Ted Alexandro just put out his second standup special of the pandemic. Not bad for a “retired” comedian.
“I’ve kind of tongue-in-cheek announced my retirement,” Alexandro says over the phone during a recent interview. “But honestly, that’s how I’ve felt throughout the pandemic. I pretty much try to not deny what is real in life, and what’s real right now is that standup shows as we’re used to them are shut down for an indefinite period of time.”
Although there are certainly ways for comedy fans to get their standup fix during the COVID era, not every comedian is excited to take the digital stage or headline at a gazebo. Fortunately, there are also many ways for comedians to get their fix of creating comedy now.
Alexandro is fast becoming an expert in them.
When the COVID lockdown first hit, Alexandro, a professional joke- and storyteller since the early ’90s, frequently went on Instagram Live to connect with fans during a historically strange time. He would go off on rants about people not taking the pandemic seriously enough and undercut them with self-deprecating humor. He liked the video aspect, and the challenge of talking extemporaneously for a live audience, free from the joke-packed expectations of standup.
Clearly, there was something here.
In April, Alexandro pulled together the best moments from his Instagram Live sessions and fashioned them into the first standup comedy special of the pandemic, Stay At Home Comedian. Released for free on YouTube, the sit-down comedy special featured the comic casually performing in-flux material into his phone, about the only topic on the entire audience’s minds at the time. It was a hit with viewers.
In July, he abandoned the Instagram Live sessions for a biweekly video stream and podcast called The Ted Alexandro Show, something he’d been meaning to create for ages but couldn’t commit time to building until he was suddenly on a COVID-dictated schedule.
Next up is the YouTube release of Cut/Up, Alexandro’s second special of 2020. The comic had been cultivating material over the previous two and a half years, and didn’t want to let it go to waste at a time when it’s incredibly challenging to film a special in front of a live audience. (Well, at least if your name isn’t Dave Chappelle.) Alexandro had been filming many of his sets at the Comedy Cellar, his home base for standup in New York, along with its offshoot, the Village Underground, and he had a weekend’s worth of taped shows from at Helium in Portland. Cut/Up has the unusual patchwork format of bouncing between locations and sets—sometimes within the same chunk of material—showcasing the best captured version of each joke.
It will certainly make for a unique swan song if those retirement jokes prove out.
In the meantime, however, on the eve of Cut/Up‘s release, the comedian and activist spoke with Fast Company about the overall state of comedy during a pandemic, a racial uprising, an election, and the growing fuss around cancel culture, all of which are occurring simultaneously.
The limitations of Zoom comedy
As we enter the gray area between full quarantine and the end of lockdown, the idea of honing new material without the soundboard of a live, physical audience still seems impossible.
“There’s no substitute for running something dozens of times and really polishing it to the point that it just gets that razor’s edge,” Alexandro says. “I mean that in terms of the wording, the tags, and also the physicality—whether it’s facial expressions or gestures that can only come over time, by doing it over and over again. There’s no way to get that out of a podcast or out of a Zoom show or stuff like that. I’m not someone who’s pining to recreate standup with these outdoor shows or on Zoom. I’ve heard the socially distanced outdoor gigs can be decent and audiences are appreciative, but personally, I just have not felt that impulse. It sounds like trying to recreate the conditions of some of the worst gigs we’ve ever done, like a parking lot show. I don’t begrudge anyone who does it, but for now I’m cool sitting that out. When standup comes back, then we’ll do standup, but for now I’m enjoying what podcasting allows you to do instead.”
A pandemic is a great time to not do standup
It’s not just that the options for performing standup are currently suboptimal; it’s also that, in some ways, a break from the grind of touring can feel like a vacation.
“My wife and I had a baby boy on Christmas Day, so in that respect, the timing could not have been better as far as having to be home quarantined,” Alexandro says. “Instead of hopping on a flight to wherever, I’ve been able to wake up with my baby boy and wife every day for all of his life. So, that’s been a great thing—the forced time together at the beginning stages of his life. It gave me something to immediately throw myself into that mattered to me, as opposed to trying to find out what to do or what’s my new purpose. I’m a dad.”
How activism feeds comedy and vice versa
The two elements that most define Alexandro aren’t competing for his attention. Instead, they seem to be working in tandem.
“I’ve been doing both comedy and activism for long enough that I’m both processing each bit of new information and hopefully learning, but also having things hit you viscerally as some sort of comedy premise or something you could explore for a bit,” Alexandro says. “So I think both of those things happen in real time, as I’m reading or watching the news. The good thing about comedy now is you have the stage as a platform to explore ideas comedically, but you also have social media, where you can just unload whatever’s on your mind, whether it’s political or social or whatever it might be. And with podcasts, you have ample opportunity to just speak more in depth on specific things that are going on, whether it’s the DNC, the RNC, the election, Black Lives Matter. You have ample avenues to get those thoughts out that might just be more of the moment than standup, which I like to have more of a long-term life beyond the moment.”
Pick your battles over who is really being canceled
In an era when saying or doing the wrong thing can have more consequences than in previous times, a lot of comedians are worried about so-called “cancel culture,” a term that is used to describe way too many disparate things. Alexandro is not one of them.
“There’s an enormous difference between a joke that doesn’t land versus behaviors that are criminal,” the comedian says. “It’s almost amusing that people would speak about being canceled as if it’s this horrific, tragic thing when we are in the midst of Black Lives Matter, where people are getting murdered. Let’s make sure we’re assessing the real tragedies. Some people are always ready to speak out against cancel culture, but they haven’t said one word about Black Lives Matter. What people think of as cancel culture oftentimes is just legitimate criticism, or even criticism you disagree with, but it’s still just people sharing their opinions. To equate that with being canceled, at this time when people are literally being murdered, it almost does it a disservice to speak about it in such grave terms. Like, people can come back from ‘being canceled.’ It is worth exploring some ways that people are unfairly being criticized, but we live in an age where everyone has a phone, so feedback is going to happen in real time. And, as a comedian or any kind of public figure, you just have to deal with it.”