I still can’t quite explain all that happened when I was in Australia. Maybe it’s the giant time change, or the season change — it’s Winter in August? — but being in Australia felt different.
“It was like summer camp,” I’ve told my friends, “In that I came away feeling as if I’d had a strange, singular experience I can’t quite describe to people who weren’t there.”
I had a weird and wonderful time, mostly thanks to the people there. Not only everyone from Australia (shout-outs to Tina, Marieke, Lara, and Simone), but the people who traveled for the festival. I spent the first few days with Jonny Sun, before he left to fulfill some of his other duties as a writer/artist/playwright/architect/engineer/general polymath. I’ve known him for a few years now and always enjoyed spending time with him, and it was nice to see him again in person. He is as smart and sweet as you’d imagine.
The last few days, and definitely the weirdest few days, were spent with Chris Fleming. I have been blessed with friends much funnier than I am, and sometimes I feel as if I am just waiting for the day when somebody asks me who some of the funniest people around right now are so I can give them a shout-out. Chris Fleming is one of them. (A few others for the record: Anna Drezen, Julio Torres, Patti Harrison, Aparna Nancherla, Gastor Almonte, Natasha Rothwell, John Early, Kate Berlant, Jaboukie Young-White.) Chris’s humor is self-effacing, sharp, and incredibly specific. It’s full of references and observations I knew, deeply, but either had never consciously thought about or hadn’t taken any time to reflect on. Why do middle-aged men not understand proper nouns anymore? How are you supposed to talk to straight guys with names like Gary and Phil? Why won’t anybody speak up for the ensemble girls?
Chris and I made our way around Melbourne together, shopping at women’s clothing stores (I don’t think I’ve ever seen Chris wearing more than one article of clothing designed for men) and sharing our incredibly specific opinions. I never thought I’d find someone who would listen to my five-minute long explanation of my complicated feelings on Emma Stone, and give me advice on being slightly attracted to the way too young Saoirse Ronan. (“I think it’s OK to have thoughts about Saoirse Ronan,” he said, “as long as you don’t act on them.”) Chris really only cares about women musicians and comedians: he knows Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls’ back catalog better than any man I’ve ever met, and he does not refer to Chris Evans as “Captain America” or “The Best Chris” or even “a fellow Chris from Massachusetts,” as we normals might. Rather, he knows him as “Isn’t he the one who broke up Jenny Slate’s marriage?”
It was Chris’s birthday recently. As a belated birthday present, I would like to list some of the things I like about him (and the awesome people he has brought into my life).
Chris created Gayle. Full credit goes to Anna for introducing me to the wonders of Gayle Waters-Waters, a white suburban Massachusetts mom who will stop at nothing to get ahead in the cul-de-sac. I’d seen some of Chris’s songs, but Gayle is on another level, a level that once required him to march with hand weights in the snow while wearing a sports bra, as his director Melissa Strype (more about her later) sat in the open trunk of a moving car, filming him.
I’ve struggled to explain to my West Coast friends the true essence of the Northeast, but I think Gayle captures it perfectly. In fact, when I first met Chris in person, he explained to me that she was loosely based on a woman in his town in Massachusetts who had been charged with embezzling tens of thousands of dollars, and was later found to have spent most of it on sending herself Edible Arrangements. Clearly, Gayle is an American icon.
Chris and I have the same quality of being considered much more attractive in other countries. “I think the people here find our accents attractive,” he told me shortly after he’d arrived in Melbourne.
“That’s bullshit,” I said. “Nobody finds American accents attractive.”
“Well, some of the women here… have been…” He paused, as if he were trying to think of a way to describe a new, unusual situation. “A bit forward with me.”
I was skeptical, though I’ve had experiences myself of being considered way more attractive in other places. Living in Los Angeles and New York for most of my life skewed my perception of what people actually look like. I’m still not white-bread Midwestern attractive, but I have noticed that people in Canada and the UK seemed slightly more impressed with what I’m putting out there. Like I could possibly be considered “single-episode romantic interest on Peep Show” attractive.
Anyway, I wasn’t skeptical for long: I watched, over and over again, as Chris turned down Australian girls. I tried not to be jealous. Why couldn’t the Australian girls be interested in me? Chris isn’t even single, and is decidedly not polyamorous.
“You guys don’t find our accents attractive here, do you?” I finally asked an Australian woman.
