Listen to Episode #74 here
Working On Spec with Claire Downs
Our guest is Claire Downs. Claire is a comedian, writer and producer who lives in Los Angeles, a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She does a bit of everything. She’s sold pilots. She’s written scripts. She’s written for Cosmopolitan, The Daily Dot and VICE Motherboard. One of her UCB sketches has over 108 million views on YouTube. I’ve watched it and laughed out loud. Welcome, Claire. If you weren’t working as a comedian, a writer or a producer, what would you be doing?
This one involves maybe a genetic shift. I love language. This is also the same answer to what my superpower would be. I wish I could speak more than English as a primary language or teaching English as a second language. I think it’s funny. The pursuit of learning language is amazing. I have so much respect for people who teach it and also anyone who’s bilingual or multilingual is amazing. Maybe I would be a language teacher.
You certainly can use words well in English. I don’t think it would require that much of a shift.
It’s that brain thing. When I was in high school, I took French and my best friend in French class was this boy named Devin. Devin wanted to be a pilot. His idea was that he was going to take as many languages as possible. He was taking French, Spanish and Italian at the same time. He was acing all of these. I was struggling in French to get through it. I wanted it, but I didn’t have the piece of brain that allowed me to fluently get into that.
At least you want it. I don’t think I’m going to learn a second language in my life. There are a lot of people on the dating apps who wouldn’t want to go out with me if I ever said that out loud, which I have. I feel it’s going to be too hard. I’d have so many other things I want to do. Frankly, it’s so easy to travel if you only speak English.
We have a universal language.
It’s such a luxury as an American. There have been a few places in the world that I’ve been that it’s been hard like places in China. For the most part, I learned how to say, “Hello, thank you, excuse me, good morning or good afternoon.” It goes far like 90% of the places in the world.
The bar is low for American English speakers to try. One time I went to Tijuana and I couldn’t believe the Americans there weren’t even trying, “Hola, Buenos Dias.” Even butchering it, they couldn’t even do it. I’m like, “Try a little.”
They also have too much tequila in their system at the time. I find that my language inability and lack of motivation aside, I do find that being friendly, smiling, being polite, being patient get you three-quarters of the way there in most places in the world.
I’m biased obviously in saying this, but we are the friendliest people in my travels to the point where people are like, “Why do they smile so much? What are they laughing at? Why are they smiling?” It’s our way of being from a melting pot. We do give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to cultural faux pas. I don’t know if that’s true in other countries.
I’ll give you the people friendlier than us, the Kiwis, the people from New Zealand. Australians are notoriously friendly and funny. I’ve spent a lot of time in Australia. I did a whole bunch of this podcast with Australian comics. I did a little short vacation, five days in the South Island in New Zealand. Their friendliness was almost off-putting for me because it made me suspicious. My example of this is I was in a town. I checked into the hotel. I went up to my room. I dropped all my stuff off. I was going to come downstairs, go for a walk and explore the city. I had a question for the front desk person. There were two people working at the front desk. It was a slow day. We started talking. They kept talking. They were nice. They were friendly. At some point I was like, “We need to wrap this up. I need to get going.” Normally, you get the sense from someone who’s working a job at some point, they’re like, “Mister, move on.” These Kiwis would have talked to me for an hour. It was incredible. They’re super fun.
The other example is I was telling a Kiwi about was this experience in airports. If you’re standing in a New Zealand airport at baggage claim, there will be a group of people together having an animated conversation. You’re like, “They must be all traveling together.” The bags will come out and they’ll pick up the bag and walk away. You’re like, “That was a group of strangers.” This is the perfect segue into my question for you. You have lived in three great comedy cities. You’re from Chicago. You were educated, lived and worked in New York. Now you’re obviously in Los Angeles. I’m curious about this because when we were launching The Humor Code, as part of our promotion, we created an algorithm. The Humor Research Lab created an algorithm that ranked the funniest cities in America. Chicago was number one. New York was six and LA was seven or vice versa, LA was six and New York was seven. These are great comedy cities. Can you characterize their differences?
I started my comedy training in the second city. When I was in high school, I didn’t get into the school play. It was devastating. I tried to get on junior improv teams for teenagers that opened for the main show there. It was called the Teen Ensemble. This is where I met my friends that were from all different schools that were funny. I got on this team. That’s where I began my training. I would do improv classes and adult improv classes there in the summers when I was home. I don’t think they had teenage sketch classes. I wrote sketches with my friends in Chicago. I would characterize the Chicago style of comedy as an expert in self-deprecation, first of all. You take the Midwestern people who are very friendly and polite. Beneath that politeness, I fuck up too. You make jokes about how not everything is perfect all the time. Also being in the Midwest, you lose a lot of the political harshness of the coasts, not being near DC.
