What a season of comedy has taught me about bravery
Right before I am about to do something new for the first time, a little voice in my head tells me I will mess it up.
That I don’t have it.
My heart starts beating faster and I feel a toxic sludge spreading through my body.
I was recently at a Zoom training session with the Groundlings Theatre & School, an improv program based in Los Angeles, and I noticed it happening again. Our instructor introduced us to a new exercise that sounded hard. And it was a contest. My shoulders slouched. My mouth went dry. And my brain shouted “NO.”
I gazed into the zoom grid of faces and noticed in one of the boxes, someone was moving. My eyes honed in on her. It was Kiera. And she was on her feet, punching at the screen like a boxer, her bangs swishing back and forth with each fist jab.
She raised her hand to try the exercise and she crushed it. I could feel the confidence from her pushing her along, the confidence she first created in her body.
Then I went. I bombed and was kicked off the screen after a few seconds. I wrote my own ending before I even started.
This was a pivotal moment for me, one of those days where I felt my insides crack open a little bit and finally let in some light. I realized that if my brain wouldn’t let me believe that I had what it takes to be a comedian, my body could do that work and my brain would just have to catch up.
After watching Kiera’s success, I now stand up before I do any new improv exercise and jut my chin out, just a little bit. It’s that little movement that tells my brain, “You’ve got this” before my brain actually believes it.
I believe improv and comedy have lessons for all of us. In addition to taking classes with the Groundlings, I dabble in stand-up comedy, a careful negotiation with the pandemic that involves very small, socially distant crowds, masking and testing. I also run a business that teaches a process of innovation to clients looking to make major breakthroughs in their service and product offerings. I keep my fingers in both worlds because I believe that comedy has important lessons for authentic leadership and life in general.
I’m about to finish my first Basic Improv class with the Groundlings, the most rigorous comedy course I have ever taken, and one that demands excellence before students can move to more advanced levels. This class has changed me in both small and disruptive ways, a quiet drumbeat which has deprogrammed me of the inhibitions in adulthood that once served me and no longer do.
Early on, our instructor, Tom Blank, asked us to participate in an exercise called “Conversation.” In this exercise, he put two students in a zoom room and, as I recall it, said they could only talk about what was happening right then and their relationship.
I was put in a zoom room with Sherryn, a make-up artist from Massachusetts who sits on a velvety red couch with a fluffy white pillow next to her. She works and trains in the entertainment industry as many of the people in this class do, a world foreign to my own hamburgers-and-fries existence in Des Moines, Iowa. I feel my Midwestern roots in a visceral way next to my classmates, wondering if they can somehow sense that I grew up across the street from a hog barn and that I’m so basic that Cheesecake Factory is my favorite restaurant.
“I wish you liked me!” I blurted out in our “conversation,” a horrifying moment for me so filled with truth and vulnerability for a person I only knew through a zoom screen. She responded with kindness, saying she felt the same way and I instantly formed a bond with her that had me rooting for her and laughing with her through the rest of our classes.
And this also completely changed how I moved through conversations with others.
One day, during a run with my husband, I realized that we were spending all of our time talking about our kids and gossiping about our work colleagues. We were breaking one of Blank’s key rules and avoiding talking about our relationship and what was happening now.
“Hey, babe,” I said. “Let’s stop talking about other people and start talking about us.”
After nearly 15 years of marriage, it was awkward. I told him I wanted more acceptance, more vulnerability from him. He told me he was struggling with how to do that. This cracked open a series of difficult conversations about how we were connecting to each other in our mid-lives, some intense enough to have me crying into a basket of french fries in a downtown Des Moines restaurant during a rare lunch out of the house.
Blank’s exercise strips away politeness and forces us to look each moment for what it is, taking it in the chin, like a boxer, instead of running away. These are the first ingredients into how comedy is made, a witch’s brew full of the entrails of emotions that we suppress along the journey of polite adulthood.
I’m on a Facebook messenger thread of other female comedians in Des Moines. One day, we spoke about a male comedian in town who repeatedly makes a joke on the open mic circuit about hitting a woman. I watched the conversation flow through the little chat bubbles and felt my blood burbling. There was something I wanted to say, but I was only just getting to know these women, and I was scared. Fortunately, it was a muscle I had already flexed, talking about the hard stuff in a game called “Conversation.” I let my fingers fly over my phone’s keypad. I told my new friends how I have been hurt by men, how I have been assaulted, literally “grabbed” by “the pussy” as our president has said. In my case, it was a decade ago when a man came up behind me and shoved his hand up my skirt while I was scribbling notes in a notepad. I was a rookie news reporter covering a Republican presidential campaign event in Des Moines for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. The man who hurt me ran away into a crowd before I could even see his face.
I told these women that their conversation made me realize I didn’t have to listen to this comedian’s jokes about abuse, that it was horribly triggering, and that I would walk out the next time he took the stage at an open mic in Des Moines.
And the next time he grabbed the mic, I indeed walked out. And I wasn’t alone. We walked out together, a powerful statement of solidarity against abuse as a punchline. We showed each other that our relationship was defined by having each other’s back, and that if we worked together, we could build a safe environment to share our own truths.
For me, this has translated into a new lightness before getting on stage, a trust that I am ready to make comedy out of the vital struggles of my life. This week, I will share with the room what’s been going on in my marriage during the pandemic, insecurities and fears I don’t even talk about to close family or friends.
I keep thinking of this article my friend shared with me by Nuar Alsadir, a psychoanalyst who recently attended Clown School — literally — classes on clowning — taught at a theater in Brooklyn. Her teacher was Christopher Bayes, head of physical acting and founder of the Funny School of Good Acting.
Alsadir wrote how Bayes warned her that this kind of work can change a person. “The only thing is that you don’t get to choose how you’re going to be changed,” she reported him saying. “You have just to be ready for the change.”
In my case, all of these lessons from comedy from Des Moines to L.A. have been at first awkward and painful. And they have swiftly ushered in change. And I have no idea where that change will take me next, only that I’m listening, I’m in the conversation and I’m finally brave enough to participate.