By Leo Goodman
Sitting outside over a cup of tea (not the usual), Ted talks about teaching, long-term collaborations, and letting the fans find you.
BCT: I know that when you started doing comedy you were a teacher during the day, teaching music.
BCT: Were you a teacher first, and then after too many days of wanting to say bad things to the kids you decided to try stand-up, or was stand-up the thing and teaching was just a means to an end?
TA: I was always performing. Through high school I was doing the plays, in college I was in plays, and I was a music major originally; jazz piano major. Then I switched to elementary education cause I was kind of in over my head with the jazz program. But I was still doing theatre the whole time, and then I got into sketch comedy with this guy, Hollis James, who turned out to be my best friend in college, and we started doing a two-man stand-up act. Right when we got out of college. My very first teaching job was as a gym teacher, when I was still in college. I took a semester off to study jazz piano with this teacher, and a friend of mine who was working at a school said “my school needs a gym teacher, do you want to do it?” And I was 20 years old, I didn’t have a degree, I wasn’t an education major at this point, but they just said “can you blow a whistle?”
TA: (Laughing) So then I was teaching gym, to K through 8.
BCT: We’re certain there are very qualified gym teachers out there, Ted was just not one.
TA: Yeah, my apologies to anyone out there with their masters in physical education. Yeah, so that’s how my teacher career began. I came from a family of teachers, my parents both taught, and my grandfather, so it was in the family, but it wasn’t really on my radar. I was thinking “how can I get into entertainment?” First I thought music might be it. I thought about acting, but I thought, is an acting degree really necessary? So I thought let me get my teaching degree and see what happens, so I have a job. So I wound up teaching music for five years. I was doing a two-man stand-up act with my friend Hollis, but very sporadically. In the third year I really locked in as a solo.
BCT: So really a good, steady day job that keeps your nights free.
TA: It was perfect, yeah, it was really the perfect complement to a stand-up career, because not only was I teaching but I was a music teacher. So it wasn’t like I had a lot of take-home stuff. There were no papers to grade. I was done at three.
BCT: Was it ever hard not to treat the kids as hecklers when they were … I remember being in school and sometimes being terrible to the teachers, and I think if I were a teacher now I’d be fired after two days because I’d wanna fire back at the kid.
TA: Yeah, it’s funny cause it’s a similar dynamic, the person in front of the room and this group of ne’er do wells that you’re trying to coral. So I think definitely teaching helped me develop that muscle of being in front of a crowd. You do have, I guess you could call then hecklers, the kids who are being disruptive or whatever, and in that sense teaching helped develop that muscle, too. Communicating, in whatever you’re style is, “I’m in charge.” Some teachers do that by slamming a ruler on a desk, others turn the lights on and off, you find your thing. Same in comedy, you gotta find your comedy voice, I had to find my teaching voice, there’s an overlap.
BCT: It helps with developing the presence of “because I’m standing here you will listen to me.”
TA: Yeah, sure, you have to kind of communicate in ways verbal and nonverbal that now is the time to listen to me.
BCT: How much time do you spend performing in New York, as opposed to on the road?
TA: I would say I’m in New York 70 percent of the time, as opposed to on the road. Certain years it’ll be 60/40, or even maybe 80/20 occasionally. But I like being home, and I’m fortunate to live in New York where there’s a lot of opportunity, not only in New York, but in the Tri-State area, to get work. I’m from here, my family’s here, I like being home.
BCT: I know that you have some very strong political views, you spent a lot of time down at Occupy Wall Street. When you’re on the road these days is that something you bring up, or do you let it alone? This being an election year.
TA: I have a bunch of political stuff, a bunch of social commentary, race stuff, gender, homosexuality, gay marriage, you know, these types of things. Socio-political stuff. But I try to have a balance in my act so it’s not too preachy. Personally I don’t like to sit through an hour of that, so I don’t feel comfortable … you know, I’ll do a chunk of maybe 15 or 20 minutes out of an hour touching on those things. Some are Occupy Wall Street stories, getting arrested, stuff like that. Sometimes I’ll throw those in even when … where was I? I was in Seattle recently, which is a very progressive town, not like I was in Mississippi. But every town has progressives. That’s one thing I’ve learned by traveling. The stereotypes we have about certain cities, certain towns, while they may have some truth … when I was opening for Louie CK, he played every city, and his fans were there. I learned that if you do your thing and you find your voice you’ll find your fans wherever you are. If you’re in Biloxi, Mississippi you’re gonna play to your fans if you get to a certain level. Which I’m not at, I’m still playing the clubs, and there are people who come to the club to see me, but it’d be nice to get to that level. That’s what I’m building toward, is just having that point of view, putting out content consistently so people know what I’m doing.