“No, we do,” she said. “Or, at least I do. Maybe it’s just personal experiences I’ve had, but I definitely find some American accents very attractive.”
“Like which ones?” I said.
“Like Long Island!” she said.
I didn’t know what to say to that then, and I still don’t know now.
Chris is not polyamorous, but also, he has an extremely cool girlfriend, so why would he be? (I’m joking, polyamorous people. I know “it doesn’t work that way” and “it’s just how we’re wired” and how “humans aren’t naturally monogamous.” I’m happy you have something that works for you, and yes, you make some valid points. But I, like Chris, am not polyamorous, so please stop sending me weird flirty winky face emoji tweets.)
Melissa Strype, Chris’s partner, is a brilliant director, writer, comedian, and actor. She’s also an educator for Planned Parenthood, and has made several videos about anatomy and sexuality. (My favorite is probably I Don’t Want to Hear the Word Virgin Anymore. VIRGINITY ISN’T REAL, GUYS.)
With her sister, Shayna, she writes and acts in The Diaper, one of the weirdest and most heartwarming shows I’ve ever seen. It’s also a very honest depiction of sisterhood and the “you and me against the world” connection sisters can have. It’s a knowledge she seems to have passed on to Chris, as well: my sister Anna (who appears in a later Diaper episode as several enthusiastic audience members cheering from the top of a closed toilet) and I would, as Chris says in his show, “be perfectly happy on an island together braiding each other’s hair and harmonizing” for the rest of our lives.
Melissa is one of those people who is always unflappable, and always doing something amazing. I really want her to do even more directing than she already does, because I think the world needs more directors like her: unfazed, experimental, energetic, and with a great sense of humor about herself. She’s determined and dynamic, but — rare for a director — never a despot.
She’s also, if you ask certain people, “probably funnier than Chris.”
(Anna. Anna says that.)
Chris understands theater kids. Theater kids are an easy target, and I always cringe when someone who never was one makes fun of them. Chris was a theater kid, though, just as I was, so every joke he makes is also on himself. He understands the angst of not being able to express your feelings unless you can do it through song, and the eternal struggle of the ensemble girl. In one of the first shows of his I saw, he started a story with “I was standing in a black box theater…” and I immediately started laughing. Black box theaters! He gets it! Chris looked askance at the audience, and rightfully laughed at “whoever just laughed at that.” And I laughed, too.
Chris understands entitled men. Chris, Melissa, Anna and I went to the first Women’s March together back in 2017. It was a bright, sunny, clear day, which is not unusual for L.A., even in January. It seemed to be a surprise for a man near us, who had been yelling, waving a giant flag, and just generally taking up a lot of space before having a sudden realization.
“Who has sunscreen?” He yelled, looking around him. “Does anyone have sunscreen?”
“I do,” said Anna, who has the patience of a saint and an oyster and a preschool teacher rolled up in one. She handed him the bottle, and he smeared about a quarter of it on himself before handing it back and starting up his yelling and flag-waving again.
“Imagine bothering women for sunscreen at the Women’s March,” Chris said, laughing, as soon as the man moved away from us.
A few months later, when we went to see Chris’s new show Showpig, Anna and I were delighted to find that he had worked that guy into his act! Thanks for the inspiration, Sunscreen guy! May you carry your flag to new heights, with the help of a lot of long-suffering women.
Chris knows how to turn misery into comedy. While we were in Melbourne, I told him a story of a bad relationship I’d had with an entitled man a few years ago. Usually when I tell this story I get angry, resentful of how powerless I’d felt at the time. But as I was telling Chris, something changed, and we both started laughing. Not hysterical, nervous laughter, but genuine laughter. I’d never thought of the story as funny before, but it was: so tragic and absurd that it was funny. It followed the old comedy formula, tragedy plus time. The story got more and more ridiculous, and we laughed harder and harder. It didn’t just feel healing, it felt empowering.
Our last night in Melbourne, drunk on Australian hospitality (and also beer) we discovered that Australian possums look nothing like American possums, and ran after them to get a better look. The image of six-foot-something Chris in a pantsuit, running to and away from these giant mice in pitch-black park at two in the morning, while the Australians stood there bewildered that we were so impressed with one of their country’s most banal creatures, will stay with me forever.
Happy birthday, you turkey vulture.
Fake BBC Show of the Week: Fobbin’ Off!