This is the power of comedy: it opens up our minds by first making us laugh and then making us think long and hard about the truth underneath that laughter. Over the weekend, I made some additional edits to my play, Sing After Storms. There’s only one pop culture reference in the play and it refers to Bill Murray’s performance in the film What About Bob?. While we often think of What About Bob? as a comedy, and it certainly is, that movie had a different long-term effect on me that only rose into my consciousness as I was writing Sing After Storms. Clinical OCD (Bob’s illness) is a debilitating, terrifying condition. It keeps people confined and isolated by an intense fear of death. It deeply affected how I think about mental illness and it’s impact on an individual’s potential in a way that a dramatic film wouldn’t have done. If we can make people laugh, we can also move them to action. It’s a lesson I’m trying to bring into my writing and it’s perhaps the toughest artistic challenge I have today. Comedy isn’t easy but I’ve seen that its rewards are so rich.
Whatever you’re reading, I strongly suggest that you put it down immediately and walk your fingers over to Amazon.com to buy Jack Gray’s new book Pigeon in a Crosswalk: Tales of Anxiety and Accidental Glamour, a recounting of his rise to fame, fortune, and glory as a television news producer. You’ve never heard of Jack Gray? Don’t worry, no one has except his 1M+ followers on Twitter and Anderson Cooper. Just to put that in perspective, Kim Kardashian has over 17M followers on Twitter and Anderson Cooper has heard of her, too. Clearly, Twitter and Anderson Cooper have questionable standards.
In all seriousness, I loved Jack’s book so much that I have laughed out loud numerous times on the subway while reading it and missed my stop more times than I care to admit. I couldn’t put it down, even if it meant I was in danger of walking 20 blocks out of my way because I forgot I was on the express train and there was no uptown service at all on my line. I laughed so much I didn’t even care about the inconvenience of missing my stop. (Maybe the MTA should start handing out Jack’s book to disgruntled riders to improve morale.) My unbridled laughter while on the subway has caused passengers on the 2 / 3 train to clear a wide area around me and their facial expressions say something akin to, “Damn, here comes that crazy lady and her book about pigeons.” Crazy has its privileges.
For Jack, everything that’s ever happened to him and anyone he’s ever known is fair game for his comedy. Nothing is sacred. Not even the Kennedys. Especially not the Kennedys. Memoirs are a tricky genre. The book market is flooded with them. They’re so personal and it can be difficult to figure out if the stories in them have mass appeal or appeal only to people who know the author. Pigeon in a Crosswalk falls squarely in the former category.
Jack’s life caused me to howl with laughter, mostly at his expense, and he seems fine with that. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have written the book. Sadly, nothing gives us a good chuckle like self-deprecation and horrible strokes of bad luck happening to relatively decent people. (I have no idea why this is – blame it on our insane desire to feel better about our own lives at any cost.) Jack’s book has both of these in spades. But it also has something more that makes it special and memorable, even lovable.
Look, life here in New York is a little like hell. Especially in February. It’s cold, dreary, windy, and getting more expensive by the minute (literally.) We all need a good, honest laugh as often as we can get it. Jack’s book delivers on the comedy front and he also has a wonderful sense of irony and hope. It’s a rare combination and a fine line that he negotiates beautifully with seemingly little effort. He’s just telling his story and we happen to be there in the front row. Please tell me that he plans to make this a one-man show. I’d pay good money to see it, and I bet Kathy Griffin would, too, as long as Anderson Cooper promises to be her date for opening night.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized how revolutionary his character of George Jefferson was at the time. While he was making all of us laugh, he tore down social barriers and prejudices that existed for centuries in this country. A black entrepreneur who wasn’t intimidated by anyone, least of all his prejudiced white neighbor? That was a revelation, particularly to have it showcased on network television. His co-star, Isabel Sanford, was the first (and so far, the only) Black actress to win a Lead Actress Emmy Award (for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 1981.) Clearly, we still have a long way to go.
A South Philly native, Sherman Hemsley passed away from natural causes on Tuesday. His bravery and strength, his ability to creatively challenge the conventions of his time through his own performances, has cemented his contribution in the performing arts. As my sister, Weez, so beautifully said, “He finally got that deluxe apartment in the sky.” R.I.P. to another Trailblazer who is gone too soon.
I’m so excited to announce that I am teaching a meditation class for performers in partnership with G.L.O.C. (Gorgeous Ladies of Comedy) entitled Showing Up and Tapping In: The Keys to Your Success as a Performer.