BCT: And just getting to the point that wherever you go you’ve got a base there.
BCT: Which is also something that is unique to this day and age, that that is available. I know you make a lot of videos and put them out online, and you never know who’s going to see that. You mentioned Hollis James and also racial stuff, which makes think of Nobody’s Dummy, which I watched this morning. Talk a bit about the videos that you two make.
TA: Yeah, I love collaborating with Hollis, we make a lot of stuff. We started as a duo, so we still have this great connection. When we sit down to write together we have a real synergy, which is nice. As a stand-up it’s nice to work with somebody that you trust. So we did this video, Nobody’s Dummy, which is a mockumentary about the first interracial ventriloquist team. During the Civil Rights movement, and nobody would hire them cause they were interracial.
BCT: A white ventriloquist with a black dummy, to be clear.
TA: Yes, it was Horris and Huey, I play Horris, and Huey is the dummy. And there’s some pointed commentary in there within a satirical genre. When we sit down to right together, a lot of times we’ll take something very serious and take it to an absurd level. We did that with Nobody’s Dummy and we did it with Kiss My American Ass, after Bil Laden was killed. We wrote this song as a country duo. So yeah, we like to take things that are serious issues, be it race relations, or our hyper-militarized sensibility as Americans, and try to have fun with it.
BCT: And you and Hollis have a new web series coming out, Teachers Lounge.
TA: I play the music teacher, Hollis plays the janitor, and we’re always just hanging out in the teachers lounge. And various faculty comes in, so fortunately we were very lucky with our casting. We got Lewis Black to play the principle, Judy Gold is the gym teacher, Judah Friedlander is a science teacher. Ted Leo, the musician from Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, plays himself. Janeane Garafolo makes the PA announcements that begin every episode. So we got a great group together for the first four episodes, and we hope to continue shooting them. We’re shopping them around now, hoping to find a good place to land.
BCT: So those are shot, and you’re trying to find good online distribution.
TA: Yeah, the dilemma was do we shoot these and fund them ourselves, or do we take the idea to this channel or that channel and have them fund it and have them be involved in the creation of it? So we poked around a little at that but didn’t really like what we were seeing, people trying to be a little too hands-on for what we were used to. So we said let’s fund this ourselves, we’ll own it, we’ll shoot it and make it whatever it’s gonna be, at least initially. And then we’ll shop it around and see if we can sell it, and it’ll be ours, good, bad, or indifferent.
BCT: So funding it yourselves but still not just putting it on youtube.
TA: Right, hopefully that will be the case. Hopefully it’ll land and somebody will license it. The big picture is hopefully it’ll be a tv show and land that way these workplace comedies do, The Office, Parks and Recreation.
BCT: So you could have gotten better funding by giving up some of the creative control, but by choosing to run it all yourselves you’re really able to get your own vision in there. And then, as you said, there’s an audience for it somewhere and they’ll find it.
TA: Yeah, and it’s more satisfying. As a stand-up I’m used to having more control. Close to twenty years as a stand-up, it’s hard to just turn that over to somebody that you’ve never met and don’t trust. Whereas with Hollis we’ve known each other a long time and trust each other implicitly, so when we’re shooting there’s this short-hand between us, and with the director – the same guy who directed Kiss Our American Ass directed Teachers Lounge – there’s a familiarity that just helped.
BCT: You’re getting ready to do a new hour soon, I know you’re doing it at the Laughing Devil – are you recording it there?
TA: I’m working it out, I’m probably gonna record at a bigger venue, find a 500 seat. So I’ll be working out the hour which I plan to shoot in December.
BCT: Is there a large difference between what you’re doing now and specials you’ve done before? Do you feel you’ve come a long way for this new hour?
TA: Yeah, I think my voice has really crystallized in recent years. Probably as a result of doing all these different venues. To me that’s part of the gift of coming up in New York. I don’t know where else you can do that, you can play the Cellar and also Whiplash at Upright Citizens Brigade, or just a little bar on the lower east side
BCT: Or a little coffee shop here on Ditmars Boulevard.