DC was third or fourth on the list.
I’ve never lived in DC. This isn’t to say that there isn’t political comedy in Chicago. The second city has done a lot of political comedy, but you lose some of that Satire in the Midwest. It’s character-driven too, at least it was when I was there. A lot of the second city characters that are beloved from the history of SNL came from Chicago. That’s what I would say. Also, the accent helps. I don’t know if your audience will pick up a Chicago accent maybe, but my family and other people in Chicago have that accent and that accents always help. For New York, a lot of comedians who come from other places who do shows in New York talk about how the audience sit with their arms crossed and don’t lean forward. It makes me laugh like a challenging audience member because they’ve “seen it all.” That’s a stereotype. You want to have a mixture of art like abstract, Dada, Avant-Garde theater culture meets harsh stand-up if that makes any sense. Life is hard. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. People are out to get you. This is the comedy that we’re going to make despite all of that.
[bctt tweet=”Chicago is comedy for the community. New York is comedy for each other. LA is comedy for the world.” via=”no”]
I’ve spent a lot of time in New York. I always like to visit New York and I always like to leave New York. The reason is that the highs in New York are super high. You’re going to get some of the world’s best food. You’re going to get the world’s best art and culture, but you’re also going to get the world’s biggest headache. The subway is a pain in the ass. It’s sweltering in the summer. It’s incredibly expensive. It’s a tale of two cities in a sense.
What I’ve always loved about LA comedy in the last 40 years is the emphasis on character for the mainstream. Pee-wee Herman started his whole career doing one-man shows as Pee-wee Herman, Whoopi Goldberg’s one-woman show, which is a character-based, one-woman show that became her HBO special started here at The Groundlings. Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig are all from LA-based comedy. I’ve always respected that. Audiences are a little nicer here. I’ve done some stand-up here. I do think audiences are nicer because they left their nice house and they’re here. They might as well laugh.
You’re saying they’re not in some shitty studio. You’re better off sitting in a comedy club than you are in your studio. You can live a little better.
In New York, there’s foot traffic. The guy that’s in the front row maybe doesn’t want to be there. The subway is not working. It’s $5. It’s like, “Make me laugh.” In LA, they planned out their night. Parking was validated. They’re here to see the comedy. I also do think that can lend itself to disappointment because it’s higher expectations. It’s not like TV.
I’ve always thought of LA as a place that you come to cash in. In the sense that you might develop your comedy chops in Chicago or New York, but if you’re going to take this to the next level, especially beyond being a stand-up, you end up in LA.
How I would describe that is Chicago is a comedy for the community like the neighborhood. New York is a comedy for each other, other comics. LA is a comedy for the world. The big reason I moved here is to make the things that I was making in a basement in New York bring the mountain to me.
When you say for each other, do you mean for other comics?
The comic’s comic concept is definitely a New York concept, although people from other places will say different.
When we were doing The Humor Code, someone had this pithy saying about New York versus LA. I can’t remember what it was. You might have given me a new way to say it. New York is a comedy for each other and LA is a comedy for the world.
In a positive light and people say that’s lowest common denominator they might say because the comedy for the world has to be applicable and translated.
Comedy for the world pays the bills.
Other people get to see it.
I want to talk about your bill pain. Claire, you are an accomplished comic. You’ve spent five years on Upright Citizens Brigade House Team. You’ve sold scripts. You’ve helped produce things. You have chops. We’re Twitter friends. We met via Twitter. This is our first time ever meeting. I was telling you how much I like you on Twitter. Aside, you have one of the best like to tweet ratios on Twitter. One of the neat things about Twitter is it basically says how many tweets you’ve had in your Twitter career and how many likes you’ve had in your Twitter career. I have pet hypothesis that the best people have at least an equal like to tweet ratio. That means that they’re saying to someone, “I like your tweet as often as they put out a tweet into the world.” I say equal because that’s what mine is, I’m about equal. You, however, have a six to one like to tweet ratio. You like lots of tweets, six times as many tweets, maybe five. You had 30,000 likes on Twitter. You’ve given 30,000 tweets a thumbs up versus maybe 5,000 or 6,000 tweets.
Do you mean that I’m liking other people’s tweets?
Yes. Not yours are being liked. Why is that? Is that the Midwestern?