Date – Monday, August 20th
Time – 6:30pm – 8:30pm
Location – The Breslin at the Ace Hotel, 20 West 29th Street, New York, NY
Cost – $5 to cover the cost of the amazing space at the Ace Hotel
Everyone is welcome – women and men who are performers and fans of performers!
My friend, Amanda, introduced me to G.L.O.C. during their Bridesmaids screening event last year. Since then I’ve been receiving their e-newsletter. Recently, they mentioned they were looking for more resources to help their members. I reached out to the hilarious Glennis McCarthy, Founder of G.L.O.C., and we immediately bonded over our desire to support performers and the need for attention on smart humor in the world of comedy.
We are hoping this class is just the start of a wonderful series of events to support performers and anyone with even the slightest hint of interest in performance. RSVP through the Facebook invite: https://www.facebook.com/events/206787669450646/
Here is a brief description of the event. Hope to see you there!
Showing Up and Tapping In: The Keys to Your Success as a Performer
If Woody Allen is right and 80% of success is showing up, then the other 20% is how you show up. And not just at an audition, a rehearsal, or a performance, but how you show up in life. Your lucky break isn’t somewhere down the road; it’s right now because opportunity is everywhere.
One interaction can change the entire course of your life and that interaction almost always happens at an unexpected time and in an unexpected place. So how do you prepare so that you can recognize that moment when it arrives and make the most of it? How can you prepare to be lucky?
As a performer you have to refresh your content and your performance constantly. Meditation helps you tap into your imagination at will and with ease in a deep, consistent way to discover new ideas. By learning to quiet the mind, you give your greatest ideas the chance to rise to the top. Meditation gives you a way forward.
This event will provide a sample class geared toward performers who want to enhance their creativity. It will include a few basic standing postures that can be done in your everyday clothes. The breathing and meditation techniques will all be practiced seated. You will also receive the sequence of postures and techniques after the class so that you can continue to practice on your own. You will find that these tools and techniques will help you identify hidden opportunities to advance your craft, make connections with people who can help grow your career, and develop a system to make sure you are continually in the best shape possible – physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Another leap I’m attempting to make this year is to focus on humor writing. Comedy writing is tough for me – witness my crash and burn sketch writing class at UCB in which only 2 of my 8 sketches were laughable. One of those funny sketches is still kicking around in my head, and it was drawn from real life almost verbatim, so I began to wrestle with the idea of humor essays rather than sketches. An equally tough endeavor, though more my speed.
As practice, I’m trying out this new weekly post format inspired by Jimmy Fallon’s Thank You Notes segment, which is one of my favorite late night bits. One happy side effect of this endeavor is that it’s helping me to see the humor and comedy in everyday life. When possible, I will actually write and send these thank you notes. I’ll let you know if I get any responses. Let’s give it a whirl for a few weeks and see how it goes.
Thank you, Broadway theatre, for whittling down my bank account while staging revivals that remind me of the originals I saw in my youth. I needed a reminder of my age.
Thank you, GOP, for filling the gap that Grandma the Clown left in the wake of his retirement from The Big Apple Circus.
Thank you, Modern Family, for reminding me that my family is not the craziest version of 5 people living under one roof.
Thank you, WordPress.com, for adding a “Pin It” sharing button. I now have one more much-needed way to spend even more time down the social media rabbit hole.
Thank you, Rush Limbaugh, for crossing the line into inappropriate commentary (again) and angering American women. Finally, your sponsors are coming to their senses which may lead to your show being pulled. We can only hope.
Thank you, army of weather predicting groundhogs. Thanks to your inability to agree on how many more weeks of winter we should have, nature gave up altogether and moved on to Spring.
Thank you, corporate America, for being such an insufferable employer that 1.9 million people handed you a pink slip in January and taking the reigns of their own futures. This is being hailed by economists as “good news.” I couldn’t agree more!
And thank you, Sarah Palin, for reminding us of the trait that’s more important for a U.S. President. “My preference tonight was for the cheerful one. And that’s Newt Gingrich.” I’m sold on that logic!
Last weekend I took a morning class with Sara Barron, comedian and author of People are Unappealing: Even Me. The moment she started to speak I knew this was the writing class for me. In my quest for a writing community, I’ve tried a few different genres of classes. None of the felt quite right until Sara’s class. I’ve wanted to bring more comedy into my essay writing for some time, but haven’t been sure how to do it.
