Splitsider

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

The German and the Robot: My Awkward, Addicting Leap Into Comedy

Twelve years ago, I had just moved to New York City. I came here with a friend from my college sketch group. Her name was Alana and we had big dreams. She got a job walking dogs for a member of the SNL cast, which of course meant that within six months, we’d both be cast members too. Obviously, we quickly realized that it was going to take way longer than six months. It was going to take seven months. We got to work immediately: we took Improv Level 1 at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, went to all kinds of comedy and weird performance art open mics, and observed the scene a bit. Having done that for a month or two, we pretty much figured we knew the deal. You write some material, perform it a few times, get noticed, and bam, you’re discovered. So, we started writing sketches together – stuff we could perform as a duo at open mics. Having had so much success in our college sketch group, we knew that our material was going to blow people’s minds.

The first thing we wrote was a sketch about a robot. I honestly can’t tell you what the hell the sketch was about, but I do remember that I played some kind of crazy German woman who owned a robot, played by Alana. It included lots of references to various robots in pop culture – Johnny 5, Small Wonder, and the like. Really edgy stuff. Now, we knew that if we were gonna impress the industry, we needed to fully commit to the premise. And that meant we needed a top-of-the-line robot costume. For weeks, we made trips to Home Depot, and constructed a robot costume from scratch. This thing looked amazing, but its construction was such that Alana could barely move while in it. No matter; we were fucking serious about comedy.

Finally, we were ready to debut the sketch. We chose an open mic located on Varick Street. It was in some weird venue with a multi-colored stage that lit up. There were lots of colors on the walls too. Thinking back, it may have been a gay night club. Alana insisted on wearing half the costume on the way to the venue, because it was so difficult to put on, and she didn’t want to mess with it too much once we arrived. After spending most of our money on the costume, we opted to ride the subway. She looked like a robot centaur. Human up top, robot down below. I didn’t look much better; I had slicked back my pixie hair cut with greasy gel, and was wearing a black turtleneck and tight black pants. The look was definitely inspired by (and let’s be honest, fully plagiarizing) the SNL “Sprocket” costume. Because that is what German women with robot-money look like. (Duh.) Meanwhile, I was responsible for transporting the robot body and head, also very heavy, in two giant trash bags. I wasn’t strong enough to lift them, so I dragged them. What I’m trying to say is that we looked cool as fuck.

When we arrived to the venue, Alana was almost in tears she was in so much pain from the stiff, metal piping straining her legs. She didn’t want to go inside without being in full costume. She said it was because she didn’t know if there was a bathroom for her to get changed in, but now that I think about it, I think it may have been because she didn’t want anyone to see her face. At some point on that long subway ride from Brooklyn, she realized this was a terrible idea.

Honking traffic whizzed by as we assembled her outfit on the sidewalk. I was so nervous I wanted to throw up. We were snapping at each other trying to get her arms into their tubed sleeves. I tried to focus. I knew that once we started performing and felt the wave of laughter wash over us, we’d be okay and on our way to a long career in show business. All we had to do was get in there and shine. Once she was dressed, I carefully ushered her inside to the performance space. There were about 11 people inside, all comedians, all male. I have zero memory of who these guys were. I’m probably friends with some of them now. They most likely have no memory of that night, or if they do, they have no clue that it was me. But if you are reading this, and you were there that night, please don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. I am much more comfortable assuming all 11 of those guys are dead.

As soon as we walked in, we were met with some snickering laughter and a couple of classic bro-style “Oh shit’s.” Unfazed, I signed us up to perform.

When I think about this now, it’s hard not to cry. A few years after this, if I had seen two girls show up at a show looking like this, I would have probably blushed in embarrassment for them, and in a weak moment, laughed at them behind their backs. I didn’t know what I was walking into. I had yet to learn that high school was far from over, and that cliques, bullying, and massive insecurity permeated every inch of the comedy scene. I had yet to experience the disdain and snobbery of the sophomore stand-ups. In that context, the innocence and seriousness with which we prepared for this moment makes my heart want to burst.

It was our turn to perform. Weeks earlier, we had decided that our sketch group name was “The Administration.” (We’d already taken publicity photos, because that’s how quickly this was gonna move for us. We had to be ready for the press coverage.) We were introduced, and not realizing how long it was going to take Robot Alana to get on stage, we burned at least one minute of our very short time limit just getting into position. Any laughs we got that night were definitely in that first minute. I’m guessing some people were hopeful that we were doing some kind of anti-comedy, and that our entire bit was going to be her trying to move in that costume and me failing to help. That would have been brilliant. But we had a script that needed to be heard, and there was no room to stray from our groundbreaking writing. We stumbled through our lines nervously, and at one point, one of the comics yelled something out at us. I don’t remember what it was – but I do recall one of the other comedians hushing him, clearly because he felt sorry for us. At the time, I didn’t even know what heckling was, much less know how to respond to it. Before coming to New York, the only stand-up I’d seen was on TV, where Rosie O’Donnell illuminated a heckle-free wonderland with a couple of flashlights.

