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Stand-Up Comic Does Bang-Up Job : Comedy: Jeff Altman, who performs Sunday night at the Irvine Improv, is known for his highly physical approach.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jeff Altman used to open his act by saying, “I’m seeing my psychiatrist. He told me I had to stop punishing myself. . . .”

Then he’d bang his head on a bar stool.

“It used to look like I was really disturbed,” Altman says. “That’s the illusion I try to paint when I go onstage. I found it established the tone for what was about to happen. It also used to make people laugh--and that was the most important thing.”

Actually, Altman says, “I’ve done several things where I’ve smashed my head. I used to walk out and say, ‘And now this word from the National Safety Council.’ Then I’d smash my head and go down. (David) Letterman used to always kid me: ‘Yeah, highly technical comedy.’ ”

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A frequent guest on his old pal Letterman’s late-night show, Altman is well-known on the comedy-club circuit for his high-energy and highly physical, character-oriented approach.

Indeed, Altman has been described as manic and frantic; in the words of one reviewer, “like a man who has drunk way too much coffee and is fighting a multi-personality disorder.”

In real life, Altman, who is doing a one-nighter at the Irvine Improv on Sunday, has been known to be just as physical: “I’d pretend to walk into doors and all sorts of those crazy things.”

A 15-year comedy veteran, the former Johns Hopkins University social science major has appeared in a handful of movies, dozens of prime-time TV shows and more than 30 national TV commercials. He was a regular on Bill Cosby’s short-lived 1976 variety show “Cos” and co-hosted the even more fleeting 1980 variety show “Pink Lady and Jeff.”

Altman describes his stand-up act as “eclectic and physical.” He does as many as 10 different characters, including a rock ‘n’ roll roadie and a dimwitted boxer.

“The ones I’m most proud of are the ones most unique to me,” he says, adding that it’s difficult to come up with completely original characters.

One of his most unusual--and popular--characters is one he began doing in high school but didn’t add to his act until 10 years ago: “Dad,” who wears his pants hiked up to just under his chin and is continually issuing such threats as “I’ll flip you like a cheese omelet. . . . I’ll hit you so hard, your kids will be born dizzy.”

“That’s kind of a unique character and yet not so unique nobody can relate to,” Altman says.

Is his “Dad” character based on reality?

“Um, yeah,” he says, “based on reality, slightly embellished.”

Then there’s his “Uncle Carl” character--you know, “the uncle who comes at the holidays and stays too long; the uncle who’s never drunk and never sober.”

The obnoxious Uncle Carl will be the focus of Altman’s upcoming 30-minute Showtime special, “Jeff Altman’s Scrap Book,” which premieres Feb. 22.

Altman also has a prime-time comedy pilot in development in which he would portray the older of two brothers in an oddball family that also includes a mother, the mother’s boyfriend and a female cousin.

The executive producer of the sitcom, which is being considered for airing on NBC, is David Letterman.

Although Altman cites Jonathan Winters as a major influence on his comedy style, he says that, while it may not be apparent to his audiences, Letterman was also an influence.

Altman met Letterman in 1975 when they were both struggling young comedians working at the Comedy Store in Hollywood.

“David Letterman influenced everybody who saw him doing stand-up in the late-'70s,” Altman says. “He certainly came along with a little different kind of humor based on a folksy, very succinct usage of the English language that made things funny. The way Dave invokes the little metaphors and things that seem corny and everyday and uses little catch phrases is his trademark.” (An example would be Letterman’s ‘70s-vintage joke: “Gee, I see McDonald’s is now serving breakfast. Boy, that’s a dream come true.”)

They’re still close friends, and Altman has made more than 35 appearances on Letterman’s late-night show.

In fact, Altman has a reputation for cracking up Letterman not only on his show but off-camera as well.

One time he and Letterman were dining in a New York restaurant; when Letterman looked up from taking a bite of food, Altman had taken his shirt off.

“It appeared to him I was naked,” Altman says. “What made it funny was it was a nice restaurant.”

Altman says Letterman frequently tells the story about the time they went to the Indianapolis 500 together.

A female fan approached Letterman and asked if she could have her picture taken with him.

“I don’t mind if you don’t mind,” Letterman replied.

The woman then turned to Altman, whom she had never seen before, and said, “Would you mind taking the picture?”

At this point in the story, Altman says, Letterman is usually in stitches.

“I ran off with the camera,” Altman says.

Jeff Altman appears at 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday at the Irvine Improv, 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine. Tickets: $12. Information: (714) 854-5455.


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