Be the Best at the Worst
Start Where You Are
At Comedy Central, where I have worked for the past ten years, we have an intern lunch during which our group of hardworking, sweet, so-clueless-I-have-become-embarrassed-that-I-was-ever-that-young interns can ask us executives for advice. The questions are usually the same.
Q: How do you deal with being a woman in Hollywood?
A: Um . . . Do you have ten hours to talk and not in this room full of my dude colleagues?
Q: How do you make a “good” TV show?
A: No idea. All I do is find the most talented people I can, say a prayer, and get out of the way. Anyone who tells you differently, or that they have some secret sauce, is probably an egomaniac.
Q: How did you get your first big break?
A: I was at my own intern lunch at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart when a fellow intern asked that very same question. I had never worked in television before, and I was in awe of the rigor of that show. Jon was there every day, the entire day, overseeing everything. And the people around him were just so smart. They were the adults you wanted to be: single-minded in their dedication to their work, rushing about in a manner that screamed importance, and totally uninterested in us, the lowly interns. When we finally had our official time to sit with Jon, another intern asked him what his first “big break” was. Jon very quickly, very firmly responded: “There are no big breaks. There are only a series of tiny, little breaks. The key is to work your hardest and do your best at every little break.” Jon Stewart is/was/will forever be my hero, and so I took his words, swallowed them, and tried to make them part of me.
That entire semester at The Daily Show I made it my mission to be the best at the worst of jobs, with the hope that I might find my own little break. When I noticed that a correspondent wanted oatmeal every day but by the time he got into the office it had all been eaten, I saved him packets and put them on his desk with a bowl and a spoon. When I saw that the permanent staff was genuinely annoyed by the interns who constantly did “bits,” trying to out-funny one another in a misguided attempt to “get discovered,” I decided to be quiet and polite. My greatest contribution, however, was cleaning the capsule coffee machine.
Every afternoon after rehearsal, Jon would make himself an iced coffee in a little kitchen nook outside the studio door. I noticed that the machine was often dirty, out of water, or—even worse—broken, and I imagined how annoyed that must make Jon. Here he was trying to get one of the funniest, most important shows on the air, and he couldn’t even get a mediocre capsule coffee? Not on my watch! I saw my first little break.
I treated that machine like a precious object, cleaning it, refilling it, pulling it apart, putting it back together, making sure it was perfect. I read online how to fix the machine and practiced at home by buying a similar model. I spent a good part of my day making sure the thing was in order so there would never be a time when Jon couldn’t have a little coffee. It didn’t occur to me then that I was being pretty intense-bordering-on-psychotic about the machine; instead, I saw this as my way to make a contribution to a show I loved. If I wasn’t going to be a writer on the show, if I was just a lowly intern, at least I could be the lowly intern who could be called upon at any point to fix the single most important item in any creative environment: the coffee machine. I don’t know if it was cleaning the coffee machine or my polite quietness that impressed the producers, but at the end of the semester, they helped me get an entry-level job at Comedy Central. The rest of my career sprung directly from that decision to be the best at something that seemed like the worst.
Today, I tell young people who ask for professional advice to be the best at the worst. Take whatever weird little opportunity you have and maximize the fuck out of it. In a best-case scenario, someone cool will notice. In a worst-case scenario, you will notice and feel pride knowing you are doing a good job, even if the task sucks. Simply put: Start where you are without worrying too much about how far you have to go.
After my twenty-fifth birthday, on my floral duvet, I decided to start where I was. I knew that when it came to healing my own mind, I would have to apply the same persistence, care, and attention I brought to that coffee machine. I would have to show up, figure out what was wrong with the water tank, and work like hell to fix it. I would have to be vigilant and patient, knowing that for no reason at all, sometimes the machine would have a total meltdown and refuse to work, and I’d be left with an ominous red light staring me in the face. While I didn’t have an owner’s manual to my own mind, I did have a quote from Jay-Z to guide me: “Only thing to stop me is me, and I’ma stop when the hook start.” I ardently believe in the first part; I don’t totally know what he means about the hook starting.
Start where you are. Wherever you are. Be the best at the worst.
