Trying Comedy, a Love/Hate Relationship with Improv

The first time I saw Blazing Saddles I was 15 at a boys house and on a pseudo date. He invited me over since I’d never heard of Blazing Saddles before, but I’m pretty sure he was just trying to make an opportunity to touch boob. I wasn’t sure if a 15 year old white girl on the equivalent of a first date was allowed to laugh when Sheriff Bart said, “Hey, where are the white women at?”, but I couldn’t help it. I laughed my ass off. (For the record he did not get to touch boob).

I’ve always loved comedy but never thought to pursue it in any legitimate way. I’ve been told I was funny since I was very young. I know how to throw a one liner into a conversation and make folks laugh. But as a youth I was a shy, self-hating, anxiety ridden wreck. This isn’t exactly suitable to putting yourself out there performance-wise let alone being very good at social interactions. I generally assumed that most people wanted little or nothing to do with me (actually this is something I still have a hard time with). My funny side was reserved for comfortable situations which didn’t happen often or easily.

Eventually I got sick of the way I was living my life and decided to teach myself to be a more social person. It must have worked because apparently today I appear confident and comfortable in situations that used to terrify the ever living f*ck out of me. Eventually I’ll write a book of my secrets, but for now just know it was about 50% over-analyzing everything I did, 20% observation, and 30% booze.

For years now I’ve presented as a confident, charismatic, “If you wanna f*cking do it, then go f*cking do it!” kind of person… but I still didn’t pursue comedy. Comedy was too important to me to risk failing. I didn’t think I was good enough to even try. So I didn’t. I followed comedy adjacent avenues. I made videos for a terrible YouTube channel, took some silly photography, did some quirky writing, etc.

Everything I did was very independent, very in my wheel house, and very dip my toe in the water but not actually risk putting yourself out there or being vulnerable… until about 5 months ago.

Last year, I was in the typical “I’m in my late 20’s/early 30’s and feel directionless” kind of funk. I didn’t have a job and had the rare opportunity to not have to worry about money for a little while, but didn’t know what to do with myself. One of the smartest people I know suggested I pursue an interest as if it were a job. And then told me if I didn’t start doing comedy she’d kick my ass.

So, I decided to take an improv class.

For the record, improv has often left me rolling my eyes. I’d been to a few improv shows and generally found them cringe inducing. It seemed to be a bunch of attention-demanding hacks who relied on goofy faces, yelling, and ridiculous situations to get laughs. “We’re space wizards now! OH NO A GIANT OCTOPUS! Quick use your tongue to lick it back into submission! PAY ATTENTION TO ME! FOR THE LOVE OF FU%!ING CHRIST GIVE ME YOUR APPROVAL!”

Despite pretty much hating the very idea of improv, I had no idea where else to start. I happened to be on the phone with my mom as I was looking up classes and found a place within walking distance of my house. As I talked to her about it I waffled on the idea because, again, improv seemed SO DUMB. But she said I needed to do this, and that she would pay for the damn thing, and to just do it damn it! So, I signed up.

The-New-Movement-Austin
Credit: Leland Ohlinger via Austinnot.com

I started classes at the New Movement theater in downtown Austin last September. It’s a shady looking basement theater but its cozy and divey and right up my alley. The teacher was an excited happy pile of expressive faces and positivity. She did the whole spiel I was expecting, but made sure to emphasize this wasn’t corporate team building style improv. We’d actually be learning about comedy. The first several classes were based a lot around improv games and warm ups, but we dove into creating scenes pretty much immediately. A good looking assistant teacher joined the 2nd or 3rd class which made sticking around that much easier, but there were a few times I seriously thought about quitting.

This is gonna be a long walk, but stick with me. To start, I’ve got boobs and I like to wear dresses. I rarely do the Elvira thing, but yes, cleavage happens. One of the first classes I was in a scene with a dude. When I walked on stage the first thing he did was glance at my cleavage and say, “Welcome to Victoria secret, how may I help you?”. At this point I had a choice. I could spend the next few minutes talking about my breasts and feeling uncomfortable, or I could try my damndest to move the scene in a different direction.

I decided that I was there for my invisible 9 year old daughter who developed super early. The dude went with it and the scene ended up being OK. After we finished the teacher stopped us and said she had to do this every class and that there are certain subject that should always be avoided in comedy, and that pedophilia was never funny. For the record, no one talked about fu*%ing this imaginary child. We just said that this imaginary child had breasts. The next scene hinted at race, it wasn’t racist, but mentioned that race is a thing that exists. After that scene the teacher said a few words about racism and how we should avoid it in scenes. That was almost my last class.

Listen, I get that it was a beginner class. I get that plenty of people cross horrifying lines and that there was a reason she chose to bring that stuff up when she brought it up. But any subject can be funny if it’s done right. Granted, I don’t expect anyone in a level one improv class to be able to do it right, but I also didn’t want to invest myself in a program that was going to tell me comedy is one thing when it really isn’t.

I thought about quitting. But I was having enough fun, it was too late to get a refund, and the assistant teacher was nice to look at so I decided to stick it out. Level one lasted eight weeks. Over that time we lost half the class. We only had five people in the class for our recital. Oh yea, there was a recital. Just like a six year old in a tutu, I had to perform the small amount that I’d learned in front of people. Most of us desperately did not want to do the recital, but it was gonna happen and if you didn’t show up you were leaving whoever did show up to stand on stage alone and wing it.

This was the first time I was going to be on stage since I was eleven, so naturally I started to have anxiety attacks two days before the performance. The night of the recital I had two shots of whiskey before going to the theater. I did a warm up with my class, commiserated with them about how much we didn’t want to do this, then we went on stage. I can’t remember sh*t about what happened specifically, but it wasn’t awful. Don’t get me wrong, it FELT awful, but the crowd laughed a bit and it wasn’t crickets for 20 minutes straight. I’d call that a win.

Malia Moss Improv Artist

I moved on to level 2 and soon thereafter I started interning and seeing comedy shows more frequently. I started meeting a shit ton of people and feeling a lot more comfortable hanging around the theater. I told people about my stage fright and the advice I got was to kill it with exposure. As of now I’ve been on stage about 14 times, 12 of which were in the last 2 months. I’m in a sketch group, where I write sketches and try desperately to act. I’m still unsure about my comedic skill, I still hate being in front of a crowd, and I know I have such a long way to go. But I feel like I’ve found my people. My neurotic, insecure, beautiful, weird, dramatic people.