Monday, July 16, 2012

Thoughts On Emotion: Jealousy, Envy & Sarah Silverman

"God, Carol, you are so jealous!!!"

It's the mid-90s and my friend Jennifer has been gushing about Sarah Silverman's totally awesome set at the Comic Strip the night before. Jen and I are watching TV and we've flipped by Sarah's fleeting image in an episode of Larry Sanders. I kept flipping, much to Jennifer's dismay.

"Hey!" she squealed, "I wanted to watch that!" I protested that she'd told me Garry Shandling "looked weird" and that there were better things to watch (though there actually weren't). But she was right... I didn't want to watch because I couldn't bear to look at Sarah.

"You have to understand, Sarah has one thing that you will never have..."

Now it's the late 90s and Lucien Hold (RIP) -- the legendary booker and manager of The Comic Strip who had helped launch Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and multitudes of other comedic luminaries -- is peering steadily at me after my mediocre set.

I feel a sickening tremble through my legs ... I just know his next words will be "she's funny and you're not" and I can't bear to hear them.

By that point, I've known Sarah for nearly a decade and watched her slowly climb to success while my own performing career had languished in ambivalence, ineptitude, and regret. I think of Marc Maron's words, "They say it takes 10 years to make it... funny, that's the exact length of time it takes to become a bitter, self-loathing failure." (Funny that he is now enjoying unique success with WTF... but that's a topic for another post...)

I had heard of Sarah a few months before actually meeting her. I had started comedy in February 1989 and had the dubious distinction of being "the youngest female comic in New York" -- which some emcees used as my introduction, partly to mock me because I had no other notable credit.

Then Sarah showed up, also an NYU student and a full 13-months-and-one-day younger than me ... and light-years funnier. We made passing hellos at the various clubs but never talked much until the evening after an NYU comedy contest where she was clearly the funniest thing on the stage.

I found her brooding in the hall of Loeb Student Center. "But... didn't you win?" I asked.

"No," she pouted, "They disqualified me because I'm not a student right now."

I saw her most frequently at the now defunct Boston Comedy Club, where she emceed and was even then beginning to hone her sexy-gross persona. She made jokes about her dentist talking to her with her mouth open ... even while giving him a blow job. She mocked her body, its smells, sounds and physical vagaries.

"I'm a really hairy person...?" one bit went, in her signature questiony up-talk ... "Like one day, I was eating...? And I realized there was a hair ...? in my plate..? And I realized it was still attached...? to my arm..???"

Laughter, laughter. And I laughed too, even as my face burned in jealousy. Or was it envy?

You see there is a difference between envy and jealousy.

Envy is begrudging covetousness... when someone has or has achieved something you want, and you loathe and resent them for it... and it is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Jealousy has to do with possessiveness and is a favorite emotion of the "jealous god" Yaweh who demands his followers worship no other god, etc. etc.

But there is an overlap ... in rivalry. Jealousy falls where we feel that another has gotten what should have gone to us ... as though she and I were equals and a capricious god had unfairly rewarded her with success while I fitfully spun my wheels.

Of course this was ridiculous.

Yes, we had a few things in common -- young, sort-of-sexy female, NYU students who were drawn to stagelight and laughter -- but the similarity ended there, a fact which Lucien made abundantly clear.

In those few moments, all of this shot through my mind as I prepared myself for the rest of Lucien's sentence... what, indeed, was it that she had that I didn't??

"She," he began, clearing his throat, "is a perpetual child. She is pretty and sexy and the men like that, but because she can be childlike, the women aren't threatened by it. So everyone likes her. She can make jokes about farting and, because of this persona, it's softened and funny.

"You, on the other hand ... well, you're not that. You have something too, you're sexy too, but it's intimidating, you have to be careful about alienating the audience. Once the women hate you, you're done..." (Truer words were never spoken, by the way.) He continued: "You don't know who you are up there. You have presence, but it's not focused. Keep at it though."

I thanked him, still shaking a little, but comforted by his feedback. It was not what my ego wanted to hear, but I knew he was absolutely right. I hung out at the Strip for maybe an hour after... I don't know, it was still a blur ... and there was Sarah.

