I’m standing in a tiny windowless room on Melrose, surrounded by people young enough to be my fully grown children. From the side of the room, a guy has just asked me to perform onstage as the host of a made-up YouTube show about “EDM” (which at this particular moment may as well be cough medicine, as far as I know), and I am about to sweat through my T-shirt. My mind drifts: When is my parent-teacher conference? Did I give Poodell (our rescue poodle) her pills today? (Five in the morning, four at night. A heart condition, but she’s a real fighter.) Focus. EDM. Figure it out. Lights up.
I turned 40 recently. Five years ago, actually. Let’s call it “recently adjacent.” When that milestone approached, I asked myself (a married mother of two) a question: Years from now will I have regrets about anything I didn’t try? Running a marathon? Playing the keyboard? No, thank you. My answer was this: comedy. Specifically, seeing if I had what it took to enroll in a class at the Groundlings, the comedy school and theater where Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Melissa McCarthy, among many others, have cut their teeth since its founding in 1974.
This urge wasn’t new. Raised in Los Angeles by an elegant American mother and a witty English father, I grew up watching the classic British humor of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers. When I was prepping to read at Mass at my Catholic school in eighth grade, I even studied Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” routine for ways to approach the altar (adding to the absurdity: I’m not even Catholic; the school just happened to be nearby ). I don’t remember a word of the prayer, but I remember everything about the sketch.
Irreverent humor was the priority at my house. (Apologies, Jesus.) In high school I made the volleyball team not because I was good but because the tough-as-nails, chain-smoking head coach said, “You make me laugh. You can stay.”
After college, I moved to London. On a dare from friends I got a job in the editorial department of a magazine called Disco International (I promise it existed). I interviewed strange British people who ran nightclubs. (“Tell me about this sound system, Nigel.”) My boss called me Sparky. It was kind of great. Not long after, I landed at British Vogue, and a few years later, at Vanity Fair in New York. I met some of my best friends and favorite human beings at both. They are also some of the funniest people I know. I wasn’t working in comedy, but I was close to it—comedy adjacent. I wanted more, though, because…what if?
Which is why I find myself one morning driving to the Groundlings Theatre. I’m so nervous that I have to pull over at a 7-Eleven to slightly dry-heave in the bathroom. It only gets worse when I see my classmates. Jesus. They’re young. They have flawless skin and wear hats. Our teacher is a nice, relaxed guy who tells the class to get onstage for a warm-up exercise and asks us to name our favorite movie. Very good. Proceed. But no. Mildly depressing movies from the 1970s flood my mind: Kramer vs. Kramer, The Deer Hunter. Stop! Be fun! The girl next to me says, “The Hangover ” (fun). My turn. I take a deep breath and hear myself saying…“Sophie’s Choice,” one of the most depressing films in history.
I give the teacher a look that says, “I know, man.” He smiles, and we’re on to the next person because—as I’ll learn repeatedly—nearly everything that comes out of your mouth in improv is OK. The key lies in the golden rule: Never deny anything. It’s the “yes, and” concept. Agree, add, and move it along. Try not to preplan either. Keep your mind open and clear. Much easier said than done, of course, but how exciting to consider stepping into the unknown and trusting that if you commit to the scene hard enough, something good will come. So say it loud and proud: SOPHIE’S CHOICE. My love for improv is cemented after that first class.
Four years later I’m still taking Groundlings classes. At home I sometimes set up two-person scenes for my kids while I’m making breakfast: “You’re Target employees who just received a huge shipment of giant swan floaties. One of you is up to something.” Figure it out. I see the excitement in their eyes, the flicker of hope for a fun performance. I see something similar when I tell my husband and friends about the latest class:“Today I played a really bitchy carrot in a bowl of vegetable soup. I was super-mean to the celery and told the garbanzo bean that everyone hated him and always spit him out. Also, the tomato was a slut. They all told me that I had no business being so mean because I literally grew up in a dirt field.” Touché.
When I first started, I made sure my hair was always freshly highlighted (zero tolerance for grays), and I dressed like a 13-year-old boy: T-shirt, skinny jeans, Vans. I tried to create a version of myself that, in my head at least, wasn’t so different from my young classmates. Maybe I’m in a band. Maybe I’m really good at Snapchat. But as time goes on, I begin to stop feeling so self-conscious about my age. I still dress like a teenage boy, but I skip the highlights from time to time. I even stop editing out all reference to myself as a mother, not that people really want to hear about my son’s sore throat.
In truth, I’ve felt a maternal instinct toward many of my classmates. I can’t stand it when they smoke on breaks (your flawless skin!), and I was worried when one of them told me she was driving to Arizona for Thanksgiving. Alone. In this competitive world they’ve chosen, I root for them. Always.
Turns out they root for me, too. In order to move up to the next rung in the Groundlings School, you need to actually pass the class. I took it very seriously when I made it to the advanced improv level, in part because I knew it meant that I’d get to perform on the student stage in front of an audience. I was scheduled for a Friday night at 8:30. I was beyond nervous, but for a lot of my classmates, this was not The Night. It was just a night. They perform all the time. They told me I could do it and that they would be right there with me, which meant everything to me.
My teacher put me and two others onstage first. Rip off the Band-Aid. It was a debate scene. (This show was before Team Trump began haunting my nightmares.) We got the name of our political party from audience suggestions. Mine was the “Just a Little Bit Off the Top” party. I decided to play a candidate who did horrible things but only in small increments: “A little bit of insider trading, a couple of DUIs, and a tiny bit of tax evasion—who’s in?” And then it happened. The audience laughed. Really laughed. I heard it. I felt it. I let it wash over me. It was exhilarating and otherworldly. (True, they were friends and family, but their goodwill was palpable.) I went back onstage four more times that evening. I loved the energy of the room and the excitement of the audience.
Do I like the classes, the writing, the performing? I do, very much, but I’ve come to see that I’m drawn to improv for more than laughs. Sometimes without warning, I find myself subconsciously “yes, and ing” people, which helps keep conversations flowing and tensions at bay. It’s also helped me, when possible, keep my mind more nimble and free of clutter. The biggest takeaway, though, is how it’s helped me listen to people better. I mean, really, truly listen. A main tenet of the Groundlings: You make eye contact and let every word land. Then react. And you never leave your scene partner stranded. You listen, dig deep, and work it out.
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