A COMEDY WRITER’S STORY by Ali Rushfield

A Comedy Writer's Story

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 RushfieldAli 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.  

 

MRS. SPOOK, SPAIN, 1965 by Lillian McCloy

Lillian McCloy

Lillian McCloy was the wife of a deep undercover CIA officer during the Cold War. This is an excerpt from her memoir, Six Car Lengths Behind an Elephant: Undercover & Overwhelmed as a CIA Wife and Mother. Frank in this story is Lillian’s husband.

There were times when Frank needed my help, usually to translate intelligence memos written in Spanish. They could not be translated at the embassy, because there appeared to be no secretaries in the political section who could read and write Spanish. I was unable to help Frank in this way until I had been in Spain for a few years and felt confident about my ability to speak and socialize entirely in Spanish.

Once, there was an intriguing assignment for me. Frank had been meeting with a Spanish-speaking Russian (Boris) who was being highly paid for his information by the CIA. Frank was suspicious that Boris was a double agent, working both sides, as it were, so he asked for my help one evening. The plan was as follows: Boris would have coffee in a small café, taking a seat by the window where Frank could see him. Frank would then drive by the café in a particular Volkswagen. When Boris spotted the car going by, he would walk to a designated corner several blocks away and Frank would pick him up there.

When Boris exited the cafe, I was to walk a discreet distance behind, keeping a keen eye on him. I was to wear a black wig (which I borrowed from a friend “for a costume party”) and an ankle-length brown coat. I would also carry a large, black umbrella, which I would use like a walking stick. If Boris talked to anyone on the street, or made a phone call, I was to open the umbrella to signal Frank. This, of course, was a really sappy piece of drama, in my opinion.

Frank was carrying a German passport and wore a fake mustache and thick glasses, as he did every time he’d met with Boris. When we drove away from our house in the Volkswagen, he said he wasn’t feeling well. I suggested it was just nerves, or perhaps the thick glasses. A few minutes later, Frank shot his head out the window and vomited violently. This was not a good beginning, I thought. Definitely not good.

The cafe where we were to see Boris was on an intimate little street in a residential area. We parked nearby. Frank got out of the car with me and we sat on a bench so he could catch his breath. He threw up again. “Put your head down!” I ordered heartlessly, as though I were annoyed with him. I also ducked my head, thinking one of us might be recognized. I realized I was looking at the puddle of Frank’s upheaval and his mustache was in it. I quickly picked up the mustache and slapped it on Frank’s ashen upper lip, but it wouldn’t stick. Half of it did, but the other half didn’t. It hung down to his chin.

Boris wasn’t by the cafe window yet. I could see a farmacia sign (drug store) across the way, so I bolted across the street, my long brown coat billowing behind me. Mission: adhesive tape. I quickly bought the tape and ran back. Folding the tape over, I was able to jam Frank’s mustache back in place. He was so sick by now that he was trembling. He glanced up and raised his eyebrows. There was Boris in the cafe. Frank stood, staggered over to the Volkswagen and pulled away.

I waited until Boris left the cafe, and then followed at a distance. It was a clear evening, filled with stars; the big, black umbrella was a ludicrous accessory and would look even crazier if I opened it. Boris lit a cigarette and strolled down the street. He spoke to no one. I was not destined to be Mary Poppins tonight. After he got in the Volkswagen with Frank, I hailed a taxi to go home, removing my wig and coat to avoid suspicion when I arrived. The driver seemed to find this only mildly interesting. (We had donned our gay apparel in the garage before we left).

Frank’s plan after picking up Boris was to go to a room in a very large and busy hotel. They would have their discussion there, as they had done on previous occasions. Earlier in the day, after booking the room with his German passport, Frank had rigged a reel-to-reel tape recorder behind the bed. (There was nothing simpler at that time). He later told me that when they got to the hotel room, he was imploding with diarrhea and had to apologize to Boris for his non-stop trips to the bathroom. As he sat on the toilet, he imagined the whir-r-r-r of the tape and the impending doom if it reached an end and began to flap.

There was no way of turning the tape machine off without moving the bed and he was becoming concerned. There was only one thing to do. He had to tell Boris how ill he was and arrange to meet him another time. Luckily, Boris had a written report to give him and didn’t mind rescheduling their discussion. A soon as the door closed behind him, the tape started to flap.

Frank spent the following week in bed with stomach flu and high fever. Shaken, but not stirred.

Lillian McCloyLillian McCloy’s memoir was published just after she turned 90 years old, proving that it’s never too late to become a published author. John le Carré calls the book “a charming and unusual portrait of the secret life.”  Her book is popular with book clubs and gets 5-star reader ratings on Amazon and Goodreads.

Excerpt from SIX CAR LENGTHS BEHIND AN ELEPHANT: UNDERCOVER & OVERWHELMED AS A CIA WIFE AND MOTHER by Lillian McCloy, copyright © 2016 by Johanna McCloy. Used by permission of Bordertown Publishing.  All rights reserved.

