

Along the way, he locked into his low-key style: clever, understated material imparted with a retiring, kill-'em-with-softness delivery.

Of course, Mittleman faces a significant challenge by working subtly, which can be a tougher sell in an age when many of his compatriots are high-energy jokesters with an edge.


“Well, then you’ve got to put it into more of a high gear,” explained Mittleman, who now lives in Los Angeles. “I like to do subtle material that has a big punch. . . . The greatest thing is selling material that is unique and dry and different.

“I’m sure there are a lot of comedians who are doing the same material that they started years ago but found a little niche that made them able to sell it,” he continued during an interview at Gio’s in Hollywood after a recent performance. “Like Emo Philips. I’m sure he had tough times over the years, and then he came into his own.”

Mittleman enjoys shaping his subtle material into various lengths and contexts. He might do quick, hit-and-run observations or he might spin a lengthy yarn. He might joke about himself, especially his height (6-foot-4) or his recessed chin (“The worst thing about having a weak chin is it takes me 3 to 4 hours to change a pillowcase.”). He might do some variation--or combination--of these tacks.

When he steps off stage, he’s just as likely to be hunched over a desk turning out a screenplay. “Script writing is as much a priority as anything,” he said. “I love it more than anything else I’ve ever done.”

That, apparently, is no joke.

Unlike the neighborhood plumber and all the other screen-writing dilettantes around, Mittleman understands the grueling effort necessary to make a good script--and seems to relish it. That’s why he’s put stand-up on the back burner (he has cut down on his road work and even local appearances), to devote more time to screen writing--even rewriting.

Surprisingly, the man who was once addicted to stand-up performance says he’s finding it more satisfying “to sit down 4 or 5 hours a day and rewrite this (current screenplay) for 6 weeks, do it sanely and know what I was doing.” If it appears that Mittleman aspires to become a full-fledged Hollywood Hyphenate--in his case: comic-actor-writer--you’re getting the hang of his ambitious game plan.

“They all help each other,” he said. “When you study acting, it has to help your stand-up and your writing because you’re developing an ear for the characters and your own stage character. Writing has to help the stand-up and the acting. And stand-up has to help the writing.”


And what helps all of those things is an uncompromising work ethic. This is a concept Mittleman has long understood, but gained new appreciation for through his associations with Steve Martin and Woody Allen.

“Working with them,” Mittleman recalled, “I learned I have to work harder. I started working harder, and now things are starting to pay off.”

Steve Mittleman will perform Friday at Saturday at 8:30 and 10 p.m. at Coconuts in the Ramada Inn, 1331 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. Tickets: $5. Information: 714-978-0521.