All Aboard the Trainwreck

 Everything’s bigger in Texas, including the laughs.

I did my first open mic while visiting a friend in Houston about 11 years ago. I had been writing jokes and ideas for jokes on anything that I had in front of me at the time: napkins, tissues, business cards, toilet paper – a practice I still follow today- but I had never had the guts to get up in front of people and say some of these jokes aloud. On my first visit to Houston I chickened out, even though my friend, Sahn, was very encouraging. It was on my second visit that she more or less threatened if I didn’t do the open mic at Laff Stop this time, I couldn’t board the plane to return to PA. I remember being so nervous back then that when I practiced in the dining area of Sahn’s townhouse, I made her sit in the living room facing the TV. Fast forward to that evening and my pregnant friend and her husband, Dave, were there to support me. My jokes – one about the baggage claim area of an airport being viewed like a ‘carousel’ and another about grown-up Happy Meals for depressed folks, – landed pretty well but listen for yourself. (Hang in there. It’s a bit rough being my first. Give it until minute 2:00.) I felt relieved. I felt proud. I felt beyond happy – no meal needed.

Taking the Stage

Fast forward a few weeks and I am driving about two hours from my job in Wilkes-Barre, PA to Northeast Philadelphia’s Comedy Cabaret to do open mic. I had some off nights and some really on nights. I got laughs that made me feel exhilarated.

Excuse me, can I have your autograph Ms. Schumer?

Fast forward about a year or two (I admit to not keeping a diary so the dates are not iron clad; don’t quote me on them) and I’m doing a seven to 10-minute comedy set at a club called the River Street Jazz Cafe in Wilkes-Barre on a Sunday night. It was this new weekly thing that my comedian friend Tony LaJeune organized. I performed with fellow comedians Brad Todd, CJ Hood and a few others. The crowds were sometimes light but I was getting stage time. I was learning. One night Tony brought in Jessica Kirson to headline the show. She had come to Wilkes-barre before. She’s got a real presence on stage. She’s funny! Well…she brought along a friend from New York City to open up for her. And that friend’s name was Amy Schumer. If I only knew then what I know now …

Courtesy of Citizens Voice

Courtesy of Citizens Voice

Amy was funny but a little too edgy for me. Let’s face it, I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic School from kindergarten to 12th grade. Oh, and I was a good little Stepford student. I listened to the nuns, had plenty of guilt, fear and remained a virgin until my senior year in college. So her abortion joke gave me pause. Even though I was not quite ready to appreciate her humor then, I knew that she was a professional and seemed very confident on stage.  But I am shy and this was long before everyone took selfies of everything with everyone, everywhere they go. So I have no proof that evening performing on the same stage as Amy Schumer existed. Technically I could put on my resume that I opened up for Amy Schumer but that’s not completely accurate and the nuns’ voices still haunt my mind like insomniacs roaming the hallway of an asylum.

Militia of Sisters

I’ll hop aboard that train for laughs.

Fast forward another eight years or so and Amy Schumer is comedy’s ‘it’ girl. And while I have to say that I haven’t watched her comedy show and never thought too much about whether she was funny or not, I now have an opinion. She IS funny. She IS smart funny. And it IS a big deal that the movie SHE wrote, Trainwreck, is hilarious and being very well received at the box office. I went to see the movie Saturday night with my boyfriend and we – and the entire audience – laughed out loud, a lot! The jokes were funny to both genders because they were real. Yes, some of the subject matter is risque or crude, but it happens. It is honest. And parts of the movie, particularly about her relationship with her father, were very touching.

Real Trainwreck

Spoiler alert. Don’t read if you haven’t seen Trainwreck yet.

