I’d like to speak briefly about a man I did not know well, but had a profound impact on my life.
You may not know him by name, but you’ve surely heard of the motion picture based on his life, To Sir, with Love.
E.R. Braithwaite was my creative writing professor at Howard University. He was one of the first people that really believed in my writing ability and considering his immense talent — I was truly honored.
This belief manifested itself in having my written words spoken aloud in Mr. Braithwaite’s wonderful, melodious cadence. It was always by surprise, and it was—of course—always incredibly embarrassing.
His encouragement is probably the only reason I still write.
There aren’t many people you come across in life who really encourage you to pursue something. I think of him often.
An aside — my wife and I randomly ran into him a few years ago. As elegant as always, Sidney Poitier was perfectly cast. You would have never guessed he was in his late 90s.
Mr. Braithwaite once said:
“I don’t know if I changed any lives or not, but something did happen between them and me, which was quite gratifying.”
Well you certainly did, Sir.
R.I.P. Mr. Braithwaite. You will be missed.
This post originally appeared December 27, 2016 on Medium.
Last year, I made the completely ludicrous decision to commute to New York City from Washington, D.C. for comedy classes — TWICE.
When I say “twice” I don’t mean two individual trips. I mean two separate comedy classes consisting of 8 weeks each, equaling 16 weeks of total comedy commuting hell. Did I mention I live in Washington, D.C., about four hours away from New York?
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 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.
I had studied TV and film production as an undergrad (ubiquitous “Communications” degree) 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 to really start using that muscle again. 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…
Let’s get to the point. I KEPT taking comedy classes. Stand-up, Advanced Stand-up, oh…and then in 2013 — the thing that blew my mind: sketch comedy.
I signed up for a 2-day SNL sketch writing course (again, 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?!
Sadly, this class was only two 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.
Graphic design can be highly subjective (“I don’t like that pink.” [It’s actually purple.] “Can we use a different red? “Can you make that logo bigger, and without the pickles?” [The logo IS a pickle for a company called “Pickles Inc.”]) so 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 next comedy adventure was in July 2014, and 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…A.M. on Saturday mornings (special thanks to my wife for driving me there since the Metro isn’t even open). I would hop 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” a skill (design, illustration, mayonnaise to mustard ratio on a sandwich) — so the idea of being terrible at something, and then not knowing how to fix it in the moment was incredibly difficult for me. For example:
“Hi, I’m Quentin the chimney sweep!” (Internal monologue: 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!”)
I found it very difficult to create an alternate reality without commenting on said ridiculousness of alternate reality. This is in no way a knock on improv comedy. Quite the opposite. What I’m saying is…I have a great deal of respect for improv performers. You’re really putting yourself out there. There’s a willingness to relinquish control that really requires you to get out of your own head and sort of push your ego aside.
People say the same about standup comedy, and sure — there’s some truth to that I think (this is coming from a guy that’s only 3 years in) — 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.
Being around performers helped me understand how to tailor my 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 — comedy taught me a great deal about myself and a great deal about honing creative skills. Even though my day job is primarily as a graphic designer — 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.
If you’re struggling creatively, professionally, or personally (or even all three). I’d encourage you to find a hobby that’s far removed from your 9 to 5.
You may even learn something new and exciting in the process.
I am a huge fan of type designer Christian Schwartz’s work. In an article on one of my favorite blogs I Love Typography, he explains his rationale for starting—and the events leading up to the creation of his company Commercial Type.
This is a must read for any designer, burgeoning creative entrepreneur, or type geek. As a person who also dabbles in type design after hours, I found this article very informative.