Freedom To Be Myself On Stage, and Off

My mom gave me the July issue of Elle magazine for my birthday. It is about women in comedy and I wish every magazine was just like this one. I read Bridget Everett’s article about her comedy icon, her mom. I only know Bridget’s work through rave reviews and photos in Time Out New York magazine. They never took us off of their mailing list after we moved to LA and we kept getting them for free! It was our only bathroom reading for the first three years in LA and our regular bowels made it very hard to detach from NYC. My quiet toilet time would be a magic portal to New York art, music, literature, dance, theatre and other-worldly fearless night talent.

So I weirdly love Bridget’s raunchtastic cabaret shows and volcanic personality without ever seeing her perform! I recently got to see her move and speak as Maria Bamford’s best friend in Maria Bamford’s genius Lady Dynamite on Netflix. Bridget was hysterical as expected, so was Maria, as expected, and the whole show, as expected. Go watch that show. Anyway, all that being said, I was excited to read Bridget’s article in Elle:

My mom is an 82-year-old retired schoolteacher who raised six kids largely on her own, and she has no idea how funny she is. For starters, she always walked around the house naked, which was pretty wonderful growing up because she’s a big woman. It showed me that it’s just a body; it’s no big deal. She would go to the grocery store without a bra, so we’d call her “Beaver Tails.” She just didn’t care! But she’s totally beloved in my hometown. She’s turned into this old lady who rides around on a Jazzy with a cane, going through Kmart poking soldiers and thanking them for their service, then trapping them in conversations.

There’s so much in my performance that’s performed by her. Not wearing a bra on stage. Interacting with the audience. She was a music teacher, and when I was younger, my older brothers and sisters would all get shitfaced, and we’d stand around the piano singing songs from Barry Manilow and Lionel Richie and our favorite show tunes. That’s basically what I do for a living now.

When I moved to New York to sing, the only real singing I was doing was at karaoke bars, where I would just go crazy. It was mayhem. Literally ripping my shirt off, grabbing guys- it was the only outlet I had, but when I was doing it and getting reactions from the crowd, I thought, Oh, maybe I can take this to a legitimate stage and do crazy covers of songs and tell crazy stories. It’s a shamelessness and a freedom, which definitely came from my mother.

She came to my show at Joe’s Pub once, and I was so nervous. I mean, I sit on people’s faces and motorboat them. But there she was cheering the whole time, and at the end she came up to me and said, “That was freedom in motion.” It was the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.

This inspired me. It made me cry. It reminded me that what I want most, what I have always wanted but didn’t realize until recently, is freedom to be myself. I looked for it and found the freedom part in improv. I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted, but only as a character. And so, after doing it on and off since I was ten, I stopped improvising. It perpetuated my addiction to pleasing others, to the fight or flight chemicals in my body, to getting a high from rescuing or fixing. And it gave me a false sense of freedom.

Once I saw that freedom was what I lacked and craved, I wanted to transfer that feeling I get on stage into my real life. It was mind-blowing, awe-inspiring, dumb-founding to imagine that I could simply have that wild abandon in my life. Not just on stage. I’m so happy on stage. I can taste the joy. The only times I had felt that in life was when I was helping others to the detriment of my own life. I only knew it as a high from a distraction. From creating a false, unreliable reality. A reality that kept me stuck in the same place, without progress or real growth. Alive, but chock full of old fears and confusion, which meant I was chock full of sadness too.

So I am retraining my brain to listen to itself. To learn that there are many things, people, outcomes I want to control so that I feel safe. But that not trying to control them leaves just me. And even then, I am learning not to control myself. I used to spend every millisecond of every day telling myself no. No, do it later. No, do it in a different way. No, do it more efficiently. All of these things usually led to it never getting done at all. I watched my life pass by. There were so many times I could see that because of my procrastination, I clearly missed opportunities.

I will say this next part in the past tense, although I am still currently practicing changing it in the present: My procrastination came from perfectionism, which came from fear of not doing it well, which came from fear that people won’t love me unless I’m perfect, which came from experiencing abandonment as a child, which gave me a fear of being left behind by the pack and dying. So I was used to being in fight or flight, all the time. The fear of death was a daily motivator and I had no idea.

