Monday, November 4, 2013

My Own Bully

Every performer has the side of them the world sees when they step on the stage. Then they also have the dark side. Yes, we beat ourselves up. Many are called, few are chosen. We all want to be the prettiest, the brightest, and the best. There are only so many spots at the top. We all want them. So we bust our asses, show up for ourselves, and then more often than not beat ourselves with the metaphorical crow bar. This is why so many careers are destroyed by drugs, alcohol, and generalized nuttiness. It's not because the person just has issues, they want to quiet that voice that reminds them that there is always someone funnier, prettier, and better for the spot. Translated, we all have our own bully.

I was nineteen when I started performing in the city, and twenty when I took it seriously. My days were spent in class, and my nights were spent doing either multiple open mics or comedy spots. When I did well it was a stroke to my ego. So many people from my hometown, family members included, told me to throw in the towel. According to them I would never make it in show business. Some insisted I hadn't been born into it, and started too late because you have to be rockin out of the cradle. Others said I had no talent. So every time I killed I deterred my haters. I also felt closer to the goal of being on TV, something that seemed out of reach in those days. I also felt closer to the greater goal of being a good comedian.

When I tanked that was a different story. I ate asphalt sometimes because I was green, but also because of the nature of my act. I was also quite young and was trying to find my voice onstage let alone in real life. Navigating the world of adulthood and standup proved to be a challenge. When I died onstage I always felt that maybe the people back home were right. I was making a wrong decision. I would never make it. I was wasting my parents money going to NYU. The voices always grew stronger. Of course then there was the ever gnawing doubt that ate me alive continually.

At first I was rational. I just had to keep getting stage time, learning and growing. I am the product of two educators. I believe in process and craft. Deep down I know you need to fall before you can walk. However, a mentor of mine in college said, "You know what your problem is, you want what you want and you want it now." Oh God she was right. As I became more entrenched into standup, I really became invested in being good. That is when I traded in the rational and loving feather for the crow bar and baseball bat to beat myself with. Translated, I began feeding my inner bully.

In the beginning, I went over a bad set in my head until I got dizzy. Then I asked those around me for input, secretly hoping they would act as my protective parents giving me the bullshit line that it was just the crowd. Sometimes they did, and sometimes I got feedback I could use. Soon that stopped. I started leaving after bad sets. Usually it would be to some establishment that sold food that was horrible for me let alone any living, breathing person. I would stuff my face and put myself at risk for Type 2 Diabetes. Other times I would drink until I fell down. Sometimes someone would put me in a cab. Other times they would carry me out of the establishment threatening never to have me back again. Soon, this became the norm after bad sets. Instead of taking what I needed and leaving the rest, I was giving my inner bully what it wanted and was stunting myself.

I remember at the time I had a friend named Barry Lawrence who by all means should be a big star. He was always armed and dangerous with a hug after a bad set. We became friends because during a laugh off he beat me coming in first, me second. I lost fair and square. Anyway, once after tanking badly he was ready with a hug and helpful words. I still remember how the light of reason touched me and my inner bully recoiled. It also educated me to the importance of friends in this process, friends who would tell you the truth and support you either way. Friends who understood. Unfortunately, Barry too was feeding his inner bully. When he drank his Mr. Hyde came out and he ultimately destroyed a very promising comedy career. I always thought he shepherded me like a big brother because he had two baby sisters. But looking back, I think he saw a lot of himself in me. He knew full well I was probably on my way to feed my inner bully and he was correct. I know in my heart he didn't like being beaten up by this force within, and knew how painful it was, especially when it was winning.

I wish I could say it helped, but it didn't. Soon I came to depend on alcohol and bad food completely, before and after sets to shut the inner bully up before it even started. I found myself in trouble because I was drinking too much. I lost time because I was hung over. I did every terrible thing you could imagine to control my weight. My inner bully was quick to remind me someone was always thinner, prettier, funnier, and whatever. While we are all we have, my inner bully always was there to inform me I wasn't enough. Suddenly my drinking was getting me in trouble. I was sick because I was abusing food. Comedy also ceased to be fun. My sets were hit and miss. It's not because I lacked talent. It was because I was so hard on myself that it became more of a chore.

