If you are a writer, and you have time to kill, you will get the nagging idea that you ought to take enrichment classes. You will get the idea that you ought to take such classes for some kind of writing you have not done yet, so that you may become more creative and versatile. You will enjoy this picture of yourself, in which you are going around telling people: “I am now more creative. And versatile.”
As your dementia approaches end stage, you will barge heedlessly into a course registration website. You will drop three hundred bucks there. Like I did.
In early January, I announced on Facebook that I was taking a comedy-writing class. Twenty-five people “liked” my status, in which I had also typed something lofty about connecting satire and social change. It was the most overwhelming social media response I had ever received. It convinced me I was a great man, doing great things.
So I boarded the train to Chicago, where the comedy training center is located, with enthusiasm. Yet I also struggled with the sense of disconnect I experience whenever I embark upon randomly-chosen, out-of-character endeavors.
On the train, I ran into an older guy I knew from a Pax Christi meet-up group. I asked if he was going to work, as his Blackhawks scarf suggested. (He is a concessions vendor. His livelihood depends on just how drunk and nacho-engorged the fans seek to become at a wide variety of Chicago sports venues.)
As it happened, it was indeed a work night. He then asked what I was doing, and I told him. He nodded with an unblinking stare. He observed:
“Yeah, we had something like that over by Wrigleyville. We’d go there. But then the neighborhood changed. So it closed down.”
In retrospect, I think he confused “comedy class” with “comedy club.”
At any rate, here the topic died. It just seemed too tiring for either of us to think of anything additional to say about it. After a pause, we discussed windchill warnings until the conductor called Randolph and Michigan.
It proved to be an omen.
One more train and a sandwich later, I was in Old Town. The parts I’ve seen, however, are more like Ikea Town, or Crate and Barrel Town. I picked my way over compressed dirty snow to a shopping mall, where the training center and its associated theater are located.
Signs and traffic flow directed me up a series of escalators, to the fourth floor. There I met a few employees. They told me to go all the way back down the escalators to the first floor.
They said I should either request pointers from the security guard, who as it happened was talking on a phone and did not wish to be bothered, or watch for a hard-to-find door. When I had a hard time finding the hard-to-find door, I knew I was finally in the right place. And thus I stepped over the threshold of Room 106, for Writing 1, at a quarter to seven.
I was one of about three people. All of us were nervous and not speaking. When three became five, we began to crack bad jokes at half-minute intervals.
This is the first test, we said. Write what you see. Ha ha.
The room topped off at nineteen students, all in their twenties and thirties, a plurality of them attired as hipsters. Across from me was a woman who looked exactly like Sarah Silverman. Except she had a dark, brooding, closemouthed quality, which was pointedly un-Silverman.
To my right: a guy who wore tight leather pants, tight leather everything. On my left: a gentleman who would spend the class bending down, chuckling into his cupped hands, whenever anybody else in the room spoke about anything at all.
The teacher, who arrived a couple minutes late, was a genial middle-aged fellow in a wool cap. He distinguished himself in that he was the first person in the room that evening to use the word “fuck.” Many of us thereafter followed suit.
Our first assignment was to partner off and interview each other. We’d get as much information as we could in five minutes about who we were, what we did, and why we were there. Then we had to present it. The guy in the leather pants turned toward me, and I toward him.
It came out that I was a writer. He asked what I wrote about. Suddenly feeling very Midwestern and out of place, I admitted I wrote about the Catholic Church.
“Oh, so you already have a lot of experience writing comedy,” he said.
When he asked what I wanted out of the class, I realized my satire-and-social-change spiel from Facebook would just make me look even more naive than I already did. So I merely allowed as to how I needed something to do at night. When in doubt, be colorless.
As people presented their interviews, what emerged was a motley crew of Loop desk jockeys who wanted to cut loose by doing sitcom scripts, even though this was basically Comp 101 for sketch-writing, which was different. There was also a large, non-overlapping constituency who were actors and stage techs. One guy, a lean, shaggy-haired woman magnet in distressed plaid flannel, had driven ninety minutes from his undergrad theater program in Milwaukee. These folks had serious aesthetic and professional interests in comics like Louis C.K. All this I should have anticipated: open enrollment just meant that I could register, not that I could belong.
I did develop an insta-crush on a woman who combined acting with managing a seven-acre organic farm, because organic farm. I also felt kinship with two others whose day jobs focused on immigrant justice, one at a law firm, the other at a nonprofit.
But overall, I realized I had tripped into an alien, parallel universe.