So here it comes. My but. I enjoyed the movie. I laughed a lot. I am thrilled that a female comedian (I hate adding this description, but this is the reality. There is still a lot of “Women aren’t funny,” B.S. out there.) wrote a funny, smart movie that is receiving financial and popular success.  But … I was slightly disappointed that the movie had what I’ll call a Hollywood, formulaic ending. Amy’s character could be viewed as a hot mess who sleeps around and then ‘gets her life together’ when she meets the right man. Or, she could be viewed as a woman who just wants to date and not get serious. I think the bigger point is that regardless of the man situation, she IS a talented writer and a good, caring daughter and sister who is funny and perhaps just afraid to get hurt so she hides behind a sarcastic, ‘whatever’ attitude. I applauded when she yells while watching gyrating basketball cheerleaders, “You’re gonna lose us the right to vote.” Then by the end of the movie, she dons the same cheerleader costume, learns a choreographed dance and gyrates to music to prove her love to her man.  Don’t get me wrong. I think it would be fun to do a group dance and I get why she wanted to do something nice to patch things up with her boyfriend. But it’s okay to get annoyed or miffed at the sight of half naked models, dancers and actors, etc. and believe that they are not helping women’s rights. And, it’s okay to express a thought or opinion about that to someone you are close with, like your boyfriend or best friend. If we have to stifle gut reactions and feelings in our bones, that’s not very healthy. With that said, I do believe that as a true ‘feminist’ (whatever that word really means), we must support choices made by every woman, no matter what they are. As long as they are not hurting themselves or anyone else, it’s all good.  I know this.

How Pat Roberts defines feminism

The other disappointing scene in the movie came when Amy spoke to her sister, apologizing for things she said to her and explaining that she does want what her sister has – a husband and kids – but is defensive about it because she doesn’t know if she deserves that kind of happiness.  (I am paraphrasing but that’s the idea.) This scene in the movie is harder for me to accept because it’s a cliche, like every other RomCom out there. In the end, all Amy wants is to be loved by a man.  I wish she relished the fact that her career was bright – her article was published in Vanity Fair – with as much earnest.  All in all, I still give this movie an enthusiastic two thumbs up because it was fun and it made me laugh.  I guess after reading the hoopla about Amy Schumer being the feminist comedian, I was expecting a different ending. In all fairness, no one, neither Ms. Schumer, nor anyone else, should have the burden and responsibility of representing or speaking for our gender. And… if Ms. Schumer’s happy ending in real life is to marry and have children some day, that’s great.  And… if Ms. Schumer is smart enough to know that happy RomCom endings are what will put money in her bank account, even better!

 

Wo Money

 

 

Spread Laughter, Better than Ebola

As news of terror groups’ influence spreads like the Ebola virus in west Africa, the need for lighter, laughter-filled moments is obvious. Those who wonder how or why we should laugh while stories of beheaded reporters and deadly viruses top our news, should take a moment to consider a few things.

What happens when the laughter stops? We’re left in darkness. Life can be very serious. It can be sad. It can be challenging, and at times seem hopeless. But we need to make life a laughing matter in order to face the laugh-less times and matters. Robin Willams knew this. Joan Rivers did too. Both of their lights have been extinguished, making  American life -specifically the world of entertainment and pop culture- a bit darker. That makes me sad and a bit worried. The world needs more leaders of laughter and hope to help combat the leaders of terror and dread.

I don’t want to sound dramatic but I fear what will happen in a society with less laughter. Imagine a dark field filled with people just sitting, waiting, wondering, feeling scared, confused and growing more worried.  Now imagine one person lighting a candle and turning to light the candle of the person next to her. She lights the candle of the person to her right and he does the same. This continues until the field is illuminated and people feel safe, warm and comforted to see and talk with the people around them. This is what laughter does. It lights the way, making it easier to see potential pitfalls. It doesn’t remove all of life’s bad stuff but it does help us to deal with it better; it reinvigorates us, giving us the hope and strength to continue to fight whatever battle we are waging.