TA: Yeah, the Waltz Astoria. There’s so many opportunities to perform that are different enough, it shapes your voice. I look at it as you’re always in front of … at it simplest level you’re always in front of a group of people and your job is to make that group of people laugh. The same way as a teacher you’ve got a group of students, teach them. You’re job is to figure out how to connect to that room, that group of people, and every one is going to be a little different. One of the things you learn as you grow as a comic is not to psych yourself out because of the room. Not to say “oh, this is the Cellar,” or “this is an Alt room, I have to be Alt.” You learn to do what you do, maybe you change it slightly, you make little adjustments, but you don’t change who you are.
BCT: Have you considered moving out to LA?
TA: I’ve lived in LA a couple different times. Went out there for pilot seasons to audition for things. It was a good experience, getting out of my comfort zones, but ultimately I realize that New York is home. It’s where I want to be. I mean if some amazing opportunity comes up that demands that I move I’ll definitely consider that.
BCT: Gonna take a second to ask a non-comedic question. I know you were on an episode of Oz.
BCT: And I watched most of that show, would you tell me the episode? I wanna see if I remember it.
TA: I was in a rape therapy group with Sister Pete, Rita Morano. So we were in a circle and we were all talking about how we’d been raped in prison, and the recurring line that we all said was “I had no choice.”
BCT: I had no choice. I do remember that episode.
TA: That was wild, man, cause I did a set at Caroline’s, and, unbeknownst to me, Tom Fontana, the creator of Oz, was there. I got a call from his office the next day asking me to come in. Cause I used to do a bit about prison rape, and I did it that night. He was known for unconventional casting, he would cast a poet or a musician, and he saw me do stand-up and just cast me.
BCT: He saw you do a bit about prison rape. Was the line “I had not choice” in your act? Did that come from you?
TA: (Laughing) No.
BCT: Have you found ways since then of working it in, just to see if someone in the audience will go “hang on a second.”
TA: Right, right. It’s funny, cause usually people will say “I read that you were in Oz,” but very few know where. It was just one episode, I had three lines.
BCT: Still a lot of fun.
TA: Oh, yeah, and it was just out of the blue.
BCT: So good things can come from rape jokes. Or at least they could then.
TA: I think I told my rape joke at just the right time to advance my career.
BCT: Which was a decade ago.
BCT: So finally, can you give me one good heckler story.
TA: Probably the most visceral heckler story I have, I was trying out new material I was just trying out this new bit about how at baseball games they have you sing God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch, how that became the norm, post-9/11. Before then it was just Take Me Out to the Ball Game for the seventh inning stretch. Then they started singing God Bless America, and here we are eleven years later and they still do it. So I was just kind of talking that through, the absurdity of how, because these terrorists decided to fly these planes into buildings it added a song to the seventh inning stretch. I was also talking about how it’s that song, God Bless America, but not every American believes in God, and not everybody at a baseball game is American. In fact a lot of the players are not. But again, just ideas, talking through ideas. By no means was it a finished bit. It was a late night set and I was just trying it out. But this one table stands up, and they’re like “no.” This one guy just yells “No!” And I look at him and I’m like “you don’t get to decide that,” but he just says “no, no, enough!” And then the other side of the crowd started yelling at him, and the other people at his table started yelling, and then it was just mayhem. I’m on stage trying to negotiate between the two sides. I eventually told them “look, you don’t have to agree with everything you’re hearing. I would imagine sometimes you go to movies where you don’t agree with everything in the movie. Or you go to a ballet where they depict something that you don’t like, you don’t stop the ballet, do you? But then again you don’t probably ever go to the ballet.” I’m always amazed at the specificity of comedy being the only thing where people feel they can interrupt a show. I find that fascinating. But it’s part of the bag, you just have to accept that. So anyway it’s mayhem. By the end, though, most of the crowd was on my side, or at least on the side of whether you agree or disagree let’s listen to this. But these people were yelling at me, saying shut the fuck up, and I shut them down sufficiently that I finished the set, but as I was leaving the stage a woman at that table grabs my shirt and is yelling “you’re a piece of shit, you’re a piece of shit.” And I said (very firmly) “I would appreciate it if you’d take your hand off my shirt,” and she did. But then security ushered me out of the club, cause a couple other guys were coming.
TA: Yeah, this is not one of those heckler stories that’s gonna be on youtube. It wasn’t hilarious, it was just upsetting. I walked out of there, my heart was racing. I just wanted to try out a bit.
And then, as soon as we’re done talking, Ted takes out his computer and starts writing something new.