Personal Essays

Louis C.K. at the Bellco Theatre, Denver, 2012. Credit: Andrew Catellier.

Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy

Before he was America’s favorite philosopher comic, he was just another comedian out on tour. And she was the journalist he wanted to meet.

In the late ’90s, I was in charge of listings at the Austin Chronicle, which made me one of the paper’s lowest-ranking editors. The senior editors wrote in-depth cover stories, and became friendly with the city’s homegrown celebrities, but I spent my days culling press releases for dance performances and art galleries, sometimes sent via fax, so the lettering came through with that dot-matrix static, and I had to squint to make out the numbers. Does that say 8 p.m. or 6 p.m.? It was a data monkey job, but fate hung in my fingertips. If the 8 p.m. show was actually a 6 p.m. show, for instance, I would get an unpleasant reminder that even low-ranking jobs still came with a bit of power.

One afternoon, I was sorting through my stack in the puffy swivel chair, where I sat cross-legged and barefoot, when I saw an unusual email.

“Hey Sarah,” it began.

This may not seem like the most novel opening, but half the press releases were still addressed to previous employees, or “Dear Sir,” and the people who did use my name often spelled it wrong. Sara-with-no-h. Mrs. Shepola. So many packages came addressed to Farrah Hepola that it became an office nickname.

The email was from a stand-up headed to Austin in a month. I felt bad for stand-up comedians. Their headshots would arrive in press packets from the cheesy strip-mall clubs, remnants of the ’80s comedy boom, and I used to flash the worst ones to my office mates: Look at this dude. Long mullet hair, terrible dad sweater, eyebrows raised as if delivering a punchline. What is it about trying to be funny that can make you look so sad?

But this comic seemed different. He knew me, he explained, because I had reviewed an independent movie he’d directed when it screened at an Austin film festival. The film was odd but charming. My review praised the “delightfulness of the performances”—a phrase which suggests the reason I was relegated to reviewing obscure indies. Actually, what I remembered best about the movie was the director’s strange name, which looked like the brand of an edgy, androgynous cologne. Was it a typo? A gimmick? A year after copying that name from a press release into my film review, I instantly recognized it.

Eventually, everyone else would, too. The comic would go on to write and direct Pootie Tang, a surreal comedy with Chris Rock about a crime-saving ladies man. He would get his own HBO show, canceled after only one season but redeemed by a hit series for which critics can’t seem to find enough praise. His stand-up routines would enter the lexicon for latte-drinking goofballs like me: We tell people to “suck a bag of dicks” and we laugh about how “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.”

Long mullet hair, terrible dad sweater, eyebrows raised as if delivering a punchline. What is it about trying to be funny that can make you look so sad?

But in the late ’90s, he was just another touring comic doing his dance for drunk bachelorettes and bitter couples downing overpriced, watery drinks. He was emailing me, he explained, because he noticed I often did short Q&As with artists in the listings section, and in his experience, coverage like that could make a huge difference in ticket sales. Could he possibly send me a copy of his latest comedy CD? Might I listen to it and do a short interview for the paper? He’d be happy to put me on the guest list for the show. Would be nice to meet.

Some emails are like single-malt Scotch poured down the throat. It’s been more than 15 years since I got that letter, but I still remember the warm rush of receiving it. First of all, I worked among opinionated journalists and critics whose expertise intimidated me on a daily basis, and yet this guy had reached out to me. He needed my help. Second of all, I had just started doing those Q&As, which had been my idea. (Technically my supervising editor’s idea, but I presented it at the meeting.) I’d argued that readers wanted human stories, small points of connection in a sea of data, and the fact that this guy had noticed the Q&As meant my plan was working. Third of all, the last part: Put you on the guest list. Meet you after the show. Do I have to spell it out for you people? This comic and I were going to fall in love.

I was 25. My last boyfriend had dumped me a few months after my 21st birthday, and in the long stretch of wet Kleenex and Harp Lager that followed, I told myself his replacement would arrive soon. But “soon” was taking its time. I had a terrible habit of sniffing out flirtation in every casual remark or finger flick.

“I think you left your proofs on the copier.”

Hmm. Sounded kind of flirty.

“Can you move your car? It’s blocking someone in.”

Yes. Definitely flirting.

Women in their mid-20s are supposed to be at the height of their beauty. My best friend walked out of her apartment one day to find a love note and a Gerbera daisy tucked under the windshield wiper of her car, left by a neighbor who actually turned out to be normal and cute. My other best friend had boyfriends, and boyfriends on retainer. She and I would go to a bar, and hold our martinis in alluring ways, and guys would flock around her to ask random questions, like had she ever been a model. (The answer was yes.) Meanwhile, I was disappearing in oversized clothes meant to hide a weight gain I had not fully admitted to myself. Thirty pounds? Fifty? If you don’t step on a scale, you never have to know. The baggy clothes were a lame attempt at optical illusion: Maybe if my clothes got bigger, nobody would notice I had, too.

What I needed was a man to appreciate my assets: clear skin, big boobs, a round and luscious vocabulary. I needed a man who cared more about my muscular comebacks than my chubby thighs, and I had long harbored a suspicion that a comedian might be that special someone. I had a giant, honking crush on Jon Stewart, who was not yet hosting The Daily Show, but whose short-lived, namesake talk show rendered him too famous to be attainable. The trick was to find someone on the cusp of being Jon Stewart. Catch them on the upswing—that’s when they’re vulnerable.

