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Dani Klein Modisett

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Everything I Need To Know To Stay Happily Married I Learned Being A Comic

Posted: 04/30/2012 6:25 pm

In the time that my husband, Tod, and I have known each other, we dated for a year and a half, lived together, became engaged, put together a sweet wedding on a budget, had a child, bought a house, worked hard to have a second child, pulled it off with the help of science, took care of two bunny rabbits (now dead), sent the boys through preschool and, miraculously settled them into a fine public school in Los Angeles. We even made it to Hawaii once as a family. Twelve years in, life for the Modisetts was relatively calm. Which is when I started to really panic. As my sons became more self-sufficient, my husband and I finally had the time and space in our brains to see each other from across a crowded room again. The same way we had in a bar in Hollywood the night we'd met, only different. Which is what scared me. Rather than that initial shared look of seduction, our eyes appeared to have taken on a look somewhere between glazed over and quizzical. There were moments I would swear Tod was thinking, "Had we really agreed to stay together till death do us part?" Did we mean that?" Then I'd think, "People are living longer now. That could be a really long time."

Also, we had started fighting more than we had been. After one particularly gruesome exchange, I curled up on our bed, buried my head in a pillow and mumbled, "Being married is the hardest thing I've ever done." This made me laugh a little to myself remembering all the people who had said that exact sentence to me when they discovered I was a stand-up comic. "That's the hardest thing to do!" they would declare, "I could never do that." Blotting tears with my pillowcase I thought of the expression, "Dying is easy, it's comedy that's hard," and decided it must have been written by a single person. Because anyone married for a long time knows dying and comedy you can handle, it's marriage that will really kill you.

My husband and I had one more big fight, again reminding me of my time as a comic. The feeling of not having what it takes to persevere in my marriage was very similar to the one I experienced after, specifically, one awful set I'd done in New York City early on. I came up through the Los Angeles comedy clubs, and it was my first time working at the Comic Strip on the Upper East Side. Saying that California audiences are gentler than New York ones is like saying whipped cream feels better in your mouth than rocks. Pretty much from the moment I walked on stage, New York comedy goers were not buying my rather innocent material about picking sad dogs at the shelter to take home, just like the men I dated, and L.A.'s obsession with frozen yogurt. "Nice dress!" someone shouted from the back of the room, followed by a cacophony of sentences including "get off the stage," "go home," and, psychically, "go get married!" But I completed my set, because I was told that comedy sets are like marathons, and even if you walk the last 20 miles, you have to finish. Walk I did, directly from the stage, out the door, and onto First Avenue, without looking up. "I am never doing that again, that is NOT for me," I said out loud to no one. But the next morning, I went over my material, threw out the clunkers, found some new jokes specific to New York and got back on stage two nights later. I returned to the Comic Strip and this time no one booed me off the stage. I had already proven to myself I was nothing if not resilient. If I could step back up to the microphone after that kind of humiliation, certainly I could stay married another day. In fact, maybe if I took a closer look at what helped me to persevere at the other "hardest thing to do" I could find some direction and tools to help me recapture some wedded bliss. It was a bit of a reach, for sure, and only a person with comedy in her blood would consider this approach, but it certainly couldn't hurt. My sense of humor had gotten me through so much in life, including my father's slow, painful death to cancer, my own fertility challenges having my second child, and even an insanely expensive parking ticket just this morning. Why not use it to take a whack at my marriage?

I decided to revisit the basic comedy rules that I explored exhaustively in the 10 years I taught Performing Stand-Up Comedy at UCLA. (Yes it really was a class.) To me, there were obvious parallels between a good solid comedy career and a good solid marriage. After all, stand-up is an art form full of ups and downs, sometimes in the same hour, where you often learn as you go, and you don't even really hit your stride until you're at it for 10 years. Just like building a life with another human being. No disrespect to dog and cat lovers, but please, they don't talk, you don't buy a house with them, and there is little to no chance that their parents will ever move in with you.

