Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be invisible? You probably imagine a scenario like this: you, listening in on your best friend’s conversations, find out what everyone really thinks of you. You are happily surprised to discover that while they think you have a big mouth and cannot be trusted with secrets, they consider you loyal and think you’ve been looking better than ever these days. Okay, slow down. That’s not the kind of benign invisibility I’m talking about.
Have you ever sat with eight to ten of the funniest people you’ve ever met, said something you thought was one of the most hilarious things your brain has ever managed to conjure up, and suddenly felt invisible? Not even like you ceased to exist, more like you never existed in the first place. Pairs of eyes glazing over you as if you were only an empty chair. Or worse, looking right through you, as if you were made of air. Invisible.
That is what happened to me in the writer’s room. More specifically, the writer’s room of a TV comedy show. In 2001, when I just started out working in TV comedy, I worked in one of the most difficult writer’s room there is, Judd Apatow’s, on his show, Undeclared. It was difficult in the way you want a writer’s room to be difficult—everyone was so good at what they did, it was hard to make a dent. It was like sitting at a dinner table surrounded by sharp wits, all day, every day. But I couldn’t sit there silently and pick at my food. This was my job. I was being paid. I was expected to pull my weight.
The range of reactions to my jokes (and everyone else’s) ranged from being invisible to being made fun of mercilessly, so much so, that whatever joke you happened to make became a nickname that could follow you for the rest of your career. (The story isn’t worth retelling here, but I was known as “Cranky Pastrami” for a time during Undeclared.)
Let me just point out the obvious perks: free food, free Red Vines, free soda and candy, free paper and pens (I haven’t paid for a pen in over 15 years.) It is the greatest job in the world, the only downside are the dangers of invisibility or humiliation, as well as mockery for your age, gender, race, religion, etc. I also want to point out that I have no memory of ever having my feelings hurt in the writer’s room over one of my missed attempts at a joke. It was embarrassing on those occasions, maybe, but the environment was never threatening. These people became my best friends.
Eventually, I developed a skin to the humiliation. The moments of being mocked, rejected or just ignored became a positive. It made the skin stronger, until it was an almost armadillo-like shell. Once that skin was there, I could do anything. I could say anything. I was on a suicide mission. Nothing could hurt me.
I contributed my real life story of flying, which became the air marshal story in the movie Bridesmaids (though in my true life tale, the guy was not actually an air marshal.) I went to a joke writing session for the movie Anchorman and was initially in awe. Will Ferrell. Adam McKay. Steve Carell. It was the most intimidating writer’s room I could imagine, but I remembered that I had that skin and that I had built it up for exactly this kind of situation. I don’t remember what I said, but I know I made everyone laugh. It was a career high.
For a while I felt invincible in the writer’s room. My skin was so thick, it was like being on a suicide mission. I could say and do anything without fear of embarrassment or taunting. If anyone tried to mock me, I mocked back (not necessarily my proudest). That skin had reached its maximum strength. It was as I was a knight or an armadillo. Untouchable. Then, things changed. I started work on a new show (new for me anyway, it had been on the air for four seasons by that point). The show was Parks and Recreation. It’s a funny show. I’m a funny writer. I assumed it would be a perfect fit. But Parks and Rec was not my finest hour. I couldn’t click with the show. I pitched jokes that people thought were funny, but almost never right for the episode we were working on. I remember throwing something out there for the main character, which I thought was particularly hilarious and the show runner responded by saying, “That would be amazing . . . if she were out of her fucking mind.”
My carefully developed skin was eroding, and it was all because I had become cocky. Now, that skin thinned down to something akin to an old grape. I thought I no longer had feelings when it came to the writer’s room. But I did. I realized this because now everything seemed to be hurting my feelings. There was a day when everyone ordered individual chicken potpies for lunch. I was out of the room and they forgot about me, so when the potpies showed up and there wasn’t one for me, I actually went into my office and cried. A thick-skinned powerhouse does not cry alone because of a potpie. But I did. My reign was over. Or so I thought. I left the job feeling like I had, for the first time, failed.
Don’t worry. This story has a happy ending. I spent two years away from the writer’s room and wrote my own stuff. I drew cartoons. One was published in The New Yorker. My confidence came back eventually. I now work on the Netflix show Love. It’s a pretty friendly writer’s room. My skin isn’t particularly thick or thin. I’m not cocky, but I feel confident. I have found a middle ground.
Ali Rushfield is a TV comedy writer and producer. She was a writer and co-executive producer of Undeclared and Parks and Recreation and is writer and co-executive producer of the Netflix show, Love.