I like to read other people’s tweets. We’ll go down and like 40 tweets that one person has done in a day reading them in a split second because usually, it’s to other comedians saying, “Keep doing what you’re doing.” Whenever anyone follows me who’s, maybe this is biased but a young female comedian or writer of any sort like novelist journalists. I will follow them back and go in a ton of their tweets to be, “I see you.” We see each other online. I also love Twitter and my husband is always scrolling and liking.
You two were meant for each other.
I’m on Twitter more because of him.
I’m saying this in a positive way. I wanted to bring it up because it’s a neat thing. You’re accomplished and yet you tweeted, “Anybody has any work out there for some writing or research?” What’s going on? We’re talking about a temp job.
I have a temp job. It’s killing me. I have sold television pilots. I have scripts that are in development. I have done work. I’ve fully rewritten other people’s scripts. Because I am a non-union writer, this is very low paid work. We’re talking under $1,000 sometimes for some of this work. Sometimes I’ve rewritten certain scripts eleven times for production companies because they’ll be like, “Claire, we love the script. We are going to sell the script for you.” I’m like, “Okay.” “Will you rewrite it for Amazon in this way? Will you rewrite it for Hulu? Hulu is looking for brother-sister comedies. There is a brother character. Will you give the brother more lines? A certain actor is interested in this, but he’s not the main character. If you could make this older guy character a lead,” as if this is easy. This is not easy.
This is not stylistic changes. These are substantive changes, structural changes.
I’ve also done one where I had a long TV pilot like 40 pages for a 30-minute comedy. It’s too long. When I wrote this draft, for me, it was funny. They were like, “This could be a choose-your-own-adventure VR experience.” We’re rewriting it for them. Now it’s not even on television. I like the experience a lot because I get to learn. I’ve also done things like, “Claire, you like storytelling. What about a podcast about this person? If you could do all the research and make a pitch deck, we’ll give you money. We ran out of money.” If I had someone standing over me, guiding my career, they would maybe tell me not to do these opportunities, but these make me a better writer because it’s writing for someone else. When there’s a chance that other people will see this, it does change how you take notes.
This is in the businesses called working on spec or development.
Sometimes it is paid. Sometimes it’s like when you’re in a nail salon and there’s a dollar framed on the wall, their first dollar, I try to say like, “I need a fee that’s going to be telling me that this happened so that there’s a contract even how small.” Sometimes they give me a small handful of money and then I have to take other jobs that are adjacent to this.
You have bills. You’re not waiting for the big paycheck. They haven’t run out of talent. They haven’t run into motivation. They just run out of money and they have to leave.
I also have friends who have had the one big paycheck, but that only lasts two years. The one that is the windfall paycheck where they sell a movie. I’ve had friends who do that and they’re on the couch writing their own scripts, being as productive as they want to be. Two years later, there’s no more money.
I know comics who haven’t had a car, then they have a car. They go back to not having a car and then they have a car again. It depends on whether they have a show or not.
If you were a showrunner and you had a show that’s on television, you would work for six months or maybe two months and be able to take the rest of the year off. You’re at the top pay grade and you could use that rest of the time to work on other projects, work on another show or live in Europe. It depends on what they want to do. That schedule structure trickles all the way down to me where it’s like, “Claire, could you rewrite somebody’s script for no credit and a minimal fee?” I’m like, “Yes, because it’s fun and it’s my passion.”
“I’m trying to find an opportunity.”
I’ve done these other writing adjacent jobs and maybe this is helpful for someone reading, but the good ones have been blogging, which is freelance so you’re going to have to pay big taxes at the end of the year. It’s also not consistent, much like the other writing temping, which all depends on the temp assignment.
[bctt tweet=”Comedy for the world has to be applicable. Big comedy for the world pays the bills.” via=”no”]
What type of temp assignment do you have?
I’m an administrative assistant.
You’re the world’s most overqualified administrative assistant.
That’s very nice. I do book myself into a conference room for two hours for a “call” that it’s me writing. I thought about this. I could write a book on how to be the laziest person.
It seems like the premise for a sitcom of some sort.
I have many tips. Here’s another free tip. If you’re a woman or a man, if you bring a backpack to work, what you’re going to do is set up a little tableau. You have a computer. You get a coffee, get some pens, maybe some food wrappers, make a tableau on your desk and then have a bag inside that bag of your other stuff, maybe a second computer. If they give you a work computer, you can bring your laptop and then go wherever you want because you look busy when you have all that crap all over.
It’s a scene in a movie. That’s what you’re describing.
I call it my go-bag. I’ve gone to meetings. One time, I pitched a movie during the middle of the workday in Beverly Hills. They thought that I was in the bathroom.
This is a fantastic story. I’m writing it down, I’m working on a new book. I’m like, “Can I work this in?” I talk about how comedians are natural rule breakers. This is a perfect example of your go-bag.