ISN’T THAT FABULOUS by Jenna Jolovitz

Isn't that Fabulous Jenna Jolovitz

Fabulous. It’s not a word that comes out of my mouth naturally. Saying it feels alien, like wearing a hairpiece or playing softball.

Fabulous women have long, tousled hair or extremely short bangs. They wear vintage Chanel with jeans and scarves for belts. They throw casually chic dinners and vacation with friends on islands.

I have, however, done what I consider to be some fairly fabulous things in my life. Okay, I’ve been told that some of things I thought were “fabulous” were actually “weird,” and eating a beef rib in the women’s bathroom of Harrods is apparently “gross.” But the following, I believe, qualifies as fabulous. For you see, I went topless. Not just topless, but topless in the south of France. Cannes, to be exact.

So far, so fabulous.

Yes, it was the beach in Cannes, and everybody was doing it. In fact, I would stand out more if I didn’t do it. And even better, I knew no one, and no one knew me. I was completely anonymous.

So I did it. Like a banana, I peeled down the top of my tank suit (Did you really imagine I owned a bikini?) and into the water I went. Quickly.

There I was, topless in the Mediterranean. The tops of my breasts gleaming white like the top halves of two hardboiled eggs. I felt empowered and alive and sensuous. I felt like a woman capable of enticing an attractive Italian man, spending the evening with him, and then making out at dawn before we caught separate trains – without ever learning his last name. For the first time in my life, I was in total possession of my sensuous femininity. Electric. Powerful. I was a Jackie Collins heroine. Then, from very nearby, I heard:

“You go to Duke, don’t you?”

As it happens, I did.

Lowering myself a little further in the water, I turned to see a young man, my age, right next to me.

“We’ve met. I’m Brad Lastname’s roommate.”

Brad Lastname was a friend at school. He briefly had an unrequited crush on me before graduating, winning a great deal of money in the lottery and posting extensively on Facebook. And there his roommate happened to be: that particular day, in Europe, in the South of France, in Cannes, in the water right next to me, as I went topless.

What are the odds?

“Oh yeah, hi.”

“So, you are studying abroad?”

“Yup.”

A typical, banal conversation except for the fact that under the water, my breasts were exposed and we both knew it. That knowledge could have given our conversation a sexual charge.

“You have a Eurail pass?”

“I do.”

“The two-month one?”

“No, the one month. You can’t use it in England. That’s the BritRail pass.”

Do I need to say we didn’t make out? When he left, I pulled up my top, and left the water. Nature, or a higher power was sending me a crystal clear message.

Stop doing that.

What else was I supposed to think? To me, the lesson was laid out before me, Nathaniel Hawthorne-style. I was Hester Prynne, only there was no place to sew my “A.”

I’d like to say that since that experience I’ve found the self-love and acceptance I need to express my own uniqueness and use the word fabulous about myself without extending the “a” way too long in a deep voice. But I can’t.

I am not, nor will I ever be fabulous.

But I learned that it’s not what women wear, or do, that makes them fabulous. It’s not joining or following or copying anyone else. It’s that they dare to express their true selves — from the inside out, for all to see. They carry themselves with a confidence and boldness that no roommate of Brad Lastname could ever shake. That’s what we all find so fascinating.

And they do it in their home countries.

Age has allowed me to appreciate the fact that I am not the norm. I make instant pudding with half the milk, because I like the mortar-like texture. My hand gestures don’t illuminate what I say. And I get way too way too much joy from the $1 Ikea breakfast to be truly mainstream.

I am authentic. Isn’t that fabulous?

Jenna JolovitzJenna is a freelance writer and an alum of Second City in Chicago where she wrote and performed shows alongside Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, and others. She has been on the writing staff of such shows as MADtv, That ’80s Show, Steve Martin’s The Downer Channel and King of Queens, as well as a guest writer on Saturday Night Live. Jenna has also written an upcoming comedy feature, The Flaming Jerk.

PLAYING THE CANCER CARD by Simon Chaitowitz

Simon Chaitowitz

Some clouds have some surprisingly useful silver linings. Cancer, for example.

No, I’m not one of those cheery and “oh so brave” sick people who thinks that cancer made me a better person or helped me find my true self. I hate cancer. I’m pissed I got it the first time and even more mad I got it a second time (an unfortunate little side effect of treatment from the first one).

So no, I’m not into pretending that cancer isn’t horrible. But the Big C does have one little perk that doesn’t get publicized much. And I’d like to make sure that no cancer “survivors” guilt-trip themselves out of using it. (Like yours truly, until recently.)

What I’m talking about is taking advantage of any possible opportunity you have to do what you want and not do what you don’t want. For example, if you’re immune suppressed, the doctors tell you to quit cleaning litter boxes, changing diapers, taking out the garbage, or weeding gardens (yes, yes, yes, and yes!) but there are tons more Get Out of Jail Free Cards just waiting to be picked up.

