“When we get out of college, if neither of us have jobs, let’s go to Second City and audition,” said Keith. I laughed.
“Sure!” I said as if that was something that people just did. As if heading to Chicago and just showing up at one of the country’s most revered sketch and improv comedy theatres without a stitch of experience doing or making comedy was part of everyone’s plan. Years later I would find out that’s exactly what Chris Farley did, more or less. Touche.
Keith and I had become friends in high school, bonding over our mutual geekery for comedy. Every Sunday night we’d get on the phone, the one that still plugged into the wall and restricted your whereabouts, and work through a detailed recap of Saturday Night Live. We’d comb through our favorite sketches and discuss what made them kill. We were to the art of humor what CSI agents are to the beastly murder scene. We’d pick apart Weekend Update, sharing which jokes we’d bothered to write down in order to get them just right or arguing over stuff that fell flat. We’d take no prisoners when it came to bits that were spongy or went on too long stealing up precious real estate from Wayne’s World or anything with Phil Hartman. We fetishized the useless knowledge we had about the show, its history, the storied alchemy of the inaugural cast—Gilda, Dan, John, Lorraine, Jane, and Garrett—as if this made us cooler (it didn’t) or, more accurately, as if this was enough to make us comics (it wasn’t).
High school came and went. College came and went. We did not run off to Second City.
Keith made his life in radio and I marked my territory in academics, eventually heading to Chicago for grad school but getting no further than a cocktail table in the audience of Second City. Still, I kept my nose pressed against the glass of the improv comedy window. After grad school I moved back to Boston and one day finally decided to sign up for classes at a local comedy theatre. It wasn’t Second City, but it was close enough.
It became pretty clear to me the more I learned about improv why it had taken me so long to get my ass on stage. As much as I loved the comedy world, I didn’t believe I belonged there. It was the “Why me? What makes me think I can do what Gilda did?” mindset that I had been incubating probably forever. I tracked this belief in with me, muddy shoe style, every time I entered a scene and dicked around waiting for someone to give me a role—boyfriend, boss, grandmother, cop—or bestow me with some quality I could play with, “Too bad you only have one arm!” Right! Got it! Here we go! (Hilarity, trust me). I made myself as interesting on stage as lawn furniture because on some level that’s all I could commit to being. I was fine with sneaking in and being around, but not really showing up in a meaningful way. If I did that, someone might call me out as an imposter, as a moony fan girl who didn’t really belong.
Eeesh. Are we laughing yet? Is this the funny part?
No one steps out on stage alone. They’re hauling around a ton of folks with them who might have mother issues, who might be incurable optimists, who might have just gone through the worst break-up of their lives, or who might still think they have something to prove to the jerks who made their lives miserable in high school. They all bleed through in some way—a gesture, a line, a character, a choice to set the scene in the same coffee shop where you just had your heart exsanguinated. This is what makes improv so powerful and fascinating. We’re not really making something out of purely nothing, we’re using the empty stage to confront ourselves in all our messiness, in all our love, and in all our potential.
The awesome things about improv is that you can do and be anything, you can go anywhere and make every reality possible. The terrifying things about improv are the same exact qualities with the caveat that comes with knowing: If you can simply decide to be strong, brave, confident, fearless, and utterly badass on stage in front of a group of strangers, what’s stopping you from doing the same in your life?
Nothing, of course. The same anything is possible attitude that gives improv its exhilarating joy, which is what you see radiating from Amy and Tina and Gilda and so many others we think of as our comedy luminaries, is anyone’s for the taking when you’re not messing around on stage trying to make something funny happen.
Once you get it, once you get that you have everything you need to be unstoppable, once you commit to ditching “Why me?” for “Why not me?” that’s when things get good, that’s when something truly transformative happens, that’s where the edge of life crumbles to reveal the place where real magic begins.
And that’s where you belong.