The Pursuit of Busyness
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?"
Ohhh oh ohh ohh oh, ohhh oh oh OH! THE RIGHT STUFFFF!
I just passed my nine-year anniversary of my first improv class. Nine years! That's like a lazy decade! If I had adopted a great dane puppy that first day of class, it'd be dead as hell by now.
I signed up for my first class in person, because in-person sign-ups for classes was still how most people did it. That, or call in. There wasn't fancy schmancy online registration, not in my day! And I walked 12 miles to class, uphill, downhill, in the snow with my balls out!
Well, not really. But I did drive an hour an half on the 405 freeway in LA to get to class, which was it's own sort of hell.
My point is, it's hard not to feel like I'm entering my old fart stage now, by basic and brutal and entirely unfair improv scene standards. I'm still aggressively young and vibrant and "still got it goin' on, hunty," don't get me wrong, but I've been around long enough now to feel like a super senior and begin to question if I've overstayed my welcome. And to realize that the dreams I had when I was 22 and easily enchanted by famous people on walls are probably dead as hell, like the great dane I didn't buy. Or, at least, these dreams need significant modifying, refitting, like an age-appropriate wardrobe.
Out with the Forever 21 mini-skirt, in with the smartly tailored pantsuit from Kohl's.
It happened slowly. I was the youngest person in my first improv class. Precocious! Fresh-faced! The Jennifer Lawrence of Level 1! Three years later, I was the oldest in the cast of a Writing 6 show I did at Second City. Grizzled! Mature! The June Squibb of the Skybox!
At 26, I had my first taste of Being The Old Fuck. Three years! That's all it took for me to go from being Lorde to being Liza. Like I said, improv is a brutal world in that regard; it's basically an unending deluge of giddy college grads with a hard-on for Will Ferrell.
At some point, I went from the young, wildly dressed, sassy-haired New Kid on the Block to the mature, cares-about-his-IRA, Netflix-on-a-Saturday-night NKTB that only unhappily married women in their 40s care about. When, exactly, this shift occured eludes me. But there have been signposts.
- Now, the majority of SNL players are younger than me. They went from looking like the popular seniors at this big, sprawling comedy high school to looking like the freshman. The same way college students looked so old as fuck in high school, but in your 30s they look like tadpoles.
- I teach now, which is what you do when you've been doing this long enough and have accumulated enough knowledge to pass along. I love teaching. It's been the best part about still being here nine years later.
- My forehead is 50 percent larger than it was at 22.
- I'm tired all the time. Doing shows now is like drinking heavily; the exhaustion/hangover is about ten times worse than it was in my early 20s. Still, the buzz is just as fucking great.
I still love being in the improv and sketch comedy world, don't get me wrong. I do it mostly for the love of it anymore, and to collaborate with amazing people and support their fabulous ideas and projects. And, sure, a foolish part of me still thinks something great could happen if I keep trying. But, it's hard to not to watch the clock and see your comedy ovaries shrink and your chances of conceiving the next Chapelle's Show or Last Week Tonight With John Oliver quietly get slimmer. Not that that's all that matters, but come on, no one temps for six years or waits tables for six years solely so they can pay to do improv shows at 10:30pm on a Tuesday night for four people because that's what they want to do forever. It's fun for now, but we all have our higher aspirations. We all have dreams, public and secret.
I know, I know. I'm young! I'm YOUNG! You can tell me as many times as you want (please, tell me as many times as you want). But, the fact is, improv comedy is a young (white) (straight) (floppy haired) (dumpy-cute) (plaid-shirt-wearing) (ugly-shoe-wearing) (male) man's game. And I'm not 22 anymore.
But I have this FABULOUS WEB SITE NOW SO YAY PROGRESS!
Nine years! That's like 400 college degrees. I could be operating on pediatric brains by now, but instead I chose to make countless Saved By the Bell references on stage and fake-masturbate to invisible victrolas while my scene partners ride invisible donkeys. Because the world needs that too.