I have some other tips.
Can you give me some more?
I wrote them all down because I was thinking of telling the next girl who gets this job when I quit.
Give me one more.
Here are some things on day one to tell people. One, “I have a big family.” That implies you have a lot of family “issues” that could potentially come up. Another thing is to imply you might want to start a family. I’m a female and maybe that would come easier to me. I’m also married, but I’ve said that when I was single too. I was like, “I’m looking to start a family.” That means a lot of doctor’s appointments.
The whole point of this is to find time to do the work you want to do while being paid by these people to do the work that you don’t want to do.
Also, usually I get it all done. My advice to anyone with the day job, for anything, is you need to get a B-plus. A lot of comedians are Type-A people. I would describe myself a Type-A person, but you do not need to get the A-plus on the day job. Be a pretty good, not fire-able and if you get fired, you can go on unemployment. That’s as I like to call unemployment, government support of the arts, low paid, hard to live on government support of the arts. People in your comments are going to be like, “This woman is a scammer,” but you do what you have to do.
It’s easy to be judgmental until you’re hungry. You’re worried about being homeless. There was a thing where desperation leads innovation. I understand.
This is different than the people I watch who scroll on Facebook all day and they do their assignments late in the profession of their choice as their primary careers. Another thing is that I have a vitamin D deficiency, which most Americans do. It’s not technically a lie. Because I need sun, that means that I have to go out and maybe work “outside” or go to the café across the street with the outdoor tables depending on the work environment. In doing so, I can take phone calls.
Far being for me to tell you how to do your craft, this feels like a character in a movie.
I started writing this down. I have ten years of experience of being a pretty good temp. Those jobs, temp blogging and I did use to be the bartender at UCB. That bar is closed now. That was fun because I got to meet people.
It’s good for networking.
It was beer and wine only. I can’t make cocktails.
First of all, I hope you get your big break so you can make jokes about your grifting.
I was reading someone, I can’t remember her name. She’s a Scrubs writer. She had the Broke Girl Diaries, which came out around the early 2000s. She also wrote for Boondocks. Broke Girl Diaries was her in college. She was extremely on the edge in terms of being broke. She talks about all of her strategies. Ramen was $0.35 and she would sometimes only had $0.33 and have to take the Ramen, steal it, put the money on the counter, come back and give $0.2 the next day. She was struggling.
We grew up without much money, but we were food stamps poor. We weren’t welfare poor. There are always people much worse. You were on Upright Citizens Brigade House Team for five years in New York. What was the name of the team?
I was on multiple teams. My longest team was four of those five years and it was called Bellevue. The first one I was on was called Everything Rabbits, which I cringe saying. The last one I was on, I can’t remember the name because I was only on it for five months, then I moved.
What have you taken from that experience from being on a House Team doing long-form improv weekly?
This is a sketch.
I missed that. It probably would be useful for some readers to understand the difference between an Improv House Team and a Sketch House Team.
An Improv House Team is you get up on stage and perform a 30-minute show based on a suggestion and it’s totally off the cuff improvised. There are seven teammates. A UCB sketch team, which were called Maude teams, they’re still called that, it would be eleven people total typically or ten people, five writers, six actors. Throughout the course of a month, we would write a new sketch show. It’s a completely new sketch show, 30 to 40-minute sketch show every single month. The teams I was on because we were together for so long, I was fortunate to be on. I felt like an advanced level one. We were writing a narrative fully. In 30 minutes, you could do six sketches or seven sketches. Every writer gets a sketch in and the actors acting. Sometimes the actors pitch characters or collaborate, but it’s mostly separate writers and actors. Our team ended up doing 30-minute almost sketch plays. The sketches were integrated into the story that we were talking. It helped me.
[bctt tweet=”Everything in the sketch revolves around making the characters as funny as possible.” via=”no”]
I’m in Los Angeles on a sabbatical so I’m going to be taking improv. I’ve taken 101 and 201. I’m going to take 301 and 401, but I’m also going to take a sketch class. I love improv, but I’m eager to try the sketch. I’ve done stand-up. I’ve done improv. I’ve never done a sketch. Those are the three pillars of comedy. I’m eager to see how I do. I’ve started a list of ideas. What tips do you have for me as I think about developing sketch ideas, not the mechanics of writing the sketch, but identifying and developing the premises for sketches?
There is a thing that’s in between improv and sketch that’s out here in LA, but I’m sure it’s in other places called Improv for Sketch.
I’ve heard about this. Jeremy Sender, one of my previous guests talked about this, which is like something comes up an improv and you go, “That could be a sketch.”
