|What To Do On The Way Down
The week after Matt and Danny come back to the show, a reporter asks Harriet if there's anyone working in comedy today that she hates. She blinks in the press conference, stares down at the guy from the table, and she hardly understands what he's asking, because who asks that in a press conference, unprompted?
She says, "If you're trying to get me to say something about Matt Albie, I can tell you he's a great writer and a reasonably decent human being," and everyone in the room laughs. The reporter who asked the question looks satisfied, but she bites back a response. I hate Charna Halpern, she wanted to tell him. You want to know who I hate in comedy? I hate her.
Harriet hasn't thought about Charna in years -- she hasn't been back to Chicago, not even for the Improv Festival, since 1999. She isn't angry anymore, because she has enough to worry about without carrying around a luggage cart's worth of anger on top of everything else, and she's spent the last ten years trying to forgive everyone who'd ever slapped her, metaphorically, in the face.
She's even trying to forgive Matt, the best ways she knows how, and it's hard, but she is trying.
Harriet has never forgiven Charna, and she doesn't realize that she hasn't until the reporter asks that question. She's never forgiven Charna for resenting Harriet being pretty and being funny, and for punishing Harriet for that.
The fact that Charna's name is the first to float into her mind when someone says hate makes Harriet queasy, bile at the back of her throat. Harriet's made it, and Charna is still thumping around in Chicago, not paying her performers enough and keeping her thumb over the women who're talented and the ones who are pretty and the ones who are both.
Harriet doesn't have anything to be angry about, but she still is.
She doesn't know how to deal with that.
TJ had already bombed his first Saturday Night Live audition before Harriet had managed to stay on a mainstage team at Improv Olympic for more than three months straight. The schedule shuttled her between floundering Tuesday-and-Wednesday teams for three years, and she just took it, because there wasn't anything she could do about it. She complained about it to Peter at the bar after a show, peeling at the label on her bottle of Old Style and dropping the shreds on the floor. Peter pulled a face, patted her on the shoulder and said, I know, Harry, but she only listens to me so much, you know?
After the SNL audition, TJ came back to Chicago, to iO and Monday shows with the Armando Diaz Experience. He seemed happy enough about it when she ran into him backstage at Second City -- she'd nailed that audition and it wasn't the mainstage, but it was a break, and she got to write, too. Four years at iO, getting no kind of support from guys she knew weren't as talented as she was, had been just enough for her, thanks very much.
Who wants to live in New York, anyway, he said to her. You're doing pretty good here, you know, you were wasted at iO.
I want to live in New York, Harriet said.
TJ laughed, slapped her on the back, and said, You'll get there someday. Keep hacking it, Harry.
The show at Second City got a mediocre review from Hedy Weiss at the Sun-Times and a shitty review from whoever'd picked up the free tickets at the Reader office, but both of them praised Harriet above everyone else in the cast. Mick Napier stopped her at the closing party and asked her to audition for his next show, and then he cast her in the touring company and she spent 22 months on the road.
When Harriet woke up from 22 straight months, one day off out of eight, of doing the same three shows over and over again until she dreamed about the jokes, she was in L.A., having just signed a lease on a shitty studio apartment in West Hollywood. She was sitting in a bar with Tom Jeter, who was the ex-boyfriend of a friend of a teammate of Harriet's from her second year at iO, which was just how the improv community worked -- everybody always knew somebody.
Tom had never performed in Chicago, except for the Improv Festival, and he'd done all his training at iO West. He'd never met Charna, and Harriet crossed her eyes and counted the empty shot glasses on the bar (13) before she said, Charna hates women, and she especially hates women who are funnier than she is. Then she'd burped, laid her head down on the bar, and laughed until she'd cried, because she was unemployed and broke in L.A., and she didn't know anybody in the entire town except the ex-boyfriend of a friend of a teammate.
Tom said, You're funny, for a girl, and, seeing straight enough through her tears, Harriet punched him in the face and went home.
That was the second Thursday in May, 1998. Tom showed up at her apartment right after the second rerun of Cheers on WGN the next day, with a bottle of tequila and a black eye.
West didn't audition two-man teams, but Tom had a roommate and BeerSharkMice needed a new opener and they were taking open auditions for the slot, and -- I'm funny for a girl, Harriet said.
I'm trying to apologize, here, Tom said sheepishly.
Harriet stared at him, slumped on the burnt-orange flowered couch she'd bought from Goodwill, clutching a bag of frozen peas against his eye, and said, Don't step on my lines.
Tom's roommate was a klutz, and one of those guys Harriet had hated in Chicago -- not like TJ, or Noah, who she'd hated for being good, so good, better than she'd ever be, but one of those guys she'd hated because they weren't better than she was, but they thought they were. He made himself the center of every scene, and there wasn't enough charm in his gawky, clumsy gait to carry it off, but even with him bumbling around on the stage, Tom and Harriet figured out that they played pretty well off each other, and it wasn't half as bad as she thought it could have been.
