Order of the Good Write

That Magic Feeling When the Words Flow. A Blog by Debi Rotmil


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The Upright Citizens Brigade Saved My Life

Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, New York. Photo by Debi Rotmil

Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, New York. Photo by Debi Rotmil

I was listening to The Nerdist podcast, hosted by Chris Hardwicke this morning. The guest was John Cleese, whose account of life seems full of spiritual vision now that he’s 75 years old. The concept of why we need comedy came up. After all, as Mr. Cleese professed, “I didn’t cure cancer”. So why the bowing down to this Python great? The accolades? Why should he feel so accomplished? The conversation quickly steered (thanks to Chris) to the fact that comedy makes human beings, struggling through the horrors of this world, happy. Laughter makes life tolerable. It puts a smile on your face, and allows you to push through the terror without always needing to medicate, drink or smoke weed to get you through. (Although, those things do tend to help – in moderation.)

It’s true. Comedy does help the human spirit march on, especially when one is faced with tremendous, harrowing challenges. That is when, at the age of 46, I became a member of the Upright Citizen Brigade training center as an improv student. 46 years old. The one person in a sea of late teens, 20’s and 30-somethings, all welcoming me with open arms as I left my temporary home filled with despair and illness to spend Sunday afternoons of “zip, zop, zap”, trust games, listening training, eye contact and just having a blast while finding “The Game”. All in the name of “Yes, And…”

It seems the founders, as much as I love them, have their heads up their asses when it comes to understanding HOW MUCH THEY AFFECT THE LIVES OF PEOPLE. I say this in caps because in the accolades and the network deals and the sitcom successes and failures Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts and Amy Poehler have see their graduates pursue – there are regular people who immerse themselves in the UCB culture – not so they’d be discovered by Tina Fey or Lorne Michaels. They did it because their lives sucked at the time, and they needed to participate in the welcoming, comforting hand of comedy in order to get through their despair.

The phrase “comedy nerd” has become incredibly cliche, but I can’t avoid the fact that I have been a comedy nerd since the day I discovered “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live” (the original) in the mid-70’s. I was about 10 years old. I wanted to be Gilda. I crushed hard for Bill Murray. In New York, “SCTV” used to air at 11pm on Saturday nights on Channel 9 – which gave me a comedy appetizer before SNL started on the other side of the dial on NBC. (Yes…the dial). Catherine O’Hara and Andrea Martin were my goddesses. I wanted to invite Gilda to my pretend tea party and laugh over bits with my two new make believe Canadian comedian friends.

As SNL continued, I fell in love with Monty Python, taping every episode that aired on MTV, memorizing bits, worshipping these men like The Beatles, with Michael Palin my fave.

Then, the floodgates opened. The HA! Channel started up on cable, and I could see Python and stand up and various funny people until my eyes watered. “Whose Line Is It Anyway” came directly from Britain, and it wasn’t long before I knew the names of Stephen Fry, Tony Slattery, Josie Lawrence, John Sessions or Colin Maukery. “French And Saunders” was another revelation, straight from England, these two hilarious ladies cut a swath through all boys comedy with goofiness and deep hilarity.

I even went to London on various trips and saw a taping of “A Bit of Fry and Laurie”, plus I went to see The Comedy Store Players on Leistershire Square. Back home, I was a fanatic of “Late Night With David Letterman” and “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”. When I was in college, I used to get tickets every month to see Letterman at NBC. Alan Havey had a terrific talkshow on HA! (the channel would become Comedy Central) called “Night after Night” that became an addiction.

So, in the world of alternative comedy, my age has allowed me a long, earned history of loving comedy since I was a babe.

I used to walk past the old UCB theatre on West 22nd street while going to my job on west 18th. I always meant to go in, but never did – not until 2009 after they moved to West 26th. I saw “Let’s Have a Ball”, a Saturday night show featuring Kay Cannon and Scott Adsit – two members of “30 Rock’s” crew. After that show, I was hooked. The warm, cosy, intimate space reminded me of the furnished basement in my childhood home. The interaction, the beauty of the improv, the structure and pace. I was done for – watching the bare bones of comedy. This is the kitchen of funny. This is how Del Close- who trained the minds of John Belushi, Mike Myers, Bill Murray and Gilda created the kind of comedy I’ve devoured all my life. It was all cooking down there, in the basement of a Gristedes supermarket with pipes that dripped and a mildew odor that smelled like my dad’s old bar downstairs near the washroom. Home. I was home.