Our introductions made, we were now to write for ten minutes, without stopping, about anything. A breeze. I had a blog post that had already composed itself in my head on the way here. But after that came the patio. And the patio is what did me in.
We had to envision a furnished patio and describe it in detail, again for ten minutes. Those who desired critiques of their patios would then read their descriptions aloud. In light of the critiques, we’d describe our patios once more, then somebody’s favorite chair on our patio, and finally that person sitting in their favorite chair on our patio.
Basic, necessary warm-ups. You have to walk before you can run. And I picked up the point real quick. Like I said, this was intro to sketch-writing, and when you’re writing for stage, you’re supposed to “show,” not “tell.” That is, you should prefer “chattering guests clinked their champagne flutes near the curlicue-frosted white cake” to “there’s a wedding here.”
Yet I found myself impatient, even boiling. I soon developed a spontaneous, unreasoning, ex nihilo hatred of all things patio: patio furniture, patio lighting, celebrations on patios, the works. Evangelicals would say I had a “spirit of rebellion.”
While scribbling, I periodically departed from my barren musings (“The patio is facing the woods…the patio is concrete…the patio is next to the deck”) to insert bracketed color commentary:
There are, there are, there are, there are, there are…what are there?
This. is. a. fucking. still. life.
…everything gets rained on.
This thing is terrible. I hate this patio. I want this patio to bleed and suffer.
[squiggle squiggle squiggle]
People in other folks’ examples sure smoke a lot.
It was true. My confreres painted astonishing, richly-dappled patio portraits that, in most cases, included half-expended packs of Marlboros and Parliaments and, in one instance, a minibar complete with coconut rum and a radio that played “Margaritaville.” Such furnishings evolved and multiplied through successive critiques, until the “favorite chair” reading featured a slew of chaise lounges all hemmed in by stale butts and shot glasses, and most of the “people in their favorite chair” had emphysemic coughs.
The Sarah Silverman lookalike bravely broke convention, though only to a point. Her guy didn’t smoke. He just drank and ate too much while watching a Bears game through a sliding glass door, leaving his family, who sat around him, emotionally abandoned.
If you’re curious, I calmed down enough to write about my sixty-year-old mother sitting in her green swing, in a typical real-life pose: reading serial-killer mysteries and drinking cafe au lait. No, I didn’t read it out loud.
For our homework, we were to write one-page monologues in the voices of these hapless imaginary alcoholic chain-smokers. As might be expected, given the complaint-laden marginalia with which I’d festooned my exercises, I blew off the assignment.
I returned to Chi-Town the next week. But I went nowhere near the training center. I blew that off, too.
Getting into the Loop at five o’clock, I walked a frozen mile to Michigan and Pearson, cut over to Rush, then to Chicago and State, to Holy Name Cathedral. I took in the late Mass. Afterward I remained in my pew for a long time, listening to worshipers who had retired to a side chapel to chant the Rosary.
Next I boarded the northbound Red Line, hopped off at Morse, got lost while looking for my favorite restaurant, and then recovered my bearings and found it. I had a lovely, introverted time with a bowl of chili, a BLT, a beer, and some tiramisu. I read a book about Dorothy Day. I listened to two gay guys at the next table, who were hashing out their relationships and theorizing about why being twenty-six is different from being twenty-two.
To finish, I rode back to the Loop, bought a cup of coffee, and marched up and down Michigan Avenue for an hour–I like walking at least three miles a day, and icy winds encourage rather than discourage me–until it was time to go home. It was so much more fun, so much more Justinian, than forcing myself to sit through Comp 101 with a gaggle of sickly-savvy theater kids. Oh, you’re Catholic–so you already have a lot of experience writing comedy, don’t you? Excuse me a moment while my characters light up some unfiltered Camels.
I’m not sure if it was that night, or the next night, or the night after that when I decided that the writer I am–a pop-culture-illiterate religion geek who sits at home and blogs and is fine with that–was enough.
We had exchanged emails with our interview partners as a fail-safe, in case we ever missed a class. So I halfheartedly emailed leather-pants guy, asking about homework. He never answered. I’ll never know if he’d already dropped the class, if I’d slid into his spam folder, or if he’d simply written me off as lame.
I shrugged. The cosmos had already spoken when I’d played hooky and loved it.
Then I emailed the training center to ask what their withdrawal policy was. I learned there was no formal way to drop a class. You just didn’t show up anymore. But they hoped I might sign up again someday if I were so inclined.
Next week I stayed home.