There are two female comedy writers who wrote a lot of sitcoms in the ‘90s that are right now escaping me because I don’t want to get it wrong, who started these classes here in LA.
There’s an actual class that develops that. Should I start with that?
I was doing a casting for something. I’m doing a reading of a screenplay that I wrote and I needed somebody to play the mom. I was looking through people who teach classes. I was like, “Maybe I could ask.” I didn’t see when the next class is though because I was looking at that. I can send it to you. For the sketch, my tips would be to write everything down on your phone. Anything that makes a group of friends laugh at drinks or dinner is enough, especially things that are socially strange or things that are inaccuracies in the way we speak. It could be the way the behavior of someone. Character sketches personally are hard.
What is a character sketch?
The cheerleaders on SNL, their characters and everything in the sketch revolves around making those characters as funny as possible. Mary Katherine Gallagher, I know these are the most dated references. What’s a current sketch character?
I can only think of Stuart Smile.
Strangers with Candy is a character sketch as a sitcom.
Versus a narrative sketch or versus a situational sketch?
This is a pretty bad sketch I once wrote, but the premise was first time listener, long-time caller. The sketch is that it’s a first-time listener, a long-time caller. It’s a situational thing of a lady that calls different radio stations. That’s more situational.
Let’s get into a good one, which is yours. You have a sketch that has 108 million views. Correct me if I mischaracterize it. It’s funny because also there’s this revelation in it that takes it to the next level. There’s a couple passionately making out and they’re headed to consensually have sex. The man stops the woman before it gets too hot and heavy and says, “There’s something I need to tell you.” She becomes concerned. He says, “I was in an accident.” Basically, he’s had a transfusion or a penis transplant.
That’s real. They can do that now in rare cases.
He goes, “Don’t worry. It works fine. Everything is good.” A prosthetic penis comes out at one point in the sketch and it’s erect and she recognized the penis from the dead man from which it was transplanted. She’s a widow. It was her dead husband’s penis. It is laugh-out-loud funny. There are lots of jokes about threesomes, saying goodbye and all these kinds of stuff. It’s about loss and so on. It’s very good. The actors do a nice job with it. It has 108 million views. Here’s the thing about it. Speaking of likes and dislikes, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, usually when something has 100 million views, it’s overwhelmingly liked. If you go on Gangnam style, overwhelmingly there’s 10% of people who hate it and 90% of people who love it. This has a two to one like to dislike ratio. A surprising number of people hate or dislike this thing, but also I looked at some of the comments, there’s a bunch of gibberish in the comments. That’s what I mean. Has someone written a program to turn its attention to your dead penis sketch?
That I don’t know. I do know to get a view to count, you have to watch at least 30 seconds or maybe it’s 10 seconds, but the sketch starts right off. There’s no bumper. For your audience, this is a filmed sketch with a poor video quality. My sketch team that has this video hosted. It’s called one idiot. I couldn’t remember the channel. The title of the video is Dead Man’s Penis. There are some sick people that look for dead penis and they’re disappointed so they get a down thumbs up. There are also a lot of comments about how this is filthy disgusting. It is not the most disgusting sketch I’ve ever written. There are workplaces where you could watch this and it would be okay.
I’d say it’s a PG 13.
The first person who commented wrote something like, “This is so gross.” I wrote this, “Thank you very much.” There are people being like, “You’re gross.” It’s because I’m a female who wrote something gross, but that’s maybe some of the dislikes. It’s mostly that. There are bots that look for porn on YouTube to take and put on porn sites. I don’t know how this all works, but I would give a large percent of the views away to bots. That still leaves a lot of views.
Even if it’s 50 million views, it’s a lot of views. I had to bring that up. You write a sketch. You do a lot of things. You have watched television for a living. You’ve seen all 176 episodes of Three’s Company. You’ve also watched the soap, Bosom Buddies, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. I don’t even know what that is. Why are you watching TV for a living?
This was a job I had in 2018 and we didn’t talk about it. I enjoyed this job. I was brought onto a documentary film as a person who writes TV to watch other TV shows to help them find clips from these old TV shows that help them tell their story.
Are you cataloging?
In an editing software, cataloging but my official title was Assistant Story Producer, so producing the story. If you watch a documentary and there are old clips, which most documentaries have, there’s a person that pulls those old clips there. Sometimes they’re called a researcher, an archivist, a story producer or an assistant story producer. This job I was brought on to do this and I enjoyed it. I can’t say what the documentary was about because they made me sign so many NDAs. I am afraid that someone is sitting outside this room watching me right now. It’s a retrospective. It’s a historical media documentary looking through media and history. I watched all these shows. I pulled out clips. I showed the director and I said, “This story you’re trying to sell, they’re a tale about, insert what it’s about. This clip illustrates this topic.” To do that, a lot of these old shows don’t have the definitive guide. I watched all of Three’s Company start to finish and I watched it on an editing machine. I watched it at 1.25 speed to finish it.
