A comedy writer talks about competition, courage, and the perks of spending time in a graveyard.
Hellen lives in the apartment that everyone should have when they first move to New York. It’s a sixth floor walkup, which makes you earn your right to be there.
The main room is spacious, but Hellen’s room is justly miniature. It’s furnished with a bed, a bike, and a postage stamp-sized desk that holds a stack of books and a hot plate. Her window looks out across the steaming rooftops to Gowanus Bay and the Verrazano Bridge. Filmy afternoon light filters through the cloud layer to reflect off the pale grey walls.
Over her pillow hangs a collage of photographs, postcards, and a hand-scrawled note that reads:
Hellen works in the back office of a consignment shop, one of the same chain of stores that she worked when she lived in San Diego. She moved there with her boyfriend when he went to get a graduate degree in poetry.
Most people love San Diego–especially those who, like Hellen, move there from Arizona. Hellen hated it there, though at this remove, it’s hard for her to remember specifically what she hated. She thought she was getting through it all right. Then, one night, while they were eating at their favorite Thai restaurant in Hillcrest, Hellen began to put her hair up and saw her boyfriend’s eyes get big. Underneath her sandy blonde hair was an entire layer of grey.
“I’d had anxiety and depression issues in the past, but this was totally different. It was like an urgency of…”
Her voice drops to a whisper, desperate like a stage manager’s.
“This isn’t right!”
When we meet each other at her apartment, Hellen strikes me as having several features that single her out among other New Yorkers, transplant or otherwise. Her smile is warm, her eyes are bright, and her voice is hushed as a librarian’s. Her laugh is sincere, but querulous, as if she’s worried that someone is going to scold her for it.
She tells me that she was an anxious kid, growing up–quiet in school, inwardly focused, and “a very boyfriend kind of girl.”
“I was able to think about someone else very closely, and…I mean, there’s a factor of ‘someone else likes me–I’m okay.’ You know. ‘I must be doing something right.’ I think I was pretty dependent on them, emotionally.
“Looking back, it’s weird to me, because I always wanted to do my own thing, and I think I had a pretty good idea of who I was, and always wanted to do something in comedy.”
Hellen’s dad brought her up to revere the legends of sketch comedy. She remembers watching Monty Python and Saturday Night Live, and being sold on it as more than just entertainment–“Like, ‘I don’t see what else matters, other than that. That just makes me feel so good. I want to do something like that.'”
By high school, Hellen could admit to people that she wanted to work in comedy. Her talent for writing invited the assumption that she wanted to write for a sitcom or a late night show. She never mentioned that she’d like to perform. But in college, after declaring English as her major, she joined the school improv troupe.
As one of the only girls in the group, Hellen found herself consigned to the role of crazy mom or crazy girlfriend. She kept working on her writing, but couldn’t lcok into a formula that worked for her. And itwasn’t in improv…that’s not the form that she idealizes.
In her second year, wearied with a surfeit of blowjob skits, she left the group.
“I don’t really connect with improv; it just doesn’t do it for me. I can appreciate people who are good at it. I remember one of my favorite people in college, he wasn’t even in theatre or anything. Like he wasn’t going to do that for his whole life. I think he’s in New York–in fashion, or something. Totally not comedy. But he was the best one at it, you know?”
But for Hellen, the ideal form of comedy happens when great performers build their performance around great material. Even after quitting the school comedy troupe, she kept writing sketches. While she was living in San Diego, she read up on the careers of her favorite comedians, many of whom had started with the Upright Citizens’ Brigade.
When the incident with the discovery of her grey hair showed up, Hellen realized that the feelings she’d been having were more serious than mere bad feelings. Rather than go to the doctor, or go back to Tucson, she got on a plane and moved to New York City.
She remembers her first day in the city as kind of a blur. It was the end of July, a time of year in New York when the heat makes people even more irritable than usual, and the streets simmer like a nuclear power plant. Despite the heat, Hellen’s friend Casey, a student at Parsons, kept her outside and moving around all day.
“I don’t know if she did that on purpose, but I’m so grateful she did. It was nice to be out, among people, and not let myself think about what I just did.”
She got a sublet in Bushwick, found a day job, and signed up for classes at the UCB theatre on 6th Avenue in Chelsea.
“I had little pangs of ‘I want to sit down and cry,’ but I just didn’t. It was like something my brain knew–I had to make it work. This was where I was going to figure out how to be happy, if anywhere. I guess I kind of put myself in a corner. I didn’t let the weaker parts of me have any option.”
She laughs again.
“It sounds kind of dramatic.”
For a place that bills itself as the birthplace of alternative comedy, UCB is surprisingly establishment. You have to rise through levels of writing classes; each costs $395 and lasts about eight weeks. Perhaps it’s a way of weeding out the dilettantes, of whom Hellen met plenty in her Level 1 class.
“I’m pretty competitive and quick to size everyone up. Like ‘I think I’m funnier than you, I think I have better taste than you.’ I’m not proud of that, but that’s definitely what’s in my brain. And the first class I was so nervous to go, because I’d been looking up to this school for so long, and I went and I felt like I was one of maybe two people who knew comedy really well. A lot of people were like ‘Oh, Jim Carrey’s really funny.’ And I’m not saying he’s not, but I feel like the comedy nerds I was hoping to find would have a little bit more scope than just Jim Carrey or something.”
