My girlfriend, Elizabeth, told me that I was free to move to New York, to chase my dreams and stay up all night and live in a small apartment where a washer and dryer were an impossibility, to interrogate what is funny and drink my fucking face off, to take the subway an hour each way every day to a job where I would be always be depressed, to make a set of friends that would suck then make a few friends who were okay, to live in Bushwick. Yep, I was free to NEW! YORK! CITY! as hard as I could—but she would not be coming with me.
Therefore, about a week after that conversation, when I was invited up to New York for the weekend for a comedy festival, I declared I’m going! and we didn’t address anything.
Lots of improvisers in my vibrant but Second Tier City left for New York. Like them, I fancied myself a big fish in a small pond in need of the biggest, most expensive pond possible. I wanted to chase bigger audiences, better jokes and in-crowds where the “in” included people who didn’t have office jobs, who you might catch on Comedy Central, and who were friends with Jason Mantzoukas, or were, maybe, Jason Mantzoukas.
“I don’t want to make it,” I’d say over beers to my students from our Second Tier City improv theater, “I just want to keep growing.” Silly words like those and try a new city and keep making people laugh were euphemisms for I am better than this. Peers teased Second Tier City departures as if they were brand announcements. More often than not, those that actually did it found their greatest fame at their going away party. One guy I knew figured this out, and thus had a going away party, moved to New York, moved back, had another going away party, this time moved to Chicago, and today, he sells insurance in Cleveland.
People made the move, but nobody made it. According to Instagram, they usually got heavier but wore tighter clothes. Killin it! I’d say in the comments.
These people, with whom I goof off at the bar then talk jealous shit about in the same breath, also know my pain. Because they, like me, are in love with improv.
Improv is the only thing that understands my body’s machinery, the way I talk to myself in my head, the way a noise triggers a face, the way I can watch myself through others’ eyes. I’d sit at the front desk at my job as an office manager, in sneakers and a brightly colored shirt—Millennial Improv Attire—smile at all my coworkers with more impressive titles and much more money and feel sorry for them. Because improv loved me, not them. But Elizabeth also loved me. It was crowded.
I got off the bus on a sticky May evening near the Javits Center, forgetting for a second where I was supposed to go, inhaling New York and thinking I can go anywhere.
This was a reunion weekend, of sorts, for Dear Juris Prudence, our former improv team that headlined Saturdays in Second Tier City. Marie, the social fabric of the team, had already moved to New York, along with Carli, the best on the team. We were reconvening, all six of us, for the Del Close Marathon, a weekend of improv nerdom and scheduled alcoholism.
I got a rare spot on the dirty subway and put my duffel under the seat. I read the short story that is New York city public transit—the thrill of breathing with people I’ll never know.
Our team had ended on strange terms. The Artistic Director of our theater decided to sunset the team after Marie and Carli quit and moved to New York. They were definitely the best, but I always considered myself the third best on the team. Was their quitting coordinated? Why hadn’t they told me? A man asked for money. I wished I could gift him improv. It’s better.
Marie’s was in Hell’s Kitchen, a 950 square foot apartment with a living room and a bed and a kitchen all in dedicated places. Two blocks away from the improv theater. She worked in recruiting!
“My main fucking man.” At the door, her words were fraternal and her hug was soft. Her large, smiling face glistened with make-up that tried hard but worked, her breath smelled like chocolate and wine. It was so nice to see her. “Come on up, we’re fuckin’ partying.” She walked up all six floors to her apartment in heels and made it look like an escalator.
I was greeted inside by three lines of cocaine on top of a Tom Ford coffee table book and Larry, in a crumpled suit and tie, sitting behind it with his weighted brown eyes. “Oh no,” he deadpanned. “The average penis size of this group just plummeted.” Larry was lovelessly gay-married to one ass for the rest of his life (his words, not mine) and thirteen short years away from a fat government pension. His secret superpower was that he was hilarious, particularly in drag.
“It’s good to see you too, Larry.”
He looked me in the eyes and said, “When in Rome, doest as the Romans do. Which, if taken literally, would mean subjugate the Jews and rape little boys. In Manhattan, it means cocaine.”
He inhaled two of the lines fast, alternating nostrils.
“Bud, what’s Gucci?” Carli handed me a beer. She was wearing overalls atop a striped shirt—like thrift meets Madewell—looking like a cool New Yorker. It made my tee, cuffed jeans, and average boots feel Second Tier. Carli and I used to have a duo team—Regional Tiffs—that I loved. I don’t know if she did, because she duo’d and mono’d and Tuesday-night-teamed and Friday-night-teamed with anyone and everyone. She was an improv machine and New York was her fuel.
