There’s an improviser out there in Chicago somewhere, doing her fourth show of the week.
One or more she DEFINITELY slayed. One or more was DEFINITELY a shitshow.
She’s been at it for a year. Two years. Five years. Fifteen years.
She waits tables at a hellhole Wrigleyville dump. She temps at call centers and carves her initials under desks. She has a high-powered corporate job that sucks the marrow from her bones. She lives off her parents while trying to get her Etsy page dedicated to Ribbon Bracelets to take off.
She just scrolled through her Facebook feed and saw someone who has been here for half the time she has get an opportunity ten times bigger than anything she’s ever been offered. The person even time-stamped their post “Wow! I can’t believe after being in Chicago for six tenths of a second, I’m performing on the Second City Mainstage/got a recurring role on Chicago Fire/got SNL!!!!”
She kind of wants to die reading it but she hearts it and comments “OMG GIRL GET IT!!!”
She checks her email. Nothing. Still no word if that important producer/agent/manager is coming to her Tuesday night improv show at The Playground/one-woman show about growing up in a scuba diving family/sketch show she wrote with her classmates, half of who flaked during the process.
She stays at it for another year/two years/five years/fifteen years. She ages out of most opportunities, because the bigwigs have decided they only want to cast literal fetuses on their stages. She watches as a just-released sperm with a YouTube channel gets SNL and an egg that literally JUST entered the fallopian tube gets his own TV show.
She wonders if no one sees her because she’s too old. Too queer. Too esoteric. Too loud. Too quiet. Maybe she references Rocko’s Modern Life too much in her improv scenes. Or maybe she doesn’t reference Rocko’s Modern Life enough?
She starts teaching improv/interning at the box office/coaching an improv team to make a little extra cash/get some stage time/get discounted classes.
Her agent calls and yells at her for booking out wrong. She can never seem to do it right. She’s only gotten cast in one thing in her time there, a small role in a short film, and her part was cut.
On weekends she holds court at bars near the improv theaters that rejected her and laughs and tells stories of her miraculous bad luck and says “FUCK YOU!!” to the people who wronged her before taking another shot of Malort/Malort shot/it’s always a Malort shot at this juncture/swig of Malort. Then she goes home to her studio apartment in Lincoln Square/Roger’s Park/Bronzeville/Logan Square and cries with her cat/old dog/bowl of three-day-old Thai food because she can’t seem to escape this endless cycle of rejection/get people to notice her/remember how to love performing comedy/recognize the pain she’s inflicting on herself by continuing to pursue dreams that seemed electric when she started at 22 but now seems juvenile.
The pain she feels in her chest is the pain of realizing, slowly over her year/two years/five years/fifteen years, that wanting something is much different than deserving it. And deserving something means nothing if you remain invisible to those who can give it to you.
She has four more shows next week. And six the week after. And then a little break. And she’ll hate herself for being so busy and hate herself for having that little break. And she’ll hate herself most when she has a moderate amount of shows/rehearsals because it’s clearly not enough/it’s clearly too much and fuck her for not being able to control it.
More crying. More Malort. More three-day-old Pad Thai.
And then, one day, after yet another three-person audience/packed house/bad review/standing ovation, something will click into place inside of her. She has to move to LA. Suddenly, her stress and sadness will melt away because she’s reclaiming the power to define herself, something she’d ceded to outside forces for years.
This improviser exists all over the place. Sometimes she’s a he. Sometimes she’s a she. Sometimes she’s a they/zi/figuring it out. She is prolific and unique and rough around the edges and brilliant and deeply flawed and a mess. She has the audacity not to be a Shiny Object Everyone Notices, or just isn’t that good at self-promotion, or doesn’t stay out past 10 because she has kids/a stressful job/a dog/just likes sleep.
The Chicago comedy world is a land of abundance filled with people who operate in perpetual scarcity mode. We fear the success of others and see our comedy careers as ladders instead of ball pits. We work the system to benefit ourselves instead of raise each other up.
If 11 years in Chicago taught me one thing, it’s to notice those around you. The ones falling through the cracks. The ones putting in the work but not getting the opportunities. And recognize you have the power to create opportunities for each other and change each other’s fortunes.
I was ignored. I was overlooked. It hurt. And it’s been hard not to be angry about it. But I found abundance in Chicago, in amazing friends and collaborators. And I tried my best to create my own ball pit (well, let’s be honest, a wig pit). And it was the greatest experience of my life, until the day comes that Judith Light buys me Panera.