It disappoints me when people, especially those in power, who are decision makers in organizations, don’t see the light that humor and laughter provide. They question how laughter can be introduced to people who are depressed or to families coping with the wounds created by the suicide of a loved one. These people who do not see laughter as a beacon, seem to almost fear it, like it can do further harm. I think that belief is one that stems from fear, antiquated beliefs and/or a closed mind. It is true that laughter has power and that it can create change. We just have to be open to the idea. It doesn’t require a prescription or a House vote or a platinum credit card. Laughter is within each and everyone of us. And once we let it out, it can and will spread like a virus. But this one is the kind you won’t be infected with. You’ll be effected…for good!

The Rabbit Died & Other Funny Stories

It was a packed house on Wednesday, July 9 at the Scranton Cultural Center for an appearance by comedian/actress/author Amy Sedaris as part of the Lackawanna County Library System’s speaker series. The first thing that struck me about Amy when she walked out on stage was how tiny she is. We’re not talking Thumbelina small like Kristin Chenoweth but Amy is small. Her legs were tone but very thin. Her red handbag and pumps designed by friend Sarah Jessica Parker were also eye-catching. She had a comical bounce to her entrance, with her head sort of bobbing back and forth.

For as wacky as the characters are that Amy portrays, she took this interview seriously. She seemed grounded and genuine. Mary Garm, the director of the library system, conducted the interview. Mary delivers what one might expect from a librarian. She doesn’t look like she’ s ever done E at a rave or has tried to get away with checking out 17 items in the “15 items or less” aisle at the supermarket. She looks more like someone who would be happy to sit next to Wilford Brimley on a porch swing enjoying an ice-cold glass of lemonade talking about how hot the summer has been. She and Amy made the perfect pair. My friend Stephanie made the comparison, at points throughout the interview, that Amy and Mary interacting was similar to the SNL sketch “Delicious Dish” (most talked about for Alec Baldwin’s appearance promoting Pete’s Schweddy balls, which were Christmas cookies, of course).  Mary dryly responded to Amy’s answers with “hmm, interesting” akin to Anna Gasteyer’s character Margaret Jo McCullen saying “good times.”

Amy Was Funny And Serious

Amy answered all questions seriously in her regular voice. There were no characters who came out on stage. But Amy was warm, engaging and entertaining as she told her stories. She apparently likes to keep her private life very private but she did reveal her love for cooking and entertaining people in her New York City apartment and she revealed something that I thought was meant to be a joke at first, but wasn’t. Amy is a rabbit whisperer. She goes to people’s homes to help them rabbit proof and ensure the best environment for the fluffy creature.  Amy told the sad story of her 11-year-old rabbit Dusty dying but with a hint of humor. She recalled how the rabbit cried horribly for hours and that she was tempted to move things along by smothering him because she was sure that he was in pain but the vet assured her that he was not in pain. Amy also got laughs when she told the audience how bossy her rabbit was.

You Know Amy; You’ve Seen Her in the Tide Commercials

Amy Sedaris is not a household name but people surely know her if you tell them, “She’s that blonde on the Tide commercials who acts bubbly and kind of cooky.” After listening to Mary mention all of Amy’s various projects, it seems that Amy does a bit of everything. She has written and performed plays with her famous humorist writer brother, David Sedaris. She has done sketch and other comedy on TV. She has small roles in movies. She does voice-over work on TV and in films. She has the whole rabbit thing going on. She has authored books: “I Like You, Hospitality Under the Influence,” which includes recipes and tips on entertaining and how to be a good party guest, “Wigfield,” which she co-authored with Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello and of course her latest book she is promoting, “Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People,” a funny book about how to create some off-beat craft projects.   She has created a line of quilt fabrics that are going to pop up on other household items like popcorn bowls. And she is of course the face and voice for funny Tide, Bounce and Downy commercials. I’m sure I’ve missed a few things but you get the point. She is prolific and her talents are varied.  With her upcoming break from projects she said she’d love to waitress again but she envisioned problems like other waitresses resenting her … specifically the ones who are doing it to earn a living. And the fact that people might recognize her could be problematic, she said. But she said she loves working with people and finds it so interesting to interact and observe others.

