Yesterday morning I woke up early at the Phoenix hotel feeling like I needed to exercise. Spending a lot of time sitting in a car can make you feel like all the fat in your body is just slowly coagulating in your butt/ hips area — which may make you good for child-bearing, but it doesn’t feel great when you’re walking around. So I went down to the antiquated second floor of this creaky old hotel and hopped on the treadmill, and turned on excellent early-morning TBS.
“The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” was on, which is the perfect workout show, because Will Smith had such natural pep at that age. The episode was about how Will goes to Princeton on a whim to do a spur-of-the-moment college entrance interview. The interviewer loves him and his unique way of looking at the world. Charleston grows distraught: he can’t believe Princeton would want someone like Will, and he gets pretty freaked out, because he is NOTHING like Will, and if he doesn’t get into Princeton, he’ll just DIE. (Higher education is a big deal in sitcom world.) So when Charleston goes in for his own interview, he pretends to be as much like Will as possible (it's hilarious). Much to his surprise (but to the surprise of no one else), the interviewer hates fake Charleston and kicks him out. Then Charleston threatens him with death. There are lots of parts in this episode where Charleston dances, which obviously really brought me back.
The moral of the story here is that college interviewers like it when you are just exactly yourself. And that Charleston will dance, even if he is sad. All important lessons to carry. We got on the road shortly after, and drove through the most startling landscape the earth has to give up.
I rode in the front with Rob, while Chris and Brock did “business stuff” in the back. We talked about teaching, special education, art, creativity, loss, comedy, the like. Basically, we engaged in the sort of conversation you desperately hope will happen when you set out on a long road trip. You want the talk to feel effortless and go out on branches. The best is when you’re an hour into a topic and you forget what your initial point was, because you’ve gotten so buried in the dialogue.
What was interesting about this particular conversation string was that Rob and I toured together two years ago, and we didn’t really have those talks that time. I didn’t think much of it, honestly; I figured it was probably because we were sitting in the front seat together, and last time I was more careful not to sit in the front seat. Like, maybe the front seat was where all the serious talks of the universe take place or something.
The show was late getting started last night, so we took a little constitutional around the residential outskirts of San Diego. We found a park where there were nine or ten different sports games taking place; lots of kids eating popsicles and houses made of stucco and cats hiding behind tall cacti. On the walk, Rob told me he was surprised that we’d been able to talk about so much serious stuff this time around. He said I seemed like a different person.
And when I thought about it, that made sense. I remembered leaving for the trip two years ago feeling like there was nothing I wanted more than for Rob and Chris and Vanessa to like me. I remember trying to make small talk and be personable. I remember lying awake nights after shows obsessing over the inside jokes the three of them had come up with, wondering how I could somehow manufacture a big laugh in the car the next day. These were three people I considered very funny and talented, and I wanted SO BADLY for them to consider ME funny and talented. Ridiculously, I decided they would not like me for the quiet, serious person I can be when I am most myself. I decided I would have to be always positive, accommodating, and delightfully quirky. I tried so hard.
The tour last time was wonderful: I grew tremendously as a performer. I grew to look up to Rob, Chris, and Vanessa even more than I had before we left. I learned what I love most about cities, and I got better about writing every day. But I didn’t leave that tour feeling like I had really made crazy-deep connections with anyone. I didn’t feel like I had ever been myself, to tell you the truth, and while Fake Sophie had been accepted, she wasn’t terribly memorable.
I have learned that this is true in comedy, too. I used to do a character when I went up to do stand-up: this cynical, sad girl, completely unaware of her own sense of humor. The character occasionally made people laugh, but usually I think people just felt sorry for her. When I started telling the same jokes in my own voice, I watched people begin to trust me. People were willing to listen for longer, and take in full stories rather than quick-pleasing one-liners. Within the six months, I’ve started doing material that really matters to me. I’ve started telling jokes about abortions, rape, feminism, racism, teaching, politics. Maybe it's no surprise to you that those jokes usually perform better than any of my more strategic ones. People can tell when you care about something. Princeton College interviewers are not the only people who want you to be yourself.
Honesty can be scary, because if people don’t like you as you are, then what else is there? You’ve become vulnerable. But I think I've come to understand that if people don't like you just as you are when you are most yourself, it says a lot more about them than it does about you. Right now I'm sitting in a little bookshop in Los Angeles, reading cynical essays about politics and listening to Bill Hallahan. This is what I want to do, and I feel comfortable saying so. When people know that you are taking care of yourself, they trust you more. They don't have to worry that you're just saying something to be accommodating. They begin to genuinely want you around.
If only I had figured this out ten years ago. Maybe I could've gone to Princeton.