At 26 years old, comedian Sara Faith Alterman, who writes sketch comedy at ImprovBoston, has already published two books. In her latest novel, Tears of a Class Clown, heroine Nina Kurtz is a girl all the guys love to laugh with, but do not date. Voted ‘Most Likely to Work in a Comedy Club’ by her high school class, Kurtz tries to shake the “funny girl” label at a class reunion and reconnect with an old flame.
Kurtz is a character Alterman can relate to. A lifelong comedian, Alterman studied film and media at the University of Rochester and comedy writing at Second City in Chicago. She’s been head writer at ImprovBoston since 2004 and teaches a comedy-writing program there, while pursuing her master’s in journalism at Emerson College.
BU Today: Who is the funniest person you ever met?
Alterman: That’s tough. To be honest, I don’t think I can name a favorite. There have been so many people who have influenced my sense of humor — writers, stand-up comics, my friends. Off the top of my head, I’d have to say that Tina Fey is my hero. Lewis Black, Garrison Keillor, Gilda Radner, Mel Brooks, and Madeline Kahn are all people I’ve tried to emulate when I write comedy.
It doesn’t really count as ‘meeting,’ but I totally stalked David Sedaris once. That sounds creepy. I went to see him read at the Brookline Booksmith, and afterwards, I just sort of followed him down the street. I’m not proud, but his writing is so damned funny. He tells these stories about his family, simple stories about people who are probably pretty normal, but he makes them out to be totally endearing nutbags, and I just howl when I’m reading about them.
My own family is ridiculously, unabashedly funny, in completely different ways. My mother is totally goofy and ridiculous, and Dad loves puns and has a really dry and clever delivery. Add my sarcastic brother to the mix, and we’re like the Partridge Family of comedy. My very favorite spare time is spent around the dinner table with them, tears streaming down my face because we’re laughing so hard.
What makes you a funny person?
I think the ability to laugh at yourself is pretty important. I do the dumbest stuff all the time, and that’s something that carries over into my writing. What stupid thing have I said today, I think to myself. There’s comedy in truth, just as there’s truth in comedy.
My friends are also mostly improvisational and stand-up comedians, and that helps. When they get together, they are virtually incapable of having a conversation; it’s just this frenzy of banter and joke-cracking. I have to be on top of my game all the time if I want to get a word in edgewise. So that keeps the ’ole funny bone limber. Did I just say ’ole funny bone? Why do I talk like an 80-year-old woman? I hope I don’t smell like one.
Has humor changed over the years?
Humor, like everything else, evolves parallel to the times. As our culture changes, so will our comedy. Shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have definitely helped to place sharp, satirical comedy in the pop-culture realm, which is terrific. Speaking of which, there are all of these snarky pop culture shows now, which I’m not a huge fan of. Snarky is good in small doses, but there’s sort of an overload of it right now, in my opinion.
Is everyone fair game or are certain people off limits?
I’ve definitely based characters on certain people from my life, but I try not to make it too obvious. I don’t want to burn any bridges or get my ass kicked. My parents take a lot of abuse in my books, though. I can’t help it! Their lives are fraught with comedy — my mom is a five-foot-tall Baptist, who makes her own Kahlua and takes kickboxing lessons, and my Dad is a Jew who loves Christmas. It’s just right there for the taking.
How do you convey comedy on paper?
Like this. :-D. Just kidding. That wasn’t even funny. Well, how do you convey comedy to any audience, be it a person reading a book, a family watching a television show, or someone at a comedy club watching stand-up? Do I know what makes my readers laugh out loud? No, but I know that when I’m reading a book, I’m likely to giggle if the writer conjures great imagery, if I can envision a character doing something ridiculous. I try to make my writing as vivid as possible, so that readers can relate to my characters and ‘see’ them while they’re reading.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing comedy?
Everything! I’m constantly second-guessing myself. Is this line funny? Does anyone care about this character? Will anyone get this joke besides me and my boyfriend? You learn to get over that and just go for it. When I’ve written a sketch show, I rarely watch the show itself. I watch the audience, to see what jokes worked, what didn’t. I wish I could do that with my books, but I think that would be somewhat creepy.
You’re head writer at ImprovBoston. How do you write comedy that will eventually be performed?
I do a lot of editing at rehearsals; watching the actors read, seeing what emotions and inflections they bring to the table. For me, it’s not very different from writing books. I create characters, and I try to give them dialogue that’s consistent with the personalities I’ve assigned to them.
How does writing a novel differ from writing skits?
I actually wrote my first book, My 15 Minutes, before I started with sketch comedy. I was living in Myrtle Beach, S.C., which is an amazing place to vacation, but not such a great place if you’re looking for a job that doesn’t involve golf clubs, strip clubs, or club sandwiches. I started writing My 15 Minutes because I was bored! Once I realized how much I like to write, I signed up for some comedy writing classes at the Second City in Chicago. That’s where I learned to write sketch.
A book allows you to tell a story in 300 pages. With sketch, you only have five minutes! It’s a totally frantic method of slice-of-life storytelling. You have to reel the audience in, introduce them to characters, and make them laugh, all in a very short period of time. You can’t mess around with complicated ideas or flowery language. Just go for it and hope that it works. And if it doesn’t, it’s over in five minutes anyway.
What’s Tears of a Class Clown about?
The book is about a woman named Nina who’s a bartender at a comedy club. Not exactly the most glamorous job in the world. Nina’s a sassy broad who can make anybody laugh and can’t get anyone to date her. When she gets invited to her 10-year high school reunion, she’s a little embarrassed about how her life has turned out. After all, she was voted ‘Most likely to work in a comedy club,’ but schlepping beer wasn’t exactly what her classmates had in mind.
Where did the idea for the plot come from?
I’ve dated a lot of comics and I mean a lot of comics. So I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of what the behind-the-scenes atmosphere is like in the comedy realm. When I was younger, though, especially in college, I always had a hard time attracting guys as anything other than friends. A lot of them told me that I ‘didn’t count,’ and I never really got why. I suspect it’s because I’m not very girlie, especially when it comes to my sense of humor. I’m aggressive, I’m sassy, I like a good fart joke. The boys weren’t so into that. So my main character experiences those same obstacles.