It should be noted that in the alternative comedy scene–which, it should also be noted, is the current zeitgeist–“nerd” is a term of respect. It indicates someone with exhaustive knowledge of who’s around, who’s done, whose schtick is whose, and why it’s funny. On the social ladder, it falls somewhere between being a hipster and a Trekkie. The crucial component in alternative comedy seems to be self-consciousness, which is why Louis CK’s success doesn’t keep him from being considered alt, and Bill Burr’s command of the podcast isn’t enough to bring him in.
By the third level of classes, though, for which you have to get approved for entry, Hellen found her people. She also found an advocate in her teacher, Brendan Bassum, who has been encouraging her to submit work for the Mod Teams, the next level of classes that includes performing as well as writing.
“I submitted last time and I didn’t get in. [She fakes a sniffle.] That’s okay! [She laughs.] They don’t really announce when they’re going to have submissions. There’s message boards…you have to pay attention.
“My teacher was like ‘Hellen, you need to do that, you should go do that.’ I didn’t really feel like I was ready. I had a couple sketches that I felt solid about, but I wanted to have three really good ones. I plan on submitting again.”
In the meantime, Hellen does her writing on the train, or in moments stolen during her workday. Given her personal emphasis on material, I asked her whether she finds herself writing often about anything in particular.
“Um, I’m smiling because I do. For my last class, the new Mod Team, we had to put on a show at that theatre in Chelsea. Both of my sketches that I got into the show were about depression.”
Hellen laughs, and I can’t tell if it’s embarrassment or pride. She submitted several sketches for the show; those were the ones her teacher chose. The one she remembers best involved two guys buying “depression workbooks” from the grocery store checkout, and following a series of exercises that are supposed to eliminate depression from their lives.
“I guess I was trying to point out that it’s funny that people act like they could just”–she adopts a radio announcer’s voice– “‘get rid of depression!’ To me, I think it’s really funny that people act like they can disregard or ignore when awful things happen. That that’s wholesome, American, family values.”
The thing that’s funny about depression for her is that, fundamentally, it’s not supposed to be funny. That people don’t want to talk about it. And it’s a different way of approaching it, she says, from club comics pointing fingers in faces, shouting “You can’t handle the truth!” That kind of humor, the uncomfortable laugh delivered at fingerpoint, seems too aggressive and macho. There’s more finesse in making a helpless situation into something that’s funny by simply letting it be absurd.
“I’ve always liked comedy and humor for the fact that it simultaneously can take away power from something that’s awful, and acknowledge it, and kind of points at it, and you can’t ignore it.
“But, at the same time, you get to laugh, and feel good just from laughing about it.
“Which I think it ultimately comes down to like getting at the truth of something.
“I’ve definitely thought about that, you know, especially with my job. I’ll get frustrated, with my bosses or just some sort of communication, and I’m always thinking ‘I’d so much rather laugh about this and not make it significant, as opposed to getting angry, which takes up my energy and my time, and my brain’s not able to focus on things I care about.”
The UCB show only brought in 15 people, but she could hear them laughing during her skit. Hellen’s teacher told her afterward that she needed to go out for the next level class. The problem with that is that the class requires an audition, as well as a packet of material, to be submitted and judged before you can take the class. (Which is kind of ironic, given UCB’s position as a breeding ground for alt comedy.)
Part of Hellen’s hangup is that she wants her pieces to be perfect. Her drive to be the best isn’t obvious, to most people. But it hit her even from her first upper-level class at UCB. Glad as she was to get out of the early stages, where people answered comedy questions with “I like Jim Carrey,” finding other comedy nerds like herself inspired a competitive streak that she hadn’t had to deal with in the past.
The other problem is that she gets stage fright. The reason is a mystery, even to her. It’s not a fear of choking, or forgetting her lines, or even of not getting a laugh. After a moment, she surmises that the fear comes from this idea:
“Just like they wouldn’t understand at all what I’m saying.”
It’s been a little over a year since Hellen moved to New York. She has moved three times. She works six days a week, and spends nearly half again as much time commuting back and forth. Her best friend in Tucson just had a baby. Even though her boyfriend recently joined her in the city, but that only makes her feel more iffy about the idea of staying long-term, when she thinks ahead to the possibility of having a family so far from her own family.
“No one lives here!” She half gasps. “People our age are in and out, here for a few years. And the fantasy of New York has definitely slipped away.”
I ask her what that fantasy is. She giggles, and this time it’s not at all querulous. It sounds unrepressed and infectious, like a child being tickled.
“That it’s just fun all the time to live here, I guess? That you’ll have your own little apartment and it’ll be nice and you’ll buy flowers. That you’re not going to hate your job too much, or if you do, it’s going to be funny. I hate to bring up ‘Friends,’ but that’s what I’m thinking of.”
When it gets too frustrating, no matter how long work has gone or how tired she is, Hellen goes to a comedy show. She likes the Big Terrific show in Williamsburg–it helps to remind her of why she moved here. But she hasn’t yet gotten up the nerve to sign up for an open mic slot.
When there’s nothing playing, Hellen goes around the side of her building to visit Greenwood Cemetery.
“I guess it’s kind of creepy, but it’s a beautiful place. There’s a degree of respect there.”
In the words of one of our favorite podcasters, I ask, “What’s the dream?” Hellen thinks a long time before answering.
“To be able to say that I work in comedy, and that I’m a writer. To not have to make money doing something that I don’t enjoy or get anything out of. I want to be a comedian.”
She looks wistful, and wry, at the same time.
“I have a hard time saying that, and people thinking that you want to be Louis CK! I can’t do that. I just want to be funny, I guess.”