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Jeff Altman to Play Irvine : Character Comic--Or Just Nuts?

There’s a select fistful of comedians who consistently make David Letterman laugh and who, not coincidentally, are the most frequent guests on “Late Night With David Letterman”: Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld, George Miller and Jeff Altman.

Of those, Altman is the odd man out-- very odd, some might say. For one thing, Altman is the only one whom Letterman often ushers onto the set with the phrase: “He’s nuts.”

Another thing: While Leno and Seinfeld specialize in observational comedy, and Lewis and Miller emphasize anecdotal humor, Altman--who occasionally incorporates elements of both styles--is really a character comic.

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But he’s not a character comic a la Emo Philips, Pee-Wee Herman or Judy Tenuta, each of whom has adopted a singular persona and who refuse to break character. On the contrary, Altman--who performs Monday at the Irvine Improvisation--takes the stage like a man who has consumed way too much coffee and is fighting a losing battle against a multiple-personality disorder, careening frantically from character to character, voice to voice, idea to idea.

“I know my strong suit is doing characters, getting in and out of stuff very quickly, doing non sequiturs, running characters and bits that almost seem like they don’t make sense sometimes,” Altman said--in the midst of an evening that found him performing at three Hollywood clubs: the Laugh Factory, the Comedy Store and the Improvisation.

Altman’s assessment, and Letterman’s more concise one, both were very much in evidence as the compact, dark-haired comedian made the rounds of those venues, drawing an increasingly strong response as he faced increasingly bright, hip audiences.

The first stop on Altman’s cavalcade of comedy was the newly revamped Laugh Factory. Because he was one of the first performers on the bill, he faced a crowd that wasn’t especially warmed up (plus, this bunch would never be mistaken for Mensa). So Altman bounded on stage with an even more energetic, physical approach than “normal.”

He commenced with an amped-out cheerleader exhortation, moving into some unusual hit-and-run segments, as when he leaned over to someone in the front row and bellowed: “Do you see asparagus in my nose right now?”

He continued to zigzag through a sprawling assortment of bits and characters, including his classic piece on dads in general, and his own specifically. The initial premise is that as dads get older, their pants go in one of two directions--in the case of Altman’s dad, they went up, to the point where his father wound up being just “a belt and a head.”

Altman acted all this out, segueing into a portrayal of his dad in a supremely agitated mood, pants up, jiggling about $1,000 worth of change in his pocket, shaking with anger while shouting such threats as, “Why, I’ll flip you like a cheese omelet . . . I’ll hit you so hard, your kids will be born dizzy.”

The Laugh Factory crowd responded strongly to this and some of Altman’s other characters (including dim-bulb boxer Leonard Moon), but much of the brief set--certainly anything with much depth or sophistication--seemed to zoom right over their collective heads.

Altman felt that things could only get better, especially because the next stop was the Comedy Store, where he had something like the home-court advantage.

“It was 1974 when I first (performed at the Comedy Store), but it wasn’t until ’75 that I really started kind of doing it on a regular basis,” Altman, 37, recalled.

All that wasn’t long after he had graduated from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and returned to his native Syracuse, N.Y., where he worked briefly in a furniture store, saving up the money to go West, young man.

When he relocated to Los Angeles, visions of characters were hardly dancing in his head. He hadn’t even been the prototypical class-clown type, though Altman acknowledged, “I was the funny guy in the fraternity.”

No. His passion then was magic. “When I came out here, it was really to hang out at the Magic Castle,” he said. “So I hung around there for six months, really going nowhere fast. I noticed that I was starting to be funnier than I was technically skillful with magic. Actually, I was always fairly technically skillful, but I was never a very good entertainer when I was handling cards. I was a funny guy when I wasn’t doing magic. . . . So one night, in June of ’74, I was in Hollywood and I got up at the Comedy Store.”