Plus it was about 150 times better than her last show in Chicago had been, even when their audience at iO West was only three people, all of whom were drunk, two of whom weren't paying attention. For the first time since she'd left Omaha for Chicago 10 years ago, Harriet really got why she was still doing this. Tom was funny, and when they sat at the bar after their set and watched BeerSharkMice do their thing, he leaned against her shoulder and whispered to her -- sharp, smart, hilarious pointers about Neil Flynn's stage tics, about how they could have made the opening scene tighter, about who was sleeping with whom behind the scenes.
Tom was the first real partner she'd ever had on stage, and one night, playing to an audience of 18, they clicked so soundly that Harriet was surprised she couldn't actually hear the noise made by the pieces sliding into place. She felt stoned afterwards, leaning heavily against Tom and just smiling, and she couldn't imagine a better high.
L.A. wasn't Chicago, and word of mouth actually did make the crowds get bigger. After a month, they were playing to 40 people, and after two, the place was full when they started the set. People laughed. People bought Tom and his roommate -- and, 8 years later, Harriet can't even remember the guy's name, but she can remember every single time he stepped on a scene she was building and redirected it an entirely stupid way -- drinks.
One night, about four months in, all five guys from BeerSharkMice stood at the bar and watched their entire set, and afterwards, Pete Hulne grabbed Harriet by the elbow and said, You and the short kid, you guys are really good.
It was the nicest thing anybody had said to Harriet since she'd moved to L.A.; Tom was pissed off that Hulne hadn't offered them any con crit. Harriet just laughed, and when she lay in bed and prayed before she slept that night, she thought, Thank you, thank you, for finally giving me a break.
Six months into their run, Flynn got the audition for Scrubs and BeerSharkMice was suddenly scrambling for a fifth guy, somebody to fill in for Flynn's deadpan humor and uncanny sense of timing. They asked Tom, after Flynn's last show, when he was standing at the bar next to Harriet, picking apart the flaws in their set.
Just think about it, Mike said.
Hulne said, Maybe a test run.
Harriet wouldn't mind, right? Flynn said. Then they'd barreled out of the bar, laughing and shoving at one another, pleased by the success of one of their own, and Harriet was happy for Flynn, because he was a good guy, really talented, and the gig on Scrubs would be a huge break, but -- well. But.
The guy standing on Harriet's other side at the bar said, You know, the two of you are really too good together to break up.
What? Harriet said. He had thinning hair, sticking up haphazardly all over his head, and a pair of reading glasses propped on his forehead. He looked friendly, mouth quirked up at one corner, fingers wrapped around an untouched Amstel Light.
You and the kid, the stranger said. You're good together. Don't break that up.
Harriet ignored him. Go think about it, she said to Tom. I'll call you tomorrow.
Okay, Harry, Tom said. Good show.
Good show, she said.
The stranger was still watching her, amused, and he'd been joined by another guy, one hand in his pocket and the other loosely wrapped around the neck of an empty bottle. The stranger said, You don't trade on your looks. Not a lot of women in comedy have that going for them.
Who the hell are you?, Harriet said.
His friend said, You're pretty funny, for a girl.
Harriet reached out and poured the first stranger's beer over the second stranger's head, and that was how she met Danny Tripp and Matt Albie.
Tom's roommate got canned from his bartending job and moved back to New York; nobody missed him. Tom took the gig with BeerSharkMice, a six-month run finishing up with a gig at the Chicago Improv Festival.
Harriet flubbed her audition for Studio 60. It was a Wednesday in January, unseasonably cold for L.A., and she shivered, her keys cutting into her palm when she tried to unlock her car.
They put her on stage with Simon and told her to build a scene, and she couldn't think of a single place to start. She dropped the pages of the script Matt handed her. She tripped, fell down half a flight of stairs, and nearly killed Wes when she crashed into him at the bottom.
Jack and Wes thanked her politely, and Simon flashed her an apologetic smile when she shrugged into her jacket and tried to slink out quietly. Her one big chance, and she flubbed it, because of nerves, and the disarming way that Matt smiled at her from the audience, right before she tried to read the script.
Matt called her, afterwards. She was standing in the kitchen making a sandwich when the phone rang, and he didn't say hello when she answered. He said, What are you doing on Sunday?
Going to church, she said.
Church? He sounded surprised. What, like, an all-day thing?
Just in the morning, she said. Like a normal person.
Normal people don't go to church, Matt said.
Harriet said, Did you call for a reason, or just to make fun of my faith?