Writing It Down Saved My Life
Connect to Your Innermost Self
By twenty-five, I knew I was damaged, but I wasn’t totally sure how. Just what exactly was my problem? That shameful drunk-dial to my therapist was just one of many “not okay,” “are you even being a real fucking person right now?” ways I had acted recently. Many days at work, where I was kicking ass at my entry-level job, I would find myself uncontrollably weeping in my cubicle. I would be in the middle of logging stand-up videos when I would feel tears well up from an inexplicable pit of sadness within me. I would look at my snotty, sobbing reflection in the computer monitor and think, What are you doing? The walls of my cubicle insulated me from outsiders just long enough for me to make my way to the personal call room and have a proper cry.
These meltdowns followed me through the office and into the streets of Manhattan, where I often played the role of “girl mysteriously crying on your stoop.” I also played the part of “girl encumbered by too many bags about to burst into tears because the train is slightly delayed/there is a long line to buy a sandwich/any little thing has gone wrong.” I was raw with feelings of extreme unease that manifested into a persistent, slightly dizzy feeling, like I was living outside my body. Was I sick? I seemed to have a permanent headache that throbbed at the base of my cervical spine, then crawled up my neck, wrapped itself around my skull, and finally settled its claws into two painful points above my ears. I had no clue what to do about all of the tears, the sadness, the headaches, the physical and mental pain. I didn’t understand any of it or where it was coming from.
Growing up, fantasizing and creating new stories for myself had been my refuge from the anarchy of my life. From as early as I can remember, I would perform little plays or look for ways to act the part of someone else. When my parents would take me out on their date nights, I would quickly flee our table in order to play the role of “adult friend” to the diners around us. Eight years old and pulsating with tenacity, I would compliment women, telling them, “You are very pretty!” I would ask men, “Are you a sexist, misogynist pig?” I had heard from my mom that this was a very big deal and I wanted to catch any “sexists” and “misogynists” in my midst. The adult couples would politely indulge me as I asked questions like “Do you have enough sex?” or “How do you keep your love life fresh?” The grown-ups would usually burst into surprised laughter before giving me a very PG answer (“Relationships are work”) and looking for my parents. As soon as I got home, I would write down the stories I had heard from the adult world and then perform them in front of my mirror.
I became so enamored with interrogating grown-ups and telling their stories that my mom briefly set up a cable-access television show for me. Girl Talk was filmed in an exam room of her medical office. A pink construction-paper mural covered in puffy paint designs of flowers and hearts hid a gynecological exam chair. On the show, I would interview such luminaries as my mom’s personal trainer, Kim, a bodybuilder with a short blond ponytail and greased-up, Day-Glo orange limbs. I would catch any patient in the hall and ask/demand that she be a guest on my “very important, very popular, very funny television show.” A stunning number of people agreed. My mother canceled my show, not due to poor ratings (because we didn’t have any ratings) but because she needed her exam room back. That’s Hollywood, kiddo.
With my show canceled, I began keeping my own journal. It was full of the musings of a child prodigy: “Jamie Belsky-Briley is 11 out of 10 HOT”; “I would marry Luke Perry, eff Jason Priestley, and kill Ian Ziering (duh)”; “I’m scared to leave my room because my parents are screaming and I don’t want to see them but I ALSO really want to GET OUT OF MY ROOM because mom said the world is full of rapists and murderers who want to kidnap me and I think one is plotting to break in through my bedroom window! How do I escape?” My journal was a safe place where I could be vulnerable and write about how my world felt: violent, tumultuous, confusing, and dangerous.
My diary was something I kept only for me and hid in my candy stockpile under my bed. One day, a family friend walked into my room as I was writing in it. She was a self-described “Wiccan witch” who once “cursed” my father, but I, for some reason, trusted her as the only “normal” adult I knew. (Kind of shows you the lack of reasonable grown-ups I had to choose from, huh?) “What do you have there?” she asked. I confessed that I was keeping a journal where I was tracking everything going wrong around me. My parents were just beginning their divorce, and somehow, just by writing in my little purple-and-green paisley cloth–covered diary, I felt some relief. “That’s great you’re keeping a journal, honey, can I see it?” The request felt a little odd, but so was everything else going on in that house. I agreed. As she skimmed through the pages, reading my secrets, my lies, my truths, my whole body throbbed with one thought: NO, NO, NO, IT’S MINE.