I did it backwards. I started in L.A. and then I moved to Chicago. Whurrpsies.
Improvisers and comedians often incubate in the Windy City and then depart for the smog bowl of L.A. once they grow too big for Chi-town (or, sometimes, just their heads do). Or, something catastrophic happens like they don't get TourCo after their very first audition. Or they just want to give their acting career a "serious" shot. Or, you know, they get a sensible marketing job at US Bank (this never happens).
There should be an updated version of the Oregon Trail called the Yes And Trail where you start in Chicago as an unemployed improviser/temp and take a 1997 Honda to L.A. with your friends, and stop to hunt for Buffalo Wild Wings, and Clara dies of boredom and Hezikiah drowns when you caulk your Honda and float it across the Platte River because Hondas don't float.
I went the wrong way. I went from the plush spoils of Willamette Valley to the more hardscrabble Independence Missouri, so to speak, on a red eye Southwest flight with all my earthly belongings stuffed into two big suitcases. Los Angeles did have more opportunity, but so much that it was overwhelming. Chicago felt more finite. I could wrap my brain around it.
I suppose I did L.A. first because I am bad at following recipes (Mix 5 years in Chicago with a dash of touring and a heaping of a national commercial, then slowly add 7 years in Los Angeles, wisk until stiff, and viola! You've just landed a walk-on role on a CW comedy. Mmm! SAG card!)
When I was 22, I took my first improv classes at the iO West and was the only non-actor and non-industry person in any of my classes. For me, it was a time of terror and exhilaration. And a fuckload of driving. I lived in Rancho Cucamonga with my then-boyfriend, worked in Santa Ana (a good hour and a half away during rush hour) and did all my improv shenanigans in Hollywood or Santa Monica (another hour, hour and a half drive from work during rush hour).
Though I only lived there for a year and eight months or so, I remember it like it was an entire era of my life.
I remember being parked on the 405 for many eternities, trying to get from work in Santa Ana to Hollywood during evening rush hour. I remember the soothing/sexy voice of Kai Ryssdal on NPR's Marketplace keeping me calm as the road rage boiled. I remember the turn-off from the 405 to the 605 and how I always seemed to hit it right as the sun dropped to it's magic hour angle.
I remember the dank Hollywood parking garage I always parked in and the rape-y, crack-cocaine-y staircase I had to walk down to get to the street level. And, the rape-y, crack-cocaine-y side street I had to walk through to get to Hollywood Boulevard.
I remember the picture of Seth Meyers clasping his hands and smiling, located on the stairs in the iO West lobby, and how I would look at it and think "Maybe. Just maybe."
I remember deciding before my last Harold audition that if I made it on the team, I would stay in L.A. If I bombed, I'd move to Chicago. I ended up doing a positively shitty scene about storm chasers and now I'm intimately familiar with drunk Cubs fans and the sound of the Red Line running express.
I remember leaving the iO West late at night to find Scientologists outside their big Hollywood office building, chain smoking in their navy blue pants and royal blue shirts and waiting for coach buses to take them off into the night, to wherever Shelley Miscavige ended up, probably.
I remember telling my independent improv team Mega Fancy that I was moving, several months before I actually did, and how immediately concerned and sad they got, and how they tried for weeks to subtly petition me to stay. And how so many times after my announcement, during rehearsals or before shows or while at dinner, I wanted to blurt out "I'm staying!" just to wash clean the disappointment and make them excited. I wanted to stay. I really did. Especially when they threw a surprise going away party for me.
However, after failing at Harold auditions and breaking up with my boyfriend, the prospect of living alone in that vast phalanx of freeways and commuting hours upon hours every week was too daunting. Back home, I had all my old friends, my family, and a city that wasn't so scary and would allow me to live without ever owning a car. I also wanted to be in the epicenter of the improv universe and take classes at Second City, the Harvard of comedy.
So, I went back. It's a decision I'm still not entirely sure how I made, or why. I think at the time I was mostly motivated by the fear of upsetting the college friend I'd signed a lease with for a Wrigleyville apartment, by pulling out of the deal and staying in LA.
