Do Something New: Attempt (And Fail) To Go To An Improv Jam

So the “do” in today’s “Do Something New” is pretty much just the act of trying. My idea was to go to an improv class, but it was a last-minute scheduling change for this series, and I didn’t have time to get things in order the way I normally would. It’s for that reason that I elected to go to a Friday-at-midnight “improv jam” at ComedySportz in Chicago: It’s an improv show, technically, but they have audience participation, so I figured it was something like a class.

I went into this attempt in good faith. As in, despite the fact that midnight is really and truly the middle of the night for me – I think that at 28 and never having partied much, I am past the age that midnight is a reasonable time for me to be awake – and despite the fact the cell on my planning spreadsheet read “Improv (uuuuuugh)” because I really, really do not like the comedy environment or people who seem to love improv with a real gusto, I wanted to like it. I was not in a good mood by the time I arrived, but while I was waiting, I thought, hey, maybe once it starts, I’ll start laughing and it’ll be fun and I’ll have a good time. Who knows.

It might be pertinent to know why I hate the comedy environment, which I mean to say, like, the atmosphere of comedy as a whole. I love stand-up, and I admire people who can improvise and really think on their feet and be witty. I figured I’d try participating because I would like to be a funnier-on-my-feet sort of person. But going to comedy shows and watching stand-up and even really just watching comedic TV shows and movies is torture, because the field really is glutted with men, and there’s a long-standing tradition of not playing with but playing on old, tired stereotypes to get a laugh. The best comedians play with stereotypes, and use them in new, pertinent, captivating ways to create a dialogue about contemporary gender and race issues. But most comedians aren’t the best, and when it comes to comedy specials featuring male comedians, women are forced to wait for the other shoe to drop, for the comedian to make a whiny woman-voice and cast us – every single one of us – as harpies, prescribe how we’re supposed to look and act to make them more comfortable, and ha ha ha, we as women can either get pissed and walk out or turn it off, or we can sit there and laugh and internalize this bullshit. Which is not to say that every male comedian does this, or that every male comedian does this for the entire length of his career, that no one wisens up and improves their jokes and doesn’t use tired clichés about women as a crutch. But it happens a lot.

What that’s done, too, is created an atmosphere for comedy fans that isn’t always so women-friendly. Unfunny men pick up on these stereotypes and apply them toward women in real life. They view our existence in their domain – comedy – as an invitation to hit on us aggressively, or skewer us for our femininity or lack thereof, or any number of other unpleasant things. Again, not all the time, but it happens a lot.

What happened on Friday is that I attempted to go to this show, and I’m sitting there at 11:45 looking at my phone, doing work in my Drive app and trying to get directions for another work thing I was doing the next day, and a man came up to me and leaned over me, hand on my table, where I was sitting alone in maybe the I-don’t-give-a-fuckiest clothes I have to wear, not that it matters. That posture, by the way – leaning over a someone else – is really not fun to experience on the other end, let me tell any guys (or for that matter gals!) who have done that to someone without thinking about it. It’s a way of boxing us in and asserting dominance, basically, and I’m a thinking, intelligent adult who’s really not into that.

That being said, I tried really hard to be nice to this guy as he started maybe the most boring conversation with me he possibly could have: “Have you ever been to an improv show before?” “Do you know what they’re going to do?” “They could do, like, anything! It’s crazy!” Literally those words. “It’s crazy!” Literally that. Verbatim. And then, as I attempted to humor him enough to communicate that I respect his right to approach strangers with no ill intentions, but really did not want to speak to him right at that moment or maybe at all (because I have the right not to want to talk to people and have that respected), he kept rephrasing those same questions. Eventually there was a pause in the conversation, so I went back to my phone, and he walked away.

