January 1st, 2010
Yesterday I wrote about the significance of clearing physical, emotional and human “clutter” from our lives to create room to let positive circumstances and people into our space to provide forward movement that allows good energy, authenticity and happier dispositions. On the flip side, there are passions and individuals that I will grasp onto for my entire life to ensure that I keep my spirit and life in flow. There is no doubt that I will always be performing, writing and teaching comedy in some capacity. Then there is Erin Scott Kessler. She’s my kindred spirit. My BFF. My rock, if you will. I will never let this girl go because there is none more authentic, supportive and talented than she. I’ve been in her weddings. Both of them.
We met in our early New York formative years in 1997 in the basement of a Dean and Deluca for an audition for an improv troupe called “Endangered Improv”. Michael, the director/producer, was the son of the original Second City director, Ann Bowen. Erin and I connected immediately. We were both southerners, she was from New Orleans and I was from North Carolina and were both semi naïve 22 year old creative types that had just graduated college and moved to New York. We also had the same body type.
Michael, like many people who aren’t 100% balanced, possessed this unbelievable charisma(at times) that was perfect for enchanting young 20 somethings into his improv world. He wanted to be the man in control. He never allowed manly men in the group. Maybe a gay. Or a man in a diaper. Eventually, all the guys left or were kicked out and the name of our group changed to WIGS (Women’s Improv Group.) Erin and I were onto his narcissism from the beginning but stuck it out because we did learn some fundamental improvisational basics from the guy and there was always the hope that we would get to work with his legendary mother. Lucky for us and not so lucky for Michael, his vices, delusions or the misfortune that he was no longer getting laid by one of the girls in the group, made him incapable of working with us and he passed us onto his mom.
During the Michael days, Erin night managed Bar 54, a restaurant/bar next door to Dave Letterman at the Ed Sullivan Theater that was often frequented by European types who weren’t into the art of tipping. I worked there for five minutes. It didn’t take. Michael was somehow given the job as general manager and (unsurprisingly) his comically demented character traits crossed over to this world. Erin told me that there were two trained bartenders named Mark and Paul who were chiseled, funny and incredibly threatening to Michael. Erin walked into work one night and the following dialogue exchange occurred:
Michael – Mark’s gone and I’m getting rid of Paul too.
Erin - Did they steal?
Michael – (Irate) No. Listen to this. Mark comes in for his shift at 8PM. This is prime dinner time Erin.(Side note:Prime dinner time crowds at Bar 54 consisted of 4 people. Maybe 6.) He’s wearing penny loafers! And no socks! It’s grotesque. Who the fuck does he think he is? He’s a no good penny loafer no sock wearing...coming in here, no socks, no socks, no socks! (The following is delivered very slowly.) This is what you need to know about bartenders Erin. You see…Mark…he’s shit. He’s shit inside. Inside, he’s shit.
Soon after this, Erin left the restaurant, Michael fled town and Erin was inspired to create her own improv group, Molotov Cockroach. She’ll say that we co-founded it but she was the driving force and I was simply the second in command. Our shows consisted of improv games and sketches with tight creative transitions which gave our productions a seamless feel. Giuliani had recently transformed peep show venues into Off Broadway theaters and we would do some shows at these converts that often had poles on the stage. One memorable sketch was called “Charlton in Charge” where Charlton Heston was the adored rifle wielding babysitter teaching the kids about the NRA.
This was one of my happiest times in New York because of its rawness, really coming into my own and accepting that I was an artist.
In 2001, Erin’s life took a huge turn that was traumatic but ultimately ended up being a blessing in disguise. In May 2001, Erin married Neil. In December 2001, Erin divorces Neil because he didn’t get the memo that explained that when you get married you’re not supposed to have sex with other people. She was working at New York University and received an email from the girl he was shtupping that was a detailed account of his infidelity. She comes over to my apartment immediately with this grounded empowering strength and calmly says, “Pop the champagne that I don’t have kids with this asshole.” Soon after, she moved home to New Orleans and then to Austin where she met her wonderful husband Kevin. They’ve made two babies. Girls.
Whenever I come to Austin, I get to see my favorite lady. I’m teaching a comedy improv workshop for a few days at Lake Austin Spa and Resort and she came to visit me yesterday afternoon. As we went on a long walk and sat by the pool, we reminisced about our shared experiences in New York from 1997 to 2001. It was very much like two friends catching up over an intimate cup of General Mills International Coffee. The Vienna Blend.
I got into journalist mode and started a casual interview with Erin:
Jax: What do you miss about living in New York?
Erin: Being in a place as big as my ambitions.
Jax: Your character work is as committed, brilliant and as transformative as Kristen Wig’s. I don’t throw out this grandiose analogy lightly. How do you embody (mind, body, spirit) these rich characters that you create?
Erin: I have to be in character for a few minutes before I get on stage. First I get the physicality down and then I layer in the vocal aspects and the emotional components.
Jax – Your strength was the character work while I was more of the writer and host.
Erin – You could make a character out of the straight woman. You were an anchor for the shows with amazing one liners. There was one bit that we did where you were being sold something complicated and needed more explanation. You said, “I’m not very smart and…hell...I’m not going to pretend like I am…” That brought the audience back into this esoteric world that we were trying to build.
Jax: The sketch that you and I created called SOMO’s (Southern Mothers) is one of my all time favorites. Just our names..Loretta and Judith.
Erin: I remember coming on stage (wearing neckerchiefs) and talking in this lovely upper class over the top southern accented gibberish. We would talk over each other and then take these exaggerated collective sighs.
Jax: We were so in sync. There was almost a rhythm to it. Then we would try to outdo each other with our children’s achievements. I’d tell you, “My daughter just move to New York and got a part in a film on the Greek Isles. It’s being filmed in New Jersey. She’s not getting paid…but she got a free lunch.”
Erin: Then I’d turn to the audience and say joyously, “Well that’s like getting paid..ya gotta pay for lunch!”
Jax: I miss throwing regular house parties and having you at them.
Erin: When I think of your parties...I think of fondue and no cliques. New Year’s 2001…you had this huge party in your studio apartment in the village. You were preparing spinach dip, there was some type of “Breakfast Club” Molly Ringawald dancethon and people were doing ecstasy in the bathroom.
Jax: Who was that guy you would make out with in the bathroom at Bar 54?
Erin: Greg Sax. He played the bass.
Jax: Words of advice for your daughters? And my blog readers.
Erin: A goal is only as good as its commitment.