Comedian Jeff Altman’s onstage persona has always been that of a nice, normal guy who’s just a brain twitch away from setting fire to someone’s hair, possibly his own. His jokes tend to end in psychotic delusions as often as in punch lines. He’ll be standing there, telling a fairly routine story, and then, for no apparent reason, he’ll hitch his pants up to his armpits and, with a slightly crazed gurgle in his voice, start to mutter, ”I’m a big boy, daddy, yes I am.”
”Yeah,” Altman says, ”I’ve always been this kid who’s wearing these Ivy League-looking clothes and then suddenly you realize he’s just tied you up and given you an enema.”
Which may explain why Altman, 39, is not yet a household name, even after 15 years of TV exposure in commercials, on stand-up comedy shows, and in recent years, as a late-night guest of his pal David Letterman. ”I’m sure,” Altman says, with the choirboy-from-hell look on his face, ”there’s some people who just don’t get me.”
But that might be changing. As one of the stars of Nurses, NBC’s new Saturday-night hospital sitcom (playing a male nurse with attitude), Altman is finally starting to be recognized beyond his comedy-club following.
The actor, who had a short stint as host of Fox’s Sunday Comics before getting the part in Nurses, long ago came to the conclusion that without a regular role in a TV series, ”You’re gonna have a hard time getting known. You have to be associated with something consistent for people to remember you.”
A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Altman started working at Hollywood’s Comedy Store in the mid-’70s, where his contemporaries included Letterman, Garry Shandling, and Jay Leno. While they grabbed vehicles that made them stars, Altman’s first shot at the big time turned out to be, in his words, ”arguably the worst television show ever made,” the infamous 1980 NBC variety comedy series Pink Lady and Jeff, which featured a singing duo from Japan that viewers couldn’t understand. The show, which lasted only a month, ”taught me to be humble,” Altman says. ”One week I’m having people run out and get me ice and sneakers. The next week, I’m unemployed.”