I don't regret leaving Hollywood, because moving to Chicago led me to so many great friends and creative experiences and, duh, the love of my life. But, I can say that I miss it. Not the driving. Holy shit, not the driving. But I do miss the wide-eyed openness of being 22 and not yet jaded to the comedy business and it's subtle indignities.
Whatever track is closest to "normal" for the typical Chicago performer, it's been clear for a very long time that I'm not on it. Like my endless SoCal commute, I'm taking the scenic route in Chicago and putting tons of miles on the car while sitting in gridlock among the endless traffic of improvisers. I'll get to wherever it is I'm going, eventually.
Eight years later, I'm still not entirely sure what I'm doing in Chicago. Then again, I had no idea what I was doing in L.A. until years after I left. That tends to be how these things go.
I'm not supposed to get sad when celebrities die. Actually, I'm not supposed to get sad at all, because I'm cold and German and efficient with my emotions.
And besides, getting sad about celebrities is the cliche thing to do. But I'm a little sad right now, because sometimes being a goddamn human being wins out over my stupid writerly need to objectively distance myself and analyze everything from afar. You know, for Meaning.
Celebrity deaths are exciting, in a way. They're a good excuse to jump on Facebook and to fire up ye old Google Images, or the YouTubes, and suss out that iconic moment or image from the deceased icon's career. Or, the rare quote or soundbite or clip that shows the true depth of your fandom. After all, we don't want to post what everyone else is posting. When Joan Cusack dies*, amid all the clips of "Coffee? Tea? Me?" and "Is EVERBODY GAAAYYYY?!?!" and Jessie the Cowgirl talking about friendship, I will post an outtake clip from the little-seen film The Last Shot where Boss Joan asks her assistant to bring her her back brace and her banjo. Because my Joan Cusack fandom runs super deep, you guys.
I've generally avoided public grieving over celebrities, mostly because I've felt awkward mourning someone I've never met or talked to or know anything about other than their artistic output. Hell, I feel awkward enough mourning people I know. But two recent celebrity deaths have stung a little. Turns out, I am not immune to Feeling All the Feels (copyright 2011) over the deaths of the rich and famous.
Elaine Stritch's recent passing was sad, very sad, but not wholly unexpected given her age and decline. However, her death felt strangely permanent, like she was taking an entire Broadway era--and an entire way of being a broad--with her. It was an extinction of sorts. Even though I came to discover her in my 20s and thus can't claim to be a lifelong fan, she still represented a sort of unicorn fearlessness that helped me make sense of my own inability to assimilate into the artistic community I operate within. She had distinction, bravery, sass, crassness and gave absolutely zero fucks, and I couldn't help but feel a kinship with her. An imagined friendship. Like, if I had been alive in another era, she would've liked me. And we would've performed together. And we would've been friends. And had cosmos and laughed and traded barbs and figured out how to get through it all together. It's silly, I know. A sort of childish fantasy projected onto someone who, for all I know, could've been a huge bitch to me and hated my guts if she ever met me. But, I guess that's just the definition of being a fan.
And then there's Robin. I'm using his first name like I know him, but I don't. I know people who have met him, even performed with him, and all say he was a spectacularly nice person. What I do know is that he was a huge chunk of my childhood, and one of the few people who's talents seemed truly beyond reach of us mortals, sort of like comedy's version of Michael Phelps or Whitney Houston or Vermeer or John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Maybe I'm a bit sadder right now than I usually am after a celebrity death because of all the movies of my childhood he starred in, or the fact he committed suicide like my own father did and like my father took on all of life's pain so others around him wouldn't have to feel it. Or perhaps it was all the ways he helped shape and inspire my sense of comedy. Robin, along with Kids in the Hall, South Park and the Christopher Guest players (specifically Sheila and Ron's windsuits in Waiting For Guffman), had more influence on me than anyone else. And I didn't really realize it until later in my career, when I stepped on stage to play my umpteenth variation of Euphegenia Doubtfire.
Again, I never met him. Perhaps that's why I always feel awkward espousing about a celebrity after they died. It feels like I'm claiming the person some way, as if they touched my life in completely special way that no one else can understand. And that's not true at all. Countless gay men were inspired and delighted by Elaine. Countless comedians were inspired and delighted by Robin. I'm not different.
