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In L.A., you ain’t shit

(Photo by Mandee Johnson)
(Photo by Mandee Johnson)

I was in Iowa City last week for a festival. My big sister traveled there with me—I flew to Chicago and she drove me to Iowa so we could spend time together and because she rules. Iowa City is home to a huge university with a Girls-approved writing program and those crumbly, red brick buildings of which so many campuses are fond. It’s quaint as hell.

I was almost too relaxed stepping onstage that night. My sis and I had spent the day eating for-real diner food at a for-real diner and strolling the river that snakes through town. It was the first spring-type day the city had seen and college kids were draped over everything, sunning hard. We joined them.

The theater I was performing at was old and rad and built in the ’20s and the local openers were on point—totally different from one another and really sweet and professional. Hospitality left me a dang basket of ChapSticks in my dressing room. You know how I love ChapSticks!

I’m from Chicago, and I mentioned that a few minutes into my set; I also mentioned that I currently live in Los Angeles. This was after I’d praised the crap out of Iowa City and talked of missing my hometown and tipped my side mullet to tough-as-hell Midwesterners fighting the good fight against crazy weather and succeeding. Then I said that I live in Los Angeles. At the mention of L.A., the crowd got a bit hushed. Then a gal in the audience yelled out, “I’m sorry.” I took a moment that night to let the audience know they didn’t have to feel weird about my living in Los Angeles. After all, it’s clearly working for me. I’m a major celebrity. But there’s more to my response than that.

I’m never a bit surprised to hear that someone hates my current address, which happens all the time. I get it; I grew up hating L.A. too. It’s such a dismissive city. So segmented and cutthroat. There’s no sense of community and no culture and the people are vain and vapid and made of cars and Botox. Unless you’re a movie star or a Kardashian, find a different place to live. Because in L.A., if you’re a normal person, you ain’t shit.

I didn’t understand why anyone would willingly relocate to such a crappy place. Whenever I heard of anyone moving to L.A., I’d imagine their convertible repeatedly stalling out mid-move à la Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion. I saw L.A. as a city of dreams and “making it,” and I hated the idea that anyone decided to pursue a dream with complete abandon. It just seemed so impractical. And selfish. And unhinged. I assumed cool people stayed in Chicago and fought to be discovered after coming home from their day jobs. Or maybe—maybe—cool people made a move to New York. But never L.A. Fuck L.A.

Then a group of Chicago comics I knew and liked and respected moved to L.A. Over the years, I’d see them on TV or in movies or I’d catch a glimpse of their tour schedules. I started to visit L.A. and got up at a few shows and went to a few parties and I began to I wonder if I’d been wrong. “Maybe L.A. is welcoming,” I thought. “Maybe there is culture and maybe the people are cool. Maybe moving to Los Angeles to pursue a dream isn’t a crazy thing to do.”

In the years that my mind began to change, stand-up itself became less dreamy. I wasn’t just open-miking; I was headlining local shows. I quit my day job. I started to tour. And once I got out on the road, I worried about the prospect of staying there.

I began to imagine myself at 50, living in a city that just didn’t have any jobs in my field outside of live performance and scraping rent together with live show earnings. I imagined myself having to go out every night for a set at some bar and having to drive to Milwaukee or Peoria or Madison every weekend and missing all the events my not-yet-existent kids would ever have and never sleeping in the same bed as not-yet-my-wife. It was when I knew what I didn’t want that I was finally ready to move.

I moved with nothing—I didn’t realize how much nothing, or maybe I wouldn’t have come. No agent. No manager. No couch. No apartment. No bookings. No work. I showed up anonymously in one of the world’s most anonymous cities, my full Star Wars Pez collection in tow, with a bit of name recognition from some L.A. comics I’d come up alongside in Chicago and nothing else.

And when I arrived, no one cared that I’d moved. Everyone I met was friendly and lovely and kind and working on their own shit. But they didn’t care that I was here. After all, at one point or another they’d moved here with nothing, too. In L.A., I wasn’t shit. That part proved to be completely true. What surprises me is how little that has mattered. It’s almost good to be nothing here for a bit. It helps to see the scope of the place and the duration of the commitment to this city. That commitment being: lifetime.

Because, you see, Los Angeles is about the long game. Moving here says as much about a person’s internal stability and it does about their imagination. L.A. isn’t a city one can move to to “make it” because there is no “making it”—no particular threshold that can be defined and no amount of promise that lasts. That’s what I didn’t understand prior to living here: Los Angeles isn’t a city that will make you. Los Angeles is a city where you will work if you can survive a very slow climb and outlast confidence-shattering lulls.

It’s a city coiled and closed and full of promise. Work is at its center. People move here not because they have a dream, but because they have a dream they plan to achieve. It’s the entertainment industry’s Washington, D.C., and no one gets to arrive as president and no one gets to be president forever.

The thing that makes this city great is how logical a backbone it provides to completely illogical pursuits. I joke around for a living. Los Angeles affords me the opportunity to sell that ability to audiences and TV bookers and casting agents and my fellow comics—comics at every level. Comics who are the reason I started in comedy. It’s an everlasting showcase in front of the folks who make the shows and movies I’ve always loved. It is a shitty and scary and sometimes harsh and often lonely city. But it’s more than a city of dreams. It’s a city of work, and that’s a good thing. That’s why I came here in the first place.