I am the only child of two parents, who by 2009 were both in failing health. My dad had a stroke two days after Christmas in 2006. The next few years were spent in sheer terror of losing my father, fighting insurance companies that refused to pay for his sub-accute nursing, all while trying to maintain my job at the New York Times. It devastated my mother and me. After a few stints in nursing homes, my dad came back to his condo, where my mother cared for him. However, in time, she became quite ill herself. She refused medical treatment, and refused my help. During this time, I moved in with them temporarily to assist when I could. But it was a depressing home.

Screenshot 2014-11-28 15.07.06

On line at the Del Close Marathon, August 2009. Photo by Debi Rotmil.

In August of 2009, I spent a weekend in Manhattan to attend the Del Close Marathon. It was there that I had a life changing experience. Non-stop comedy. Gonzo crazy bozo ass comedy all in the name of Mr. Close and his spirit. I spent the weekend watching – in close quarters and in front rows – Jack McBrayer, Rob Huebel, Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas, Scott Adsit, Nick Kroll, Bobby Moynihan, Shasheer Zamatta, Horatio Sanz, Sarah Silverman, Brett Gelman and so many rising new comedians, who went crazy for about 54 hours straight of insane mondo improv comedy. If you don’t know these names – look them up. You will recognize them in shows like “Transparent”, “The Office”, “30 Rock”, “The League”, “Marry Me”, “Community”, “Happy Endings”, “The Mindy Project”, “New Girl”and in films like “The Descendants”, “Piranha”, “The Dictator”.

During that weekend, I waited on lines and met young people who were students of the UCB training center. The discussion often turned to why they were there, and why they were taking improv classes. One girl told me it was because she left her family home due to abuse, and was never allowed to come back. She found a home in improv theater, with supportive friends who were better than her own family. Another girl told me she was taking puppet improv, and found solace creating characters in this medium after her little sister was killed in an accident. I was in my mid-40’s. I wasn’t married. (Still not.) I didn’t have kids. (Still don’t.) But I had two parents dealing with the end of their lives, and I had to come home to that everyday. These young people saw me – this older lady – and THEY encouraged me to join improv, get into a class – lose myself.

And so I did. I started level 101 Improv with Rebecca Drysdale (“Key and Peele”, “Orange is the New Black”), where I became friends with a group of supportive, funny people who were all learning how to step up and create stories on their feet. We did monologues. We played tag outs. We played classic improv games. We performed on the stage at UCBNYC. We became members of this society. I continued to level 201 where I kept learning process – this time with edits, beats, analogous take overs. It was a relief to leave the sadness of my parents dark home – the fading embers of their life where I feared their impending deaths, where I couldn’t face their weaknesses, and where I always felt I failed them during this time. UCB was my haven. I was able to take the train from White Plains, and as the train cars moved closer to Grand Central, the worries faded until I got to the training center and started becoming someone else, thinking on my feet, writing in the now. We, as student, were required to go to shows. No problem! Then we’d connect the next weekend in class about what we saw, the techniques of an Asssscat, or how he structure of Kay Cannon’s scene at “Let’s Have A Ball” was similar to what we learned a few weeks before.

After years of SCTV, SNL, Monty Python, Letterman, Carson, Whose Line, The Comedy Store Players and UCB shows, I was finally inside comedy, cooking with the ingredients I had often seen. It was a revelation.

I was going to continue on to level 301 (I did receive approval to move on to the next phase), but sometime after I completed level 101, my mother died. I continued on to 201 to try and find the laughter in life and immerse myself with new classmates and scene partners. Then, my dad died after I completed level 201. Suddenly, my energy and desire to go into classes had waned. By now, I was back living in NYC, but I never did continue. Yet, I kept going to shows – until I moved to LA, where I grew tired of the disconnected irony and the easy dick jokes, and the boys club, and the spotty somewhat cute boy comedians talk about their crappy relationships with woman who were clearly out of their league. I got tired of waiting in crowded lines for shows, getting bumped off the street curb by young UCBLA improv students were were doing casual bits and trying to out-funny each other. I caught myself thinking – doesn’t anyone want to be a doctor around here? We could sure use a few of those in the world. There are enough improvisers to go around. Suddenly, I felt a little too old for this gig.