It had been a few years since I'd seen her, but she recognized me and said hi and asked how I was doing. I told her I'd technically quit comedy a few years before and had joined a theater company, though I did a few minutes at the pre-show earlier in the evening. I told her I'd enjoyed her work on Larry Sanders and Saturday Night Live ...

"Why did you leave SNL, anyway?"

"Ummm... because they fired me..??"

My jaw dropped. I had no idea... of course now it is somewhat legend that she was released callously via a fax to her manager, but I had always imagined she'd left them for greener pastures. "I'm so sorry!" I spluttered..

"Oh, it's OK," she sighed, "It's a lousy place to work. Especially for women. They were awful to me. Like anything I wrote that was good they wouldn't let me do, and then they kept giving me bits that weren't right for me. I'm better off."

I still stared at her, dumbfounded. All those years of searing envy pooled miserably at my feet. What an ass I had been.

"God," I mumbled, "I had no idea." She shrugged in such perfect matter-of-fact humility.  Every angry, resentful impulse I'd felt now begged for absolution.

I couldn't stop myself from blurting out: "I ... I have to tell you ... for so many years, it's been so hard for me. I mean, I've been so jealous of you. It's stupid, I know ... but you're doing so well, and I'm just... well, I'm nowhere."

She regarded me calmly for a measured moment and said:

"But, Carol ... you finished college."

I was shocked ... at a complete loss for words (which is rare, as those of you who know me are well aware).

Of all the things she could have done or said ... she said that. She could have brushed me off, mocked me for my impromptu confession, made light of it, walked away... any of a googleplex of typical comedian reactions.

But she chose to say that.

It had never occurred to me that she had dropped out. Yes, I recalled what she'd said at Loeb after the comedy contest, but it didn't make a dent in me. Her problems weren't real to me; in many ways, she wasn't real to me -- she was the walking embodiment of everything I could never be, but felt I should be able to be.

I had never thought about her struggles, her disappointments, her regrets. And as if that incredibly compassionate sentence weren't enough to make me see a nimbus form around her head, she said:

"I mean, yeah, I'm doing OK in comedy now. But back then, I mean, what else was there for me to do?"

I think we may have chatted a bit after that, but I don't remember. I was so overwhelmed -- humbled, really -- by her kindness. "Holy crap," I thought, "This is a deeply good human being ... and she's funny. What a fucking amazing combination!"

And I felt an appreciation for what had been her very unique path.

And in that moment I began to sense that my own path would be unique and rewarding, even if it seemed pretty fucking opaque at that moment. (Indeed, if you had told me then that my creative path would involve bellydancing in Japan and Taiwan I would have asked what drugs you were on -- and I would have asked you to share!!)

I had spent so much energy looking (or not wanting to look) at what she was doing, envying what seemed to be her stellar path, that I hardly cast an eye to my own footfalls. No wonder I was stumbling.

Even then, I began to sense I would never really be a stand-up comic. I could grab a mic and make people laugh (sometimes), but it was not where my heart was. The problem was I didn't know what my heart was looking for .. because I didn't know my heart.

Seething with so much anger, resentment, jealousy, envy -- I could barely admit to myself that I was feeling these things because I was ashamed of it. But by coming clean to her, I stopped denying them. I admitted who I was, ugly as it was ... and she didn't shame me for it, and so I didn't either.

I started to feel... whole. And so the negative part of those feelings dissipated in an instant and gave me a glimpse of who I was -- good and bad -- and who I might become.

So that was my first step:  Just as she had followed her nose and enjoyed her opportunities as they arose, I realized that I should do the same:  Don't be fixated on being or becoming a particular thing ... just take on what presents itself to me and see whether or not I enjoy it. If I enjoy it, then keep on keeping on. If not, then go on to the next thing.

And most importantly, I had to learn to show myself the kind of compassion she had shown me, be patient, take things step by step -- let things come to me, and appreciate all of it, regardless of whether it looks like what I think I want.

And always, always, lead with my heart.