This predated the comedy boom by so many years that Altman said there were “maybe 12 comedians (who) were working the Store at that time,” including Steve Landesberg, Charles (voice of Roger Rabbit) Fleischer and George Miller. Within the next couple of years, a few other comics started frequenting the Store--two of whom greatly influenced Altman. One was Tim Thomerson, who had a high-energy, very physical style.

“He showed me that there wasn’t this tremendous amount of preparation (necessary), you didn’t have to memorize hours of material, you didn’t have to think out jokes. He was brilliant at being able to do the stuff on stage that you laughed at guys in high school for doing. That was really where, if I had any talent at all for being funny--that’s where it was. So he led the way for me.”

“Then a guy named David Letterman was coming around a lot, and he influenced me in a different way. He began to show me--and everybody else at the time--the power of the English language, how a simple phrase or word used at the right time could be very, very powerful.”

Altman is not averse to engaging in serious, thoughtful discussions, and he’s definitely not afflicted with that annoying show biz trait of always being “on.” At the same time, he doesn’t mind occasionally goofing it up offstage.

For instance, after he pulls his Porsche into the Comedy Store’s back parking lot, the attendant greets him with a “Hey Jeff!” Suddenly affecting a snooty, regal bearing, he doesn’t answer to that name, insisting--for no apparent reason--that he is someone named Charles Bustamante. The attendant and others gathered in the lot are puzzled, but amused.

Once Altman steps on stage, those gathered inside the Comedy Store are far less puzzled and far more amused. The material he repeats from the Laugh Factory elicits a much stronger, more tuned-in response. Plus, Altman charges into more adventurous territory with additional bits and characters, engaging in some spontaneous pseudo-lounge act shenanigans with the club’s piano player, contrasting the way men and women look in the throes of passion (women look great, “guys look more and more like a mule.”)

It’s a triumphant set. But then, the Comedy Store has been the site of hundreds of triumphant Altman sets; the place has been at least indirectly responsible for the impressive credits he’s accumulated over the years. Some of those credits he’d prefer to forget about, like “Pink Lady and Jeff,” an ill-conceived and short-lived weekly variety show on NBC a decade ago that teamed him with a then-popular Japanese female singing duo called Pink Lady.

His other television credits include appearances on “Night Court,” “thirtysomething,” “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” periodic visits to “The Tonight Show” and, of course, those dozens of visits to “Letterman.”

He’s currently developing some star-vehicle projects for the Showtime cable network. He’s also acted in films, including “Soul Man” and “Easy Money.”

But back to the evening’s trilaughalon: Striding along Melrose Avenue toward the entrance of the Improvisation, Altman runs into Jay Leno and another comic, Rick Ducommun, who are standing beside one of Leno’s vintage automobiles parked out front. Altman admires the car--especially its special compartment for storing golf clubs--and chats briefly with the pair.

Wending his way through the club’s packed schmoozatorium toward the showroom, he greets other friends and hears that Roseanne Barr is not only in the audience, but has come expressly to see him.

Sure enough, Barr is sitting dead center, a few rows from the stage. Altman has barely begun his performance when she’s calling out for him to do the Dad material--and laughing uproariously. With good reason. The crowd is great and so is Altman, achieving a sort of fiery, freewheeling brilliance that recalls both Robin Williams and Charles Fleischer while remaining wholly original.

His timing is dead-on, everything’s clicking, he’s taking some neat chances--and they’re all working. In one of his final pieces, he expresses his confusion about the TV series “The Beauty and the Beast,” trying to reconcile his understanding that the beast is half man/half cat and is inclined to quote Shakespeare. Then becoming the Beast, he launches into an eloquent recitation of a Shakespeare soliloquy--suddenly interrupted by severe gagging, as if choked by a hairball.

The piece brings the house down, and few are laughing harder than Barr. Strengthening the impression that she has come just to see him, Barr gets up to leave as soon as he leaves the stage. A few minutes later, Altman also departs, climbing into his Porsche and roaring off, leaving a trail of laughs behind him.

Jeff Altman performs Monday at the Improvisation, 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine. Showtimes: 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Tickets: $12. Information: 714-854-5455.


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