Sara offered up a set of guidelines that helped me to begin to find my way in humor writing and they are certainly worthy of repeating:
1.) Comedy isn’t mysterious. It’s direct and snappy so set your reader up to laugh along with you by being crystal clear with every word. Tell them where you are, what you’re doing, and who you’re with.
2.) Circumstance is never as funny as character. The characters are the engine of humor writing.
3.) Cut the adverbs and adjectives. Sentences should be short and sharp. Leave lyrics to the song writers among us.
4.) Dialogue is funny.
5.) The key to the universal is through the specific. The more precisely we nail the details, the easier it will be for our audience to relate.
6.) “Seriously?” is not a funny response. To move you from observer to writer, you need a funny response to someone else’s actions and words or a funny analysis of a situation.
7.) Unlike fiction, more humor writing is done is the first person. You are the main object of your narrative.
8.) Open strong and remember that the most important word in your first sentence is the last one.
9.) Expand your definition of clichés, and then cut every single one of them.
10.) Comedy is tragedy plus distance. Most humor writing starts with some horrible experience and some horrible person. Something awesome happening is great, but it’s rarely funny.
Sara teaches many of the humor writing classes at Gotham Writers’ Workshop. I’m planning to take one in the not-so-distant future. I hope you’ll join me!
“Comics say funny things and comedic actors say things funny.” ~ Ed Wynn via Carol Burnett, Happy Accidents
Over the winter holidays I started reading the wonderful book Happy Accidents, a memoir by comedic actress Jane Lynch. At turns the book is hilarious, heartwarming, and heartbreaking. Jane has the incredible ability to make people feel for her without making them feel sorry for her. I hope she’ll be writing many more books in the years to come. Carol Burnett, one of my creative heroes, wrote the forward for the book and in it she recounts a story the legendary Ed Wynn told her regarding his ideas about great comedy.
Jane Lynch is hilarious not because she tells jokes. She plays every one of her characters with a sincere sense of seriousness that makes her characters even more funny. It’s a rare and beautiful gift that she worked very hard to craft and hone. While Ed Wynn was talking about comedians and actors (and Carol Burnett extended this story as explanation of Jane’s abilities as a comedic actress), it got me thinking about how applicable this idea is to so many areas off the stage, especially to business. We have to make our own funny, meaning we need to make the very best of what we’ve got and shape into what we want it to be within the context of circumstances.
Jane Lynch isn’t handed a script full of jokes and one-liners. No one even tells her how or when to be funny. She’s given a script detailing a situation of her character, and then she runs with it. She doesn’t find the humor in the circumstances; she makes it.
Running a business is similar. We’re handed a set of market circumstances, not a business plan or even an idea of a business plan. We have to build the creative business idea and the plan that brings it to life that links to the market circumstances. We don’t happen upon a relevant and desired idea; we make it so.
I started my career working in professional theatre, and I was always surprised by the perceptions of those outside the industry who thought we were just playing. My theatre work was the very best business training I ever received (and yes, it did teach me more than my MBA.) Theatre is a lot more than actors, sets, costumes, lights, and a stage. It added up to be far greater than just the sum of its parts. It taught me how to craft not only a show, but a story, a life, and a legacy. It showed me that the very best road to take is the one we pave for ourselves.
It takes a long time to fly from Orlando to Phoenix. So long that on a recent business trip I had the time to read an entire book from beginning to end in one sitting. After seeing Bill Cosby on David Letterman, I ran out to get the book in prep for my cross-country trek. I love Bill Cosby so much that as a kid I named my dog after him. Compared to his famous Chocolate Cake and Noah’s Ark sketches, his new book, I Didn’t Ask to Be Born (but I’m Glad I Was),is a let down. And not because the stories aren’t good – they’re actually very good! - but because there are no words that can live up to his brilliant delivery that made his career. The same could be said of Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. I like their writing, but I love their performances.
Some comedic authors can deliver on the page – the comedic siblings David Sedaris and Amy Sedaris immediately come to mind (maybe it’s all in the genes!) Tina Fey, Anne Lamott, and Bill Bryson have regularly made me laugh out loud with their honesty, wit, and turn of phrase. It’s hard enough to get the timing down in performance; getting it done on the page is even more challenging given that the reader controls the timing and cadence of the words. Nailing the delivery is almost impossible if you’re not the one delivering your own story in-person. And even for these titans of comedic writing, hearing them say their own stories out loud upped the degree of their humor. David Sedaris’s books make me laugh out loud, but seeing him on stage and then meeting him in person made me double over and laugh so hard I cried.