Then he came back with a beer and sat his ass down in the chair right next to mine, at which point I had to do everything I could to suppress a “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” I’m trying, see, to be nice to men who hit on me, because I recognize that my prior strategies of swearing at them and deriding them was probably disproportionately hurtful (it is hurtful to be constantly objectified, but it maybe doesn’t merit being told that you’re a worthless sack of shit or something), even if it was effective. I want to be a nice person. I don’t want to be angry. So I tried not to get angry as he then attempted to ask me the same exact questions he had before, repeating the “It’s crazy!” thing – and let me just say now that it is decidedly not crazy, whatever “it” is. He kept asking questions, and I just kind of looked at him, unsure of what to do as he kept asking those questions and basically just talking to himself, so, dumbfounded, I just said, “I’m going to go back to looking at my phone now.” Rude? Maybe. Definitely an improvement over “Fuck off,” though. I’m trying.

Did he stop? Did he take the hint? Did he write me off as a bitch and excuse himself to another table? No, but I would have preferred all of those things. I was texting my fiancé right then and giving him a play-by-play of this miserable conversation, when the guy turned and tried to start up the conversation again, giving me his name and asking for mine. To which I replied, annoyed out of my skull, “I’m leaving now,” and picked up my bag and left.

Things I know:

  1. The guy wasn’t trying to be annoying or hurtful or invasive.
  2. The guy didn’t know that I was taken. I don’t wear an engagement ring, after all.
  3. The guy had every right, like I said, to approach a stranger and start a conversation.
  4. The guy might not even have been hitting on me!
  5. I could have been nicer.
  6. I also could have just been very clear and told this guy that I didn’t want to talk to him.

Also things I know:

  1. The guy was being annoying and invasive regardless of his intentions. And that could have been avoided had he not been of the mind that getting me to give him attention, and trying to force me to take part in this conversation, was more important than my clear discomfort.
  2. It doesn’t matter if I’m taken or not. I shouldn’t have to be someone else’s property in order for other people to leave me alone if I want to be left alone. I didn’t bring it up to him because I really don’t think he should have bugged off because he respects Michael, I think he should’ve bugged off because he respects me.
  3. While everyone has a right to approach strangers – that’s fine! – it would behoove us all, I think, to be as good as we can at reading body language and such, and I was trying my darnedest to project “Please go away” without actually having to say it.
  4. He might not have been hitting on me, but let’s be realistic, the guy was not just trying to make a friend.
  5. I could have been nicer, but I didn’t feel like making him feel attended to and comfortable at the expense of my own comfort, and that seems reasonable.
  6. My strategy next time may be just to say something along the lines of “I appreciate that you’re not being rude or anything, and I hope you have a good time here, but I would really like to be left alone right now.” My strategy with guys hitting on me is a work in progress, and I guess we’ll see how it goes.

And here’s the thing: I barely ever leave my apartment alone, and certainly not at night. I still battle with a lot of PTSD-induced stress and paranoia over being alone after dark. I left that show and had to stay on the phone with Michael until the train arrived because I was shaken from the experience, which happens to rape survivors with PTSD whether or not someone was actually intending to hurt us, and whether or not we rationally believe that someone was trying to hurt us (for the umpth time, I know he wasn’t). So for the effort I made to leave my apartment, travel alone, and be alone in a new place, I didn’t get the improv jam I was planning on. I got shaken and uncomfortable and upset and went home, while the guy got to enjoy the night he planned. I – or some other chick – was, in his night, a potential unexpected bonus. See what I’m saying here? It doesn’t level out. And I don’t want to point my finger and say “That’s comedy’s fault!” but to some extent, a field of guys who talk about women as mindless naggy sex objects will tend to normalize that way of thinking for their audience.

So did I Do Something New? Well, I tried to go to an improv jam, and failed, and sometimes trying and failing is what you get when you do something new. I also got hit on by a really, really annoying guy who wouldn’t take a hint and managed not to get outwardly mad or hurt his feelings, and that’s new for me. I’ll take it.


[Image via Shutterstock]

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