Did you like this job?
I love this job. It was a great job for me.
Three’s Company is a great comedy.
Scooby-Doo was based on Dobie Gillis. They added the mystery and the dog.
Is it ’70s, ’60s, ’50s?
It’s the late ’50s.
Scooby-Doo came around in the ’70s.
Maybe it’s the mid-‘60s, but it’s a teenybopper show. The female characters are good at it. I was surprised. The female character that everyone loved in it grew up to become a California politician. Sheila Kuehl is a City Council Member in Santa Monica. She won her re-election. She’s a functioning politician.
[bctt tweet=”It’s nearly impossible to do creative work for long hours. Writing things down and sleeping on the idea helps.” via=”no”]
We know that this state has turned actors into politicians before. I’m happy to see that.
I don’t love all of the actors who had become a politician.
You have a lot going on. How do you stay organized? You are early for this podcast. I complimented and complained about it because I was counting on you to be exactly on time or late because it’s LA and because you’re a comic. How do you stay organized? Do you have tips, tricks or systems?
A lot of the projects I’m doing are self-motivated projects. I’m writing various things for myself. I have the development projects that I’m being not paid to help them get a script into pitching shape for this or that. Part of it is this working at work while working. I double time. I am a good planner. I have a calendar. My husband is a writer as well. Outlining is what saves you time. If you start writing something in a script document, it’s going to take you forever.
You have to format it. People like to do that because it feels like they’re working but they’re not working.
I’m writing a screenplay and there’s an eleven-page single space outline. I can highlight a section I’m going to get done. Twelve minutes later, that section is done, moving on. It’s called the final draft. Everyone’s process is different but being like, “Saturday from 8:00 AM until 6:00, I’m going to get it all done.” It’s putting that pressure on yourself. You’ve got to put yourself in less pressured situations.
I know that feeling. First of all, it’s nearly impossible to do creative work for nine hours. Give me a one to three-hour block on a regular basis. I’ll get twice as much work done in nine hours across three days and nine hours in one day, or I’ll get two and a half times in one hour a day across nine days because of focus, energy, sleep and being well rested.
Sleeping on the idea helps.
Any other tips or tricks? You probably have them and don’t even know that you have them because you have them and other comics don’t. You’re good at writing things down I bet?
Yes, I am. The thing about being late and I’m going to sound like such a narc or something, but it’s other people’s time. I have high respect for my own time. If we said that this is when we’re meeting and that’s when we’re meeting and that’s the time. Maybe I sound like a serious person. I wake up early.
I always joke that I get more done before 10:00 AM than my students get done all day in part because I start early. I start right away.
I don’t have a lot of vices either. I love cocktails. There are specific days. This is not a time-saving tip, but you have to have the thing you do when things go well and the thing you do when things go bad. When anything goes well in my career, we’re talking baby steps, like someone who I look up to, agree to maybe read a script of mine, they email me back. Maybe you do something for you that is the smallest thing like I’m going to get ice cream from the ice cream man on the corner or I’m going to have a little cocktail at home, to market as a baby step. When things go bad, you also need to have the thing that you do to make yourself better. I had a rejection that was devastating. No one’s dying. It was something that I thought was going well and I was rejected from it. I gave myself in the evening to be in this business. I hate everything. I don’t want to do this anymore and cried. The next day it’s like, “We’re back on the horse. We’re back on the program.” For some people that’s like getting a massage or something, going to Disneyland.
A buddy of mine, Darwyn Metzger, talked about an actor that he knew who does his big celebration when he gets invited to a casting. He celebrates they’re being invited to a casting call. He doesn’t celebrate when he gets the part because he already has enough excitement if he gets the part. Most of the time, he doesn’t get the part.
I celebrate when I get a meeting with someone who wants to meet with me and thinks that I am enough for the meeting. That is a bigger celebration than if it goes because I’ve had things greenlit and they run out of money.
If you delay your celebrations, you end up not having enough celebrations.
You might as well celebrate along the way, baby steps.