Sunday, 5 o'clock, he said. Cast meeting. Get there at 4, because you've got to do paperwork with HR before we get going.
Oh, shit, Harriet said.
Matt said, What, you've got plans?
No, she stammered, and then sat down hard on the floor, cheap linoleum cracking underneath her. She said, Really?
Wes liked you, Matt said. He said we needed to be doing more slapstick, and then he hung up.
Harriet lay on the floor of her kitchen, phone still clutched in her hand and dial tone ringing loudly from the receiver, and she laughed and laughed and laughed.
The first time she argued with Matt, it was about a sketch, but it was really about Del Close. I don't do jokes, she told Matt.
He shouted at her, You're working on a sketch show, of course you fucking do jokes!
Harriet didn't flinch. I do comedy, Matthew, but I don't fucking do jokes.
Fucking improvisers, he muttered, and he scrubbed a hand across his face, leaving a smudge of pencil lead streaked over one cheek. Then Matt looked up at her and smiled, the first time he'd really smiled at her since she'd joined the cast 14 months before, and he said, You know what the first rule of improv is, Harry?
She crossed her arms and stared at him.
It's about saying yes, Matt said. So here's a scene, and play by Del Close's fucking rules, all right?
All right, Harriet said.
Want to have dinner with me on Sunday?
Okay, Harriet said. Where? She wouldn't regret saying yes-and to Matt for almost five years.
When Matt quit, Jack Rudolph cornered Harriet after the cast meeting and said, When can I expect your letter?
She sputtered at him. What? I mean, Jack, what?
I assumed you were going with him, Jack said.
Harriet blinked at him, and fought down the urge to throw up all over Jack's shoes. I'm a comedian, Jack. I'm not an actress.
Matt was angry with her, because he was angry with everyone after he quit, and Danny sat on Matt's couch and stayed quietly drunk for three straight days. Matt raged, breaking plates and throwing a pint glass through the television.
They were lying in bed, on a Sunday morning, and he'd rolled over and propped himself up on one elbow. You should have come with us, he said, tracing circles on her stomach.
She had a bachelor's degree in theater, and she'd memorized Chekhov and Stoppard and Shakespeare when she was an undergrad, but it had never been her passion. Half the people Harriet knew in Los Angeles wanted to be great actors, and half the people on the show would rather be doing real film.
Harriet rolled out of bed that morning and went to church. She sat in the last pew and didn't listen to the sermon. She begged for an answer -- she'd left her career to her talent for all the years she'd been working, she'd relied on God for everything else, but she loved Matt and she'd never tried to balance work and love before -- and when she went back to Matt's apartment, she didn't have an answer, and he and Danny were stinking drunk on the floor.
She said, Matt, and stopped.
He looked up at her, eyes half-crossed, and smiled, wide and open and so close to the first time he'd ever smiled at her, and said, Danny got the money, Harry. We're gonna make a movie.
Danny said, Did you have something you were going to say, Harriet?
Nothing, she said. Congratulations.
She showed up for work on Sunday night, first drafts and Ricky and Ron making cracks at Matt and Danny left right and center, and when she got back to Matt's place, she didn't say anything about the next week's show.
Matt didn't ask.
Matt was never the bad guy.
He's an asshole, but he was never a bad guy. Never the bad guy.
She tells him the one about the bear and doesn't stay to watch his face, because she stopped being in love with him months ago but she hasn't stopped loving him. He's still the best writer she knows, and she can't stand to see disappointment on his face. But she turns, just before she walks out the door, because she can't help but want his reaction, after all these years. She catches just the edge of his expression, and it's not disappointment written there -- it's frustration, and fear.
She can read Matt's face as easily as she reads his scripts in rehearsal; he's always hidden behind his arrogance and his words, but his eyes give him away. He's scared as hell, and he's counting on Harriet to save him.
Harriet worked hard to get where she is. She did everything she was supposed to, the things that the comedy scene told her she should be doing, and she did a couple of things that she figured out on her own. She fell in love with Matt Albie because he didn't treat her like a woman -- he treated her like a comedian.
She couldn't have asked for more.
The bit about the bear got a laugh.
That's all she ever really wanted.
author's notes: title from del close, who said, "fall, and then figure out what to do on the way down". it takes a hell of a lot more guts and balls than i've got to make it as a woman in the pro comedy scene; this one's for every woman who's made it, and every woman who hasn't.
the boy answered all my annoying questions about professional comedy when i asked him, and didn't complain that i hadn't cared this much about his comedy when we lived in chicago. i'm indebted to his knowledge and his patience with my fannish activity (i didn't tell him why i wanted to know *grin*). the queen inspired and cheerlead; sid, asb and pru tolerated my rants about how people do care that much about comedy; and janet carter beta-read. <3 all of them.