I’m riding shotgun in Fernando Sosa’s car, and we’re on our way to watch a comedy show because standup has consumed our entire lives.
“It’s so frustrating,” I say.
“The same thing, over and over again. I feel like I have nothing to look forward to.”
“Oh,” Fernando says. “Yeah, I get that, too.”
“The only thing I have left right now is the feeling that maybe I’m funny.”
“Shit,” he says, nodding his agreement. “That’s a good way to say that. You should write about that.”
“I don’t know. It’s depressing.”
“No, really,” he says. “I think a lot of comics would relate to that. I’d like to read it, for sure.”
“Okay,” I say. “I’m writing it in my notes, but only because you said that.”
As I type the words out in the notes section of my phone, I get a strange feeling that I’ve already written this.
It’s Friday night early July, and I’m onstage at the Hollywood Hotel performing to the best crowd I’ve had in L.A. The room’s packed, and they laugh easy.
To make it even better, it’s my show, “The Middle Show,” which I booked and promoted with the help of a few comic friends, all based on the fact that I knew five of my Oklahoma friends would be in town this weekend to celebrate my 30th birthday.
I’m last on the show, and all of the comics before me killed it – I knew they would. My first two jokes get big laughs. Things are going well.
As I launch into my bit about having a tattoo tramp-stamped on my back, I hear Rockey, my best friend of 12 years now, getting a little rowdy. I can’t quite make out what he says – it’s a little too drunk and slurry. I choose to ignore it.
“That’s right,” I continue. “I have the Foo Fighters’ logo tattooed on my back. So if you’re keeping track, I have five F’s tattooed on my body. I’m like a walking bad report card.”
The crowd laughs.
“When I was 19, I actually kicked a guy out of my party because he said, ‘Why would you get a Foo Fighters tattoo on your back?’ And I—”
“Trash times five!” Rockey screams, this time so loud it freezes the moment. He doesn’t shut up there. He says more things, mostly unintelligible ranting.
I’m actually not bad with hecklers when they’re strangers. But because I know Rockey so well, I know the absolute worst thing to do would be to try and engage him in some sort of witty standoff because whether or not I end up shutting him up, it will definitely take up too much time. He ain’t one to go down easy.
I decide to try a different approach. I stop in the middle of my joke and look him dead in the eye like I imagine a fifth-grade teacher would do with one of her unruly students. “Dear Best Friend,” I say. “Stop heckling me. Okay? Thanks. Love, Leah.”
That weird little speech quiets him, but it kills my momentum. I try my best to recover, and because the audience is so gracious, I pull it out okay enough, but the damage is done, and it’s right smack in the middle of my set, which is really what is most annoying about the entire thing. See, because the crowd was so awesome, I was trying to use this set to get a good video clip, which I definitely could use.
A rush of déjà vu hits me. This has happened before.
Two years ago, on the night I was celebrating my 28th birthday, another good friend of mine drunkenly heckled me while I was recording an album. The night actually ended in a brawl – well, maybe not so much a brawl as her yanking me down by my hair in front of all the people who just finished watching me perform. (In her defense, I did call her a dumb cunt. Several times.)
Anyway, call me crazy, but nothing makes me feel like I don’t belong anywhere quite as much as getting heckled at my show on my birthday by a dear old friend.
“Is she famous yet?” I hear Audrey, my stepmom, smugly asking in the background. “Ask her if she’s famous yet.”
“Audrey wants to know if you’re famous yet,” my dad asks.
“Yeah, Dad, I got that,” I say. “I told you, give me four more years.”
“Four more years!” I yell into my phone while standing on a busy sidewalk in Hollywood.
Last year, when I moved to Los Angeles, I told my dad that I’d be doing standup on TV in five years. In reality, I know the probability of me being on TV within five years of moving here is a long shot – not impossible, but definitely a long shot.
I just told him that to buy myself five years of peace. Because that’s the kind of thing you tell your 65-year-old parent when you up and move to the West Coast with your two Master’s degrees to work as someone’s secretary.
I should’ve known better. Rather than giving me peace, this bold claim has subjected me every week to Audrey’s obnoxious, slightly mocking question: “Are you famous yet?”
“I’m having trouble hearing you,” Dad says.
