Alex Borstein, a woman of many voices with just the right tone

Alex Borstein: 'Comedy began out of desperately trying to take care of my family'

"Hello?" I said into the phone, questioning whether the line's crackling was the sign of a bad connection or a dropped call.

"Hello?" replied a voice I thought to be my own: an echolike combination of nasally, high-pitched and Midwestern-cum-Valley girl (an unfortunate remnant of my teenage "Clueless" fandom).

"It's Alex Borstein," the disembodied voice said after a few moments of silence, dropping my accent for her natural tone.

That's professional impressionist, verbal improv impresario and comedian Alex Borstein.

She's famous for her voices.

Borstein, 41, a Highland Park native, is the woman behind Lois Griffin, Tricia Takanawa and countless other characters on "Family Guy," as well as Ms. Swan, Cordo the Gap Troll and Jasmine Wayne-Wayne on "MADtv." She's also lent her vocal talents to off-the-wall animated shows like "American Dad!" "Robot Chicken," "The Cleveland Show" and the upcoming immigration comedy "Bordertown."

"I grew up with a grandmother from another country and having a different language in my house," Borstein said during a recent interview, "that gave me an ear for accents."

But with her newest role — Dawn Forchette on HBO's "Getting On" — Borstein's stepping out from behind the mic and hoping people come to know her real voice.

"Getting On," which airs Sundays, centers on a beleaguered extended care ward and the nurses and doctors assigned to tend to the elderly residents. The show takes on the morbid truths of aging with moments of bellyaching laughter, abrasive candor and wince-induing awkwardness.

Borstein's Forchette, the head nurse, has the emotional maturity of a seventh-grader, as evidenced by her bizarre jewelry, Betty Rubble-inspired hair, ridiculous pen collection and odd, immature relationship with the (possibly gay) supervising male nurse, Patsy De La Serda (Mel Rodriguez). Forchette, a complex hoyden, combines a childish self-obsession with a heroic dedication to those in her charge. She just may be the first altruistic narcissist, and Borstein's performance is pitch-perfect.

"It's just a dream come true and it's the best material," Borstein said. "'Family Guy' material is phenomenal, too, but it's not live action. It's not me getting to be a full, three-dimensional person and getting to play all these layers. I never in a million years thought I would get an opportunity like this."

Like so many comedians, Borstein's initial interest in comedy was born from tragedy … and the Passover Seder.

Borstein's brother is a hemophiliac, and the family spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals. Comedy became imperative to lighten the mood, Borstein said.

"Then there was Passover, which is kind of every Jewish kid's first real performance," she said with a laugh. "You have to sing the four questions. You read out loud. You get used to working in front of a crowd. I feel like there was one ridiculous Passover where it really sank in that this is fun."

At 16, Borstein booked her first stand-up gig. The material was not great (think scatological humor), she said, but the high she got from being on stage only fueled her comedy fire.

In college at San Francisco State, Borstein, who studied rhetoric, continued doing stand-up and joined a sketch group called The Virus. The troupe wrote original scenes that tackled social issues and university politics. It was basically Borstein's first taste of sketch writing, and she was immediately good at it, said the group's founder Jeffrey M. Anderson, now a film critic in San Francisco.

"One of the earliest things I remember is showing up with this terrible sketch I had written about Freud," Anderson said. "It was filled with sexual innuendo stuff. Alex didn't say 'Let's not do it,' she just took it and started redoing it, and she made it workable and good."

After college, Borstein continued performing at LA's ACME Comedy Theatre. Throughout years of shows, she crafted original characters and learned to make each role memorable, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

"Sometimes a role didn't even call for her to do a really distinct character — like, it was just playing a girlfriend, but she found an angle or an accent that didn't take away from the sketch but made it better," said actor Jeff Lewis, who performed with Borstein at ACME. "Her strength was adding a line here or there that you hadn't thought about that just made the scene so much funnier."

Borstein used to dream she was adopted and that her real parents were Gilda Radner and Steve Martin.

"I gravitated toward people who had these giant personas," Borstein said, "and when I look back on it, they were people that did a little of everything."

When Borstein joined "MADtv" in 1997, she and fellow newbie Will Sasso discovered they had similar a sense of humor and a shared love of Martin's comedy. "Alex has a lot of Steve Martin in her," Sasso said.

