This post was a long time coming, particularly since we’re into the 4th month of the year. Had a lot going on so far in 2015, finishing my typeface, my birthday (best day of the year—sorry Treat Yo Self) and much sad-lier—the passing of my grandmother in late January. So now that I’ve successfully brought this post down, let’s bring it back up by talking about comedy. Here goes…*
2014 was cray busy for, moi. In addition to working on Bizzle-Chizzle and some comic illustration projects for National Geographic Kids—I made the completely ludicrous decision to commute to New York City from Washington, D.C. for comedy classes—TWICE last year.
When I say “twice” I don’t mean “twice” like 2 individual trips. I mean “twice” as in 2 separate comedy classes consisting of 8 WEEKS EACH. 16 weeks total. Did I mention I live in Washington, D.C.? Did I mention Washington is about 4 hours away from New York? I just want to emphasize how utterly ridiculous this was.
Then why did you do it, Biddy?! Why. Did. You. Do. It? ‘Cuz I hads to, peeps. I HADS TO.
I got bit by the bug. The comedy bug. And it wouldn’t let me go.
It all started back in 2012 when I decided to sign up for my first stand-up comedy class at the DC Improv. Needless to say, I loved it—and I kept doing it. Let me back up a little bit more to say how I decided to take the plunge.
Little known fact about me, I studied TV and film production as an undergrad (ubiquitous “Communications” degree) at the “REAL HU” (suck it, Hampton—I’m talking HOWARD University) and spent a great deal of my spare time writing movie scripts.
Jump forward 15 years. I am now a graphic designer and illustrator by profession and unfortunately have precious little time to exercise those writing muscles.
Comedy—you see—was a way for me to really start using that muscle again. Specifically, stand-up comedy is one of the most direct ways to receive feedback. If you can take the humiliation of being on stage, it can be a really rewarding experience. IF you don’t completely bomb. Actually, even if you bomb it’s rewarding. Any opportunity for improvement is a rewarding experience. Any opportunity for improvement is a rewarding experience. Sorry, had to write it one more time to make sure I believed it. Still not sure. Anyway…
So much rambling. Let’s get to the point. The point is I KEPT taking comedy classes. Stand-up, Advanced Stand-up, oh…and then in 2013—the thing that blew my mind like that scene in Scanners: sketch comedy.
I signed up for a 2-day SNL sketch writing course at the DC Improv. The class was taught by Ali Farahnakian—and seriously, this man is a frickin’ comedy guru. Super sharp mind, folks. In fact, just to give you an idea of what I’m “taumbout,” Tina Fey wrote a hilarious anecdote about their time together as part of Second City’s touring company in Bossypants (which I won’t tell you because seriously, why haven’t you already read this book? Go buy it, then read it. I’ll wait.).
Hahahaha! Hilarious, right?!
Ok. Back to this increasingly long-winded blog post. (Seriously, I’m still writing this thing? I still haven’t even brushed my teeth.) Alright. The bug. YES. THE BUG.
Sadly, this class was only 2-days and…I’m going to be honest, I enjoyed it so much I went into a lil’ depression after it was over. There was something really, really thrilling about writing something on paper, passing it to someone else and then seeing your words come to life. The only thing the person has to go on are the words on the page, so your idea lives or dies purely on the strength of the words you write.
JEEZUS. That sounds pretty terrifying come to think of it. But, no (eh…maybe a little?). To me, that’s part of what made it so enjoyable.
When you work in a field that can often be as subjective as graphic design (I don’t like that pink [it’s purple], can we use a different red, can you make that logo bigger without the pickles [the logo IS a pickle for a company called “Pickles Inc.”]) the directness of the feedback in comedy—did people laugh?—is very rewarding.
This is not to say there’s no subjectivity in comedy—certainly there is. Because our individual experiences shape how we see the world, what we find funny varies from person to person. But, by and large there is probably wider agreement on a fart joke than a logo. Pretty sure there’s a study on this. Pretty sure. The old theory of Quantum Fartics.** Or something.
The 2-day class in D.C. was such a thrill I had to jump at the chance to take the multi-week SNL sketch writing course taught by him in New York. So at the beginning of 2014, I made the (again, “LUDICULOUS”) decision to hop on a bus to commute to NYC for a Sunday evening class.