So now I am learning to rely on what god is to me, my instinct, my higher power, a thing all around me that is also my inner voice. It looks out for me. Then when I remove controlling others or myself, there is not an emptiness, there is a flow to life. A momentum that is peaceful as a breeze in the summer sky. It moves forward. Naturally, organically, and truthfully. (This is not my default setting yet and is an uphill struggle. But neuroplasticity means that any-age dogs can learn new tricks. And happiness is a worthwhile treat.)

I’m getting to know myself better and am excited to put my newly-discovered calm motion into what I want to do. I thought that I needed to take myself out of improv because art didn’t let me be myself. But there is art that does. And there is improv that does too, I just wasn’t doing that kind. I’m excited to allow that freedom for myself in writing and creative aspects of my life. It’s new for me to see that I can have both freedom and be myself and it can exist in an artistic space too. I’ve only known being other people for so long. On stage and off. But art is expansive and we create our space within it by existing, in any way we want.

Thank you, Bridget.

And Bridget’s Mom.

And my Mom 🙂

I Stayed in My Seat at iO Last Night

I stayed in my seat at iO last night, deciding to see the next show, excited to get to watch Mo Collins live for the first time and learn what happens at Mo and Tell. First thing, she shared about Robin Williams… I had somehow not heard the news yet. We all cried together. She shared that she also has depression and how Robin was a mentor and how she could barely speak all day. She was truly open with us. After five minutes of grounded truth, she stood, tiny on the stage, tears streaming down her face, and said, “This is a comedy show.” It was very funny. And then she asked the audience for good news, and she celebrated everything from new jobs to free, close parking spots. And then brought on her equally funny and open friends and family to tell stories and we all laughed together.

One story teller shared that her father was a great stand-up comedian in the 1920’s and 30’s and when he retired, he decided to give back to the community by opening a house for mentally ill and mentally handicapped people, but that he forgot to buy her family a separate house.

And he also forgot that he was an alcoholic and that his only background to help him run the house was being a stand-up. She grew up living with, and taking care of, a wild bunch of people. Ken Kesey came and interviewed her father and shortly after, the wild bunch of people became the cast of characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The story was told hilariously. But the part of the story that hit me the most was that growing up in the house, her father emotionally segregated her family from his empathy for the other housemates. To him, the housemates were “crazy” and the family was “normal”. She wasn’t allowed to need help too, so no one helped her deal with what was around her. “I’m still scarred,” she said.

The world has grown a lot over the decades, and mental illness is talked about more. But I hope that segregation of empathy eventually dissolves into a place where we all know that we are human. And humans are tender. And affected. And some aspects of mental illness come from reacting to circumstance, some come from being truly empathetic souls. She said, “I am too sensitive.” But how can that be? A child surrounded by chaos with no emotional arms to hold her, and some how life has taught her that she is too sensitive. Wouldn’t any human come out of that circumstance in the same way? And why would we scorn someone for being genuinely empathetic? Because it’s too close to making our own selves vulnerable?

We are taught, through words, through body language, through friendships that remain and or ones that disappear, that we can not be too open. And that a spoonful of laughter makes hearing about someone else’s problems more palatable. I wonder what it would be like if we knew we could share sadness, fear, and worry without judgement. Would comedians still make us laugh? I think so. But the ones that are hurting might feel better.

When empathy begins to seep past therapy sessions and quiet conversations between best friends, when it spills into dinner parties and presidential speeches, when it flutters into the grocery store line, and fills the air between two enemies, when it confidently rests upon the host of a comedy show and sprinkles over the hearts of a crowd who comes to see comedy and leaves knowing they saw that and so much more… We will be safer, we will be kinder, and we will be happier.

I still can’t stop crying today that Robin was so sad. But last night felt like a special way to honor him. Thank you Mo. Thank you Alex, Candi, Billy, and Debra for your stories.

And thank you Robin… for all that you’ve given us. ‪#‎RIPRobinWilliams‬

Robin Williams by Jeff Bridges
On the set of The Fisher King | Photo by Jeff Bridges