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Manifesto.

11 May 2009

This may be the longest post I’ve ever done. So get comfy.
I love finding random treasures at the Park Central Library. This week I ran across this, the best humor writing from The New Yorker:

the holy word

the holy word

I consider it 500 pages of comedy homework. (reminded of doing homework in high school, and my dad saying, eat your books, rahrahrah, an old chant from is Navy officer’s school days.) I want to chomp through this one as fast as I can, laughing and learning things as I go. (reminded of when I used to take notes while watching SNL. No seriously, I did that.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about funny things lately. I got STELLAfrom Netflix last week, and I’ve watched every ounce of content possible—including commentary for each episode. This is huge.

In a “if I do say so myself” sort of way, I’ve noticed I am getting better at improv. This isn’t an ego thing, it’s just a fact I can feel. I used to be really nervous, self-conscious, why-isn’t-this-working about it, but now after over a year on mainstage, I finally feel like I get it. (or, like I’m getting it. Still a process.) There was a time in January when Jeff and Jeff said it finally seemed like I was treating it like MY show, too, and not just as a second-rate guest appearance on their show. And that’s a nice feeling.

When faced with giving advice re: my quarter-life crisis, a good friend told me recently to WRITE FUNNY. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and after finding the New Yorker book I’m starting to have an “oh I get it” feeling about my life.

I have a magazine page framed in my hallway; it’s a photo of Steven Colbert with the text: my entire objective and responsibility is to be funny.
I hung it up at the time because I thought that sounded like the ideal version of life. I think I’m supposed to be funny.

My first vivid memory of writing is from second grade. I have a sneaking suspicion I’ve blogged about it before, but here we go again. I’d always had a thing for books and stories and writing. I kept piles of scrap paper in my desk to fill the time when I finished assignments early. One February day I wrote a story, on that pink-and-blue lined elementary school paper, called Stupid Cupid. I don’t remember much about it, except a sassy female protagonist falling for a leather-jacket-wearing cupid, who said “baby” a lot, and who, I believe, was from outer space. I used big words. I thought I was clever. And I remember my teacher had the principal sit down and read it out loud so he could laugh.

I’ve told this story a lot, whenever people start talking about life paths and “knowing” what you’re “supposed” to do. I guess I am lucky to have known that I could use words to make people laugh for going on 20 years. Laughing and liking go hand-in-hand, and for a mostly introverted, nerdy kid like me, it really was the best medicine.
But when it came time to figure out what I wanted to “do” (aka major in / abstractly imagine as a future) I also had the seemingly conflicting desire to do something “smart” and help people.

Sophomore year of high school, I agonized over the decision to apply for scholars academy or fine arts academy (or, academic side of my life vs. artistic/creative side). MSA turned out to be a turning point in my life when I went in 2000, and gave so much to me each of the four years I worked there from 2005-2008.
This year is the first year I’m not going back, and it’s got me thinking about the decision I made way back at sixteen to choose “smart” over “funny” and “academics” over “acting”.

And now I’m thinking…Why can’t it be both?

When it comes to my desire to help people, I shouldn’t be quick to discount the healing powers of comedy.
It has the power to bring people together. Think of every inside joke with every friend you’ve ever had. Think of the experience of seeing a movie in a packed theater, and laughing along with a roomful of strangers. Don’t you leave feeling better about the human race?
And comedy can help people. Think about how much good Ellen does for people through her talkshow.

A few weeks ago, we had an audience birthday at a show, and we’d been warned she was recovering from cancer so we should be careful. (as if we automatically punch birthday guests in the face…) Liz, a nurse from Illinois whose daughters had kidnapped her for a birthday weekend, turned out to be one of the most fun birthday guests we ever had. From the moment she stepped onstage, she was dancing along to the birthday music, then adding quippy one-liners to our made-up stories about her life. After the show, she came up to us so thankful, saying she works in a place with so much sadness and death, but after our show she felt filled up and could give again. Cried a little.

