Thinking Seriously about Comedy
This weekend I watched six hours of live comedy, something I haven’t done since I quit doing stand-up comedy sometime in 2004/05. All six hours were live shows for the podcast How Did This Get Made as part of the Onion Comedy Festival in Chicago – Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas (let’s be honest, swoon) turning fun-bad movies into comedy gold.
The next day, I let my mind wander without a podcast in my ears or a screen in my face and tried to figure out – what is it about this trio that has me so excited about comedy again? Why have I spent so much time and money to be in the same room with these lovable goofballs, when they come to my phone for free every week? Why do I seek out podcasts where they are each featured guests?
And why do I want to get back on stage after quitting comedy over 10 years ago?
I moved to Chicago to try my hand at being a stand-up comic based on winning the Snowdown Joke Down in Durango, Colorado in January 2002. In a town of 14,000 people where I managed the local rape crisis hotline, I put my future in the hands of three judges during the “locals only” winter festival.
Snowdown is basically if the fine folks of Stars Hollow let the fraternity brothers from Neighbors plan a winter festival. Lots of drinking, lots of costumes and full buy-in from all locals.
When I lived in Durango, I realized that I could really get my friends laughing at poker night and made the immediate leap in my brain that jokes at a dinner table could turn into a stand-up comedy routine that would have me traveling the country within two years.
I won the stand-up portion of the Joke Down, planned my move to Chicago and hosted a going away party in the Ska Brewing warehouse that doubled as a fundraiser for the Rape Intervention Team. When I was on the local radio station doing a promo for the event, the DJ self-disclosed that he was a survivor of childhood sexual assault. Two weeks later we shared a stage and made a friendly room roar with laughter. Then I packed up my truck and moved to Chicago.
Sunday – Tequila Roadhouse (RIP). Monday – Lyon’s Den (RIP). Tuesday – Cubby Bear. Wednesday – Frankie J’s (RIP). Thursday – Second City Conservatory shows.
Practically every night of the week I was at an open mic learning to be a stand-up comic or at Second City cheering on my friends in their conservatory shows. I went up in rooms where the list was 50 comics long and regularly shared the stage with people who now have movies (Kumail Nanjiani), TV shows (Pete Holmes) and multiple specials and albums (Kyle Kinane).
When I tell the story of why I quit comedy, I always say, “and then I auditioned for the first season of Last Comic Standing. I stood in an alley for 6 hours in January with my peers and realized, in the light of day, that these weren’t my people.”
The line included a guy who told the same child-rape joke every week. The guy who offered women rides home from open mics, but then solicited blow jobs for stage time. The group of men I privately called The Bakers Dozen, because about 12-13 would always walk out of my set (or that of another woman) to smoke up in the alley.
When I fact-checked myself, the audition for Last Comic Standing was in my first 6 months in Chicago, but I did comedy for 2 years before I quit and switched to writing, blogging, occasional storytelling, converting to Judaism and ultimately climbing the corporate ladder.
But my overwhelming memory of quitting comedy was that I didn’t find my tribe in the rooms I visited every night. I didn’t do drugs, I didn’t date in comedy circles and I didn’t work blue. I didn’t fit in, so I eventually called it quits.
I spent the last 12 years aggressively climbing the corporate ladder in public relations. Two agencies, five or six promotions, countless new business meetings, and a Master’s from Northwestern.
My brief (and now distant) stint in stand-up comedy served me well. No CEO is scarier than a drunk crowd at the Cubby Bear. No reporter is going to dismiss me as harshly as an audience member who once said to me, “Lady, we’re trying to have fun here, can you just put down the microphone?” I was pretty much bullet-proof in a board room thanks to those open mics, but I never stopped being a stick in the mud.
In 2012, I finally watched The West Wing and fell in love with it. A few years later, the podcast The West Wing Weekly launched and I finally got into podcasts. Then the Gilmore Girls Reboot was announced, so I caught up on Gilmore Girls and added the podcast Gilmore Guys to my list.
Then there was this guest who really caught my ear. He was talking about rape culture and taking feminism very seriously. Huh… who was that? Jason Mantzoukas. Shrug. I had no idea who he was at the time, but he plugged his podcast called How Did This Get Made and I added it to my queue. I had some good laughs over bad movies and dug up all sorts of older interviews of Jason on other podcasts.
Eventually I found Jason on Pete Holmes’ podcast You Made It Weird. Pete is one of the guys I have fond memories of from The Lyon’s Den, even though I am jealous of his success in a way that is not attractive… in a regret-laden-road-not-traveled way. Then I listened to other interviews Pete did with people I knew back in the day.
Then Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon released their movie – The Big Sick.
I saw The Big Sick three times in the theater. I posted about it so much that Kumail asked me how crowds were reacting. My friends went at my urging and also loved it.
A RomCom that centers on a group of comics who have each other’s backs. A small tribe of supportive friends. A RomCom that took place in the fictionalized bar I went to every week for two years.
Then #MeToo happened.
I start thinking about my clients from the Rape Intervention Team. I do the math and add the 16 years since I left the job to the 13-year-old age of my last client. She’s almost 30 if she’s still alive. Was she able to heal and become a survivor?
I start thinking about the rape jokes and sexual harassment in the comedy scene when I was in it. I talk to some of those guys I knew from open mics who are trying to support #metoo now, but didn’t do anything to help the women they came up with.
And then this weekend, I went to see six hours of live comedy. Before every show, Paul Scheer tells the audience that during the Q&A it is unacceptable to make racist, sexist or homophobic jokes.
In the middle of the show about Striptease, June Diane Raphael gave an extemporaneous talk about the dangers of the movie. About workers rights, women’s rights, legalization of sex work and ending the mother/whore dichotomy.
And what did her two male cohosts do? They listened.
And what did the rowdy crowd do? A crowd there to laugh about a greased up Burt Reynolds and a woman who dances with a python named Monty?
They listened and cheered. An audience at a comedy show in Chicago, cheering during and after a speech about women’s and worker’s rights – things have changed.
Through How Did This Get Made, I found three comics and countless guests who I think would be my tribe if I’d stayed in comedy. It didn’t happen overnight, but it seems to be that comedy is now a place where women can be political and funny and safe. Where men (not all men, unfortunately) are trying to be funny without being misogynist. Where even Jason Mantzoukas, who is known for playing outrageous, sex-obsessed maniacs, is someone I count on in interviews to be thoughtful about sexism and rape culture.
This winter, I MCed a talent show at a Jewish retreat and a friend who has known me in Jewish conference circles for a decade said, “Leah, why didn’t I know that you’re funny? You’re really funny. You aren’t funny online, but I laughed so much tonight.”
I told him that it’s not my role in Jewish conferences. We usually have real stand-up comics in the mix – like Benji Lovitt or Michelle Collins. No need for a failed stand-up comic to be funny when there are professionals in the room.
But maybe it’s time.
I’m no longer aggressively climbing the corporate ladder. I started my own business to plan retreats and facilitate meetings, but I have more time to think and more flexibility for open mics. (And more mornings when I can sleep off open mics)
But maybe it’s time.
There are open mics that are women-only spaces now. There are social clubs for women in comedy. There are role models other than Ellen and Roseanne Barr.
Maybe it’s time.
Thank you to Paul, June Diane and Jason for showing me that my people are in the comedy world today. I think it’s time to try again.