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  • Show Up

    Woody Allen said, "Eighty percent of success is just showing up." True in comedy, true in marriage. No matter their mood, I always taught my students that you get dressed and go do your set. There's a reason why I put this number one on this list. Because if you don't show up for your spouse, if you disappear, either literally by walking away, or figuratively by burying yourself in work, your children, a bottle, a carton of ice cream (me), or someone hotter than your husband or wife, you have no chance of connecting with your partner. Without connecting, eventually, as far as your marriage goes, you have nothing. For instance, I appreciate the fact that for Tod, it has to be way more fun to compose a game-winning Scrabble word than hearing about my mother's new dog and probably more satisfying after a long week to stay in on Saturday night and read his New Yorker sipping some Blue Ribbon scotch than going out with me to see a movie where, please god, no child is kidnapped or no one gets their head bitten off by a vampire. But he does it. And of course I'd rather not drive the cleanly pressed shirt to the gym that he forgot at home and prefer to hide out in the bathroom some nights drowning in bubbles instead of talking. Sometimes I do retreat in fact. But not all the time. Because without making the effort, without showing up for each other, I know we run the risk of becoming unimpassioned roommates instead of two people who were once deeply enough in love to shove wedding cake in each other's faces and lick it off.

  • Listen

    I tell comics that the audience is your partner in a scene. Pay attention to them, see them, and listen to them. Nothing bothers me more than when I am at a comedy performance and something happens in the room and the comic doesn't acknowledge it, intent on delivering their predetermined material no matter what. Not listening to what is going on in the room. It's annoying in a club, but it's really bad in a marriage. According to the book, "How to Improve your Marriage without Talking about it," recommended by Oprah, "lack of connection is the true source of resentment" in a faltering partnership. With so many opportunities for resentments running a household together, nipping one in the bud by simply listening to each other seems relatively easy. Although I admit that I have found it harder to listen to Tod than to an audience because, sadly, he does not appreciate being responded to like a heckler.

  • Timing Is Everything

    In comedy, timing is everything. Knowing when to drop the punch line, when to hold for laughs, when to deliver the unexpected image in a way that delights your audience is key. Comedy legend Jack Benny built a whole career on pauses. Timing might not be quite as essential in a marriage as love and respect for each other, but it's still right up there for keeping everyone happy. I don't talk to Tod about property taxes when he's watching "Walking Dead," and he doesn't try for some action when I want to be alone with my bagel. It's also important to time the major events of your life together. Like when to have another baby, or buy a house, or get a huge, smelly dog that I'll hate and will slobber all over the couch. I'm pushing for never on that one.

  • One Good Or Bad Set Does Not A Career Make

    Some comedy sets are going to be terrific, fun to perform and laugh-out-loud funny for the crowd. Some are filled with stuttered words, forgotten jokes, and drunk partiers. Either way, no one set should be taken as the final word on your comedy career. This is also true of marriage. Some days/talks/texts/car rides/dinners with in-laws/gifts are going to be spectacular, and some of them are going to be very disappointing. Don't take any one of them too seriously. This is also hard for me. Every time we have a fight, I think either it's the end or it should be. Then we work it out, and two days later, I can't tell you what the fight was about. I've realized that in marriage, for me, fighting is like giving birth for other women. Forgetting the gory, painful details is what enables me to stay a fan of the experience.

  • Don't Bring Last Week's Disaster To This Week's Set

    LET IT GO. Any seasoned comic will tell you they could be making 400 people laugh until they wet themselves, but one miserable woman in the third row can stay with you for weeks. Don't fall in to this trap with your marriage. I remember pointing out one particularly fetching photo from the 1970s of my father to my mother as we were packing up my childhood home, "Dad looks great here!" I said. "Yes," my mother said flatly, "those were the bad years." Years? I was single at the time, and it completely floored me that you could have difficult years in a marriage. But she was able to let those rough times go, and they stayed together mostly happily until he passed away in 1996.