But in the end, UCB saved my life. It allowed me to smile when things were dismal. I only wish Amy Poehler and the founders I admire so well could understand how their venture isn’t only for young people who are trying to be the next John Mulaney or Kate McKinnon. It’s also for someone nearing AARP age who really needed a good soulful laugh to make it through.

Some of my writing from TVBlogster, my old comedy blog about the Upright Citizens Brigade. Plus coverage of the Del Close Marathons I’ve attended:

http://tvblogster.blogspot.com/search/label/UCB%20Del%20Close%20Marathon%202009

http://tvblogster.blogspot.com/search/label/UCB
http://tvblogster.blogspot.com/search/label/UCB%20Del%20Close%20Marathon%202010
http://tvblogster.blogspot.com/search/label/Night%20of%20140%20TweetsScreenshot 2014-11-28 15.07.32


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Thankful for Thanksgiving

thanksgiving peanutsThanksgiving is all about counting your blessings. I’m all for that. It’s so easy to get caught up in negative thoughts, and the coulda shoulda woulda’s of life. Last year, I went through a medical ordeal that taught me a thing to two about life and the quality of how we live it.  I’ve been slogging way at a job that wasn’t challenging. Fear over money ruled my life. Anger over how I felt stifled with my job, only to come home and not do a damn thing about changing my life for the better.

As a writer, I’ve put my passion on the shelf, living in Passive Action, writing blogs no one saw, writing music reviews and interviews very few people have seen. My writing was sporadic, relegated to an actual hobby.  That changed in 2014.

This was the year I challenged myself to write at least a 1000 words everyday. It occurred to me that if I did at least 1000 or even 500, I would be one step closer to actually writing a book.  Imagine, writing 1000 words each day – or even more? It would mean at the end of 365 days, I’d have the first draft of a book.

So, I got down to business. I wrote 1000 or more words a day. Some days I could only write 500 words feeling absolutely unaccomplished and unsatisfied. Then, the next day, I’d take those 500 words and realize that it was the start of a full fledged short story.  Thus began the work. I wrote short story upon short story. I didn’t judge my work. I didn’t care about what teachers had to say, or any old lessons about short story structure. I just did it. It’s not to say that basic English and structure isn’t important, but I’ve read enough essays and stories to know what works.  From J.D. Salinger to David Sedaris to Flannery O’Connor – each writer has their own voice, their own structure. As long as you tell a story with the who, what and whys…you’ll find your audience.

Why am I saying this?  Because my book of stories is coming out in December. I’ve just approved the final draft and it will be ready for upload to Amazon later this week, and then Kindle in the coming weeks. Publication date will come. And why am I mentioning this? Because a year ago today – these stories – plus dozens of other essays and novels I have in the works – did not exist. With the help of a great life coach, and the goal of getting my writing out there in a goal of Massive Action – this book is happening, folks!

hittingwater

And there’s more to come!

Not only that – I want to coach people to do the same thing. If you have a talent in writing you feel is just sitting on a shelf because you’re so tired after a long day at work – know that you can still get work done.  If you set a fun challenge for yourself, you will accomplish a terrific project. When “Hitting Water” is published in December, as I’ve mentioned, there will be more books to follow. As I learn the publishing world with each novel or story collection, I hope to gather the wisdom to help others who want to get their writing out there by helping them with the lessons I’ve learned.

And I will be truly grateful for being able to do that.

For now, I’m just grateful for everything.

And for turkey – I’m grateful for those critters giving up their lives so we can have a delicious harvest dinner. (Seriously, I can’t tell you the guilt I have over eating animals. My dogs have given me this profound empathy for living creatures. Maybe next year I’ll be thankful for going vegetarian.)

Happy Thanksgiving!!


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Finding the Piano in Again

playingpianoLast week, I wrote a blog post about my piano teacher entitled “Looking For Mr. Weiss.”  The story touched a nerve with me. As it unfolded through memory and emotion, I realized my years of learning how to read music and to play the instrument was one of the most valuable lessons of my life. It was ten years of exasperating practice, fumbling fingers while fighting youthful distractions like TV, playing with friends, or listening to records all for the purpose of completing a piece without error. I didn’t know it as a spotty kid, but now I value this gift of music like it’s precious gold. This – despite enduring living room recitals for company, encouraged by my dad, where certain members of my distended family would roll their eyes. Riiiggghhht…because I loved playing for this group as much as they loved listening. The feeling was mutual.