I’m sad for what I didn’t achieve, for what I gave up on, for the emails that never came, but also I’m sad for the people who didn’t give me a chance, because they didn’t get to see what I could do for them.
There’s an improviser out there in the Chicago somewhere, doing four shows a week. And she’s desperate for a fucking chance.
Give her the outstretched hand you’re waiting so impatiently for someone else to give you. Make space for her. Create something for her, or with her. Let her sit in with your group. Cast her in that JonBenet Ramsey show you’re writing, or the sketch show about butts you’re creating with classmates. Put her in your web series about zany bro roommates that you’re shooting on your iPhone. Invite her to your variety show. Put on a variety show with her. Notice her at the end bar, swimming in her phone, waiting for emails/opportunities that will never come. Buy her a Malort shot (but like, for fuck’s sake don’t be creepy about it).
Because if you keep ignoring her, she’ll quit. And her comedic voice will be silenced prematurely.
Or she’ll let the bitterness overtake her and become something she isn’t.
Or she’ll say fuck this and move to LA and become a showrunner on a wildly successful HBO show about huffy older women waiting in line at Lord & Taylor called Gentlemen Prefer Blazers.
There was an improviser out there in Chicago somewhere, doing four shows a week. Some she slayed, some were shitshows. Now she’s in a car on her way to LA. It’s been tough, but I think she’ll be okay.
So. I am in a hotel room that randomly had YouTube on the TV, and for no real reason I decided to rewatch Sheryl Still Single for the first time in a long time. I wanted to look at it with fresh eyes and see things I couldn’t see before.
For the billions of people who have no idea what that is, in 2015 I wrote and produced and starred in a web series about a single woman in her 50s.
Watching it again after some time and distance, I still very much love what was created, and I adore my friends’ performances. I cringed at my acting, as I always do, and as a writer who hates everything I write, there were scenes I wish I had written differently and lines I wish I had nixed.
But mostly, it brought back happy memories of filming, of creating and collaborating, of birthing this project into the world and feeling a sense of accomplishment and anticipation at how people might react. At the time, I felt it was a big step toward showing the world my comedic sensibilities.
My biggest mistake was losing perspective about it.
I do that. I create a Thing, and then latch onto the Thing and pin all my hopes and dreams to the Thing. As if THIS time is for real. THIS time, this particular Thing is going to rocket me to the top. It’s going to be the magic word that will open all the doors to success and allow me to return to the iO Chicago and interrupt a Harold commission meeting to have a Julia Roberts-Shopping-in-Pretty-Woman-Big-Mistake-Huge moment.
But I’ve learned, over and over again, that the weight of all my hopes and dreams are heavy indeed, so result of these reckless, whirling dervish thoughts are the same: the Thing fails to meet my own absurd expectations and sinks like a stone, unnoticed, into the abyss.
In a single year, Sheryl was rejected by 12 festivals. It has been accepted by zero. 0-12. That fucking sucks. It hurts (in that obnoxious fragile-snowflake-artist kind of hurt that we love to pretend makes us Fascinating and Potent. P.S. I'm Fascinating and Potent.) And it’s embarrassing too on some level, since so many people generously donated to my Indiegogo to support Sheryl and I don’t have any fancy trophies or millions of views or even a write-up or re-post on a single blog to show them it was worth their investment.
After rejection seven or eight, I began to wonder why I even create. My story in the Chicago comedy world has been one filled with quiet rejection, oversight, not being seen, not being understood, not standing up for myself and generally not getting picked for the team. Sheryl was supposed to crack the code. She didn’t, because she’s not a Cold War spy named Oksana.
But then around rejection ten or eleven, I realized something: Sheryl didn't need outside approval. Her very existence was a huge success. A gay kid from a conservative family with a father who had a "Clinton Impeached!" newspaper headline pinned to his bulletin board at work had created something that truly expressed who he was, at his core.
As soon as Sheryl was finished, I forgot all this and instead created the most outlandish scenarios of success in my head, so outlandish that it fucked up my aspirational compass so much that outlandish success equaled normal success, normal success equaled mild failure, and actual failure equaled a Deep Impact/Armageddon/Death Star mash-up of exploding planets.