  • Great Comedians, Like Great Marriages, Do Not Happen Overnight

    Think of your favorite comics, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Chelsea Handler, Patton Oswald, Caroline Rhea, Susie Essman, the list for me is long. All of these artists have been honing their craft for many, many years and have kept working at it long after they need to to pay their bills. They stay current with their audience and keep finding ways to keep their material fresh. I remember doing shows with Chelsea Handler when she was in her early 20s, and it was a little like watching a baby bird learning to fly. Whether you liked what she had to say or not, you knew she had it in her to be huge, but she definitely fell out of the nest many times before she was secure in who she was on stage.Also true of marriage. I've stumbled a lot figuring out how to build a life with someone, let alone adding children to the mix.

  • Sex And Jokes (This One Goes Out To The Ladies)

    In a marriage, sex is to men what jokes are to an audience. They both expect to get some. Don't disappoint them or they grow angry and resentful. Sure, audiences will put up with a rambling setup, some storytelling, some "crowd work," but they come out to a club to hear jokes and laugh. And, yes, your husband cares about you and loves you and wants to protect you, but he's still a man. If I am making an audience laugh consistently, they are a lot more attentive and patient with my bloopers, my rambling stories, and my frizzy hair. Also true of my husband when he are behind closed and locked doors regularly. And like a comic getting laughs, sex makes you feel good too! On the other hand, if you are making yourself available to your mate and he (or she) is not interested, you should find out why. As with stand-up, you don't want to put yourself out there night after night in a marriage and feel rejected. If this happens to you more times than not, there is a reason why and just like a bewildered comic, do your best to get to the bottom of it.

  • Relax

    No one ever said anything funny all gripped and anxious. Similarly, no relationship can flourish with constant tension. Find ways to relax. Ideally together, but if not, then find them for yourself so you can come to the marriage with an open heart. Guess what makes a great tension reliever? Laughter! I have observed time and again that a shared sense of humor is one of the key ingredients to a successful long-term relationship. This might be the only aspect of marriage that I actually thought through beforehand. It was one of the main reasons I married Tod. Unlike normal women, the moment I knew Tod was Mr. Right was not the first time we kissed, or when he got on the floor and played with my niece, or even when he opened a small velvet box in our bedroom with a ring he'd picked out just for me. Nope, it was when I was in the ER having a cystitis crisis. Yes I was peeing blood, and he took me to the only hospital open in East L.A. on July 4, and he held my hand while a strange doctor stuck things inside me. To distract me, my knight in shining armor performed a dance I'd never seen before or since. Something he called the "Thank-god-for-my-external-genitalia!" dance. "I will marry this man," I thought, as cold metal scraped against my inner thighs.

  • Study People Who Do It Better Than You

    Young comics always sit in the bar comparing auditions. It's a bad idea, a waste of time and the definition of misery seeking company. I always encourage people starting out to find more seasoned comics and listen to their stories and wisdom. Along these lines, don't call your divorced, bitter brother for advice about marriage. Find couples that seem to be having a good time. Then find out if they really are because some people, like comics, create great spin about their lives. Snoop around a little, though, and if their connection seems genuine, pay attention to what about their partnership works. And don't be afraid to ask questions.

  • Don't Use Other People's Material

    In comedy, using other people's jokes as your own is a major offense and will quickly alienate you from the community. Not surprisingly, applying other people's ideas about marriage to your own can also cause alienation from your spouse. In her best-selling book about long-term marriage, "The Secret Lives of Wives," author Iris Krasnow says, "...each couple can write their own rules that match their individual levels of acceptance and intolerance." It's up to you to write your own material, so to speak, when it comes to the fabric of your marriage. For instance, I have a friend whose husband travels a lot for work. They have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy about fidelity. If I ever agreed to this, I'm pretty sure our life would become "Valley of the Dolls" with me home slamming down handfuls of pills with vodka shots pretending I didn't care that Tod had girlfriends in other cities. To thine own self be true, and make sure you reveal that self to your spouse.

