I started my comedy career at 19—the year I joined my college’s improv group. Before that, I’d never been onstage. Unless of course you count my star turn in my fourth grade class’ production of In Quest Of Columbus. That’s right, I played Christopher fucking Columbus. But I wasn’t an art kid.
I was a jock—a clumsy three-sport athlete who wasn’t great at sports, but could make the team laugh. Clumsy because of a lazy eye and funny as a way to distract people from the eyepatch I wore for eight years of my childhood to correct it. I learned that if I could make people laugh with me, not at me, they didn’t care if I was great at sports. They’d elect me team captain anyway.
I can swim, but I’m not an amazing swimmer. Still, I ended up captain of my high school swim team—mainly because of a recurring prank I’d pull on my coach. I’d sneak out of every practice and take an hour-long shower instead of doing laps, then slide into the water and finish the last laps at full speed. I can’t explain exactly why this was funny at the time, because now it only sounds obnoxious, but it was. My coach yelled at me for this daily. The other swimmers loved it so much, they elected me captain.
I was a sophomore in college when a friend suggested I audition for our school’s improv group. I have no idea why her simple suggestion worked on me. She held up the audition flyer and said something like, “Hey, you’re hilarious. Go to this!” And I was like, “Okay, yeah, maybe I am hilarious. I do know this really sweet swim prank!” Regardless of why, I went, and I went right from practice.
I had stopped swimming and now played on my school’s rugby team, naturally, and this was before I was even aware of my giant homosexuality. I had a boyfriend to go to movies with and a whole team of women to tackle and make laugh (mostly to tackle). I went to the improv auditions straight from practice, with mud all over the side of my head and literally wearing cleats. I remember doing some sort of squid impression that was a real hit, and I remember finding out I’d made it in later that night. I was overjoyed.
I went to school in Boston, where college improv groups flow like suggestions from a very responsive audience. It wasn’t particularly unusual that I’d be part of one, but this particular group at this particular college has a very specific claim to fame: It’s also where Amy Poehler began her comedy career.
Amy’s about 10 years older than me, so when I began with the group, the Upright Citizens Brigade sketch show had already been on Comedy Central, Wet Hot American Summer was being released, and Amy was beginning to gain attention as a much talked about player on Saturday Night Live. I knew she’d been in the group when I auditioned. We talked about her almost daily once I joined. Even on days we didn’t talk about her, she was there—on television, on our minds—actual proof that one could spend a few years affecting an awful Jamaican accent (I’m sure Amy’s Jamaican accent is just fine) in scenes or hopping around the stage as a “Human Tater Tot” and then actually make a living doing comedy. She was the first person I felt vaguely connected with who had a real comedy career, and I knew she had started just like me.
The connection was vague—mostly conversation about SNL sketches and viewing parties for Upright Citizens Brigade DVDs—until Amy came to campus to receive an award the year after I graduated. The university was honoring her for artistic achievement, and asked that she perform with the current members of the group. Though I had graduated the year prior, I still lived down the street, and planned to attend the events just for the chance to see her live.
By that time, I was working at both of Boston’s professional improv theaters. I’d auditioned for one the day after my graduation, made it into the company, and then a few months later, auditioned for the other, making it in there, too. I was 22, doing six professional shows a week, and I’d never taken an improv class. In my mind, I’d be Amy Poehler-level in about a year. Then I saw her perform.
During the show with our improv group, Amy was present and captivating, improvising with college students she’d never met under some tent put up on the quad. She made it seem easy, and perhaps more impressively, she made it seem fun. Later on, at the dinner, Amy went up to accept her plaque and give a short speech.
The moment she began to speak, a cell phone went off in room. She didn’t miss a beat. She picked up the plaque she’d just been handed, held it to her ear like a phone and answered it. “Hello? No, I can’t talk now. I’m at a thing. I’ll call you back.” She answered the plaque she was receiving. It was a perfect, immediate, improvised joke for a room of priests, former professors of hers, and teenaged improvisers sweating through their shirts just to be in the same room with her.
I got to shake her hand for just a moment later that night—I think I tried to chat with her about her sneakers—but a decade later, it’s that plaque-answering moment I still think on all the time. I think about Amy making a perfect joke when she wasn’t expected to make any jokes at all, and how much that meant to the people in that room. I think about how much we all lost our minds at that joke, how proud it made us that we were to be even tangentially in her orbit.
That might have been the first time I realized why anyone would choose a career in comedy—because you have to. There’s a compulsion to entertain—to make the perfect joke when there are no cameras. That’s something I’ve felt my entire life, I just didn’t understand until maybe that moment what that feeling might mean. That’s the moment that taught me you don’t become a professional swimmer out of a compulsion to crack poolside pranks. You become a professional comic because you have this compulsion and you hope to someday make pool money.
That dinner happened a decade ago. A decade later, I run the only weekly stand-up show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles—a theater where Amy is a founding member. I haven’t yet found my Weekend Update, but I have found a career in comedy. I write, I tour, I perform. Sometimes, I’m on television.
In the years since feeling that first connection to Amy, I have watched many close friends find their careers in this field. I’ve cheered pals on as they landed jobs beyond what they probably thought possible, and I’ve experienced my own forward movement with frustration, excitement, and disbelief. The spoiled idiot part of me didn’t realize a career in comedy would be this much of a job; the clumsy-jock part of me didn’t realize comedy could be a career.
Until Amy. So, thanks, Amy Poehler. We don’t know each other yet, but probably someday we will. I promise to never tell you that you-answered-a-plaque story to your face, or to try to engage you in a short-form improv game. We’ll just meet in passing and talk about your cool theater or sneakers or whatever.
And to the current members of My Mother’s Fleabag, Boston College’s best and only short-form improv group: A decade ago, I was where you are. I’m not Amy Poehler-level yet, because that’s boss level. I’ve got a few more Koopas to get through to get to Bowser. But I have a less-than-shitty apartment; three pairs of really nice, expensive leather boots; and a career in comedy. Come get yours.