Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard
Pressing record on my iPhone, I place it on the stool and open up my notebook. I chose my jokes carefully as I grabbed the mic. It was comedy time.
“Hey, how y’all doing?” I ask the room as my classmates cheer, and then begin the jokes I wrote. About 20 seconds in, the blonde southern woman sitting on the couch next to the stage, also known as my teacher Bobbie Oliver, stops me.
“You have to slow down!” Bobbie yells in that southern drawl. “We can’t keep up with you. Take a deep breath, and begin again.”
I breathe deep and continue. As I tell one of my jokes, she laughs. But I continue my set and speed up again.
“You’ve got great content,” she said, looking at her notes. “The writing is funny. But you need to slow down. You know these stories, but your audience doesn’t. On top of that, they’re drunk. So you need to slow… down…”
I nodded as she continued her critique. I listen fully, never challenging her, but asking questions about certain things.
“Comedy’s all a learning process,” Bobbie said kindly to the room. It’s one of those Bobbie-isms that I have to take to heart if I’m really going to do this.
I didn’t want to do comedy, at least not at first. But I would go to parties, everyone would laugh at my funny stories and say, “You do comedy, right?”
“Nope, I’m a writer,” I said.
“But a comedy writer?”
“Nope. Just blog content and journalism.”
People would be flabbergasted. How could such a funny girl not be doing comedy?
The truth was I did standup once, by accident in 2011. It was when I was married back in Orange County, and we were at a comedy event at someone’s house. The mike went out as this one (unfunny) girl was doing standup. Luckily, I’m loud, so I decided to get up in front of everyone and entertain them as they fixed the problem.
Afterwards, one of the comedians came up to me. “Have you ever done that before?” he asked.
“Nope,” I replied.
“Have you ever thought about doing that professionally?”
I honestly hadn’t. He referred me to a guy he knew and told me to get in touch. But as life gets in the way, mine certainly did and the idea fell to the wayside.
Coming back to Los Angeles after the divorce, I followed a friend around the standup comedy circuit, supporting her since we were both going through divorces at the same time. She was using standup as a way to get her acting career going. She did pretty well and was very funny, but I saw the struggles she faced, from sketchy producers to male bias who would only cast pretty girls who they wanted to get with. It wasn’t an easy world, no matter how good she was. Eventually, she stopped and switched to doing improv and more acting-related things, and our friend circles took us far away from each other.
it made sense that people thought that I should do standup since they thought I was funny, but I didn’t want to be a part of that world that made it so hard for women to be involved with. I would come up with excuses: I was too fat. Not hot enough. Not interested in being an actress. My friend was in the comedy scene and I didn’t want to compete with her. And yet people kept coming back and telling me I should do comedy. Several people even offered to mentor me. But I kept refusing.
Around this time, I had a friend who told me about the woman he trained with, Bobbie.
“I think you’ll really get along with her,” he said, and gave me her number. We began messaging and we got along very well. I was getting ready to take her class… until the day after I got laid off from my job. It was like everything in the universe was blocking me from this path, and so I decided to go with it. Who was I to challenge the universe?
However, the months rolled on, and as I was getting ready to visit Israel, something was changing in me. I was getting anxious at the parties where I was normally just the funny girl. I was feeling my energy bursting out at the wrong times. It wasn’t doing me any favors, whether in my dating life or with my friends and potential work life. I needed to make an adjustment and fast.
Going to Israel soothed my soul, but then I went to Tsfat and had a vision: I had to make people laugh. The day after, I sat on the Eged bus on the way to Haifa, thinking as I watched the scenery shift around me. The Mediterranean sprawled out on the train while music played in my ears, and I wondered about this message. Was this just my imagination or something very real?
As I came home and hugged my mother, the thoughts continued rolling as I joined her through cancer treatment. At City of Hope, I spent my entire day making my mom laugh despite the nervousness, so much so my mom called me, “the human Xanax.”
As the sun set on the way home, my father looked at us as my mother and I were laughing.
“Was Reina always this funny?” he asked.
“Of course I was!” I said.
“You were, but I think you’ve gotten funnier since the divorce,” she said.
And eventually it dawned on me: There was a gift inside of me, and it couldn’t be quashed no matter how many excuses I made for it, and the bad things made it stronger. It was what made my mom smile while she was having her cancer treatment and my friends encourage me to step off in a new direction. It was meant for me to do.
So I talked to Bobbie again and found out she had an open mic on Monday nights. It was all women, and I figured that if I was going to do this, I was going to try it once to see if I could be funny. If I wasn’t, all I lost was one night.
Her room enveloped me in deep red and black couches, with tiny flickering electric candles. The lights onstage were bright. And as I put my name on the list and every person came up there with a notebook and an iPhone, I was ready to run out of the room. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know what to do. How could I be funny, really?
Suddenly, my name was called and there was no backing out. I pulled the microphone out from the stand awkwardly and began to talk. I started with my grandmother, one of the funniest ladies I had ever known, and told the story of her getting drunk, stripping to her bra and underwear and running into the pool and riding around on a pool noodle. And she was terrified of water.
That’s when I heard it: Laughter. It made my heart sing in delight, and I decided to keep going. Told my stories. Heard the cackles. And I didn’t stop until the light in the back of the room to signify one minute.
As I got off the stage, I breathed deep. As the women around me circled and became shocked that I had never done that before, I realized I needed this. Comedy. The laughter. The applause. This was what I wanted, what I needed. And it felt better than anything in the world.
So I began to write. I tried jokes and some worked, while others didn’t. I “bombed,” which Bobbie lectured me never to call bombing. (“It’s part of the joke writing process. You try to succeed and sometimes you have to change things around to make it work. Bombing is when you have the joke right and it still doesn’t catch in an audience. And that will happen, too”) I observed and joked, and went to various open mics to try out my material. And I’m still going.
I have felt every emotion as I watched other female comedians: Happiness, jealousy, anger, surprise and even sadness. They were each beautiful and had their own rhythm and songs to sing. And somewhere in this quilt work was me, a little needle trying to poke through and see what was going on.
As I sat in class one day, the only guy there tried to attempt a joke. One of the parts of the joke he wrote was something that some Jews would consider offensive. I wasn’t, partially because I’ve heard these jokes a million times before.
During his critique, Bobbie said to be careful about that punch line.
“I was worried about that joke because I was concerned she would get offended,” he acknowledged, referring to me.
“Of course she wouldn’t get offended,” she said. “She’s a comedian.”
When she said that, something clicked in me. Yes, I thought. That’s right. I’m a comedian. And I was doing comedy. And it felt more right than anything else had in a long time.
So I decided I was going to keep doing it with no desperate quest for money, fame or agenda. Or rather, I would have just one: Make the world a little brighter for people by making them laugh. Because if there’s one thing we all have in common, we all smile.