Forget All the World’s A Stage; It’s A Peek Backstage

Comedians need to people watch like we need breathe.  Anyone who writes humorous material must immerse themselves into the world with eyes and ears wide open so you don’t miss anything. (That is not a quote from Amy by the way. I’m saying it. It sounds good though right?)  As someone who has been writing for over 20 years and who has been writing stand-up comedy for about 10 of those years, humorous articles, my funny dating book, “He’s Not Prince Charming When…,” I know how much I owe to the fun observance of people and interpersonal experiences with people. Life is full of material for the next great comedy, sitcom, play, etc.  As Amy shared, her Greek grandmother was the inspiration for one of Amy’s first popular characters. Amy said “She was just so much fun to make fun of.”

What Makes Amy Laugh

When Mary asked Amy what she thinks is funny, she listed things like: people falling (at which point my friends Steph and Michelle looked at me because we witnessed some poor woman fall in the lobby that evening; while she wasn’t injured, none of us laughed because it wasn’t “that kind of fall”), wigs flying off. Eventually she said that she finds “everything” to be funny. She said she’ll laugh at a patch of mushrooms growing together.

As far as people she finds funny, that list includes her mother, Jonathan Winters, her brother David, her friend Stephen Colbert and others that I forget.

What about the Whole “Women Aren’t Funny” Thing?

Before I went to the event I wondered if I had a question that I wanted Amy to answer. I figured that the basics would be covered and beyond that I didn’t have too much I was dying to know. But I did want to hear Amy’s perspective on the whole “women aren’t funny” thing.  Even though I speak in front of audiences for my business, Laugh to Live, some times to groups of a few hundred people in size, I was nervous about raising my hand or shouting out a question. I never feel completely comfortable doing that.  Thankfully, mics were set up on both sides of the stage where Amy was seated so you just had to get in line and address her at the mic. So I did. I asked her what she thought of this whole notion or some-time buzz that women aren’t funny.

Her answer managed to surprise, disappoint and encourage me. It was as if I had asked her about a little-known restaurant down the street. Her response was like “Hmm? What is that?” It had not seemed to make any great impact on Amy’s career. She said that she enjoyed great female ensembles like the one on “Orange is the New Black” and that she worked with a lot of female actors and comedians, especially doing improv at Second City, and it was never an issue. She even asked back “Is that still a thing?” Her response disappointed me in a way because I kind of expected and wanted her to give some fire and brimstone speech about how hard her path had been but how she and other brave and strong funny women need to keep doing it to quiet all of the naysayers. But I was also inspired and encouraged that she was so unaffected by it and possibly even insulated from it. She has made a life and career making people laugh – and doing a host of humorous, creative projects – that is fulfilling to her without any gender angst. When I told her that not too long ago Adam Carolla created a bit of a stir by making comments about female comedy writers being less funny than men, she responded with “Who?” and then after a wry smile, “Oh, and we know how funny he is.” (I’ll make a note here to say that I have nothing against Carolla, not that if I did it would keep him awake at night or keep him from continuing to earn the fantastic living that he does, who am I? but I mentioned his comments because his were among the most recent that I could recall about women not being funny.) While I was at first disappointed by Amy’s nonchalant attitude about it, I am glad to hear that throughout her career she has not felt hindered or discriminated against for being a woman in the funny business and that the whole “women aren’t as funny as men” thing is not on her radar.  Amy strikes me as an explosive ball of creativity who is far too busy putting herself out there through her numerous projects and making people laugh to notice, or even care who is playing judge and jury to what or who should be considered funny!

Ready for Some Funny from Amy Sedaris

Tonight (Wednesday, July 9) I am going to hear actress/author/comedian Amy Sedaris speak in Scranton as part of the library’s speaker series. I am always embarrassed to admit that I am not an avid reader, especially because I am a writer. Allow me the indulgence of mentioning the two books I’ve written and published: “He’s Not Prince Charming When…” and the children’s book “Wartz And All.” Both feature cute frogs.  Learn more here.  I feel that writing and reading should go hand in hand but I just don’t love reading. With that said, I have not read either of Amy Sedaris’ books. I have read the book “Naked” by Amy’s brother David Sedaris.

