The Smoke Alarm With Alex Bernstein

alex bernstein comedian

Each week in Give A Little Bit, we talk to funny people — comics, writers, cartoonists, senators — about the first time they got a laugh and a bunch of other things about their life. This week, comedy writer

This week, writer and comedian Alex Bernstein discusses doing stand-up while still in high school, barfing up material to mold later and keeping a comedy database. 

Your First Bit…

As I write about in my new book Plrknib, I was doing stand-up regularly in high school in 1980.  And I knew nothing about comedy and flew by the seat of my pants.  But the first real bit I ever did – the first bit that had a real set-up and punchline – was “Smoke Alarm.”

The joke was:  “My mother’s a terrible cook.  In our kitchen, we haven’t got a timer, so she uses the smoke alarm.”  I remember specifically coming home one cold Sunday in October in  1980, and my mother – who really was – and is – the worst cook ever – was cooking chicken.  And the kitchen was full of smoke, and the smoke alarm was going off.  And my mind just pieced the whole thing together like math.  Mom + cooking + chicken = smoke alarm.  It was like lightning to me, and I ran up to my room and wrote the joke down.  For months it was one of the biggest jokes in my act.

I remember specifically coming home one cold Sunday in October in  1980, and my mother – who really was – and is – the worst cook ever – was cooking chicken.  And the kitchen was full of smoke, and the smoke alarm was going off.  And my mind just pieced the whole thing together like math.  Mom + cooking + chicken = smoke alarm.  It was like lightning to me, and I ran up to my room and wrote the joke down.  For months it was one of the biggest jokes in my act.

Here’s the whole Smoke Alarm story from my Plrknib website.

Your writing process is…

To use an ugly metaphor, I like to barf up a lot of words on a page quickly and then mold it like clay later on.  I enjoy the rewriting phase much more than the writing phase.  If I can knock out a lot of mindless material and walk away from it for a few days, when I return to it, I usually feel like I’ve found this great mound of middling but usable material that I can now craft and shape.

I’ve been writing for almost 40 years now, so it’s fun to occasionally go back to odd notebooks and see what I was barfing up at different times that I may have forgotten about.  Sometimes, it’s like finding lost treasure.   Other times, it’s like finding lost barf.

Your influences are…

As a writer, I’m a huge fan of Vonnegut, Brautigan, Jerzy Kozinski, Flannery O’Connor, Haruki Murakami, Robert Klane, etc. I love most things that Dave Eggers does with the McSweeney’s folks (and all the Non-Required reading anthologies). I’m also a huge fan of literary journalism which was a big inspiration for writing Plrknib as a memoir. Before (and while) writing it, I read a lot of Gay Talese, John Hersey, Joan Didion, Michael Lewis, Lillian Ross, David Foster Wallace, and many of the other (not-so) new journalist usual suspects.

In terms of comedy writing, my big inspirations growing up were Woody, Lenny, Robert Klein, George Carlin, and dozens of others. And there’s a tremendous amount of great comedy today:  Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt, Tig Notaro, Mike Birbiglia, Lewis Black, Marc Maron, and on and on and on.  And the local folks I perform stand-up and improv with week-in and week-out in NJ and NY inspire me constantly.

How you keep it all together…

Notebooks.  Word and excel documents.  I tend to overwrite, which isn’t always a good thing.   I know a lot of people who can be much more organic/in the moment onstage than me.  I’m very methodical and will write and rewrite a five-minute act 10 times, rehearse it, record it the night of the show, and then do ad nauseam postmortem reviews of the whole thing.  I database all my bits with various filters – by topic, demographic, region, etc.  So, if I know three months ahead of time that I’ll be playing a show for Baby Boomers, or a summer or Halloween show, I can pull out bits specific to that show.

I database all my bits with various filters – by topic, demographic, region, etc.  So, if I know three months ahead of time that I’ll be playing a show for Baby Boomers, or a summer or Halloween show, I can pull out bits specific to that show.

You wish you wrote…

Less.  I’m pretty happy with my writing, but I could stand to put more time into crowd work.  I know a ton of comics who kill with crowd work, and I just don’t spend enough time on it.  Otherwise, there’s a million jokes out there that I wish I’d written.  Everything by Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright.  Woody’s early stuff.  And in Plrknib I write at length about being a young comic in Cincinnati and desperately wishing my jokes were as good as the NY comics of that time, like Steve Mittleman and Mark Schiff.

A new bit…

Here are two bits.  A new new bit and an old new bit.

New bit:  “For the holidays my wife gave me a beautiful photo album of all the places across America where we’ve argued.  ‘Here’s us at Mt. Rushmore.  You were such a dick that day!  Here’s us at the Grand Canyon – I almost pushed you in!”

Here’s an old new bit.  This is one of the ones I wrote about 30 years ago, but found it recently digging through an old notebook:  “I never know what to do at parties.  I’m always the guy in the corner smoking a beer.”

Alex Bernstein is a freelance writer in New Jersey and the author of Miserable Holiday Stories and Plrknib. His work has appeared at New Pop Lit, Corvus, BluePrintReview, Hobo Pancakes, Gi60, The Rumpus and McSweeney’s. Please visit him at www.promonmars.com.

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