For example, when Sheryl was released, I immediately imagined entering the New York Television Festival, getting in and winning the whole thing. I had seen it done before, by people I knew, so why not me? And maybe winning the whole thing would lead to a Netflix deal. Okay John, slow down. Maybe it will just lead to a Logo TV deal. Or, okay, discussions with Logo TV where you can pitch other show ideas. SLOW DOWN JOHN. It’ll probably just be TruTV. FUCKING STOP IT JOHN. You’ll win, but you might not get a development deal. Okay, maybe you won’t win the whole thing but you are obviously winning Best Actor and you should write the names of your big donors on a card so you don’t forget to say them in your acceptance speech.
Oh wait, what’s that? Sheryl wasn’t accepted in the NYTVF? I’m sorry, I do not comprehend this reality. Clearly I fell into a tear in the fabrics between the multiverses and I need to Scott Bakula my way home to the reality where I already have my Netflix show and several Golden Globes, please and thank you.
In recognizing this pattern of behavior, I was able to see that these rejections weren’t really rejections at all. They were shots in the dark that didn’t hit their target, and the chances of hitting that target were always slim. Creating is always a shot in the dark. There are no guarantees.
I let the joy of creating get away from me and get supplanted by the desperation to succeed. I do that. I hate that I do that
Regardless if Sheryl is 0-12 with getting into festivals or 0-900, the fact remains I created something I’m proud of. Amazing people supported my effort, financially and by lending their enormous talents. I proved to myself and to others I can create something unique and weird and professionally produced. And I learned a fuck-ton. Whatever I create next will have Sheryl’s DNA and wisdom collected from her creation. So in a sense, Sheryl will be a little bit responsible for any success I have in the future.
Because that’s truly why artists create. As practice for the next thing they create.
And believe you me, I have been busy creating. There’s much, much, much more to come. Soon, in fact. I’m excited about it. And what’s to come wouldn’t exist if Sheryl hadn’t come first, which means despite my desire to be a Constant Insufferable Sad Fuck and whining about how overlooked she is, it turns out…she was a huge success all along.
The strangest thing happened to me a little while ago. I got a callback. I never get callbacks. And this was for a TV show, of all things.
Then, a hysterical-Winona-Ryder-drawing-the-alphabet-on-her-wall Stranger Thing happened. I got cast. On Shrink. A new TV show for NBC's streaming service Seeso.
Immediately, I thought it was a mistake. This is how I handle success, by the way. I immediately panic and reject it and decide someone made a mistake, that I'm a fraud, that I tricked someone. My first reaction to succeeding is to want to desperately apologize to the people who think I did a good job.
I can't even look at texts that contain a compliment. As soon as I see a compliment is coming, or a heart emoji, I hide my phone because I don't deserve it. I tricked someone.
Strange things happen in adulthood after you spent 22 years of your life hating yourself for being secretly gay in a conservative family living in a conservative small town.
My internal dialogue growing up was that I was an anomaly. A mistake. Love wasn't made for me. Something fucked up on the assembly line and I ended up having an SUV's body with a jetski engine and rowboat interior.
Since coming out and embracing my gayness and finding love, this sense of perpetual failure and being a walking mistake has hopped like a parasite to feed on my comedy career. And so I've spent the last decade and a half convinced I was a comedic anomaly, that success wasn't meant for me, that I was a forever going to be the Chicago comedy equivalent of the Feed The Birds lady in Mary Poppins (played by Academy Award winner Jane Darwell, goddess of my being).
And, as a coping mechanism, I started to wear this sense of failure, this narrative of being perpetually overlooked, as a badge of honor. If I couldn't get a touring company or a stage at Second City or a Harold team at the iO, if I was never invited to perform in any classic Annoyance shows, then I would position myself as the tragically overlooked comedy martyr. I would "show them" by being the busiest comedy creator in the city, fueled by a sense of injustice and hairbrained conspiracy theories as to why the powers that be have, for a decade, chosen to ignore me.
It was pretty cozy, this little narrative. I relished the sadness of it and wore it like a sharf (shawl + scarf). I love an underdog story. I use to LOVE rooting for the yellow sweater-ed Team 3 on Supermarket Sweep that never had a chance of winning the Final Sweep. And here I had brilliantly made myself the ultimate underdog.
And then, I got cast. And I was confused. And panicked. And kind of sad for a moment. Because my painstakingly crafted narrative of loserdom had just gotten shattered. Who...what....HOW?!