Going into this evening, my knowledge of Amy is limited I admit. What I have seen, I have enjoyed. She’s quirky and bubbly and entertaining. I enjoyed the role she played on the ABC sitcom The Middle and I loved her on Andy Cohen’s interview show “Watch What Happens Live” on the Bravo network.  I look forward to hearing what she has to share with the audience. I was thinking this morning what question I would like to ask her – assuming I had the nerve to get up and do so. (Yes, I can speak to hundreds of people at conferences, etc. and I perform improv and stand-up comedy, but I have trouble even picturing myself standing up to ask a comedian a question that could provide me with insight. Messed up right?!)   I can’t really come up with any burning questions but that is not a reflection on what I think of Amy Sedaris.  I don’t know if I’m just not the curious type or what.  The only thing that really came to my mind is what she thinks about the whole notion that women aren’t funny.   Of course I want to know what her secret to success has been and how she overcomes challenges but I believe that will be covered. That’s some basic stuff.

I look forward to sharing some of Amy Sedaris’ insights and comments in next week’s blog. I know it’s Wednesday but I should have also mentioned that in addition to not enjoying reading and being shy, I’m also a procrastinator. I will make it worth the wait though, trust me! If you don’t enjoy, I’ll refund your money.

Have a happy hump day and find your funny somewhere tonight. I know where I’ll find mine: listening to Ms. Sedaris!

Trying to Believe, Not Belieb

In less than two months I will mark four years out of the corporate world. I left my full-time job at Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania to invest in my own business, Laugh to Live, LLC full time. While there are numerous mistakes I’ve made – and still make- I would not change that decision I made to leave so that I could be my own boss and work toward my mission of spreading laughter and humor to as many people on this planet that I can.  With that said, there are days when I lose hope. Days when I am running on empty. Days when I question what I believe. And days when I worry that rather than spread joy, I’m starting to seethe and become a hater.

This “smart” world in which we now live, has opened up amazing opportunities for many. It has brought down walls that have kept people out and segregated.  Today you can be discovered by Ellen on youtube if you play the piano and have a voice as angelic as that of a cherub. Watch that soda commercial and you’ll see where that young Michelle something or other girl has made it big because of her talent and artistry with applying cosmetics.  Yes, everyday people with great talents are being discovered thanks to accessibility. Videos uploaded from smartphones go viral… and bam! Success! But what about all of the other desperate attempts at attention and success that lack any talent and in some cases put the subjects or worse, other people at risk? The kids recording themselves destroying property or beating up another kid. Today I saw a news report about some cab driver videotaping people getting into his cab where a big, yellow snake was waiting for them in the back seat. Apparently it is some stunt to help promote his book about facing fear. (I don’t think the passengers were forewarned about the snake. Their shocked and fear-filled faces seemed genuine.) Is this clever guerrilla (or in this case, reptile) marketing or a dumb-ass trick to get his 15 minutes of fame?