“I said four more years!” I scream.
Normally I’d go on to try and describe what it’s like to scream at my hard-of-hearing dad over the shitty reception on his cordless phone line, but turns out I’ve already told that story. Back in March of 2011.
It’s mid-July, and I’m driving to Pasadena to meet up with CP. He’s performing at the Ice House tonight. At midnight once the show’s over, we’re supposed to go with some other comics to see the new Batman movie even though it’s three hours long, and I have to get up at six for work in the morning.
I haven’t talked to CP in six months. For the past two months, though, I have been cracking myself up by randomly sending him text messages that he never responds to. Like this gem:
“…I’m not in love with you anymore. I wish that we were really friends, though, because I would talk to you about comedy…it would have been nice to have someone to talk to. That’s all.”
Followed immediately by this gem:
“This is Leah by the way.”
And roughly a month later:
“…To stop receiving these messages from Leah Kayajanian, please reply STOP, otherwise she will continue to attempt to force you into being her friend.”
None of which he responded to. So it shocks the hell out of me when I see his name on my phone tonight asking me to go watch Batman. I didn’t even know he was in town.
I walk into the Ice House and notice him waving at me from across the room. As I approach, I immediately realize I have nothing to say to him. On the up side, I have absolutely no feelings for him, this man I was head-over-heels in love with just shy of a year ago.
“Hi,” I say. “I’m not gonna go to the Batman movie.”
“What? Why not?”
I shrug. “I have to work in the morning.”
That’s true, but it’s not the real reason I’m not going. The real reason is that I was only going in the first place out of spite. Because I’m supposed to see the movie with my friend – we’ve been planning it for weeks – but I’m mad at him right now because not even two hours ago we got into a huge fight about the same thing we always fight about: us.
CP buys me a drink with his drink ticket, and we sit at a table waiting for his turn to go on, forced conversation between us. “Where you been working?”
He lists the clubs and cities he’s been to in the past few weeks, and I shake my head. “What?” he asks.
“I’m just really jealous of you right now.”
CP closes down the show, and he does really well, no surprise there. After his set, he introduces me to his friends, a couple that came out to see him. “They just had a baby,” he says.
“Mmmm,” I say. “Good, uh, for you.” Then I just stand there awkwardly while they discuss boring things because I can’t think of one thing to say to any of these people. And just to be clear, I’m not bad at conversations. It’s the people. They’re not my kind of people.
On the drive back to my house, I feel relieved, but I’m also a little sad. Don’t get me wrong – I’m glad my feelings for him aren’t there anymore, but it does kind of make me feel like nothing that happens matters.
The next day, I text CP asking him for the name of the guy that books a show in the area. He sends me the name and writes this at the end of the message:
“…once again I (gladly) hooked you up and in return please don’t write about this.”
And I respond:
“You know that when you say that, I want to do it to spite you, right?”
But, wait, even as I’m typing this it feels so familiar because this is the second time I’ve written about him asking me not to write about him.
Goddamnit, I’ve told this story already, back in October of 2011.
I’ve been writing stories for okc.net for two years. I remember when Colin Newman, the founder, first asked me to write – he gave me free reign to send in an article on any topic.
“Really?” I asked. “I can just write anything?”
Sometime mid-July, I read through every post I’ve written over these past years during a slow day at work.
I came across a story from January of 2011. In it, I quote myself from an interview I did back in 2008. And now, in August of 2012, I’d like to quote myself quoting myself:
“…during my interview, a very drunk, very naïve younger version of me says, not so eloquently, ‘I don’t wanna be famous, but I wanna fuckin’ travel around and tell jokes – that seems like the coolest thing ever. Touring around with my friends.’ ”
“You’ve found your people,” Danny [my interviewer] says. Later, he adds, “Wandering around. Collecting stories and dispersing them.”
“That’s the ideal life for me,” I say. “It just fits.”
“Collecting stories. Dispersing them. My people.”
Today, more than four years after I first said that, more than a year and a half after I quoted myself saying that, I realize that I still only want that. I don’t know what the other L.A. comics want, but I just want that. And I’m still not doing that. I’m telling jokes. I’m writing about it. But from Oklahoma to L.A., I’m stuck in the same place doing the same thing over and over again with nothing to look forward to. There are just no adventures anymore.
