Order of the Good Write

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


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Yes! Amy Poehler’s Book is My New Bible

AP Yes PleaseI remember the first time I saw Amy Poehler in person. She was walking down the dark, shiny marbled floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza’s hushed lobby. It was during my lunch hour. It was 2003.  I was working next door at 75 Rock. It was a temporary pit stop. My team moved from our techno clean, hip, loft-like offices of AOL on West 18th Street, uptown to the corporate world of Time Warner, and were waiting out the final stages of construction on the new Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle before officially moving into our new digs. Glass shiny twin towers were going to be our new home. A strange architectural choice considering 9-11 happened only a few years before.

I digress with purpose. Nevertheless, I digress.

There was Amy. Walking fast, her bag on her back, zipping up her jacket as she moved. Her head was down. Her look… pensive. She was on SNL at the time (obviously), and you could tell she was in the middle of a show week. Marathon hours. She was so tiny and blonde. She radiated a tomboyish hustle. She was lady who wasn’t in the mood for nonsense that moment, but was capable of turning it on when it counted. At the time, I felt a sense of “wow, cool. Amy Poehler from SNL”, but I never realized what an impact she’d make on my life in the years to come.

As one of the co-founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade (at the time I was vaguely aware of her connection), she has helped girls and ladies as old as the sun like me –  find their power.  (“Smart Girls at the Party” anyone? Check it out.) During the hardest time of my life, the space she and her colleagues created at the UCB Training Center gave me a safe place. It’s where I escaped every Sunday for months on end, from the sadness and illness of home – to a room with chairs and windows and improv exercises.  I found The Game. I got to play. I got to be funny. I got to laugh. I pretended to be someone else. I created object work. Edited. Tagged out people. Turned beats of a scene into new ideas. I learned to trust people. Listen. To know when to step into a scene and when not to. I learned to look into the eyes of other people for long periods of time. I learned to get out of my head.I learned to scare the shit out of myself.

I’m reading Amy’s glorious autobiography right now. It’s not a detailed version of her life. It’s not a kiss and tell all book. No. This is a book of profound inspiration for women and men. But mostly – I would say – women. We have to navigate life differently than men. She encourages with tools from her own learning experiences.  Amy doesn’t talk about her divorce, but lends her personal experience to provide solace to anyone going through a breakup. She talks about being strong, giving a big “F U” to the demon inside. She also talks about struggle and working hard and being detached from the outcome of your work. For instance, I’ve just finished the chapter entitled, “Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend”, which offers wisdom on how to remove yourself from the outcome of your work. Don’t judge it. Don’t struggle with it. Don’t let it call you up for a bootie call in the middle of the night when your career has another piece of something on the side. Don’t let your career tell you what to do. Ignore it. Cultivate it. Love it. But don’t be desperate. Give it breathing room. Let it call you. I love this advice. It’s so real and funny and sage and gorgeous and encouraging and beautiful.  It’s just a morsel of kick ass advice Amy provides – given by a woman who was raised right. Seriously, her mom and dad must have ruled. They produced a terrific, strong woman who figured it out.

And that’s what this book is about. Figuring it out. Figuring out how to not beat yourself up for not being perfect. Realizing how strong those imperfections make you. Showing how smart you become when coming into your own skin and owning your life – rather than allowing someone or something or a company – to own you. Realizing that you should NOT live in fear. Screw fear. Fear can take a hike, or blow it out it’s ear. Yeah, we’ll feel it. Fear will pervade, but you’ve got to learn from it, heed to its concern and then say “See ya! Leave me alone now!”  And anger over situations and idiots in your life?  You let it wash over you. Your energy is better spent feeling something more positive.

So, I’m amazed at our Amy. I’m sorry I call her “our” Amy. Amy belongs to no one. But in my heart, she’s my Amy because she has lead by example for years now. Having studied at her school, having seen her do improv in person many times, and having watched her flourish along with Tina Fey as a strong, funny woman who owns her authenticity – this book is the cherry on top. I’m not even done with it yet. I’m sure I’m leaving out some more delicious goodies to come, but I can’t help myself. This book is the bomb and I gotta sing it now.

If you need some funny, down to earth inspiration from someone you will very likely relate to – pick this book up – “Yes, Please” over on Amazon. No really. Do it. The new year is coming up. Her book will rock your 2015. And if you had a great 2014 like I had – it will just continue to make it flow.


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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.

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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