Read You'll Grow Out of It Online

Authors: Jessi Klein

You'll Grow Out of It (16 page)

This pattern of headaches accompanied by vision problems, throwing up, and bodily numbness was eventually diagnosed by the campus doctor as a series of migraine headaches, but not before I had to go home to Manhattan and get an MRI to rule out a brain tumor, which meant that for two weeks, as I rehearsed my first-ever comedy show, I was convinced, once again, that I was dying.

What was confusing about the sickness I'd been experiencing, to both me and the doctors, was I had absolutely no history of headaches whatsoever, and since that moment in college, I have never, ever had them again.

I was well enough to perform in the show. The moment I got my very first laugh, performing in a sketch I'd written about being a bad sport playing chess (wherein I got to knock pieces off a chess set over and over), I felt a wave of pleasure wash over me. And with the pleasure came an enormous fear. In retrospect, it's clear to me that the headaches were a symptom of a reptilian terror I wasn't even aware I had: a terror of finally taking a step toward knowing that what I wanted to do with my life was this uncertain, impossible career, completely unlike the previous things I, or my father, had ever dared to imagine for me.

6. Surf Reality

After college, unsure of what to do, I turned to my boyfriend Pete, who pointed me toward a temp agency called “Force One.” Force One was run by a mustachioed man named Jeff, who'd carved out a temping niche placing people at entertainment companies. It was the only temp agency in New York where you did not have to take a typing test or a Microsoft Office proficiency test, both of which I had failed at other agencies. At Force One, the only screening tool was an interview with Jeff, who would shoot the shit with you until he decided he liked you, at which point he'd ask where you wanted to work. I told Jeff I wanted to work at Comedy Central, and, after a brief assignment at Turner Publicity, where my sole task in two weeks was to call Asia de Cuba to inquire if my boss (a poor man's Téa Leoni) had left a mink stole there, Jeff called to tell me he had a placement for me at my first choice.

I started temping for a woman in human resources who was herself responsible for calling in temps. I often described the meta-ness of this situation to my friends as similar to when you see a dog holding its leash in its own mouth, so as to walk itself. One afternoon, people from the development department called to say they'd just fired their assistant and needed a temp. In full “I'll pay the rent!” hero mode, I requested a switch, took the elevator two floors up, and started a job I would stay at for the next seven years.

Working at Comedy Central was like college, except a million times more awesome and I was paid for it. I was in a small department where I worked for two people, one in talent and one in programming development. They were both fun and we'd do the sorts of things people do at fun jobs: going for naughtily long lunches, taking dirty quizzes on the (primitive) Internet to find out if we were perverts, and expensing the decadent dinners we'd have before going to stand-up shows. I read scripts that came bound in fancy agency binders, from CAA and UTA and William Morris. I felt like anyone who wrote anything that was bound in an agency binder was impossibly important.

Eventually I was promoted, and then promoted again. I sat with Robert Smigel as he pitched
TV Funhouse
. I accompanied my boss to meetings with Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris as they conceived episodes of
Strangers with Candy
. I brought coffee to a young Amy Poehler and Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts and Matt Besser as they worked on their new Upright Citizens Brigade sketch show. I could not believe this was my life.

But time passed and I started getting used to this being my life, and the more used to it I got, the more I felt small but insistent pangs of wonder about the lives of all the creative people I was meeting, and how they'd gotten to where they were. How were they raised so they could just wake up and do these incredibly free and creative and wild things every day? Did they go to the college their father told them to go to? I spent so many nights sitting in the back of these incredible alt stand-up shows, and in particular a place called Luna Lounge, a dive bar on Ludlow Street with an even divier performance space in the back, which has since been replaced by either a macaron store or a soulless glass condo, or some combination thereof. There I watched many of the same people perform live whom I used to watch on TV while I was dying of fake cervical cancer. I fell into an emotional pattern wherein on nights I saw an amazing comedian perform, I'd feel this longing that this was something I wanted to try; and on nights I saw an amateur flailing, I'd think,
Well, I can at least be this bad, right?

