Whether a man of letters or a man of Letterman, Jeff Altman keeps on joking

July 18, 1991|By Jean Marbella

You know Johns Hopkins University: a fine, Ivy-wannabe institution, verifiably academic, intellectual beyond belief.

And also quite a hoot.

"I think that's why it's so funny -- it's so serious," says Jeff Altman, 39, surely one of the few nationally known comedians with a Hopkins diploma. "It's not the kind of place that breeds comics."

Despite that, his years at Hopkins don't appear to have scarred Mr. Altman, who is appearing in two shows at Slapstix comedy club in the Brokerage tonight. Since graduating, he's become a familiar face on the comedy-club, cable-special, talk-show circuit, appeared on numerous TV shows and movies, and will star this fall in a new NBC series, "Nurses."

While in town, Mr. Altman, Class of '73, plans to revisit his old campus with an old college buddy, Frank Bruzzese -- and perhaps even terrorize it the way they used to.

"Maybe we'll clean out the Hutzler Reading Room [in Gilman Hall] again," he said. "We would go there around midnight, just as it was getting going, people doing serious academics.

"I would look up across the table at Frank, and say, 'I just can't keep it up, I'm carrying too many credits.' Frank would tell me to shut up, then five minutes later, I'd start again: 'I can't take it anymore, I'm carrying 26 credits! My father's going to kill me if I don't pass!' Frank would get me down on the floor, tie me up, take my shirt and gag me with it. People would just start to leave, quietly."

Mr. Altman, a Syracuse, N.Y., native, admits, "I never did play by the rules."

Soon after graduating -- with a major in behavioral and social sciences -- he moved to California, where he did magic tricks and comedy at various clubs. He's most celebrated for his characterizations, such as the angry father with pants hitched up nearly to chest level.

He's become a familiar guest on pal David Letterman's show, and the two worked on a proposed project for NBC that never moved ahead into reality. Still, that experience got him known at NBC, which subsequently signed him to play one of five nurses in a new series.

"I'm a guy who may or may not have spent some time in Vietnam," he said. "I resent authority, I don't like doctors."

Which sounds like he's still not playing by the rules.

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