It would be years before I understood that male comedians had the same lousy ego issues I did. What they often wanted—much more than someone to one-up their punchlines—was a scorching hot girl to laugh at their jokes. Trying to woo them was like trying to smoosh together two lonely magnets with the same end.

A package arrived a few days later, and I gave a little internal squeal of delight. The cover of the CD had a picture of the comic. He was redheaded, and balding, and I told myself that was fine. He wasn’t smiling like those corny, desperate clowns whose headshots filled my recycling bin. He was somewhere between confused and angry. After work, I carried the CD out to my little aquamarine Honda and proudly placed it on the floorboard of the passenger seat—where it sat unopened for the next three weeks.

I couldn’t bring myself to listen it. There was too much at stake now. What if it was awful? Statistically, weren’t most stand-up comedy CDs awful?

I couldn’t bring myself to listen it. There was too much at stake now. What if it was awful? Statistically, weren’t most stand-up comedy CDs awful? Having now entered a hypothetical romance with the comic, I couldn’t allow the intrusive reality of a possibly mediocre comedy CD to ruin it. I drove home, enjoying the possibilities: I would meet him at the bar after his set, appearing 20 pounds lighter than I was in real life. One vodka tonic would become three, and so on. It would be challenging to date a touring comedian, but we could make it work.

Days passed. Whenever I gave someone a ride, they would be forced to move the CD to keep from stepping on the hard plastic. I really needed to listen to that CD, I would think. But I was also a bit lazy. I say this not to beat myself up, because I was certainly ambitious, but I had been corrupted by a torpor, common in overpraised kids, in which I enjoyed the jolt of saying I was going to do something far more than the actual work it required.

The appearance loomed. Two weeks away, then one week. I felt a zap of guilt every time I saw that CD on my floorboard, though it was eventually buried by Taco Cabana wrappers. With only a few days left, the comic emailed to check in—don’t mean to bug you, but how are things on your end?—and I was slow to respond, because I didn’t have a good answer. I told him I was sorry. I told him this week had been crazy. I promised to listen to the CD on Tuesday night and email him questions the following morning, and have the whole package ready by deadline on late Wednesday afternoon. I had every intention of doing this. Instead, on Tuesday night, I got very, very drunk.

Drinking had a way of reshuffling my priorities, but somehow “drinking” always came out on top. It’s lost to me now, what I did that night. Perhaps one of the unshaven production guys asked me to join a group at a downtown watering hole. (Was he flirting?) Perhaps I split a bottle of wine with my roommate, and it accidentally turned into two. Those years are a fuzzy montage of Shiner Bock pitchers and packs of American Spirits in yellow and blue. The part I can recall is stumbling into my bedroom late that night with a glass of water to cure my hiccups, and remembering the comic, my beloved comic, languishing on the floorboard of my car. I promised myself I would wake up early the next morning to listen to the CD before work, and if you have ever been wasted to the point of hiccups, you know that did not happen. I staggered in late to the office, dirty hair in a scrunchie, and the only thing I went to work on was breakfast tacos. In the spot on the page where I would have placed a Q&A, I ran the comic’s unsmiling headshot. I told myself it was fine. I told myself he probably wouldn’t even notice. I told myself I’d never hear this guy’s name again in my life.

Fifteen years in any business brings regrets. This one ranks relatively low, but it has occurred to me at random moments throughout the years, a buzzing gnat of a memory I could not swat away. Maybe because it was early in my career, and I had not yet grown accustomed to disappointing people. Maybe because it was still early in my drinking career, and I was starting to notice the accommodations I would make to keep the good times rolling, and the tiny but critical chunk it took from my self-respect each time. Or maybe it’s because over the next decade and a half, while I wandered from bar to bar in search of comfort, Louis C.K. became one of the most important comedians of his generation. I would watch his show, and think about how cool it would be to meet him, only to remember I had, and I’d blown it. What if I’d gone that night? What if we’d hit it off? What if this, and that, and the other thing?

Fantasy is the most powerful drug.

Nothing would have happened that night. No, wait: Something would have happened, which is that I would have seen a very good show by a very talented comedian who knew how to work PR. That’s what I was picking up on, by the way. Not his flirtation, not his interest, but his ability to connect in an original way. Our conversation was one of a thousand to him, just as the press releases that once passed my desk were as indistinguishable to me as a pile of leaves. They each held someone’s heart, someone’s dream, but to me, they were just a stack of numbers, a to-do list. What Louis C.K. knew was how to stand out.

I never did listen to that CD, and I don’t know what happened to it. I’ve looked for it since, but I can’t find any of his material dating back that far, which suggests it might be worth something. At any rate, it would be worth something to me.

A year ago, I paid $5 to watch one of Louis C.K.’s concert videos, which he sold exclusively online. At the time, that video reinvented the way live shows are bought and sold. I’m on his mailing list now, so I get these mass emails on occasion. They show up in my inbox like they’re sent from the actual Louis C.K. It’s eerily intimate—his name, bolded in my inbox. And my breath hitches. I opened one of them recently. It began:

“It’s Louis C.K. writing you. Do you remember me?”

I know it’s a form letter, but I can’t help it. Part of me still dreams.