By Wesley Joost
Oct. 19, 2002
A ballsy, 5-foot-tall teenager named Alex Borstein caused a ruckus on campus 12 years ago when her comedy troupe, 25% Off, put on smutty sketch shows at the Cantina student lounge in SF State’s now-imploded Verducci Hall. In one infamous performance, inspired by comparisons that then-President George H. Bush made between Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein, 25% Off performed a Hussein-Hitler drinking buddy sketch that offended enough people to get the entire troupe booted out of the dorm.
Now the former SF State communications major can chuckle at her auspicious beginnings because that subversive energy got her a five-year stint as a cast member on the FOX sketch comedy show “MAD TV” where she won over the laughing world with her hit character, the lovable, if unintelligible, Ms. Swan.
The fiery munchkin is now in the production stages of a girl-buddy sitcom called “Life at Five Feet,” and was supposed to perform a one woman comedy show called The Monday Night Tour. But the San Francisco performance scheduled for October has been postponed so she can jet to Italy and shoot a bit of wholesome family entertainment for Disney based on the show “Lizzy McGuire.”
Malcolm Lawson, a fellow 25% Off-er, was impressed by Borstein’s rambunctious spirit and limitless self-confidence the moment he met her.
“Her tenacity alone broke down so many doors to get us to where we wanted to play. She was great with promotion,” he remembered.
At one point, the campus administration wouldn’t even allow the troupe to perform without prior content approval. When the man who was supposed to preview and approve the script could not make it, they were not allowed to perform. Borstein retaliated by convincing the campus paper to write a story about how they were censored.
“At that time, I felt this is really fun and I love this. But seriously, what am I going to do with my life? I was raised in this middle-class, Jewish background where you become either a lawyer or a doctor,” Borstein recalled.
She chose SF State because the Bay Area seemed like a nice place to live. She was not a big fan of sororities and wanted a liberal, diverse school where she could have someone like former Black Panther Angela Davis as a professor. She moved up from Los Angeles in 1989 and majored in communications with a concentration in rhetoric.
Borstein graduated from SF State in 1992 and went on to pursue a master’s degree at Cal State Northridge.
While in graduate school, Borstein joined the ACME Comedy Theatre. The excitement of working with this ambitious group made her feel a career in comedy might be a real possibility.
At ACME, she met Erin Ehrlich, who later became her writing partner. Universal Studios called ACME to see if they had any good writers, and Borstein and Ehrlich just happened to be there. Their first writing gig was “Casper,” a cartoon series for FOX, which led to more collaborative jobs like “Hysteria” and “Pinky and the Brain.”
“Writing a cartoon is very much like sketch comedy,” Borstein said. “What’s fun about it is, with animation, anything is possible … It’s fun and freeing.”
“It was a lot of fun. We write well together,” Ehrlich said. “We can yell at each other and be brutally honest.”
Ehrlich said their long work days alternated between hours side by side at the computer and candy breaks at 7-Eleven. They still write together and are working on a script about their experience writing “Hysteria” at Warner Brothers with a manic crazy boss.
Borstein’s career at “MAD TV” began when she and five ACME members went to a comedy festival in Austin, Texas, in 1997. Recruiters from the show were there and asked them to audition. Before she knew it, Borstein became a cast member on the show’s third season.
Her hit character on the show, Ms. Swan, was an older immigrant lady who worked at a nail salon and had major communication problems. She was a composite of all foreigners with a look that was modeled after Icelandic singer Björk, and known for stammering: “Okay. I tell you every-tang. You listen, I tell you. He looka like a man.”
But some mistook her to be an Asian stereotype. An article in the Los Angeles Times by Guy Aoki criticized Borstein for putting on “yellow face” and being a racist.
“The character is everything and anything,” said Borstein. “I have fans who are Puerto Rican going, ‘oh my god that is my grandmother.’ Anyone I talk to likes to think it’s their nationality. They’re like ‘the Chinese lady,’ and I say, why do you think she’s Chinese? ‘Well, my grandma’s Chinese.’ Everyone wants to make her who they are.”
She felt “MAD TV” had been “consistently inconsistent” overall. She loved half of the sketches, but she couldn’t even watch the other half because they were so bad.
“Some weeks on “MAD TV,” I thought we were going places we shouldn’t. It was repetitive to have farting skits and blow job references week after week. It’s not like I’m a prude and I don’t approve. But if you do it too much there’s no comedic value in it,” she said. Fortunately, Borstein said “MAD TV” never forced her to be in a sketch she did not believe in.
After five years, Borstein left the show.
“It’s like anything, college or high school, you’re there for so many years and then you go on. My contract was up, so I thought I’d go for it, because I think you can get stuck.”
She is currently developing a new TV show and co-writing a script for “Box Office Gross” with “MAD TV” cast member Will Sasso. “Gross,” she said, will be a send up of all movies and the movie-going experience.
She also has a one woman stand-up and storytelling show called “The Monday Night Tour,” that examines her life growing up with female role models on TV.
“There were all these incredible woman characters on TV like Sabrina from Charlie’s Angels who’s really smart and a snappy dresser, Janet from Threes Company, Thelma from Scooby Doo -- all these cool chicks. Something happened and we were left with Showgirls and Anna Nicole Smith. I talk about growing up with those role models, what I looked for and what shaped me into what I am now. I’m in a position now to create some of these role models and possibly be one and it’s not as easy as it sounds.”
Of all her work, Borstein is most proud of her writing credits. Her favorite script titled “My Parents” recounts her grandparents’ experiences surviving the Holocaust.
“It’s about survival and raises interesting morality questions,” she said.
As she flies off to Italy, confident with her career choices in life, Borstein feels everything she has done, and is now doing, are through the force of her own will.
“I guess my motto is: ‘make shit happen.’”