This back-and-forth went on in my head for months, and then years. The fear of trying stand-up and the fear of not trying stand-up were locked in an endless stalemate, where both sides made convincing arguments and both sides agreed it would be a good idea if instead of making a decision I just sat on the floor of the crap apartment Pete and I shared and ordered huge amounts of truly terrible Indian food.

But then one night my friend Wendy, who had started taking a stand-up class, told me about an open-mike night where the pressure to have talent was so low as to be nonexistent. She took me to scope out the venue, a place called Surf Reality a block down from Luna Lounge (it is also no longer in existence; I think it has been replaced by one of those mysterious boutiques that just has one $4,000 T-shirt hanging in the window).

Surf Reality was even grimier than Luna Lounge, a hipster lean-to where the black linoleum floor was permanently shellacked with a sticky film of beer. The open mike was run by a waify woman named Reverend Jen who wore elf ears. Her system was that you paid $3 up front, and then you'd put your name on a piece of paper into a jar and wait for it to be pulled out, at which point an egg timer would be set to exactly five minutes, during which you could do whatever you wanted. The attendees of this particular open mike took the free-for-all quality of this very seriously. Perhaps because Reverend Jen insisted that every performance be greeted only with positivity, all kinds of psychopathic navel-gazing was permitted. There was an enormous guy called Little Bill who looked like a murderous Bruce Vilanch, who wore all black save for two giant yellow flashlights tucked into his belt and carried a Polaroid camera that he would stick in your face and snap without asking. His time onstage would always be spent scream-reading from a terrifying spiral notebook filled with his sociopathically tiny handwriting. There was a woman who would read poems about her father and always be crying by the end. That kind of thing.

After a few weeks in a row of watching Little Bill primal-scream, I decided that Wendy was right, and even in the event that my jokes did not kill, I would be okay with it since it was mostly an elf-ear kind of crowd and I would never have to see them again. I typed up seven jokes word-for-word and carried the paper in my pocket. I remember one of my jokes was about the subway and how scary it is when you're in the tunnel and you hear your train honking. Then I'd say, “What's out there, a DEER?” All of it was very bad. I paid my $3 and then sat shivering, like a small, nervous Chihuahua, until my name was called. When it was my turn, I took the mike from Reverend Jen, a little freaked about how to raise the mike stand (something I'd been studying with great concern from afar), and, shaky hands giving away my nerves, started to read my jokes off the paper. Miraculously, the elves laughed.

7. Dying (Again)

About six months after the first time I did stand-up, Pete and I broke up. Two weeks after we broke up, 9/11 happened. I thought for sure this national tragedy would bring us back together like so many other couples, but he seemed to feel he could weather this global geopolitical shift with the new girl he was fucking. I was subletting my old boss Chris's one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn Heights, directly across from the BQE. There was a small, mauve daybed in the living room that was permanently dusted with cat hair from when Chris had lived there with three of them. In this sad little nest, I would order cheap Thai food and watch CNN on the world's smallest TV while my heartache turned my whole body into a pretzel. My walk to and from the train was long, about fourteen minutes up one of the most beautiful streets in Brooklyn, and often at night on my walk home, passing elegant brownstones with steps lit by old flame lanterns, I would sob.

One night, I was lying on the daybed when I became aware of an odd crawling sensation under the skin covering my right cheekbone, as if there were a worm squirming toward my nose. Soon I felt it on both sides. This sensation was later accompanied by a transient numbing of patches of my face. Back I went to the neurologist, to several neurologists. I memorized and passed their tests—feeling the point of a toothpick on my palms or the coldness of a little metal hammer against my cheek, following their fingers with my eyes to the right, left, and around. When we were done with the toothpicks and hammers, they would usually dismiss me as fine, which should have made me feel better but didn't. Instead I obsessed over this new illness that would take me down right when I'd lost my partner, and I would die alone, without having a boyfriend to promise, in a whisper, that he would go on and find someone else when I died, because that is what true love is and I am selfless.