How could I continue being Chicago's Most Tragically Overlooked Gay Comedy Powerhouse if I had just booked a principal role on a TV show?
I couldn't. And I can't. So I'm changing the narrative. Because that narrative was fucking dumb to the maxxx. I've had so many wonderful experiences and opportunities since I've been in Chicago. I'm extremely fortunate, and also I'm not entitled to a single goddamn thing. Not a single role, not a single stage, nothing. I can succeed just like anyone else, and I can fail just like anyone else.
Yeah, okay, truth talk. I honestly feel like the major theaters fucked up in not casting me at any point in the last five years, because everyone and their uncle knows I could write 40 different mainstage or e.t.c. Second City shows tomorrow that Chris Jones would give at least three stars to (and three paragraphs devoted to fawning over the new white straight dude.) Writing sketch comedy is my superpower, but there are many factors that go into hiring someone and perhaps other skills I have aren't as strong.
But also, just because I know something is within my capabilities doesn't mean I deserve it, or that there's been a grand conspiracy to deprive me of the opportunity.
The narrative now is this: I'm a workhorse writer. I'm flawed but talented performer. I look great is pink glitter platform heels. And, I have the ability to get cast on a TV show. I can succeed. I won't always, but I can. I am capable.
I will not always be right for the part, nor will I always knock every audition out of the park. Good things can happen to me that I actually deserve. Just as I can deserve to not achieve things. I am not an anomaly. I am a comedian, ever growing, ever learning, ever stumbling, ever achieving, ever experimenting.
I am more than my failures and more than what I don't have on resume. I'm John Fucking Loos. And I can act on camera. And I can reference Jane Darwell in a blog about being an actor in Chicago. And I can write you literally anything. AND I CAN GET CAST.
There's a Wall in my way. It's been there from the very beginning, even though it's location continues to change. It always blocks me from what I think I want/deserve.
There's no way over this Wall, or under, or through. I keep looking for the secret door, or for the Samwell Tarly who can show me where the secret door is and how to operate it. I keep constructing catapults to launch myself over this massive blockade, shooting desperate and frantic grappling hooks, but they never seem to get me even half as high as I need to go.
I've been in the comedy community going on eleven years. I'm not on SNL, I've never gotten a callback for a touring company, I don't have a writing agent, my photo will likely never be on the wall of Second City. I'm not, it turns out (despite my grand desires to be so) the next Catherine O'Hara.
It always seems so easy for everyone else. You log onto Facebook and see people getting cast, getting hired, getting great and deserved opportunities on the other side of the Wall. They're getting helped over, or through, or under, or they're launching themselves over with grace and ease. You go to a sports bar and see people you know selling cars and insurance and Hungry Jack pancakes. They did it. They got over the Wall. They got to peek at what's on the other side.
But I am still here, facing this imposing psychological structure, trying to figure out what exactly I need to hurl myself over it. A web series? A web series with a production budget? How about a web series that wins an award at a festival? What about a podcast about web series? Or a clever Tumblr? Or an Instagram of just pictures of me farting?
What will crack the engineering code and make the catapult strong enough to launch my 230-pound Dutch frame into superstardom? Fuck enjoying what you do, everything should be a calculated, sterile attempt at achieving a preconceived outcome.
I'm writing this because I've realized the Wall will never go away. It will always be in the way, in some regard or another, no matter how much I accomplish or how high and fast and powerfully I soar in its direction.
First, the Wall was blocking my attempts to get on a Harold team at the iO. Back in 2006, that goal seemed as important and huge as Mt. Everest to me. Later, it was blocking my attempts to get a callback for the Second City Touring Company. Lately, despite accomplishing more than I ever dreamed of when I started out eleven years ago, it's still stubbornly there, now blocking me from figuring out how to get material produced for television.
My ambitions and goals have grown enormously. But the juvenile feeling of futility and the inability to control my destiny remains the same. Getting an NBC deal feels as huge as getting on a Harold team once did, and I'm still haunted by the (entirely self-created) powerlessness the Wall imbues in me. It's almost as I'm an addict to this feeling of comedy career impotence, this feeling that there is some grand conspiracy keeping me from having the fame and fortune I think I want (or think I should have) (or have seen others have and have decided for some reason I should want the same success).