My ten years as a student of Mr. Weiss affected me deeply.  The very fact  I can play an instrument is extraordinary. No, I can’t just sit down and play “Summer Highland Falls” or gather a group of cocktail addled friends around the old piano for an impromptu rendition of “Fame” nor do I take requests. But I can sit down and plunk away a mean sonata – after many days of rehearsal – with the music sheet in front of me. It’s even cooler to know how to read music, as if it’s a secret language that is communicated through melody, beats, rhythm and sound.  To be able to create it, is just as satisfying and mystically compelling as writing a book or a satisfying blog post.

Sadly, my father sold our Steinway and Sons piano when I left for college. Yet, I’ve picked up the piano here and there over the years. About 15 years ago, I had a small Yamaha electric keyboard I laid on top of a desk on which I played simple sonatinas, since there were only about 70 keys on the thing. Playing as an adult is a different experience. I have a deeper understanding of life and how music folds personal emotion into the flow of a piece. My brain finds a beautiful, peaceful portal where you can capture a deep, focused, meditative state when you’re really playing something you like well. After a work week filled with business and responsibilities, being able to play an instrument such as the piano, allows a certain cleasning of the mind. It’s time well spent, beating TV, Internet and video gaming. I long to return to this amazing practice.

When my little Yamaha keyboard broke, my reacquaintance with the piano was shelved. Life took over. I kept my music sheets handy in case I was able to find the room for a piano. A real one. As an apartment dweller – I’m still holding out for an actual piano. However, I do have some space in the corner of my home office which has prompted my decision to purchase a digital piano complete with perfect key action and pedals. There will be a headphone jack so I can play in silence, and a volume button, so when I’m not using “cans”,  I can crank it up to show my neighbors during reasonable hours, what this student of Mr. Weiss can do.

It’s time to return to my music. Time to put all the money my father paid to provide lessons to good use.  Time to honor Mr. Weiss.

(And by the way – Looking for Mr. Weiss has inspired a book I’m currently outlining.)


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End of Week Friday Musing

lucyandaroseI don’t know what it is about Lucille Ball that reminds me of my mother. Maybe it’s her chin and lips, her short hair or  the way she exuded  glamor, even if she was in the supermarket. One time, I told my mother she reminded me of Lucy, and she looked at me like my head exploded. And the fact my  mother was Cuban – her accent was so much like Desi Arnaz’ and the rest of my family – I thought he was a distant relative.

When my mother was nineteen, she married an older man, had a son, and was quickly divorced. This was back in Havana, Cuba. Every photo of her ex-husband was banished, except one family group gathering that included my mother, her brother, his wife, my abuela and my half brother when he was a little boy. Right at the edge of the picture is a be-headed man, whose face was ripped off in the shape of someone’s mouth – like someone took one big bite of him, chewed him up, and allowed him to disappear by act of mastication and digestion. Only his surname remained through legal documents, since my brother still held his last name – until my mom moved to New York, met my dad – and had me. Then it was changed.

I always used to fantasize that my half brother’s real dad was Desi Arnaz.  In his old photos, he looked like little Ricky and the real little Desi. As a teenager and man in his twenties, he so reminded me of Desi Arnaz, Jr. that I felt, deep down in my soul, that he was love child of my mom and the king of Babbaloo. One time, I asked my mother if she ever met Arnaz, trying to get a hint about the first husband she never, ever wanted to talk about. She said Arnaz left for Hollywood when she was a little girl, so she never did.  There went my theory.

But I still live the fantasy. It just feels like the whole Lucy universe swirled around my mom and her image. From looks, spirit and son…the Ball/Arnaz vibe moves on.

Just for context – this is my stunning, gorgeous mother below. Real ‘Mad Men’ days.

My Mother - Ana from Havana - at her wedding reception - 1962.

My Mother – Ana from Havana – at her wedding reception – 1962.

Happy Friday!


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Mike Nichols: The Invisible Director

Beautifully shot. Wonderfully directed and performed. A master at the helm. Mike Nichols and Robin Williams both gone now. What a year.

pop mitzvah!

RIP Mike Nichols, the Invisible Director.

His touch was so subtle that it’s hard to pin down what really makes a Mike Nichols movie (save the fact that they’re critically acclaimed – The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Closer). His favorite genre seemed to be “people trying really hard to be the ideal versions of themselves.” He was content to let great writing and great performances shine without any bells and whistles. No need to promote the storyteller’s brand when the story was what mattered.