And even worse, I’m running out of stories.
First Sunday in August, and I’m sitting at a Starbucks by myself waiting for them to post the list for the Comedy Store open mic. Chances of me getting on are abysmal – I got lucky and made the list two weeks in a row, so there’s pretty much no way I’m getting on it again.
I decide to take a break from staring into space and listening to sad music, and I call Rockey, who I’ve only talked to once in the past month.
He picks up pretty quickly. “What’s up?”
“Nothing,” I say. Then, “Will you please remind me why I’m here?”
He laughs. “You mean there in L.A.?”
“Well, because you needed to get away from here, right?”
I sigh. “Yeah. That’s definitely true.”
“And you did it for comedy because you thought it was the right decision.”
“Why are you asking?”
I take a deep breath. “Because, man, I’m just not happy.”
“Well, are you thinking you want to come home?”
I start walking down Sunset back toward the Store. “No, I don’t want to be there either. But I hate it here. I don’t like this city. I mean, the comedy scene is great, but this place isn’t for me. I just feel like there’s no one here I can really talk to about real things.”
That’s not true – in reality, I’m the one that’s been isolating myself. There’s one friend in particular that I want to talk to more than anyone, but like a dumbass, I went and fell in love with him, and like every other time that’s happened before, it’s only ended in disaster.
I’d try and explain it better, but I’ve already told that story. A month ago. The same day, in fact, that Rockey heckled me at The Middle Show.
I look up. “Oh my God,” I say, stopping short. “I’m standing five feet away from Jack Nicholson right now.”
“Jack Nicholson. He’s sitting on a patio eating dinner, and it’s weirding me out. It’s not even a good restaurant!”
“That’s fucking crazy!” Rockey says. Pause. “You know, it sounds like you feel the same way in L.A. that you did when you were in Oklahoma.”
“I do.” I turn away from Jack Nicholson and start walking again. “But I can’t leave because I’m like a million dollars in debt from moving here in the first place. All I really wanted to do was come here and get some dumb credit so maybe I could be a road comic. Now I’m stuck.”
“Yeah, it would be pretty stupid to leave your steady job,” he says.
“Yeah.” I stop walking at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change. Directly across the street from me, I focus on a Hollywood hot girl type. “Oh my God. There’s a girl across the street right now, and she has no pants on.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. She’s like in her underwear or some shit. Those are definitely not in any way pants, that’s all I know.” The light turns, and I start walking across the crosswalk. “See what I mean? What the fuck is up with this place? In a half a block, there’s Jack Nicholson and a girl who’s not wearing pants.”
“Are you sure you’re just not sad right now?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe. When I think of L.A., he’s really the only part of here that made me happy.”
“So you’re just not talking to him anymore?”
I sigh. “I just can’t.”
I walk up to the mob reading the list in front of the Comedy Store, and one of the comics looks at me and gives me a thumbs up. I approach the window. For the third week in a row, my name is on the list. Either I’m on an unbelievable luck streak, or someone here likes me.
“So what are you gonna do?” Rockey asks.
“I’m going to figure out how to get the fuck out of here.”
It’s not the open mics that bother me – it’s the isolation. Really, the open mics are the only things that keep me going. In my mind, I know that everything takes time, and I’m paying my dues just like everyone else here in this stupid place. But my heart, my dumb idiot heart, my stupid piece of shit heart that seems to be the bane of my existence, my riding-the-short-bus heart that I followed to get myself in all these messes in the first place is once again in direct opposition to my mind, and it wants nothing more right now than to leave.
Even as I write this, I realize that this battle between my heart and mind is a story I’ve told before. Back in April of 2011, in fact.
I don’t know what to do. For the time being, there’s really nothing I can do but walk into the Comedy Store and do my three minutes at one of the toughest open mics in this god-forsaken city.
But if I could find an escape route out of this place right now, this is what I’d do:
I’d hop in my car and drive straight to Oklahoma. I wouldn’t stay there. I’d just stop long enough to pick up my dog from my Mom’s house where I left him in April. Then I would just keep driving. I’d drive around the country and listen to music I like and stay with all the people I’ve met in all the places I’ve been.
Because if I’m gonna be alone anyway, I might as well be wandering.