At the very end of things, you’re often so sick of them, you’re happy they’re done. It’s better to celebrate early. In the world of academia, when you’re a researcher, you submit these papers to journals. You should celebrate your first revision because that’s such a monumental step to being invited for a revision. That your probabilities that it gets in go far up. If you wait through two or three more revisions until it’s finally accepted, you want to be like, “Can we please move on?” I even gave you a chance to cancel this meeting and you were like, “No.” I don’t know the meaning of the word shot, but you’ve been shot on Hollywood Boulevard.
We should have a trigger warning for anyone who gun violence is something. This is serious. Trigger warning if gun violence is something that triggers you. I was driving on Hollywood Boulevard. I’m not trying to scare you, but literally close.
I live in Hollywood. I’m two blocks from Hollywood Boulevard.
I would say this is about less than seven blocks from here.
How long ago because this neighborhood has changed a lot?
It was in November 2017. I was driving from the gym. I go to a gym right by here. I am driving. I’m in my car. I drive a Fiat, which is very gendered, mostly women drive Fiats. I support my men who drive Fiats. I’m not exactly the road warrior compared to other cars. This white van is pulling out of a gas station. He pulls right in front of me. I honked at him because I drive a Fiat. It’s one step above a smart car. These are petite cars. He’ll see me and he responds to that. This was not like a big honk, this was like a little beep. He takes out a BB gun that had metal bullets in it. He’s as close as we are, which is less than ten feet and begins shooting my windshield. He’s in a car and I’m in a car. He’s out the window with the window rolled down, shooting my windshield with a BB gun. Bullets are going through the passenger side. I’m driving my car, holding onto the steering wheel. This is fucked up but I started laughing. I was like, “This is how I’m going to die. What do you do?” This is like in The Titanic movie. I’m the person that would be like, “I’ll just drink champagne and then die.” I’m not the person that’s like, “I’m going to try to climb off the side of it.” I’m laughing. He sees me laughing and shoots the car more. The glass goes through my hair. The glass started cutting me and then he drove away. They never caught him.
How is it they didn’t get him?
We have security footage of it. The car was stolen, a metal BB gun painted to look like an AK-47. The orange was painted. It was like a big guy. The BBs were like the same size as bullets. It was crazy. If you even witness a violent crime in California, you are eligible for all kinds of aid. I had PTSD from this. It’s sad because PTSD sucks. It’s so humiliating. It’s hard to explain to anyone else because it’s your experience. It’s not like I was in war with people who can commiserate with me. I’ve got 40 hours of free therapy and you can have a therapist of your choice or religious professional meaning like I went to my rabbi, you could do that or acupuncture or something. You get 40 hours and they bill the state and the state pays them. That’s even if you witness a violent crime.
Did you get some therapy?
Yes, I did. I did get therapy through that. It’s important for people to know because it’s part of what makes California great. I don’t know that every state does this program.
I can assure you that they don’t. This is the exception rather than the rule, I’m guessing.
I did have to pay for my windshield out of pocket because I have insurance, but it doesn’t cover the full. I had to replace the windshield. The computer of my car was fucked up from little shards of glass going in it. I was fine. I had glass in my hair but physically I was fine. I didn’t crash my car, which I could have done.
This is a good reminder. I grew up in New Jersey. In Colorado, I honk at people and I do so because it’s my natural instinct as a Jersian. The other one is that Colorado people are polite that they don’t honk even when they should. Even when someone’s doing something stupid, they’re too polite. I’m like, “When you’re doing something stupid, you need to get feedback that you’re being stupid.” There are lots of stupidity on the road here because there are lots of people on the road. It’s a driver’s city. The context leads people to misbehave because they’re so desperate to get to wherever they’re going. I’m fairly liberal with the horn here also. It’s a good reminder that may backfire on me at some point.
This happened in the morning rush hour. The crushing thing is a bystander thing. There was a city bus next to me watching this happen with passengers in it. I had to pull over and they were honking me for pulling over. I had to pull over to call the police. The bystander thing, I know people saw this happen. There were pedestrians watching. No one gave a shit. That was also something that I had to deal with for a second. I was waving my hands above my head being like, “Can anyone help me?” Also, this happened across the street from a fire station.
[bctt tweet=”Celebrate along the way your baby steps.” via=”no”]
I might be able to help restore a tiny bit of faith in humanity. There’s an area of psychology called social psychology. I’ve studied a bunch of it though that’s not what my PhD is in. One of the foundational studies within social psychology looked at bystander effects. Essentially, it’s this idea that sometimes good people don’t do the right thing. When people don’t do the right thing, they have a tendency to blame their personhood, their personality and values and so on. What these social psychologists, Darley and Latané, did famously demonstrated the role that context plays, such as the fact that it’s rush hour makes it less likely that someone helps you because of the time crunch. If they help you now, they’re late for work. These guys did a study with some seminary students. They had the seminary students prepare a talk about the Good Samaritan. These people are primed about helping their fellow persons. Are you familiar with this study?