Because that's easier to believe than the truth, which is either I'm not ready yet for my dreams to come true or I never will be. Maybe my talent isn't as big as my ambition, which is absolutely fine and normal.
So even though I've travelled thousands of literal miles, mostly back and forth on trains to and from shows and classes, the Wall has travelled with me. I have so many great opportunities and experiences at my back now, yet I seem to forget them almost as soon as they've passed me. I have hyper-focus on this goddamn Wall. What I don't have.
I'm the idiot dog that just ate ten treats and immediately forgets this fact and can only focus on that last treat dangling precariously in my owner's hand.
It's a lesson I've learned, re-learned and will continue to re-learn for many years to come. And it keeps me busy, I guess, building catapults.
For solace, I return, as I often do, to the final words of the New York Ball scene documentary Paris is Burning from the enigmatic Dorian Corey:
"I always had hopes of being a big star. But as you get older, you aim a little lower. Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you've made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you've left a mark. You don't have to bend the whole world. I think it's better to just enjoy it. Pay your dues, and just enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you."
The only difference for me is, I'm desperately shooting grappling hooks.
I just held auditions for a student show, and as always, there was a wealth of talent on display; more than could fit into the show. At the end of each audition group, I told the auditioners to A) not forget the ageless Ellen Barkin's unsung contributions to the history of cinema and B) keep auditioning regardless of the outcome. Audition, audition, audition.
Because I've been in their shoes. I've auditioned for student shows and not been chosen and spent evenings and afternoons checking my phone every five minutes for an email that never comes. It's shitty.
It's also shitty to audition for a Playground incubator team five times. It's shitty to never succeed in a Harold audition and have to wait nine years (NINE YEARS) before you luck into an improv show at the iO, with an independent LGBTQ team. It's shitty to be in your (aggressively early, late early) 30s and have never gotten called back for TourCo auditions. It's shitty to send out letter after letter and email after email to agents, for a decade, and receive almost zero responses.
Auditions are shitty. Rejection is shitty.
But, it makes you better. It's made me better, by a long shot.
After 10 years in Chicago, and two very brief dalliances with agents (one of which turned out to be a scam), I finally have one. And they're amazing. And I realize I wasn't ready for them five years ago, or two. But I am now, because I have something that's really invaluable: a powerful level of Giving Zero Fucks.
That's not to say I don't care about my comedy career, or don't care about auditions or acceptance or projects I'm in. I always have and will continue to give my all. It's to say I finally Give Zero Fucks what people think of me, so a failed audition will no longer crush me, or even dent me. I like me. I know I have comedic worth and that there are successes still in store for me. If people are not on board with John Loos Inc., that's their problem and their loss, not mine. I'm not changing me. I'm being more and more me.
Maybe part of this attitude shift is a result of nestling safely into my 30s, but I like to think that after years and years of casual and callous rejection, I've built up a superhuman immunity to it. Don't want me in your show? Cool! Totally understand. Casting is tough and there are a lot of talented people out there. Don't want me on your stage? I get it. I'm not right for every part. I'm John Loos. And sometimes (probably most times, actually) you don't need a John Loos type. But when you do, you know where to find me.
Each of us has a unique value. Things about us that no one else has. Rejection taught me to not only seek comfort in that fact, but to embrace it wholeheartedly. At some point, I stopped trying to be what I thought everyone wanted me to be and I started to be myself. I started creating my own shit. And inviting people to be a part of it. I stopped asking for permission and started demanding attention. I use the phrase "throw myself in front of the bus" a lot, as in to get people's attention I've had to throw myself in front of a lot of (metaphorical) buses. I've realized they're never going to come to me. And that's fine.
I've been invited to very few Cool Kids Parties, so I'm currently throwing my own party, with Sheryl Still Single and half-assed Ellen Barkin references, and making people want to be a part of it.
In other words, I stopped seeing myself as one of a million American Idol-esque hopefuls lining up in a Best Buy parking lot and started seeing myself as a commodity. I stopped waiting for the magical hand that would recognize my unique genius and pluck me out of the crowd and make me famous and started seeing myself as a business. Thus, this site. Thus, this blog.
Don't let others dictate your success. Don't wait for the email or the phone call. And don't fear rejection. It builds character, as every storybook grandpa would say. It makes you stronger, wiser, smarter and sharper. Because, in it's own weird way, it brings you closer to you.