We powered through, and ended our sketch. I remember there being a fair amount of weeping afterwards, Alana from the pain of the costume, and me from feeling like a failure, convinced that all my dreams lay flat-lining on that colorful stage. Somehow though, in the days after, we rallied, and decided to keep trying. I think we performed the robot sketch one more time, at an open mic at Comic Strip Live for an audience of 5 people:

It went pretty much as well as the first time. After that, we scrapped the robot sketch. We were convinced that the problem was the impractical costume, not the writing itself. So we set to writing an hour-long sketch show, which we planned to debut at the UCB theatre immediately. We were convinced, after seeing this one show that we deemed mediocre, that we were just as good, if not better, than the seasoned comedians on its stage. How could they NOT let us perform this masterpiece? Unfortunately, the writing process proved to be extremely difficult. I was working a full time job at a law firm, and she would often be in her pajamas when I came home. I was beginning to resent her freedom and carefree attitude about life in New York. She was so lucky to have some money saved up, and a personal connection to someone on SNL. I had nothing and knew no one. Our friendship began to deteriorate. She was living with me and my boyfriend, and the strain of adjusting to city life ended up being too much. Alana and I parted ways. I was devastated. My plan had vanished before my eyes, and I’d lost a friend in the process. I cried and cried and cried. I didn’t think I could do it alone. I had no idea how to write something by and for myself. My cubicle at my day job started to feel like a coffin.

One night after a long, soul-crushing day at the office, I sat in my apartment, depressed. I had been in New York a little over a year and felt like I’d gotten nowhere. It was right after Christmas, and I was messing with a Casio keyboard my siblings had given me. I was listening to the cheesy canned beats that came with it, when inspiration struck. I decided to write a song about my cubicle. I feverishly wrote it in less than an hour. It was a dark ballad and it ended with me freaking out and figuratively burning down the cubicle. My heart was pounding. I KNEW it was funny. I couldn’t wait to perform it. I had never felt this way. The next day, I got myself booked on a bringer show. (A bringer show is when a comedy club gives you stage time in exchange for you bringing audience members. Usually it’s something like 5 minutes for 5 people. If it sounds like a great way to lose friends, it is!) This particular show was at the New York Comedy Club. New York. Comedy Club! Not Virginia Comedy Club. New York Comedy Club. This was top tier. The big leagues. I invited everyone I knew. I managed to get SEVENTEEN people to come. Because why save any of those people for future bringer shows? This was my big night.

I showed up that night with my song, “Cubie,” on a CD. I was ready to perform along to the track, complete with dance moves. I thought it was odd that New York Comedy Club smelled like dried urine, but there was a painting of Rodney Dangerfield on the wall, so this was for sure THE place to be. When I got on stage, I was so nervous that my knees buckled. I held onto the microphone for dear life. My dance moves disappeared. I just had to sing this thing and get through it without passing out. And then, something magical happened. It killed. I mean, I actually don’t know if it killed killed. But it got LAUGHS. Real laughs. And not just from my friends. From strangers! And comedians! It was that moment when I was bit. I had the comedy bug.

"Cubie" may have been unconventional, and I’m sure I still got laughed at a lot when I showed up to shows with my silly musical comedy. I quickly added a second office-themed song — a spoken word piece about Excel. It ended with me revealing my stomach and performing what’s known as a "Care Bear Stare." (Trust me, if you saw it, it still wouldn’t make any sense.) To perform such a feat, I had to draw a rainbow on my belly with magic markers every time I performed. On top of that, if I showed up to a venue and their CD player didn’t work, I was shit out of luck. I just wouldn’t perform. People must have thought I was insane. But, I didn’t care. I just kept plugging along, using each laugh I got along the way as my fuel. I knew I wasn’t like the other comedians I was seeing, but I hadn’t figured out how to just talk in front of an audience yet. I needed to do something while I was figuring out what it was actually going to take to make it in this business. And, as I’ve learned, at the end of the day, the audience doesn’t care what you’re doing, as long as you’re funny.

It’s been over ten years since then, and I’m currently sitting in my bed, eating Lucky Charms, again uncertain where my future will take me. The parallels between that robot sketch and my little MTV show are not lost on me. In both cases, I dove head first into a world I barely understood, and I gave it my fucking all. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

This was originally posted on Sara's Tumblr, it's reposted here with permission.