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.
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.