In other words, don’t feel shy about using cancer to your own ends — whether that’s making your life better, furthering your cause, or just helping yourself get through the day. I call it Playing the Cancer Card. Kristin Boles, a cancer listserv mate, says she and herhusband call it the Fringe Benefits of Cancer.

Here are just a few examples. All are either based on my experiences or those of other cancer survivors:

* Get out of a parking ticket. Write a nice letter to the city explaining how you were rushing to your CANCER appointment when you noticed the meter you chose wasn’t working. Voila! Fee waived.

* Talk your way into meetings with secretaries of state and the prime minister. Adrian Sudbury, an advocate for bone marrow donation inEngland, says his disease regularly opens doors for him. Brilliant.

* Skip long, boring events. No need to feel obligated to attend that dreaded yearly family reunion if you don’t enjoy it. You need your rest, after all. But if you find yourself at the event, and just can’t take it anymore, no worries. No one will take your departure personally.

* Get discounts at nice hotels. No kidding. The last time I went out of town for a check-up, I found out that one of my favorite hotels offered a 20 percent discount to guests visiting the nearby clinics. Easier to justify luxury with that kind of savings.

* See your words in print. If there’s one phrase that virtually guarantees you’ll make it onto the Letters to the Editor page, it’s “As a cancer survivor, I feel … .” Nearly every letter I’ve started like that has been published. The Letters page is a great place to share your ideas about doctors, the pharmaceutical industry, or anything else related to cancer.  (Of course, if you’re already famous, you can probably use cancer to get yourself on Larry King.)

Those of us who are immune-suppressed have even more built-in excuses. One woman just told me she talked her way into the use of an indoor bathroom at a summer festival where everyone else had to use the portable toilets. Two points for creativity and boldness! (Disclosure: I’m still sometimes too chicken to ask to be the first on the buffet line.)

Those of us who are genetically disposed to guilt complexes may have an extra hard time following this advice. But trust me.

When life hands you cancer, this is your chance to eat dessert first, stop shaving your legs, switch to part-time work, or get out of jury duty. Whatever you want, whenever you want it. Go for it.

Simon ChaitowitzSimon Chaitowitz was a writer and two-time cancer survivor living and working in Washington, D.C. As much as she disliked the word “survivor,” she admitted it could be useful.  Simon passed away in 2009, less than one year after contributing this story to Dare to be Fabulous. She died from a blood disorder caused by the treatment she underwent for breast cancer.

SOMETIMES IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS by Sara Arason

Sometimes it's the Little Things

I am a child of the ’50s, which puts me in my 60s. I am lucky to have had a shot at several careers-and I’ve had a blast at all of them. After college, I worked my way from the selling floor to the buying office in a department store. After that I was a Russian linguist for the National Security Agency. From there, I moved to a small division of the Library of Congress as a Soviet Specialist. I’ve been in the Library for almost 25 years now. Early in my career there, I completed a two-year degree (night courses) in computer science and moved into IT, administrative, and project management work. Writing this down, I feel like I “dared to be fabulous” in my willingness to try new careers. But that’s a big thing. I’m talking about a small thing today.

I “blame” the ’50s view of women for my steadfast belief, lo these many years, that part of my job is to be accommodating to everyone else’s needs and schedules. Until recently, if someone wanted to have a meeting or needed something done, I would change my leave plans, doctor appointments, lunch dates, etc., to be available.

That is, until I discovered “The Manicure.”

Several years ago, a friend of mine became legally blind from macular degeneration. Although she has some sight, she is unable to do things like her nails or eyebrows. I started having an occasional manicure with her, in lieu of lunch, just to spend some catch-up time. I have never been too concerned about my nails in the past outside of making sure that they’re clean and somewhat well-shaped but, after a few manicures, I found that I positively LOVE having my nails done. This is a two-fold “having my nails done”: I love the act of having my nails done and I love the results of the act.

My manicures were sporadic at the beginning, always at the mercy of someone else’s schedule at work. One day, though, it occurred to me that what I want might matter. What makes ME happy might be important, worthwhile, acceptable, or, at least, OK. So, with more than a bit of trepidation, I refused to schedule a meeting that would have forced me to cancel my manicure. On top of that, I told everyone-including my boss-that the reason I could not come to the meeting in question was because I had an appointment for a manicure and, in fact, I had a manicure every Friday!! Faces blanked, faces blanched, brows were raised, furtive looks passed between the interested parties, but nothing was said and the meeting was scheduled for another time.

And the sun rose and set as scheduled as the world continued to spin on its axis-

And my nails looked great.

Since “Freedom” Friday–the day I chose to do something for myself for no other reason than to make myself happy, my “Kyoto Pearl”-ed nails remind me that I am not merely a circling spoke in a great bureaucratic wheel. I am a real person, a woman, and a fabulous woman at that.

Besides her Library of Congress career, Sara, or Sally, as her friends and family call her. is an accomplished singer, having performed as leads in operas such as Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. She also sang The National Anthem for a Washington Redskins game. As a season-ticket holder, that felt utterly fabulous. Sally has also spent a lifetime rescuing homeless and suffering cats and dogs.