“Heyyy budddyyy,” said Brian with a soft t-shirt, backwards hat, and handsome stubble, the look of the most laidback person on the team. He had no comedic aspirations, was always down for a good time despite being happily engaged, and gave me a fulfilling and honest hug.
“Get a room, queers!” screamed Larry, now swirling bourbon in Marie’s nice glassware.
Helen, the sixth and final member of our team, was enmeshed with her laptop in the kitchen. Work call, she mouthed as I turned the corner. A depressed mother of two who hated her intense job but could never leave, she let loose—very, very loose—on improv weekends. She handed me her glass with unspoken words: fetch some brown. I was the youngest and often fetched things.
I sat next to Larry. “Here son, try some of this. It’s good for your erections!” He handed me the glass straw he was using to snort powder off a three-piece in Paris.
I thought about Elizabeth, who at this very moment was probably curled up on the couch watching Survivor and browsing puppies to rescue on her iPad. I needed to remember to text her before I got too bombed. I snorted, Helen finished her call—“What a bunch of fucking amateurs! Give me some of that coke!”—and then Marie told everybody to grab a drink. Time for a toast.
Was it time to clear the air? Would she give me a deeply observed compliment? Should I move to New York and form a team with her and Carli?
Marie smiled behind an overflowing glass of rose. “Let’s get fucking destroyed.”
Elizabeth says what she means. If she says she is going to be there at five, she will be there at four forty-five. “Improv time,” which means always late, is not a concept she respects. If she is upset, you will know, like when we’re late because I wanted to finish my chapter.
She gets pleasure from work and has no time for the performative pain of creativity. Jobs are for money, which we need to survive, so we should find a way to motivate ourselves to try to like them. To survive, she is a web developer. A very good one, who gets raises and bonuses, etc.
She is creative, the websites she makes are pretty, but she and creativity don’t fight. She paints and draws and knits, but only when she feels like it, and for no purpose other than it’s a nice way to spend time. Which fucks with me. On one hand, why would you spend life’s limited time failing to pursue something deep? On the other, she never thinks I should be painting right now when we’re sitting close.
Our first show in New York was fast. It was kind of our trademark. Our format was loose, we called it The Organic—but it was no lawless montage of disconnected scenes. There were rules that gave this churning chaos its sheen. Initiate immediately. Figure out the “why” and any themes in your scenes, somebody will help you. Don’t introduce new characters in the last third of the show—all callbacks by then. Don’t just advance plot, raise the emotional stakes. We had an almost supernatural sense of timing and rhythm, always aware of the clock, and we had an algorithmic capability of varying scenes—the number of characters, the length, the laughs.
Our show was at midnight, a good timeslot: leftover crowds from NYC’s house teams, people pleasantly drunk but not asleep. In the first scene, Marie, Larry, Brian, and I were a family at Thanksgiving. Marie and Larry were the parents, Brian and I the kids. The parents were having an argument about opening up the relationship—specifically to family members. Larry’s character wanted to explore Marie’s character’s dad that weekend. She did not want to appear homophobic and outrightly say no, but who wants their husband to fuck their dad? They tried to shield this argument from the kids—but we would pop up in timely intervals: “What does topping mean?”
Larry had another character that killed—a disorganized detective who was always losing his clues. Marie broke out into song at an orphanage à la Annie. Helen had a monologue about how depressing parenthood is (she didn’t pull far from real life), and Carli was incredible—an orphan with a Scouser accent who sought parental guidance from mice, a criminal who slowly robbed the disorganized detective, Helen’s kid at the end of the monologue with a side-splitting button line: “Don’t worry Mommy, the stigma around maternal regret is diminishing!” Carli could mold into any scene, elevating it with beautiful choices, becoming the star without stealing the spotlight. Our show, largely due to Carli, moved the drunken room to a state of euphoria, where we all, for a moment, believed in magic. (Side note: I used to hate it when improvisers told me about their scenes—I mean, they’re not real—so, sorry for all this.)