No, I’m not.
They have these seminary students on Princeton Seminary and they’re on the campus there. Basically, they give them instructions on where to go to give the sermon. Along the path of the seminary students, they planted someone who looked like they were homeless and desperate like slumped over. This is Princeton, not Hollywood Boulevard. In Hollywood Boulevard, there’s someone slumped over every 25 feet. It’s unbelievable. I’m still not adapting to it. The person would groan as the student walks by. They measured whether the person stops, intervenes and helps out. What they found was what predicted either the lack of attentiveness or the attentiveness was how late the seminary student was to give the sermon. Right before they left on the trip, they either said, “You have plenty of time or you might even be early,” or something like, “You’re late. You better get going.”
The folks who were running late didn’t stop. The people who had plenty of time were more likely to stop. That’s one thing. Your rush hour thing worked against you. The second one, I can’t tell you the names of the people who did it. They looked at what they call bystander effects. The idea is that the more bystanders there are, the less likely that any person goes to help because what they’re expecting is someone will help. You’re better off having your car breakdown on a rural farm road than along a busy highway. When that farmer’s driving down the road, not only is maybe he not in a rush but also he knows that if he doesn’t stop, you might be stranded all day. In the highway, everybody else is zooming by, “Someone else will help.” I want to say that Angelenos may be a little harsher than the average person, but they’re not evil in the sense that while you were victimized, their lack of attention falls down to basic human principles.
Maybe they also didn’t want to get involved. Maybe they thought that I’ve been involved in something. The first question the police asked me was if I was involved in gang violence.
People will see the picture of you. You do not seem like the stereotype. Was that person in a gang?
They asked me if I’m involved in a gang or if I did something to someone in a gang. They asked me, “Is this your boyfriend?” I’m like, “No. My boyfriend shot me and ran away and I have no way to contact him.”
Most violence especially violence perpetrated against women is from a man that they know.
Sometimes it’s a man you don’t know and will never know.
That’s true in this case. That story is crazy. It’s wild. This is everything that I hoped it would be.
Thank you, Peter.
Knowing your Twitter persona, you’re even better in person. I always ask this question. We’ll have to limit your number of answers because you’re going to have a lot. What are you reading, watching or listening to that’s good? Not just run of the mill good, but it’s really good. Give me one or two things.
I’ll say two books and one TV show. I finished Ladies Who Punch by Ramin Setoodeh. Ladies Who Punch is about The View and how The View, the TV show, got started and all the different hosts, moderators. They’ve had Whoopi from Elisabeth Hasselbeck and it’s wild. What I liked about it is it gives you a reminder of how precarious the nature of Hollywood is. People were fired from that show, both on stage and off for the most trivial reasons. It’s fascinating. It also gives you a sense of where we’re at in terms of Meghan McCain being on the show and how did we get here and looking at Elizabeth Hasselbeck. The View makes headlines daily to this day. It’s been on TV for so long. I remembered the premiere because I was home from school that day.
A second book I’m reading is How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. She’s brilliant. I never read philosophy books. I never read theoretical books. It’s sprawling in a positive way, talking about capitalism, where we’re at in terms of that, how companies manipulate you with Twitter, social media, websites manipulate you. I highly recommend it. I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s where we’re at right now in society general book. For watching, What We Do in the Shadows was so good, the TV show. That is a mockumentary about vampires living in a house together based on the movie of the same name. It’s brilliant. It’s funny. They just had their season finale.
Where do you find it?
I watched it through Amazon. I bought it as a season. I can’t remember. I want to say it’s on something like a cable network that I don’t have. I enjoyed it. It’s my sensibility.
Is it a drama? Is it a comedy?
It’s a mockumentary. This is like looking at the camera, doing monologues but as vampires living in a house is great.
Claire, thank you so much.
This is a delight.
This is fun. Cheers.
- Claire Downs
- The Humor Code
- The Humor Research Lab
- Claire Downs on Twitter
- Upright Citizens Brigade
- Jeremy Sender – Previous episode
- Dead Man’s Penis
- Darwyn Metzger – Previous episode
- Ladies Who Punch
- How to Do Nothing
About Claire Downs
Claire Downs is a comedian, writer, and producer who lives in Los Angeles. A graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts, she does a bit of everything, sold pilots, written scripts, and written for Cosmopolitan, The Daily Dot, and VICE Motherboard. One of her UCB sketches has 108 million views on YouTube.
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