For 8 weeks I got very little sleep (save for the 4 hours I got on the bus), but I gained a lot of invaluable knowledge about the craft of comedy writing (and writing in general) and left the class with some work that I’m proud of. I also met some awesome people who I hope to still be in touch with for years to come.***
My comedy adventures also took me to The Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) in New York. Sadly, because I was not smart enough to take any photos to remember my time commuting to UCB, I just have this picture. Of me. Holding a book. In my apartment in D.C. … yay.
So…I’ve tried stand-up (enjoy that). Sketch comedy writing (LOVE that). What adventure would improv hold? What adventure? Off to Improv 101!
Again I commuted for 8 weeks, this time on Saturday morning—leaving my apartment at 5:30. AM. YES…AM on Saturday mornings and hopping on a bus from Union Station to NYC, and then back again to D.C. on Saturday evening. For 8 weeks. NUTZ.
To learn improv from UCB, and the people I got to meet along the way—the experience was worth it. But, um…let me just say it. I am TERRIBLE at improv. Horrible. It’s as bad as this. Except WORSE with me as a baby deer in headlights. I should also note that my class show was on this same stage.****
So what made improv such a challenge for me? I have spent years of my life working to “perfect” something (design, illustration, mayonnaise to mustard ratio on a sandwich)—so the idea of doing something terrible, and then not being able to fix it in the moment was incredibly difficult for me. Let me clarify…
“Hi, I’m Quentin the chimney sweep!” (Chimney sweep?! What do you know about sweeping chimneys?! Why did you say that?! You’re a moron! How are you going to do this until the next scene?! This object work sucks! What am I even holding?! Why am I so bad at this?! How can I not talk about how ridiculous it is that my name is Quentin?! Wait, Quentin’s not that weird of a name! Maybe we should name our first kid Quentin? I should probably say something now!”)
Okay, so everything in parentheses above is an internal dialogue that goes on in my head while the other able performers on stage do the scene around me while a fumble and drool, ya know—like ACTUAL improv performers.
Design mind + standup comedy mind = difficulty creating an alternate reality without commenting on said ridiculousness of alternate reality. And you can’t do that in improv. You gotta just “be,” B. I discovered I’m a bit more “boxed in” than I thought. I’m not saying this is all bad. But what I am saying is…I have a great deal of respect for improv performers. There’s a willingness to humiliate yourself there that really requires you to get out of your own head and sort of push your ego aside. You’re REALLY putting yourself out there.
People say the same about standup comedy, and sure—there’s some truth to that I think—but improv is sort of like walking a tightrope where you don’t know where the end is or whether you’re gonna fall off…and IS THIS EVEN A TIGHTROPE? Creating something from scratch on stage with other people is a completely different skill. Mad props to y’all.
Another thing I learned from improv actually helped me as a writer. I gained a better understanding of how to write for actors. In my comedy adventures, I’ve found very little overlap in people who want to be performers, and people who want to be writers. There is some overlap, but I have been surprised by how little there is.
As a writer, being around performers helps you understand how to tailor your writing to the performance. Which is something I don’t think I would have grasped as easily had I not been around a room full of people who live to perform.
So, in conclusion to this overly long post—2014 in the comedy arena taught me a great deal about myself and a great deal about honing creative skills in general. I may be a graphic designer by profession—but if I’m being completely honest, there’s nothing in the past few years that has given me a thrill like being in a room with comedy writers doing table reads.
It’s incredibly exciting seeing an idea come to life. If you do something creative by profession (and even if you don’t) I’d encourage you to take up a hobby that’s totally different than what you do at your 9 to 5. It can keep you sane, and in the process even teach you something new about yourself.
That’s it for now, folks. A new process post on the making of the long awaited Bizzle-Chizzle will be coming soon.
* World’s worst segue, except for actually segways—I mean they’re weird, right? Every time I see someone riding on one of those things I want to ask them if they’re from the future.
** Someone please make a Wikipedia page!
*** Shout out to Denae who had enough forethought to ask for a group photo to remember our time together as a class.
**** My sincerest apologies to “Funcles With Benefits.” So, so sorry…