"I think the thing that is very unique about Alex is the same person who created a character as broad as Ms. Swan is also the queen of subtly," he continued. "She not only knows how to play something subtle, but she really enjoys it, arguably more than bigger characters, just knowing her."

Whether portraying the Gap Troll or Bjork, Borstein's "MADtv" roles were marked by total commitment to character.

Her most famous part, Ms. Swan, was a woman whose amorphous ethnicity harkened back to Andy Kaufman's Foreign Man. Borstein had no way of knowing the plaid-apron-clad character would hit the cultural zeitgeist in the way it did, but she had an inkling Swan would be popular. "She's a rip-off of my grandmother," Borstein said. "I knew that anytime I would do my grandmother's voice at Passover, people laughed their (butts) off. There was something about that voice and being so obtuse … I knew that Swan was based on something real, and usually real things tend to pick up steam because they come from someplace personal."

As a listless post-grad, Borstein got a job at the ad agency Schwartz Rahman writing copy for high-end, high-priced Barbies. She'd sit for hours trying to come up with tag lines.

"I'd write sentence after sentence after sentence, line after line after line, come up with alternatives, alts, alts, alts" she said. "That practice led to being able to be in the writers' room at 'Family Guy' because that's what you do: pitch joke after joke after joke."

While still on "MADtv," Borstein agreed to voice the character of Lois Griffin, a highly sexualized housewife, for a new show called "Family Guy" by Seth MacFarlane, a then-unknown animator. As soon as Borstein read the pilot, she knew it was special, she said, but she also knew how to make the role better.

Seth was "25 years old writing a mother's part," Borstein said. "He didn't really have much insight into writing a female character, so she was pretty bland. I kept kind of adding and changing stuff, and then they asked me to write on the show. It was this amazing opportunity to help develop her and create all of her weird kinks and the dark underbelly that she has. She's not just a (regular) mom"

Casting Dawn Forchette on "Getting On" was a bit like finding the right actress for Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind."

More than 60 actresses auditioned for the role, producers Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer said, but no one nailed the odd intricacies needed for Forchette's character.

No one until Borstein.

"When Alex came in, we knew she was the one we'd been looking for." Olsen said. "She's the only one who nailed the conjunction of (Dawn's) two improbable qualities: She was deeply and keenly intelligent and yet utterly unconscious. It made for a fantastic combination."

Borstein gave birth to her daughter a week before she got an email to audition. Trying to relax and recharge in Seattle, she had every intention of ignoring the request until she realized it was the project she'd read about with envy months earlier.

"I lost my mind and I said 'Yes, yes, yes, I will put myself on tape and I will send it out.' Which is what I did, bleary-eyed with no sleep, no makeup, which is probably why I got the job," Borstein said.

Shot cinema verite style, the comedy of "Getting On" comes from the tedium of the daily grind. Instead of obvious rim-shots, the actors and the camera angles let viewers marinate in the sad, boring, funny and awkward moments of everyday life in a hospital. Meetings, lunch breaks and medical rounds, left clinical in many TV shows, become a breeding ground for laugh-out-loud moments, and Borstein is often at the heart of the joke.

"I think her biggest gift is comedic timing," said Borstein's co-star Niecy Nash, who plays nurse Didi Ortley. "That's not something you can learn in a class. It's like, either you're funny or you're not, and she's very funny."

Season 2, which premiered Nov. 9, kicked off with a huge announcement for Forchette: She's pregnant, and nurse De La Serda is the father (or so she says). In upcoming episodes, storylines dive into the main characters' backgrounds, revealing more of their motivations while still mining the office relationships that were so successful in the first season.

"Getting On" offers Borstein a chance to show her dramatic chops, introduce her work to a new audience and, well, it's downright fun, she said. But, more than that, she hopes the series provides a catalyst for conversation about the universal reality of aging, and a chance to remember those who've passed.

For Borstein, the show is cyclical in a way: On set, she's often reminded of her late grandmother, the woman who trained her ears for language and accents and set her on the path that has led to "Getting On."

"Losing my grandmother was one of the hardest things I ever had to go through," Borstein said. "Being on set and holding some of these women's hands, looking at the skin on the top of their hands, I get choked up all the time.

"These women of a certain age are getting an opportunity to be showcased (on the series). We're saying they are not invisible. We're pointing the camera at them and holding it there for long periods of time and," she paused, "they're beautiful."

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