Still, if nothing else, his death is reminder that brilliant people die too. They die just as much as dull people and tall people and one-armed people and people who try one improv class but quit because it's too terrifying. We all sleep, we all poop, we all die.
And we all, hopefully, leave something behind. And one of the countless intangible things Elaine and Robin left behind are an extra strand of confidence and inspiration somewhere inside in a overly large, bearded gay man doing sketch comedy in Chicago.
I didn't know them at all, but I'm sad nonetheless. Because they helped me, without even knowing it.
Oh, fuck it. Let's end this thing on a poignant music quote, in italics for added effect.
So here's to the girls on the go--
Look into their eyes,
And you'll see what they know:
*Joan Cusack will never die. No, I'm right. Shut up.
Several times recently in my comedy career, usually when I've been hurrying from one rehearsal/show to another on a random weekday night, I've had a distinct thought: "What the effing fuck am I doing?"
Busyness. At some point for every burgeoning improviser, it becomes mistaken for happiness. First, we improvise because it's magic. Then, if we don't quit and go back to our lives, we double down and begin improvising and doing sketch shows to get a foothold in the community. We perform for momentum, attention, ladder-climbing. And then, at some point, once enough opportunities have past us by and we've shat out enough show runs to fill six theaters, we start doing shows because we're afraid of how we'll feel if we stop.
To get ahead in this crazy world, you have to produce, produce, produce. That means improv shows on Tuesdays at 10:30pm for four people/the other team. That means constantly performing or being in process for a sketch show. That means crafting solo material, a tight five minutes, a bevy of audition-ready Christopher-Walken-at-Hot-Topic impressions ("How maach...for this............candy purse?") That means finding new creative collaborators, working with more and more esteemed directors, seeing shows of popular performers, mimicking them, studying them. It means creating your own "brand," selling yourself, marketing yourself, Facebooking your friends about shows until you and they all want to puke from how routine it's become (Anniversary? 250 likes. Show tonight? 3 likes, from people also in the show). It means not stopping, ever, because to stop is to fall behind. To be forgotten. To cede stage time to someone younger, funnier and with their nubile finger on a stronger, hipper vein of comedy.
There's a question that is often asked among performers. There are two types of responses:
"What shows are you working on?"
[Panic] [1,000 deaths] [heart-sobbing] "Umm, you know, I might be doing something in a few months maybe."
"What shows are you working on?"
[1,000 boners] "X show and Y show and I'm understudying Z show! Oh! And XX show and YY show. And the ZZ showcase. And I'm writing a solo YYY show. And I may get to sit in with the XXX's when they do their improvised Cold Case musical. But you, other than that, not much."
I'm tired. All the time. I'm tired right now. I'll be tired in 20 minutes, I'll be tired at 9pm tonight, I'll be tired when I wake up tomorrow. Rehearsal processes for me, now, are like triathlons. By the end, I'm bow-legged and blistered and just want a shitload of carbs.
But I keep going, keep producing, because I don't know any other way. I've never not been busy. In high school, I left speech meets early to make basketball games. I was on the quiz team and the football team. I always had too much going on. If I'm busy, I'm vital. I'm interesting. And we all know the worst thing anyone can be is uninteresting.
I'm heading into a fall chock full of shows and projects. I didn't intend to set myself up like this, but then again I never do. It just happens. One avalanche after another. I say yes to most everything. I'm an improviser, it's what we do. And deep down, nine years after starting this, I still feel like I have something to prove, something new to show folks that they haven't seen from me.
I could stop. I could sleep more. But I love it too much, even when I hate it. Running late to rehearsal with my shitty ass backpack weighed down with gym clothes and scripts is as innate behavior to me as a male penguin incubating his mate's egg, or a pelican face-planting in the ocean. It's second nature to me now.
And I know that even if I were to transition to the life of a muggle, I'd find something else to overflow my life with. And, between hurrying from a LARPing festival to my outdoor novelty-sized chess tournament, that voice would come back.
"What the effing fuck are you doing?"