In what was the first couple of years of my improv career, such as it was, I felt as though I knew what I was doing. I consistently got laughs, I had a solid grasp on the rules of the craft, and was wholly confident. None of that was wrong.
What was wrong is I said it out loud. I’m not an overly superstitious person despite being born on a Friday the thirteenth and the fact I will pick up a penny I find on the street, heads up or not. However, by saying that, with my voice, I found that I had tempted fate.
Very soon after that verbal hubris, I put together a team for an improv competition and our name was Otis. I got the idea in an elevator. As I used to say, it’s not funny, but it’s true. I even included a friend of mine, Jason, who desperately wanted to be in on the fun, which will become even more ironic a little later.
The day of the competition has arrived and Otis is there, ready to make the funny. Unfortunately, we do not. Not only are we not funny, we seem to be actively unfunny. I cannot recall what went wrong, it’s like an accident, full of twisted metal and broken dreams but I know that’s it my fault.
Whatever cleverness and talent I had evaporated like a dream upon the jagged, sharp rocks of the dawn. I knew I was not funny that night, it was a dour certainty, but I was still the team captain of Otis. When deciding what we do for our next form, I took myself off the list, no need to albatross things further, and turned to my friend Jason to be in the next scene.
He just shook his head. No verbal reply, just a desperate shake, as if I was asking him to wrestle a grizzly bear blindfolded with one arm tied behind his back and holding a fresh salmon in the other. Despite that, we got through the rest of that horrible, soul crushing evening. In case you wondered, we didn’t make it to the next round, this is not that kind of story.
Fate was laughing, even if no one else was.
For the next few months, I was not funny. It was losing one of my senses. I could not get a laugh. This was not a time for sober reflection where I thought deeply about where I was as an improviser and a person of comedy. It was a time of desperation and sadness, which normally is a source of humor, but not at the time. And the stink of my failure was very evident, I was comically broken.
While I can find the humor in this now, tragedy plus time equals comedy or T+T=C, it was impossible to move past then. I needed for someone to believe in me, and that person certainly wasn’t going to be me.
Previous to this horror show, I was in another more humorous show, where I was part of a group scene about Santa’s rejected elves that worked in an annex to the North Pole workshop. This had gone over very well, we were all dysfunctional and misanthropic toymakers.
The director of that show had been asked to put together a sketch for a Christmas show and was adapting that scene. I desperately wanted to be part of that, partially because I wanted to prove that I was still funny but also because I was in the original scene and was annoyed to not be included.
It took quite a bit of cajoling but I got in the sketch and it was funny. After that I was back on track. And all it took was badgering someone to believe in me.
Now, I’m not sure there are comedy or improv gods looking down upon us, but I’ll also not not sure there aren’t, let’s just say I’m agnostic about it, I think that it is arrogant to assume we know or don’t know what is beyond us.
However, I am sure that anytime you think you’ve figured out what’s what, the universe will smack you down. That’s how it works, at least in my experience. But go ahead, say whatever you like, I’m sure nothing will happen. For me, I’m keeping my big mouth shut.