When Comedy Started Killing Me
Comedy started killing me around 2015. Up until then, I had mostly found joy in the hustle, of having 45 shows and 87 rehearsals every week, all of them unpaid or sometimes costing me money. But after a series of disappointments, comedy eventually became malignant. And it started to destroy me on the inside. Now, in 2019, I’m only starting the process of uncovering how much damage it really has caused.
I grew up gay in a Fox News home in a conservative small town, which led me to develop many sticky layers of self-loathing, ones I’m still peeling off to this day. To combat this internal monologue that said I had no worth, no value, that I was incorrect and wrong and bad and a huge disappointment and galactic-level embarrassment, I became obsessed with Achieving. Accomplishing shit. Like, ribbons and trophies and awards. It didn’t matter what I did, or if I even liked doing it, as long as I got some sort of recognition at the end.
Most quarterback sacks on the football team? Check.
Most improved on the speech team? Check.
Essay contest winner at American Legion Boy’s State? CHIZZECK.
Student of the month AND student of the year? Yer goddamn right that’s a CHECK.
Incidentally, I also became obsessed with Oscars, Grammys, Emmys, Tonys, etc. So much so that I met my first boyfriend on an online awards message board. I’m also, to this day, constantly on IMDB looking at what awards actors have one and pinpointing the years they were most relevant and powerful.
The Chicago Comedy world, in retrospect, was a honey trap for a self-hating gay boy like me. It provided a very clear structure for accomplishment: a well-lit Candy Land path of highly specific benchmarks to hit on your way to Saturday Night Live superstardom.
Take classes. Get on a team. Get invited to a special audition. Get called back. Get on a touring company. Get on a stage. Get an SNL audition.
And, what’s better, it was all based around improv, perhaps the one art form where you truly don’t have to have any talent to have moderate success. And that unearned, moderate success leads you to believe you DO have a precious, rare talent and you can abortion-joke and woosh your dreams into reality. At least, it did for me!
When I started my first improv classes at the iO West in 2005, I took one look at the photos of Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers and Mike Myers on the wall and decided this was what I was meant to accomplish. If I could get on Saturday Night Live, then I could prove to EVERYONE (ahem, myself) that in fact I WAS correct, I WASN’T an anomaly and that I DID have worth.
2015 was the year I realized I had been thrown hopelessly astray from the Path to Success everyone else was using to get to SNL. I had failed four times to get on a Harold team at the iO. I had failed every TourCo audition for Second City. I had gotten cast on a ship, but if we’re being honest that was 99% because I was in a relationship with someone who had been doing the boats. And, in a cry of delusional agony, I created a web series to Really Show Them. This was Sheryl Still Single.
And Sheryl, bless her giant messy bitch heart, was thoroughly rejected. It was rejected from 12 of 13 festivals, the one it got into being the one notorious for accepting everything.
This is when comedy started killing me. I became extraordinarily mean to myself, because I didn’t have those arbitrary accomplishments to use to delude myself into thinking I had worth. I would say out loud I should die, that I was worthless, that I was a monster that didn’t belong on this Earth. All because I couldn’t accept my own mediocrity. I refused to look at the evidence: in fact, there had been scant few, if any, true indicators in my 12 years in the Chicago comedy scene that I had any ability to even come close to accomplishing my stratospheric goals.
Chicago comedy is great at drawing you in but is in no way equipped or interested in providing a dignified way out. It's a mental health bear trap, and by 2015 I was gnawing my own foot off.
I actually managed to accomplish some cool (if inconsequential) things with my follow-up web series Too Big For This World, but by then it was too late to pull me out of my spiral. If it wasn’t Saturday Night Live, it was just further evidence I was a Huge Fucking Failure.
I became so depressed by my inability to progress that I started shutting down. I started shitting blood. I became unimaginably exhausted and idle. I also became so extraordinarily sensitive that even the slightest bit of feedback or criticism would send me into a tailspin that could last days, or weeks. This fucked me out of opportunities simply because I was unable to process them.
Example: I was asked to deliver a script to a woman at a production company and spent months being unable to rise to the challenge. It was also a very personal script about my depression and career as a comedian, so her inevitable polite decline might as well have been a cannon blast to my face because I had long-since worn through whatever emotional resistance padding I had.
Since then, I have been unable to get back on my feet. I talk myself out of every idea for a new web series or video or show, telling myself they’re Fucking Stupid and embarrassing in ways that redefines the word. It’s gotten better in recent months, but for a good year it was a special kind of hell.
So that’s why all has been quiet on the comedy front. I don’t know what else I have left, and I don’t trust my ability to absorb any more (self-imposed) disappointment.
The good news, however, is that in 2019 I’ve been like a Charlene song and have been visiting Me a whoooollle fucking bunch. I took an acting class and a writing workshop. I started CrossFit! Turns out I’m a douchebro and I kind of absolutely love it! And most importantly I’m back in therapy after years of psyching myself out by convincing myself if I went back I would just do it wrong and fail and hate myself for not being a Good Therapy Patient.
So, on a personal front, I suppose I am accomplishing things. They don’t come with trophies or ribbons or exciting Facebook announcements that 678 people Like. These accomplishments won’t be posted on Deadline or put me on a Vulture list of Top Comedy Fetuses To Watch. But, I’m learning to understand their quiet momentousness. And, I’m learning to be kinder to myself. To be okay with my okay-ness.
I will do comedy again. I don’t know in what form, or when, or how, but I know when it happens it will be solely to supplement my own joy and not some desperate They Shoot Horses Don’t They? marathon death dance for gatekeepers to maybe possibly position myself for a Waiting For Guffman-esque SNL audition opportunity that will never, ever come to pass (YES I REFERENCED TWO MOVIES IN ONE SENTENCE, DEAL WITH IT ANALOGY POLICE).
I mean, bottom line: I can’t expect the world to embrace me if I don’t hug me first. Ha! Put that shit on a coffee mug in a swirly font, Jan, and send the residuals straight to my gaping asshole.
Oh, and the funny thing about all those things I failed to accomplish in Chicago? I didn’t actually want them. I wanted to know I was good enough to achieve them. But, I didn’t want them. I didn’t actually want to drive around the country in a van performing for racist and homophobic crowds. I didn’t want to do a fucking Harold (who wants to actually do a fucking Harold?).
I just wanted to know I was wanted. And good enough. And not a mistake or anomaly. The same thing I’ve always wanted, since I was old enough to understand my queerness.
So what comes next? I don’t know. I’m playing a lot of Tomb Raider lately and working on some pilots here and there. That’s enough for now. Because I’m enough, regardless of my output, regardless of my accomplishments.
And honestly, being able to say that is truly my biggest accomplishment in years.