As a writer and serious hater of performance, I find this highly annoying. The mere thought of standing on a stage and having people stare at me causes me to break out in hives. Even as I’ve gained experience as a teacher and presenter over the years, I still feel like I’m going to be sick before each event. I continue to do it because I care a lot about the message, particularly if the message I’m delivering comes from my own experience.
I recently had lunch with my friend, Jeff, and I told him about my interest in taking a storytelling class at one of the New York improv theatres. He explained how wonderful certain storytelling classes are because they give the writers the opportunity to perform their own work. I casually glanced around the restaurant to make sure I could quickly locate the rest room in case I had a sudden case of early onset upset stomach. And by early onset I mean I haven’t even registered for the class yet much less gotten ready to perform. I dislike the stage that much.
I told Jeff I wasn’t really interested in performing my own work, and his off-the-cuff response was “Christa, no one tells the story better than the writer. There’s only so much that can be written down.” I’m sure my face dropped and I rolled my eyes, all out of fear. I knew Jeff was right and I realized in that moment that if I really want to take this class and get serious about live storytelling, then I have to face up to my battle with the stage. I hated Jeff for making that so obvious.
I hate his answer so much that for a few weeks I’ve tried to pretend he’s completely wrong and has no idea what he’s talking about. And then I read Bill Cosby’s book, which caused me to think about when I saw David Sedaris read from his books in person. And then there was no denying it – the delivery matters at least as much as the words on the page. Screw that up and even the most brilliantly funny story becomes unremarkable.
So I’ve been practicing my acting out. I read my posts aloud before I hit publish. I turn some into podcasts. And I’ll let you in on a little secret – my own stories, the ones I’ve actually lived, become more real to me when I hear them out loud in my own voice. I choke up, cry, laugh, and get angry. I feel the weight of the words in my mouth and their gravity on my shoulders. The performance of my stories, even just to myself in the mirror, has caused me to occasionally change some of the wording. Once I passed that milestone, I knew for certain that Jeff was right.
Delivery matters more than we realize. It is a high art.
Lucille Ball is a towering figure of comedy and of my childhood. When I was little, my mom would take my dad to the train station to go to work and I would wake up, make myself some oatmeal, and watch I Love Lucy reruns with my mom until I had to get ready for school. I loved her spunky, “I can do it” attitude, and in many ways I think I fashioned myself after that side of her.
She wasn’t content with an ordinary life, on screen or off, and I admired that. I wasn’t content with it either. Like Lucy, I had big dreams. I wanted to break through, and she showed me that was possible. That we could find our own way.
Today, Lucy would be 100 years old and though she’s been gone now for over 20 years, she’s still making us howl with laughter. With much love and thanks to her for giving me such special memories, here’s a classic Lucy clip that happens to be one of my very favorites. The Spanish subtitle make it even funnier. Enjoy!
My friend, Amanda, and I went to see Bridesmaids on its opening night. A group outing was promoted by G.L.O.C., Gorgeous Ladies of Comedy. Amanda, being a comedic actress and one of the funniest people I know, asked if I’d like to join her in supporting the movie and I didn’t hesitate to switch my plans and happily join her. The film is laugh out-loud funny with a whole host of stand-out performances and brilliant writing. It also felt great to be in a theater of women supporting other women in their creative endeavors, an activity that just doesn’t happen often enough. We need more of it.
It reminded me of the competitive streak that runs through us all, and yet seems to most prominently rear its ugly head as women duke it out with one another. There’s some of that tension in Bridesmaids as well, though I loved the twists and turns that the movie takes on this theme. Two of the bridesmaids go head-to-head right from the get-go but the incredibly talented Kristen Wiig, writer and leading lady of the movie, doesn’t let the stereotype go stale. She reminds us that every outward feeling we have toward another person, no matter the reason, is a reflection of how we feel about ourselves and the direction of our own lives. It’s a tough fact to accept though Wiig has a way of making this difficult and prickly subject feel fresh, vibrant, and something we can own.
The film also illustrates a story of regret, forgiveness, and redemption. It stands as an example of the magic that comes from brutally honesty with ourselves and others. That honesty is the foundation for the heartfelt, meaningful relationships that gives us the opportunity to learn a little more about ourselves everyday. Bridemaids is a perfect example of truth in comedy at its finest.
Now playing in theaters everywhere.