The Arty Semite

Alex Borstein on 'Family Guy' and 'Getting On'

By Curt Schleier

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Alex Borstein interrupts her stint as a horticultural voyeur to take a phone call. “I’m standing on something to see my neighbour’s deck and her new flower pots,” she explains. “They’re really fancy and kind of put my deck to shame.”

Dale Robinette

It’s hard to believe that Borstein has time to smell or look at the flowers. She is a veteran of the sketch comedy show MADtv, on which she appeared for five seasons (1997-2002). She voices Lois Griffin (and has written and produced episodes) on “Family Guy,” written for and appears in the Showtime series, “Shameless,” and currently stars in the new HBO series “Getting On.”

The last is a very — make that extremely — dark comedy set in an extended care facility. Borstein plays Nurse Dawn, an insecure RN whose obsession with finding a boyfriend sometimes undermines her job performance.

Landscaping — or, more accurately, deckscaping — envy aside, Borstein spoke to the Forward about her still popular MADtv character, Miss Swan, why she took a role so different from anything she’d done in the past, and how she decided whether or not her son should attend Hebrew school.

Curt Schleier: I assume you are aware that thanks to You Tube, your character, Miss Swan, lives on. My grandchildren delight in showing me a new video of you every time I see them. I moved up a notch on the cool scale when I told them I was going to interview you.

Alex Borstein: I’m aware that it’s still out there, and I’m glad I could make your life better.

The role of Nurse Dawn seems substantially different from the broader comedy you’re associated with. Is that what attracted you?

Yes, it absolutely is different. It’s dark, it’s real. She’s very flawed. She has a lot more screen time, so I’m given the opportunity to do a lot more. The moment I heard they were developing the show (based on a British program of the same name), even before I had a chance to audition, I clicked on a British link, watched it and asked myself, “Why am I not involved in this?”

Did you feel the same way about “Family Guy” when you first read that script?

It was similar to “Getting On.” I knew it was special. I knew it was different. However, I did not know that “Family Guy” was going to explode and become the cultural phenomenon it has.

How did you get involved in “Family Guy?”

The same woman who developed “MADtv” on Fox was also working on “Family Guy.” They were going to put it on between sketches in the same way that “The Simpsons” started on the Tracy Ullman show. But [Family Guy creator] Seth [MacFarlane] was too savvy and wanted his own show. That’s how we were introduced. He asked if I would help out and do voice-overs for this little pilot demonstration. I read it and it was very different and very funny.

Do you have a preference of one over the other?

I really like both. I hope to get to do both until the day I die. I love the freedom of voiceover and the ability to play multiple characters I could never play in real life, a hot young woman, a little boy. I also like never having to do makeup or hair. But then, after a while, I start longing to be a three-dimensional character standing with other people and acting back with them.

What are the differences between working on “Family Guy” and “Getting On?”

As I said, on “Family Guy,” I do a lot of work in a booth by myself. I’m not working with other people. “Getting On” is a more tactile experience. We don’t work on the set. We work in a former hospital with real rooms and real windows. Another difference is that everything is slowed down because this is on HBO. All six episodes were written in advance so we knew where we were going. On network TV you only get the script for the next week.

You are sort of inadvertently responsible for Melissa McCarthy’s career aren’t you?

[At the end of the 1999-2000 season,] we didn’t know if MADtv was coming back. So what happened was I went out and auditioned for roles. Of course, when it rains it pours. MADtv was renewed and I got the part of Sookie St. James on “Gilmore Girls.” But MADTv didn’t want to share me, and Melissa took over the role.

Tell me a little about your Jewish background.

I was born in Highland Park and brought up in Deerfield, Ill. I attended Solomon Schechter Day School until we moved out here to California when I was in the sixth grade then I intended that Heschel day school in the San Fernando Valley. My dad was raised Orthodox in Atlanta. He speaks Hebrew. He speaks Yiddish. He married a Jewish woman who is not Orthodox, so I was brought up by two different kinds of Jews. I’m having fun with my own kids, taking them to Purim carnivals and having Passover Seders. But I’m also at a stage where I have to answer question: why don’t we have a Christmas tree? Why are we Jewish and they aren’t?

Do you think you’ll bring any of your Jewish background to your work?

Absolutely. Especially with comedy. People who have picture-perfect upbringings and lives tend not to be funny. I don’t think they write from a position of pain. Being an outsider helps breed comedy.

Finally, how are your “Getting On” ratings?

The numbers are good. It’s a Hanukkah miracle.


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