Around the time my inner bully was dragging me down to a rock bottom where I was being kicked by this evil force, I did a feature gig. My headliner, Pat O'Donnell, was one of the most wonderful people I have worked for to date. After being killed in front of a rough Jersey crowd, Pat took the stage and killed it. I remember how he was happy, glowing. On the other hand, I looked and felt beat. I remember Pat was funny and it was effortless. How was he doing this? Afterwards we talked. Pat told me his secret was he had fun when he got onstage. For me, comedy had became such serious business that beating myself up became the rule, not the exception. I had been so busy working myself like a slave I forgot how much fun it was making people laugh.

Soon after I did a show at what was once Joe Franklins. At the time, I was regimented and married to my set list. My inner bully told me my job was to do my jokes and be solid. I was studying my set when Maddog Mattern, who was emceeing, took it and ripped it up. He told me to go up and riff, have fun, that it was going to be okay. I was surprised. Could I do it? Sure enough, for as scary as it was, I did it. I was always thankful for that act of comedic love. For several more months I struggled until the inner bully began to drag me down completely. I had to make a choice, continue to feed the dark side or say goodbye. I chose to say goodbye.

I stopped drinking, joined a gym, and memorized the serenity prayer. While the inner bully still existed, it wasn't as strong. I enjoyed performing again. I hosted mics and shows wherever they would let me. Every weekend was spent traveling to make others laugh. I felt free onstage. I thought my fight was over. During this period I featured, headlined, got on TV, and wrote what was the first draft of my book. I also got a job as a talking head on an internet station. More and more, I began to take notes without judgement and looked at my job a fun gift instead of a dreaded chore. But as I said it still existed. Now it took a new form.

With some success I saw snarky comments from others. Male headliners asserted that I had slept my way to certain jobs. Women ripped on me for being "lippy." So called friends from back in the day stopped speaking to me or dissed me online. In turn I isolated myself and performed at less mics. Now I was letting my inner bully be the boss in a whole new way. I basically stopped eating, walked everywhere, and began dropping the ball in my life in a whole new way. I screwed up with money because I wasn't focused and was sad. When I went to places I was snappy because I was tired. To boot my inner bully insisted I had to be perfect and couldn't be seen trying new things. So it was back and more evil than ever.

That is when I hit one mic in Queens where I didn't know anyone. The comics there loved comedy. One dude came up afterwards and gave me the ending to a joke I was struggling on. For the first time in forever it felt okay. I felt strong, not letting the inner bully win. A few days later, I spoke to a veteran comedian who I look up to and poured my heart out. He told me the only way to deal with negativity is to tune it out. And he told me that the best part about the gig he did, and he typed this is caps, was he HAD FUN. That is when it hit me, I had to kill this inner bully and quick. I didn't need haters. I had myself to thwart my own plans.

While I got sidetracked with my book and such, I am now grudgingly returning to mics. It's because I need a network friendly set for an opportunity that has come my way. At first I felt like slitting my wrists. I have been on TV. I don't do such things, right? Then the same old character defects came out. I wasn't funny. I would never get where I needed to go. No one wanted to watch me. Fuck these people. Saturday when things didn't go my way I had a complete meltdown. The bully was back and bigger than ever. Translated: I was face to face with the same told demons.

I found myself being comforted by comedy friends, old and new. They reminded me that even pros still did batting practice. Also, they told me I was there to run a set and not to worry about the judgement. While they reminded me it was going to get worse before it got better, it was worth it.

Last night I did a set where the show was strong. There was not one weak link. When I left the stage I thought this could be stronger, that could be stronger, ended weak. I was back to beating myself up again. However afterwards people told me I did well. Everyone on the show was good, and that makes a difference. My inner bully wants to tell me I will never be worthy of the company of quality comedians. On the other hand, I know that's not true because I am in the company of quality comedians. I also know it's okay to evaluate myself, and that is different than beating myself up. Audience members told me I did well. The old friend who came liked my set. The producer liked me. Calm down killa.

Ironically several weeks ago I told some high school students to be kind to themselves when they wrote, advice I wish someone would have given me as a young woman. Advice I should probably take myself. Yes, there will be plenty of skinning my face as May Wilson and I get this set ready. The secret though is to keep growing, training, and getting stronger. It's not to succumb to that voice that tells you to turn around and punch yourself in the face. The  line it feeds you is that it makes you a better comic. No, that's bullshit. It only stunts you and holds you back.

I Came, I Saw, I Sang: Memoirs of a Singing Telegram Delivery Girl

No comments:

Post a Comment