We rode that high all night. Also, the high of cocaine. Rudy’s was it. Improvisers from all over the country packed its wooden foundation, wielding bills to pay for shots on shots at the cash only bar, not-so-subtly ingesting coke up their noses in the booths. Larry and Marie held court in one booth, talked shit, accepted praise, and snorted. Carli raged with strangers and other friends at the bar. A natural comedic networker. I sat next to a woman who did improv in Charleston. She was wearing a Hawaiian shirt that was completely open to reveal a sports bra and her creamy skin. She wore her hair in mini buns all over, a kind of cross between Princess Leia and Kendrick Lamar. To talk, she whispered into my ear, and her hot breath found the alcohol in my system, those elements hugged, and I was lifted. I got a real-life erection that I blunted with drink. Ever since being with Elizabeth, I got stressed when I was attracted to somebody else. My body was used to pursuing romantic attention, but at the same time, it was relieving to know that at the end of this night, instead of trying desperately to have sex with Leia Lamar on a blow-up mattress in some studio apartment, I could just go back to Marie’s apartment and jack off in the shower like a grown-up. I continued to party.
Dear Juris Prudence had a night like a Seth Rogen montage. We drank Miller Lites on a stoop in Greenwich Village, ate good-ass pizza on the roof of parked cars, and shared a joint while hammered-harmonizing Fleetwood Mac. Rhhhiiiannnnon.
I forgot to text Elizabeth.
This line made me tear up. What a beautiful work! Keep up the writing. That was the encouragement I was writing when I met Elizabeth. We were at an event reading poetry from inmates, do-good Millennials in a do-good city doing good after work. She was the kind of person who said “Hi,” just that word, with such a settled confidence that I knew she was sure of herself. She’d be that comfortable in any setting, from a surgery to a cockfight. I arrived at the table late, got to work right after her eloquent and inspiring “Hi.” After writing beautiful and moving in the margins, I looked up at her. She bit her lip slightly while she worked, golden streaks of her tussled brown hair spilling out from behind her ears. She met my eyes and it felt almost like making a thousand people laugh at the same time.
What part of the city do you live in? What’s your commute like? What do you do for work? Sorry to ask that, I feel like that’s everybody’s first question here. What is something else you do? I do improv.
She liked that, not because she thought comedy was cool but because she could tell it brought me joy. We took the Metro to a neighborhood that was convenient for both of us and settled on the bar at a French restaurant, mainly because it was quiet and had open stools, expensive but fuck it. We drank red wine and talked about our families. She could discuss trauma with the same measured elegance as her showstopping Hi. Plus, she was funny. With zero traces of performance. Whenever I met somebody, anybody, I morphed myself to be funny for their taste. I spent the first half of the conversation listening and watching, guessing how and why this audience found things funny. Then the second half of the conversation was a crescendo of jokes and anecdotes, tailored to them.
Elizabeth—Can I call you Liz? No, Liz is a name for a stepmom or a reptile—was just herself. To me, her unperformance was intoxicating. We moved in six months later.
Improv glory is finite. Structurally, improv teams are as tenuous as political campaigns. Some might argue their stress levels are comparable. But you don’t think about it like that when each week you: practice, laugh at practice, make people laugh at practice, do a show, laugh at the show, make people laugh at the show, get shitfaced, laugh the hardest you have all week, then repeat. You don’t think about how much time and energy you give to this group of people who are only bound by outside attention—you think about how you ended the show on a button line where you were a horny priest and said resur-erection.
Dear Juris Prudence was not created to spend forty-eight consecutive hours with each other. The Saturday Hangovers were other-worldly—everyone dealt with them differently. Marie talked a lot. Carli complained about missing festival headliners. Brian stuck to coffee and Pedialyte. Helen made a screwdriver. Larry made a double screwdriver and snorted blow off a peak lapel in Venice.
I snuck away to Tompkins Square Park. I drank an iced latte on a bench and watched my own personal X Games and NBA Summer League. I FaceTimed Elizabeth.
Hi Sweety. How are you? You look cute. Not too, too late. Yeah we kicked ass, big laughs. Marie’s apartment is great. I’ll eat a bagel for you. I miss you too. Love you!
We did not discuss the future, or lack thereof. I didn’t want to talk about it—I hated conflict—but glossing over it made me feel small and irresponsible, like I’d just pissed somebody’s bed then left without telling them.
When I got back to the apartment, the pregame was in full swing. It was 2:30pm. “How much twenty-three-year-old improv dick do you think I could pull if I showed someone my paystub?” snorted Larry.
“This is New York, honey. Your government benefits don’t impress anyone. New York is about exclusivity. You could never make it on Raya.” The usual lilt of Marie’s clapbacks was gone, her tone raw and acerbic.
“I’m calling in sick on Monday. Pass that Lindsay Lohan? Is that what y’all call it?” Helen looked at me because I was young.
If I was going to ask these people about moving to New York, it had to be literally right now before this day became something uncouth.
I tried Larry. “Never get married. Fifteen minutes after you say I do, you’ll want to fuck other people.” He fingered his gums, then made a joke I won’t repeat here.