In this state, I tried to adapt to the rhythms of single life and failed miserably. This was before absolutely everyone had moved to Brooklyn, and most of my friends still lived in Manhattan. I didn't know what to do when another person's movements did not provide the emotional tick-tock of the day's clock, and I would sometimes wake up and just sit on the edge of my bed staring at nothing, like a sad person on a motel bed in an arty photograph from the 1970s.

The one thing that pulled me out of bed was the growing number of stand-up shows I would do at night, primarily because there was literally nothing else on my dance card. These shows were usually in the basements of bars, or the back rooms of divey restaurants. They would start late at night and go into the wee hours of the morning, and there would inevitably be a moment where I wondered how it was possible my life had led me to sitting on a metal folding chair in a cement-block room at one in the morning while some guy in baggy jeans talked about his dick onstage. When I went up, I was so nervous that I still typed my stand-up word-for-word. But slowly, over time, I started to loosen my grip on predictability. I carried a little spiral notebook in which I would jot one-word ideas—“catcalls”; “turkeyburgers”
2
—and I became comfortable with the idea that perhaps improvising just a smidge onstage was maybe okay. I transitioned from open mikes to occasionally, every now and then, doing a “booked” show, which meant someone actually invited you to perform and you were not waiting till some crazy witching hour to spew jokes at your fellow open-mikers.

One night I was booked to perform at a show I'd never done before—my understanding was that it was at the gym of an old Children's Aid Society. I didn't feel like going to tell jokes. I was miserable. I had run into Pete and his new girlfriend on the subway platform that morning, although technically it was less a “run into” than a “see them from afar, have a near heart attack, duck behind a pole, notice how he impulsively ducks in to kiss her like the love and desire he has for her is more than he can contain, think about staying because you have to get to work and this is your train, and then change your mind and simply leave the subway altogether and take a cab.” It had been a gut punch, and all I wanted to do was lie on my daybed couch and breathe in cat hair. But I still had enough type A college student left in me that I couldn't make a commitment to tell jokes at a gym and not show up, so somehow I pulled myself together and got on the train.

I got to the space, expecting to perform under a ratty basketball hoop to about fifteen people. Instead, the gym was packed with hundreds of guests. People were sitting at cocktail tables with candles on them, like actual human beings instead of just random bar-goers who'd been roped into a comedy show while waiting on line for a piss. My stomach flipped, and for the first time in months it wasn't because of something I heard Pete did, but because I had never performed in front of this many people before. And the other comedians on the bill were all real comics, people I'd gone to see for my job and whom I respected.

I got onstage and talked. I talked about my life. It was, up to that moment, the best I had ever done. I killed. I got offstage and I did not feel like someone with worms crawling under her eye socket.

I felt alive.

8. Best Week Ever

I was still working at Comedy Central during the day and then doing stand-up at night. I was doing well sometimes and bombing other times, but I felt I was finding something, and that something was pushing me along. One day I got a call from a producer I'd met who was starting a new show at VH1 called
Best Week Ever
. It would be a topical “talking head” show where comics would riff on pop-culture events of the week. He'd seen me do stand-up and wanted to talk to me about being on it.
HOLY FUCK I AM GOING TO BE ON TV
, I thought to myself.

Being on
Best Week Ever
meant that the night before shooting, the producers would email me a packet of over a hundred questions regarding celeb news from the week, with the idea being that you would write jokes as answers to all of the questions. There would always be a lot of questions about Britney Spears's vagina or Lindsay Lohan's boobs. I would dutifully try to come up with at least one joke per question. Often I would wake up at five thirty in the morning to finish writing, sprawling on my bed hungover.

Because I had a day job, they accommodated me by always shooting me first thing in the morning, which usually meant arriving at VH1 around eight a.m. I would go into hair and makeup, talk about Lindsay's pussy for an hour, then do my best to rub off my full face of makeup before literally running the ten blocks back up Broadway to Comedy Central, where my boss, the endlessly patient Lou Wallach, would pretend not to notice that his normally plain-faced and bedraggled employee had mascara all over her eyes and clearly had had her hair done into professionally beachy waves.

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