My Grandpa Fred was one of the funniest people I know. (funny…and prejudiced and offensive in a way that only WW2 veterans can get away with in my heart.) He died almost two years ago, and my entire family lost something bigger than we could describe. The day of my Grandpa Fred’s funeral was one of the most purely emotional days I can remember.
We were blessed to have known that he was slipping away, and have a few precious days of saying goodbye and soaking up his grandpa-ness before he was gone. Those last few days with him, I felt compelled to write something for the funeral, just because that’s how I process life. It felt right to give something, both to grandpa and my family. I was nervous at first, not wanting to come off as insincere or weird, but I went through with it, and am so glad I did. Reading the essay I wrote at his graveside was one of the most moving moments of my life, it felt huge and also so simple.

Now the actual writing and moment were far from hilarious; I did nothing but cry the whole time. But that night the whole family got together to eat, and sigh, and divide up plants and do all the strange post-funeral hanging out. I had brought my new laptop, and we discovered photobooth together, first the little kids, then us, then our parents. And we laughed. Those moments gathered around my laptop screen were the moments we started making our life without Grandpa—knowing he would approve completely of us being goofy together on the day we said goodbye to him.

I also believe 100% that you have to be smart to be funny.

This year I’ve become a student of comedy TV. (At my lowest points I’ve felt like doing nothing but sleep. At my second-to-lowest points I’ve felt like doing nothing but watch hulu and read. Third-to-lowest, add eating to the list.) So, I guess upside to the down-ness is I’ve caught up on some incredible stuff. 30 Rock and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia were both shows I’d been told I’d love but never made time for. Now I absolutely love them.

Liz Lemmon is my TV mirror.

Liz Lemmon is my TV mirror.

To me, the best comedy is absurd but also wicked smart: the well-oiled machine of an improv team, the sharpest satire, Tina Fey. See also: Conan. Arrested Development.

The RadioLabpodcast titled “Laughter” talked about how, from an evolutionary standpoint, laughter is a communal activity, and most people don’t laugh when alone. I must be a genetic anomaly, because I have laughed out loud entirely by myself more times than I could count from watching, reading, or thinking about funny things.

Reading, just a few examples: The Onion, John Hodgman’s The Areas of My Expertise, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, A.J. Jacobs. The writing I love the most, and the writing I want to do, is smart but also funny.

(had enough gushing yet? I love funny things and funny people.)

This post by nature is very lighthearted and happy, but I can’t mask the fact that this is also a scary declaration to make: I think I’m supposed to be funny.
There’s a lot of pressure to perform well in choosing this path, which is true of all creative work. A bank teller, on the other hand, probably feels less bashful over a desire to excel in that line of work. There’s less universal judgment for being a bad bank teller. But if you bomb at comedy, that’s literally what you do. You bomb.

Another creative friend of mine has said that when you dive blindly but deeply into work you’re passionate about, people take notice. And it’s more painful to live with unfulfilled ideas than it is to work to make them happen. So here I go, ready to dive.

I just read Oprah’s 1997 Wellesley commencement speech (so I’m a sap and love inspiring speeches…) here’s a snippet:

The first day I was on the air doing my first talk show back in l978, it felt like breathing, which is what your true passion should feel like. It should be so natural to you. And so, I took what had been a mistake, what had been perceived as a failure with my career as an anchor woman in the news business and turned it into a talk show career that’s done OK for me!

My best moments of writing and being funny have felt like breathing for me. The process of getting there…the hours agonizing over sitting down to get started, the choke of writer’s block, the stumbling process of learning…that can feel more like drowning. But the actual in-the-zone moment of putting words down and moving them around, or the tingly energy of performing a standup show—that stuff feels right.
Like breathing.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. hkb permalink
    11 May 2009 8:41 pm

    Reading your blog feels like breathing. And, I L.O.V.E. Arrested Development. So does Nathan.

  2. Janice Brown Hill permalink
    12 May 2009 8:13 pm

    Reading your manifesto it is clear you know your true calling. Go for it. But take the time to come pay us a visit or two on the way!

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