Then there are all of those “funny” baby and cat videos out there. (Get ready because I’m going to sound like a hater in the next few sentences.)  Maybe it’s because I’m not a mom and maybe it’s because I never liked cats until I was forced to make peace with them over the years as numerous friends had friendly cats who won me over, (The fact that I’m allergic doesn’t help either.) but these videos don’t impress me. They make me half smile when I see them by accident. I don’t seek them out or press “play” when I see posts by friends on social media outlets.  Don’t misunderstand me, if a 30-second video of a cat trying to climb out of a sink makes you laugh, go nuts. Set it up to play over and over and have a blast! We need more laughter in the world and it’s harmless (as long as someone eventually helps the cat out of the sink). And yes, of course, babies are adorable so enjoy them giggling while a parent rips up paper for two minutes. I just wonder what it is about these videos that require no talent other than the ability to buy a phone with video-recording capability and press “record,” that makes them so insanely popular and likeable. Am I jealous? Yes.  Am I becoming slightly bitter? Perhaps.  But I find that just because we have more accessibility and more outlets through which we can communicate, doesn’t mean that we should. How does a person who writes a good story or a comedic performer who does a funny set earn respect and attention from viewers. (I’m asking for a friend.)  I’m excited when any of my stand-up clips on youtube get more than 200 views.  I think if I Photoshopped a cat in the audience drinking a glass of Merlot or standing next to me on stage, then my video would go viral.  But is that the kind of attention that I want?  Um, er, no (hangs head low and darts eyes left to right). Because this is fleeting attention.  The bottom line is that I have to keep doing what I’m doing.  Believe in my talents and keep putting them out there for people to discover and enjoy. And I can’t hate on those cute little felines who get all the attention. It’s not like they’re asking for it.

Now to my final point – or should I say the other thing that’s bugging me today and making me talk aloud at my TV and computer screens – what have our priorities become?  I’ve seen some news stories yesterday and today about Justin Bieber. I don’t know what prompted the story but the musician’s attorney is talking about how much abuse he is taking. That he can’t walk anywhere without being harassed. I saw a panel of “experts” talking on CNN and someone was talking about our responsibility as a society. I guess because he was so young when he became rich and famous that we (the collective community that is watching and supporting or hating him) are now responsible for what is being seen as his downfall. There seems to be this conversation around the tearing down of the successful. I guess this is something like the conservative cry about classism. “Don’t hate me because I’m privileged. Admire me and hope that you too can be like me some day.”  I don’t hate Justin Bieber. I don’t love Justin Bieber. I have actually paid for a song or two of his and I  have sung along. I have driven with the tunes blaring in my car and they made me happy temporarily. But quite frankly, I don’t really think about Bieber. I’m not a Belieber but I’m not a non-Belieber. I simply don’t care.  As for his welfare, I would say his parents should be most concerned about that and should have been from the beginning since he was so young when he entered this world of fame. I do feel somewhat badly that celebrities lose their privacy and are judged so harshly but I can’t say that it keeps me awake at night. Maybe that’s because I left a job that paid over $50,000 to do something I thought was more noble and fulfilling while still trying to make a living. And maybe my attention has been focused on trying to get “affordable health care”  (something I actually had before the new law went into effect this year).  I am not trying to sound like a Debbie Downer or someone hating on people who have achieved financial success and/or fame.  I just get disgusted and disappointed when it seems that the collective consciousness of society seems more concerned with whatever shiny video pops up. They want more in less time. Tell a story in 140 characters?  I think not. Not a full story anyway.  And that is exactly why I don’t expect many people to actually read this far into my blog. It’s too long right? Sure. I should have bullet points, a list of 8 steps to ….. and sub headers so you don’t have to read the entire article or think too much.

So what started me on this rant today? As I was sitting here with my laptop on me and news on the TV,  I felt compelled to write rather than rant into the air. After the story about Justin Bieber, I watched a “news report” about Kristin Bell sharing on “Kelly and Michael” the fact that she peed in a jar at the Oscars because her dress was so tight. I had to laugh aloud. I know that we can’t dwell on the 239 people missing on that plane that vanished from Malaysia or talk only about tragedy, but what IS newsworthy? I don’t care who peed in what. As long as it’s not on my car, front porch, or my foot, I’m not really concerned with the bladder routine of celebrities, or non-celebrities for that matter.  Maybe it’s the journalist in me getting miffed by the flooding of the Internet by “writers” and “news” that is pricking my laughter balloon.

If you read this blog and chuckle or smirk a bit, great. If you read this and get annoyed because you love cat videos and the Biebs, that’s okay too. Know that I don’t mean to alienate or offend you or anyone.  I just want to believe that we are headed in the right direction in this world today. That we believe in real potential and talent and in the goodness and capabilities of one another. I’m a lot less concerned with “Beliebing.”