  • Wardrobe

    Sounds silly, I know, but comics learn early on that an audience makes decisions about who we are before we even get to the microphone. Therefore, wardrobe choices matter. They are part of the picture we are painting onstage. Clearly, this not only holds true in a comedy club or what would all those impossibly skinny women and the people who clothe them do to make a living? Personally, I really resist this one. I want to wear college T-shirts and jeans for the rest of my life. It's part of what made me want to live in Los Angeles. Until I figured out that the T-shirts here are designer and the jeans cost $300. More important, though, after 40 and children, the jeans/T-shirt uniform is (a) harder to pull off without looking lumpy and (b) a slippery slope heading to sweatpants. I have learned from experience that sweatpants are to clothing what Nutella is to food. Sweatpants do function as pants and Nutella is a food item, but both of these, used to the exclusion of all other choices, can depress the sh*t out of you. So, unless you've decided to be a sad person who lives in stained, soft separates and doesn't bathe, step it up. Have some pride in your appearance. Make choices that enhance your strengths. If you don't know what those are, ask a friend you can trust or read a magazine. I even broke down last year and wore something lacy to bed. And I was having a fat day. Tod didn't care. Not even a little. (See number eight.)

  • The Power Of Surprise

    Audiences love a surprise, a point of view or an action they aren't expecting. How about a beautiful young girl with a trash mouth or a tattooed body builder going on and on about his toy poodle? Funny. What if my next tool for you was: "Don't marry the opposite sex if you are gay." This would make you laugh, right? Largely because it's true, but also because it's not something you are expecting. Surprising audiences is a great way to keep them laughing and happy. It also works wonders for a long marriage. After 25 years working on stage, the comic's comic Colin Quinn said one of the pitfalls of a long career is that "you get into a pattern of not shaping anything up or doing the same old thing ... I don't like to do that." You shouldn't like that in your marriage either. Find ways to do something unexpected once in a while. One that comes to mind for me is a New Year's Eve several years ago. Tod had been a long-distance runner in school, something we definitely didn't have in common. But we were looking for something to do to bring in the New Year and we were in New York City so I suggested we sign up for the Midnight Run in Central Park. He had no idea how competitive I can get in a crowd and found it highly entertaining. I'm pretty sure I finished in 4, 076th place, but the surprise of seeing his wife try to weave in and out of people who were out to have a good time is something he still talks about.

  • Don't Be Afraid To Get Help

    All kidding aside, if you're doing something for many years, whether it's telling jokes or getting in to bed with a person you feel you no longer know or knows you, go get help. In comedy, we find a coach or a mentor. For marriage, there are trained professionals out there who can help. We found a therapist this year that has been valuable to us because he often brings a third interpretation to our struggles. Rather than confuse us, this has helped us see that if there is a third way to see things, maybe each of our opinions isn't the last word on any issue. Having a third person in the room for an hour a week has made us more open to each other the remaining 167.

  • Fight For Your Time

    Stand-up comedy is very competitive. Some nights you can wait for hours for 10 minutes of stage time and then get bumped by Jerry Seinfeld and finally get on after he has made the audience cry with laughter for 45 minutes. And despite all of that, you have to know in your heart you belong on stage and go out and kick some comedy ass. You have to feel the same way about your marriage. You have to know you deserve to be part of a happy marriage and be willing to fight for it.

  • Have Faith

    Every time you go on stage as a comic, you are taking a leap of faith that your ideas and words will be funny. Each day you wake up next to the same person, you are also taking a leap of faith, the faith that you will stay together. Whether it's telling jokes to strangers or creating a life with another human being, both require a fantastic amount of faith, risking failing, risking loving -- it's all tremendous risk. My experience with both is that I continually need something to believe in that is bigger than my limited self. This can be tough, particularly if hearing the word God makes you bristle. But your faith doesn't have to be in a traditional God. To persevere as an artist, you must have a fierce sense that using your gifts is what you are on the planet to do. Long-term partnership will also, at least once, require this same ferocity of purpose. Ideally, you would find a spiritual presence to mumble to in the dark, to lean on, and to give you courage. But if an understanding of God, traditional or otherwise, is as elusive to you as believing in flying monkeys, then try believing in the marriage itself, in the certitude that who you are with this person and the life you build together is bigger and richer and more full of love than anything you can create on your own. In the last 20 years as both a comic and a wife, faith is the tool I have relied upon most. And, of course, a sense of humor.


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