An Ace up his comedic sleeve

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Ted Greenberg on writing for the Harvard Lampoon and Letterman, and on his new passion project


  • Ted Greenberg in his autobiographical comedy, "Ace." Photo: Hunter Canning

  • Ted Greenberg. Photo: Hunter Canning

Ted Greenberg grew up on the Upper East Side in the 1970s and ‘80s and remembers the city’s “exhilarating grit” at the time, which he says “was a lot of fun as a teenager.” Back then, his neighborhood was a mecca for stand-up comedy, which shaped him as a fledgling comic. His first live performance took place at the Comic Strip’s open mic night, where he took the stage at 2:30 a.m.

He went on to attend Harvard University, where he fulfilled one of his early comedic goals by contributing to the renowned “Harvard Lampoon.” Returning to New York, he wrote for “Late Night with David Letterman,” citing his knack for conceptual comedy as contributing to his success there, which ultimately earned him an Emmy Award. As for working with Dave, he credits his former boss with giving him the best entertainment lesson he ever received.

For the past four years, his labor of love has been penning the play “Ace,” named after his father, a Wall Street titan who served as the CEO of Bear Stearns in 1987, the year in which the show is set. The autobiographic plot has his son driving a New York City taxi with a looming deadline of a nine-year overdue paper that he must submit to Harvard or else fail to graduate.

How can you describe your comedy?

My stand-up is very broad. It’s goofy; it’s silly. It is conceptual. My heroes growing up were Steve Martin and Albert Brooks, rather than observational comics. And that’s the reason I was hired for “Letterman,” because he was really into that in his early years. He’d much rather do an idea that no one else had done than a set of jokes. Something that appealed to him was putting on a Velcro suit and jumping off a trampoline and sticking to a wall. Just sort of a straight concept. And when I was writing for him, me and my partner were concept machines. That’s why we were hired. We weren’t prefect joke writers; we just had a lot of great concepts.

What was it like working for Letterman?

It was great working for him in that he was the best boss I ever had in this respect: he knew exactly what he wanted. There was a mediary; you gave your stuff to Steve O’Donnell and you rarely dealt with Dave directly. But you did know exactly what he wanted. And the big joke is he wouldn’t dance, take off clothes or act. So from time from time, writers would deliberately submit a routine where he had to jump on his desk, do a jig, take off all his clothes and pretend he was a clown, knowing that was the last thing he wanted to do. But that sort of clarity in a boss is fantastic. And that’s one reason he became who he was. He really knew his strengths and weaknesses early on and was able to shape the show around that.

You went to Harvard and wrote for the “Lampoon” there.

It was my dream since I was 15 when I tried to do stand-up was to be on the “Harvard Lampoon.” Because it was really famous even then because of the “National Lampoon.” And I got into Harvard and eventually got on the “Lampoon.” Now my pieces seem incredibly sophomoric and dumb, but it was a humor magazine and I got a lot of stuff published. And crazily, when I was there, Lisa Henson, daughter of Jim, was president, and three years later, Conan O’Brien was president. There was this “Life” magazine spread when Lisa was president with all these pictures revealing the inside of the “Lampoon” castle, something that had not been done before in the press. And in those pictures was Conan O’Brien. It was really very exciting to be a college kid and be in “Life” magazine.

Explain what your show “Ace” is about.

“Ace” is about a 27-year-old who has owed a paper for nine years and today is the day he is given a deadline — he either has to get the paper in or he’s a dropout. And in that 12-hour period, a lot happens. It turns out he’s driving a cab. This is 1987, right after the big stock market crash, and the main character’s father is this huge Wall Street guy who runs this firm called Bear Stearns. So it’s kind of about the kid and his father. And then there’s a third major character who comes in who’s sort of the ‘80s equivalent of Bernie Madoff, this guy named Ivan Boesky. So there’s a ticking clock, the paper had to get in on December 18th, or this guy is a college dropout forever. It’s a really fun and fast 65-minute piece with a great ending.

Explain your dad’s career and how much of that is in the play.

Enough so you know this guy is incredibly charming and great at everything he does and casts a really large shadow. And there are a lot of Ace Greenberg fans who will get their money’s worth. You get the idea that he had this rags-to-riches story where he was one of those guys who came to New York City in his 20s and through grit and cunning, climbed the top of the heap, made a fortune and gave a fortune away. And that’s sort of a nice part. The audience likes hearing that. And he comes off as a very hardened realist about how to handle yourself in the world. There’s this Boesky guy who’s very snakelike and then there’s Ace Greenberg, who’s a rock. And I should point out one thing — that Ace Greenberg was an amazing magician. He was amazing at a lot of things and there is magic in the show. And I’m one of those people who gets angry when there’s magic or special effects in a show that seem gratuitous. But in “Ace,” it totally works and you walk out thinking, “The magic in this show, it couldn’t have been any other way.” I’ve been crusading around town insisting that the magic in this show is not gratuitous.

What was it like driving a cab in the city?

It was really exciting and doing it short term is fun because one minute you’re picking up hookers at Carnegie Hall and then the next minute you’re picking up some woman who missed her train for her bris, so you have to drive her to Salmouth, Massachusetts, so she can make it. Now if I had five kids and had to rely on it for my family, it would be a different story. But when you’re in your 20s and doing it part time, it was this great rush and adventure. And it could be scary. The first two weeks I was doing it, I picked up anybody, so I was a mule for a cocaine dealer and we made eight stops in Queens and I didn’t get paid. How else could an Upper East Side privileged kid have an experience like that other than by driving a cab? And I should mention that I still have this stand-up show that’s monthly at the SoHo Playhouse and it does end with me driving audience members home in a yellow cab.

“Ace” runs through November 5 at The Marjorie S. Deane Theater, 10 West 64th St.

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