Queens firefighter turns pranks into punchlines

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In 1991, at the age of 25, Steve Alleva quit his job at Solomon Smith Barney, threw out all but one of his suits, joined the New York City Fire Department and has never looked back.

Two years ago, to supplement his time as a firefighter, the prankster of Engine 48 in the Bronx entered the field of stand-up comedy.

“I figured the guys in the fire department were all sick of hearing my jokes so I had to go to the general population,” Alleva said. “I had to expand.”

Alleva, born in Fresh Meadows, raised in Flushing, and currently residing in Bayside, said he has been trying to make people laugh his whole life. His parents divorced when he was young and Alleva grew up with his mother and two sisters — an environment which forced him to have a sense of humor, he said.

“Growing up with three women in the house, you have to laugh,” Alleva said. “[There is] definitely comedy there when you’re the only guy in Alleva received an undergraduate degree in economics from Lehman College in the Bronx and after graduating he spent the next two years behind a desk and on the trading floor for Solomon Smith Barney. One day while he was working for the brokerage firm two friends told him they were planning to take the fire department’s entry test.

“I had never thought about it before, but from that day on I knew I wanted to be a firefighter,” Alleva said. “I worked on the trading floor and passed my broker’s exam, but my heart wasn’t in that. My heart was in the fire department and it still is.”

Though his heart was in the fire department, Alleva’s mind sometimes wandered to the job he had been considering since college — stand-up comedy.

“I just never had the guts to try it,” he said.

Then, in 1999, just as he was beginning his acting career with New Hyde Park’s New Theatre Players, Alleva heard about the first benefit for the Thomas Elsasser Fund — a charity that supports families of firemen who die outside of the line of duty. The benefit was to feature firemen who wanted to try stand-up comedy at Governor’s Comedy Shop and Restaurant in Levittown in front of a crowd of more than 200 people. Seizing the opportunity, Alleva submitted his name.

The preparation that went into his first performance taught Alleva much about the comedy writing process. He watched numerous comics on television to get a better sense of timing, and he learned that the making of a successful routine includes hours of writing, re-writing, and rehearsal. The fear of performing poorly in front of his buddies from the fire department made Alleva work particularly hard, he said.

“There was nothing more scary than doing stand-up comedy in front of the guys from my firehouse and a bunch of other firemen at the benefit,” Alleva said. “I don’t mind bombing, but I might have had to quit the fire department if I had bombed in front of all of my friends.”

Alleva did not bomb. His combination of cynicism, sarcasm and biting humor went over so well with his first audience that Alleva began dedicating his free time to writing new jokes, re-working his routine and shopping his services to various clubs around Manhattan.

Alleva’s act covers a wide range of topics “from too many flies in my apartment to if you date a Japanese girl don’t talk about Godzilla,” but he tries to center all of it around topics his audience can relate to. One joke that has gone over particularly well is about his divorced parents.

“My mom’s always breaking my chops talking about my ex-girlfriends,” the joke starts. “She’ll say, ‘When are you going to get married? Whatever happened to that girl, that girl, that girl?’ And I’ll say, ‘Hey Mom, “My mom hates that joke, the crowd usually loves it though,” Alleva said.

Another vital component of Alleva’s comedy is that he holds his comic persona to the same standards to which he hold himself off-stage — he does not use profanity and does not tell dirty jokes.

“I try not to compromise just to get a laugh,” Alleva said. “I feel that you don’t have to curse on stage and that it’s tougher to not use dirty jokes. They’re an easy way out.”

Since his first appearance, Alleva has appeared at numerous benefits and clubs around Manhattan including the New York Comedy Club, Stand Up New York, and the Gotham Comedy Club. But Alleva stresses that his comedy career is secondary.

“I’m a firefighter first and foremost,” Alleva said. “If I don’t have time for comedy I don’t do it, but hopefully I do.”

In fact comedy, so far, has not been much of a career at all for Alleva.

“I’m proud to say I haven’t made a red cent doing stand-up yet,” Alleva said. “Even if I never make a penny it’ll be fine because I just do it because I love it.”

Both of Alleva’s careers saw significant changes in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. After 10 years of fighting fires in the Bronx, Alleva was transferred to Ladder 7 in Manhattan to help reinforce the loss of eight of its firefighters.

“A firehouse is like having 15 brothers under one roof,” Alleva said. And while it was hard for him to leave his 14 brothers in the Bronx and join a house that had just lost eight men, he said the remaining firefighters of Ladder 7 embraced him into their community.

In the following months Alleva put his stand-up career on hold to focus on his work at the World Trade Center site and taking care of families affected by the attacks.

“(Comedy) was the last thing on my mind,” Alleva said.

A few months after the attacks, another firehouse had a benefit which featured firefighter comics.

“There’s a few of us,” Alleva said. “It’s almost like a support group.”

Alleva performed at the benefit, but even this did not draw him back into his second career, as he remained focused on his civic duties. Not until this summer did Alleva begin to dedicate his free time to comedy once again. Since then, he has performed at various benefits and clubs and will continue to perform as much as he can.

As an up-and-coming comic, Alleva does not get primetime slots or much time on stage —his typical routine lasts about seven minutes — but he knows the experience is necessary.

“I’m paying my dues right now,” Alleva said. “I’m doing early shows, just trying to build a reputation in the clubs.”

Alleva has come to appreciate his stand-up career for the way it complements his life in the fire department and satisfies his desire for accomplishment, but since the day he left Wall Street, his heart has remained in the same place.

“If I come off a tough 24 hours in the firehouse I relax and write comedy,” Alleva said. “It’s a nice balance, but firefighting is number one.”

Steve Alleva can be reached at knockitdown48@aol.com. He will be performing live Thursday, Aug. 22 at the Comic Strip, 1568 Second Ave. in Manhattan, and in the third annual Thomas Elsasser Comedy Benefit at the Colden Center at Queens College October 11.

Posted 7:16 pm, October 10, 2011
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