I don’t know when my love affair with comedy began. Certainly long before I could make sense of it.
I was doing impressions of Mario Cantone before I started kindergarten. When all the other girls were playing with their Barbies, I had my Ed Grimley doll that talked when you pulled a string on its back. In college, I impressed boys by quoting Caddyshack. In my 20s, my boyfriend Adam hesitated to put on his Dane Cook CD until I convinced him I really was fine with listening to it instead of the radio. I laughed so hard I ruined my makeup. I begged him to pause the Christ Chex skit so I could catch my breath. “I’ve never heard someone laugh this hard at Dane Cook besides me,” he said as we tried to compose ourselves. One time when we were driving, I yelled so loud when I spotted Lewis Black crossing the street that Adam slammed on his brakes and almost caused an accident.
Growing up, I would pile into my mom’s car along with my cousin and best friend and we’d get dropped off at Bananas Comedy Club down the road. We’d try to get tickets to the later performance so we could stay out past midnight. We’d wait on line with the 20-somethings and get a kick out of our names being on a list. At the table, we’d order Sprites. At 15, we could act like older kids on a Friday night, listen to dirty jokes and even see the comedians in the hallway as we were leaving. Bananas was in the basement of a crummy hotel and every time we walked in it would smell mustier than we remembered. There were always fresh bananas hanging on the sign above the stage and some guy who thought he was hilarious would make a loud joke about how long the bananas had been there. “That’s not even funny,” I would say to my friend. “The bananas are still green.”
I remember the first time I heard Amy Schumer. I was driving upstate to visit a friend from college and I was listening to the XM Radio comedy station. I stopped for gas and stayed in the car to hear Amy’s bit, even though I didn’t know who she was. She talked about how her happily married friend called to announce she was having a baby. Amy responded the same way she would’ve in college, saying, “Oh my God, what are you gonna do?” I thought she was hysterical. Later on, I found the bit to play for my friend. She sat there, readied to crack up after I’d built it up so much, but ended up laughing uncomfortably just to be polite. I realized I would have to switch gears for the next couple of days – we didn’t share the same sense of humor. Before heading home at the end of the weekend, I picked up a Jim Gaffigan CD for the drive.
Part of my love for comedy came from the need to win over my brother. I liked what he liked. The day I bought my first DVD player, I also came home with Spaceballs and Three Amigos. Seth Rogen was still an unknown to me when I saw Knocked Up and I was deciding whether or not I liked his brand of funny. It didn’t matter – I laughed at every part my brother laughed at and a fan was born. I hated Forgetting Sarah Marshall the first time I saw it and only thought it was hilarious after seeing it again in the theater, this time with Andy. On his suggestion, I watched Freaks and Geeks in one sitting. At family dinners, we speak in Ken Marino and Just Friends quotes, leaving everyone else out of the conversation. I’ll never know if our sense of comedy truly lined up or if mine was so heavily influenced by him that it was molded.
Another chunk of my love for comedy came from my mother. We would watch Jerry Lewis movies and she would explain to me when Jerry was being goofy-funny and when he was being cool-funny. “Your grandfather was always cool-funny,” she would tell me. She would say that if she could choose her neighbors, Steve Martin would live on one side and Bill Murray would live on the other. Every summer, we’d watch Meatballs and I would learn which parts were funny based on what made her laugh. If something was also particularly smart or clever, she would laugh and then say, “Oh that’s funny.” I always knew what she meant – that it wasn’t just an easy laugh; it was written or said by somebody who was also bright. I do the same thing – when I’m impressed by a joke, I say, “That’s such a funny idea.” Sometimes I don’t even laugh, I just say that and then think about it. My mom could pick up quickly on things that were inherently humorous, especially if they weren’t trying to be or if they weren’t funny in a cheap way. My brother must have been influenced by her, too. When I asked him if he caught Jane Krakowski’s subtle stewardess motion in the first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, he texted back and said, “Of course, subtlety’s the best!”
Despite my love for comedy, I never considered myself a full-fledged comedy fan. Comedy was something for the stage and for silly movies with Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler. It was always obvious even if some of the jokes were creative. When a person is on stage at a comedy show with a mic in his hand, he’s a comedian. When Jim Carrey is pretending to be attacked by a shark or Adam Sandler is singing a ridiculous song in a high-pitched voice, it’s so clearly a joke. Judd Apatow movies were funny, sure, but they were more than that, which made me think they weren’t comedy, exactly, but something beyond it. SNL was comedy, I guess, but it was more of a variety show. Somehow, “funny” and “comedy” were disconnected from one another.
It surprised me when Mindy Kaling referred to herself as a comedian in one of her books. I had never considered that a person who wasn’t doing stand up and who wasn’t contorting his body in crazy ways to get a laugh could be a comedian. I stared at the sentence for a long time, then I put the book down and stared at the ceiling. Mindy Kaling, BJ Novak, Sloane Crosley, David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs – they were all humorous and intelligent writers who I admired. Theirs was the kind of work I enjoyed reading the most. They wrote the sort of stories I dreamt of writing one day. If they were comedians and comic writers, then I had found a name for the type of writer I wanted to be.
It was a relief. Almost every funny person I loved the most, from Mindy and my other favorite authors to Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and on and on, had been writers at some point. Whether their words made it into the mouths of other comedians or onto the pages of their own books, they had taken their ideas and put them into sentences. They had found a nook in the writing world that they fit into. They related to other people by being funny – sometimes witty, sometimes depressing, sometimes gross, sometimes touching, but always funny. It made sense why I never felt like I fit in with the writing crews I thought I should join: I didn’t belong there.
Writing communities are full of people who talk about the seriousness of their writing and who present it like a badge of honor. They’re more interested in living the presumed writer’s life than in actually writing anything interesting. They collectively huff at the torture of writer’s block. They constantly post that quote about writing drunk and editing sober which is misattributed to Ernest Hemingway who also never wrote while drunk. Everyone brags about self-publishing their dozen sci-fi novels. Online forums where people trade their latest chapters are full of sugar-coated support. Sad poems are churned out daily without so much as a slant rhyme to make them palatable. #AmWriting Tweets have nothing but boring updates about life behind the keyboard. Superficial tips like, “Make sure your coffee is always within arm’s reach because writers can’t function without their caffeine!” are passed around. I’ve never been able to figure out how people who are trying to make a living at writing have such dull things to say.
I don’t begrudge those writers their online cohorts – some people love poetry and sci-fi. I’ve just never fit in with them and it’s been confusing. What’s wrong with me that I can’t relate to these people? Am I not trying hard enough? Am I vapid? Maybe I’m not really a writer. It turns out that I simply hadn’t found my niche – I hadn’t even known it existed. All of those people who I admire, they’re doing something else. Yes, they’re writing stuff down and getting books published, but I could never do that, because that’s not being a writer, that’s different. Until it wasn’t.
I don’t think I’d be good at writing jokes for stand up comedians and I’m pretty sure I’d get so overwhelmed at the prospect of writing a screenplay that I’d fill out a job application for McDonald’s instead. I may never have my work read by the people I admire and want to work beside, like Nick Kroll and the rest of the cast of The League, Judd Apatow’s usual suspects, the guys responsible for The State and Wet Hot American Summer. At least now I know where to point my compass, though. I have an explanation for why I never fit in with other writers and a reason to no longer feel guilty about it. What’s most exciting is that I have a genre to dive into and learn from and, if I’m very lucky, to be part of one day.