For me, The Birdcage is the best example of Nichols’ tender and practical eye. He centered his actors, let the camera rest at eye level, and let Robin Williams and Nathan Lane talk around love.

Mike Nichols – thanks for bringing real humanity to the big screen for nearly 50 years.

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Rest in Peace, Mike Nichols

graduate last scene

lastscenegraduate

The first adult film I ever saw as a child was “The Graduate”. It had a profound affect on me. Although I was too young to understand the nuance and meaning of what was going on, I was emotionally taken by the beauty of Dustin Hoffman’s turmoil, the sun baked 60’s dream of California and the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. It wasn’t until I was in college when I understood the meaning of the film to its fullest. As college students, standing on the threshold between childhood and adulthood, where do we go? Here we are – some of us all stars in school, track phenoms, valedictorians, big man/lady on campus (others not) until we turn the tassel of our caps to the other side on commencement day (“commencement”= the beginning of something), and then the real work starts. A little hot-shot fish in a big, giant paranah eating world. So much pressure is on our shoulders. What are we supposed to bring to the world? Do we live our dreams, or place ourselves in boxes, allowing the conventional constraints our families and society impose to stifle us? Or do we break the pattern of living unconsciously, day by day.

My heart still aches at the site of Benjamin screaming from the window door atop the church, crying, screaming “Elaine!” just in the nick of time, just before she was about to make the biggest mistake of her life.

Then, the astounding, groundbreaking last scene. Two young people having just fought off an army of tight jawed, bigoted, good-ol-boy, country club robots, locking them into the church – a clan of hypocrites in their house of God (which in some cases, is known for its hypocrisy).  The getaway…a bride, breaking the cycle of her mother’s deadness. The bus. The laughs. The looks. The realization of…”Now what?”. The fear, as the confused couple rides into the sunset. This was never done before in film.   The anti-happy ending.

Although the screenplay of “The Graduate” was written by the fantastic Buck Henry, Mike Nichols had the vision that brought this story to life in a way no other director could. His intelligence and sensitivity to the characters, plus his humorous view of the world, as per his legendary comedy career with Elaine May,  made this story a voice for a generation.

Some other favorite Mike Nichols films for me are: “Heartburn”, “Working Girl”, “The Birdcage”, and “Angels in America”. Brilliant projects that have stayed with me for years. I plan on viewing more of his work this weekend.

There are just too many amazing people passing away this year.  Some before their time – others whose time was up. Sad to end a year this way.

Rest in peace, Mr. Nichols.


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The Great ‘I Am’

The Great 'I AM'

“Be impeccable with your word.”

I’m re-reading “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz, a spiritual book that speaks of the practices of the Toltec – a society of men and women once known in ancient Southern Mexico to be spiritualists, scientists and seekers of truth in the human spirit.  The first “agreement” is the aformentioned sentence: “Be Impeccable with your word.”

It’s so easy to forget the things we say and how we talk about ourselves and other people. The concept of being impeccable with one’s word is to not gossip, be negative on others or one’s self, or to believe the words that other people place on you (like: You ugly!) or others (like: She’s ugly!).  Be careful with words. This concept is a building block to help the mind reset and focus on positives so your life will follow. It’s sounds all “airy fairy” but it’s not. The mind is a powerful element, and the energy of the universe is something we will never understand unless we open our minds to the flow of life. Don’t judge it – or else you stop the flow.

These words have been coming to mind lately. I’ve just witnessed the end of a professional relationship that I found to be negative. Dark energy, gossip, anger towards other people I hardly knew, and chatter on how I should be just as angry as she about her situation. This person’s behavior was unfolded before me at my desk. I never asked for it. It was presented by her almost daily.  Sadly, her negativity and poor words spread like wildfire to the point where no one had a good word about her. So sad to see how someone is mired in the depths of their own hell, trying to pull everyone down with them so they are not alone.

It’s my hope she will find light out there.

We become the people we think we are. If we believe we are crap and everyone around us is crap, then people will see us as crap. Imagine what our lives would be if we take one step toward the light and tell ourselves how totally cool we are and how cool everyone else is? Not to live in a fantasy world, of course. It’s obvious everything is not awesome and perfect. But if we approach the negatives in life with faith and good vibes, maybe things will work out best after all.

And maybe then, we won’t attract negative people who invite us to join in on their self imposed misery?  It’s up to us to RSVP “no” to that party.