I tried Marie. “I went down on Carli for the fifth time since we moved to New York last night.” She was slurring her words, “Sometimes, she pretends she doesn’t see me after shows. Kissing ass to more established people. It’s bullshit. Like, when will she go down on me!?” Marie and Carli were hooking up, apparently.
I tried Carli. “That’s a tough one. Elizabeth is so cool, and really good for you. But dude, New York is epic. Do you wanna make a TikTok?” She had 67,000 followers now.
Helen was too drunk and or unhappy to ask.
And Brian, after I asked him, in perhaps the most serious I have ever seen him in my life, said, “That’s not even a real predicament, right?” But he walked away before I knew which side he was advocating.
Our depressing mood carried over into warm-ups. By that point (7:47pm), Helen could barely talk. Her timing was completely off, screaming “MIND MELD” before any minds had melded. Marie was getting pissed. Carli was just ready to fucking go, vibrating on another level. Larry was making gross jokes for an audience of himself, and Brian was checked out like a distant dad.
The show was a disaster. In the first scene, Marie and Carli were flight attendants who loved to gossip. Helen came on as the pilot before they could establish a game and said, “How bout a blowjob?” Then Larry tried to save it by being the copilot and asking, “How bout a rim job?” It was so crass only a few older men laughed. The more off we got, the more Marie desperately tried to restore order. Carli went big and got laughs, but it visibly bothered Marie. To me, it felt like the whole audience knew about the unreciprocated oral sex.
Larry fumbled us forward well enough that it could be called improv, while Brian hugged the backline. I barely remember my contributions. I was basically having a panic attack, thinking about living in this city with no washer and dryer while Elizabeth adopted a beautiful beagle puppy she’d have to take care of all by herself.
We tried to laugh the show off, then drink the show off at a bar that wasn’t Rudy’s, where nobody would talk shit about us behind our backs. Carli left first. Other friends. Marie went home. Brian, Larry, and I got Helen a cab shortly thereafter. Larry went to a gay strip club and brought Brian along because Brian would go anywhere. I went back to the improv bars, leering for the girl from Charleston in the Hawaiian shirt.
“How were your shows?”
“Our shows… they were… im-mac-ulate.” She and her friends were all doing Christopher Walken impressions. She continued, “My favorite word, is im-mac-culate. My second favorite, is in-scrut-able.”
Fucking improv people.
I got the email that Dear Juris Prudence was being sunset the literal day that Elizabeth and I moved in together. We were in the cleaning aisle of Target, getting Swiffer wet jets and a trashcan for the bathroom (other ways she has improved my life).
“With two members quitting simultaneously and drastically shifting the composition of the current team, I believe the most prudent artistic decision is to sunset Dear Juris Prudence. I wish you all the best of luck with your future endeavors—improv and otherwise.”
“I am sorry, lovey,” Elizabeth said as we spent $600. We started walking the .7 miles home and it began pouring rain. My hands full of things apartments apparently need, I dropped a trashcan into a puddle. I looked up at the sky and screamed, “FUCK! YOU! RAIN!” Elizabeth walked home thirty feet in front of me for the rest of the way.
We moved in together after I mentioned my New York ambitions because she had a great thought: why don’t we move in together in a city we know and see if that works, then see if we could both go to New York? That made sense to me.
But after six months of living together (and also six months of auditioning unsuccessfully for a new team in the Second Tier market), I asked again about New York. She took a deep breath and answered immediately: she didn’t want to go. Then she said, tenderly (though it still hurt like fuck) that the current status of my comedy career wasn’t strong enough to compel two people to move to an expensive, stressful city, where no apartments had washer/dryers. Plus she really wanted a dog. And who would introduce a dog to a place like Bushwick?
She communicated that she would be devastated, and that she strongly preferred that I stay, but she said the words—”You can go to New York, but I won’t be coming”—with the calm tone of a manager saying they’d love something by Friday, but Monday works too.
I loved improv. I loved improv so much. The way it understood me. Held me. Raised me. But improv did not love me back. Its attention too fickle, its gaze too wide. So instead of gesticulating and saying three syllable words with Leia Lamar, I walked straight to Penn Station. Fuck my duffel bag. I paid and sat down in the train car and was drunk and tired and very sad and a little happy and I could smell my balls when I was just sitting there and I thought to myself. Fuck improv time, I am going to be on time from now on.
I looked up at the platform as the train started moving. The arrow pointing towards New York City disappeared forever, in favor of the one pointing to Second Tier City. I plugged in my phone and got to work making a short-list of dogs to rescue.