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MEET STEVE, THE LAUGH MACHINE : Digital Wizardry Makes a High-Tech Mimic Out of One Comic and His Keyboard

February 11, 1993|DENNIS McLELLAN | Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer who regularly covers comedy for OC Live!

Technically, Steve Altman is a prop comic. But he doesn't use objects to generate laughs; he uses sound, in all its infinite--and infinitely funny--varieties.

"I'm into high tech," Altman tells audiences, standing behind his digital sampling keyboard, "the latest thing in keyboard technology. It actually records anything, digitizes it and puts it on a disk like a computer."

To demonstrate, he plays a brief tune on the keyboard, then adds "strings" and drums. But the keyboard doesn't just do musical sounds, he says, "it makes any noise." With a press of a button he creates sounds of thunder and rain. "Can't find the bathroom?" Altman asks, pressing another button as we hear a flushing toilet. "Don't fall in. . . . (splash). This is that annoying sound you hear when you're using the hair dryer: (a ringing telephone) ."

The "digital comedy of Steve Altman" is as fast-paced as a Saturday morning cartoon show. In fact, familiar cartoon noises make up one of the liveliest segments of his offbeat act.

Take the "Barney Rubble run"--that fast-paced, tinny bongo-drum sound used to accompany the Flintstones character's stubby legs running in an animated blur of motion. The routine peaks with Altman's "interpretation of a man and a woman having an orgasm using cartoon noises."

Music and songs also play a big part in the act.

Strings are his favorite musical sound, he says, insisting that he wrote the "love theme" for all the "Jaws" movies. He begins by playing the familiar menacing "Jaws" theme. Then, as the suspenseful music builds to a peak, he breaks into singing, "Suddenly, I'm not half the man I used to be."

When Altman began doing stand-up comedy in Los Angeles 10 years ago, he'd sit at a piano doing humorous musical bits and song parodies. But when the relatively new technology of digital sampling keyboards became affordable in the mid-'80s, he went high tech.

Speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles last week, Altman said he has no problem coming up with new sounds to add to his library.

"Once you get into that frame of mind, your brain just does the rest," he said, explaining that he'll be walking down the street and hear the hydraulic sound of a bus door closing and think, "Man, it would be great to sample that sound and put it in the show!"

Or he might sample the sound of a hammer striking a piece of lead or a basketball hitting a concrete floor. "There are so many textures and sounds, it's cool," he said.

Being a "digital" comic, however, Altman has something worse than hecklers to contend with.

"It gets a little weird," he said. "Sometimes in all the computer stuff if there is a surge somewhere, it'll screw up the power. I'll look at the keyboard and it'll be blinking. Then I'll have to turn everything off and wait 20 seconds for the thing to boot up. Meantime, I'm tap-dancing and doing regular stand-up" to fill the time.

Altman said digital comedy makes up about 60% of his act; he alternates between working with the keyboard and doing straight stand-up.

He'll talk, for example, about how "we've got all this great stuff. We've got computers, microwave technology, fiber-optics, the space program. . . . And yet we still can't make a coffee maker that doesn't go . . ." (Here he makes a low-tech noise with his mouth to simulate the crude perking noise made by coffee makers.)

Altman also throws some observational humor and a few celebrity impersonations into his act, including Jimmy Stewart reading from Madonna's "Sex" book. But it's the digital comedy that makes him a popular headliner.

Altman said that about four years ago he was getting ready to dump the keyboard and just do straight stand-up. But when he asked the opinion of club owners, they told him not to do it.

"That's why they booked me back," he said. "Everybody's doing (traditional) stand-up and they needed something different. That gave me the incentive to take (digital comedy) to its fullest potential."

Indeed, as Altman views his constantly evolving high-tech act:

"I want to take people on a ride. It should be a theatrical experience. I love watching a great stand-up (comic) stand there, but there's so much more to entertaining. There's music, sound, visual. I'm running the whole gambit. I want to take it to its limit."

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