Morales refers, of course, to the character Diana Morales in “A Chorus Line,” an actress who finds herself the outcast of her acting class. I know this because “A Chorus Line” is my dad's favorite show, and my parents used to play a tape of the cast recording during family car trips.
This is part of the problem.
No, smartasses, it's not that I'm a gay man trapped in a straight man’s body. It's that my life is boring. I grew up too privileged. I showed up to our first day of class Wednesday night with my nine pages of brilliant stand-up ideas I’ve been storing in a Word document since college, only to find out that I am further behind than everyone else, simply by virtue of my upbringing. Morales implies that she doesn't fit in with her class because she's from San Juan, Puerto Rico. I don't fit in because I grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Stand-up comedy, my teacher told us, comes from a place of pain. Steve Martin, whose memoir “Born Standing Up” I recently listened to on CD in the car, was treated coldly by his father his entire life. My parents are great people and I have a great relationship with them. Growing up, they took my two brothers and me to see “A Chorus Line.” Twice.
One difference between Morales and I is that she blames her teacher, while my teacher seems like a great guy who’s simply giving me a necessary reality check. At the beginning of the class, the teacher had each person take a turn standing up in front of the class and saying a little bit about himself or herself. I zeroed in on my attributes that I perceived to be unique, boasting about my senior Princeton philosophy thesis on “Seinfeld,” and saying that I was in musical comedy group in which I performed in a drag kickline, the group’s 115-year-old annual tradition. In my world, these are interesting things. Dramatic things. Somewhat rebellious things.
I could feel the room yawning. But perhaps the most damning thing I said was: “I had a happy childhood.” I might as well have stood up in front of my high school class and said, “I used to be a woman and now I am a man.”
The teacher asked more about my childhood, and I offered a sad attempt at sounding interesting, something like, “Well, people think my family’s weird. Like, my brother used to run naked in national parks. Oh, and he used to invent foods. He worked at farmer’s markets selling mushrooms.”
My teacher quickly lost interest and moved on to the other members of the class, a glorious melting pot of alcohol, drugs, death and broken families. The class includes (and I hope they’ll forgive me for revealing these details, but I’ll keep them anonymous):
-A middle-aged woman who traveled around with hippies and dropped acid with Timothy Leary and now rehabilitates squirrels
-A middle-aged woman who used to be a mime and an alcoholic and who now rehabilitates squirrels
-A man who moved to the U.S. from Argentina and escaped from his life of drugs and booze to become a chiropractor
-A twenty-something actress from Wisconsin who is the only one of her siblings who hasn’t been in jail
-A woman married to her second husband who mentioned she was trying to have kids and that she had to rush home after class because she was ovulating
-An Australian whose parents divorced when he was six, and whose sister was killed, which inspired him to become a cop, then a prosecutor, and then, after he had moved to L.A. for acting school, to write, produce and perform a one-man show about the experience.
We then had to write down a few adjectives to describe ourselves, which we could then use to help create a stage persona. We went around the room and shared. Mine were: questioning, analytical, introspective, indecisive, happy-go-lucky, friendly and straightforward. Other people's traits included: dirty, vulgar, sexual, macho, awkward, anti-social, obnoxious, and disgusting.
The teacher didn’t know what to do with my friendly, happy-go-lucky self. I had no tension, no contrast. Comedy requires strong feelings and opinions, he said. One woman said, with a completely straight face, that perhaps my having a happy childhood is what makes me unique. As my teacher rightly noted, that doesn’t make for good comedy.
I replied that I do have strong feelings — and perhaps a certain bitterness — about male-female relationships, both about my own specific experiences, and about the way they work in general. Perhaps my contradiction could be in the way I take that bitterness and, say, make a pie chart to analyze it.” I’m not sure if our teacher was satisfied, but it would have to suffice.
While driving home, I thought about the comedians I liked who seemed happy, comedians whose routines don’t appear to stem from any sort of hardship, such as Jerry Seinfeld, Demetri Martin and even Todd Barry, who has a certain cynicism and world-weariness but who also mocks his own dullness. In one bit, Barry says he worries he bores his therapist. He says (and I’m paraphrasing) that he worries one day his therapist will say, “Todd, that’s great, you got the phone number of the girl who works in the used book store. Todd, the guy coming at four o’clock fucks armadillos.”
I wondered: are there strong feelings and contradicting ideas in the stand-up persona of, say, Jerry Seinfeld? Yes, I realized, there are. I don’t know much about Seinfeld’s Long Island childhood, but he clearly grew up privileged enough that he was forced, in his routine and in life, to have strong feelings about the little details of everyday life. The contradiction is this: he gives these tiniest of details the highest of stakes. On the show “Seinfeld,” when George double-dips a potato chip or eats from the garbage, the action has huge implications.
I realized that I am sometimes quite rebellious. I’ve been told off by Julia Roberts and Angelina Jolie. And certain things do make me angry: injustice, hypocrisy, pretension, illogical insults, those theater articles that use bland quotes and repeat tired cliches…Ok, so my experiences aren’t as monumentous as those the people in my class have experienced. But I have to dig right down to the bottom of my soul and find the alcoholic mime inside of me. I have to take those small things that I’m passionate about, and raise the stakes, pretend they’re the most important thing in the world. Like the fact that my parents played me "A Chorus Line" over and over again during family car trips, goddamn it! Now I'm a gay man trapped in a straight man's body!! They screwed me up after all.