soft and smooth
wet and glossy
dry skin banished from my body
a loved one rubs it on my shoulders
this is a massage.
Lindsay Ames wrote “Cream” when she was eight years old. Nowadays, the Canadian comedian recites her childhood poetry at My Diary, a monthly event at UCB Sunset in Los Angeles where comedians read aloud from their old diaries. As the founder and host of My Diary, Ames is a Pied Piper figure, setting the standard for unguarded sharing, leading her fellow comedians down the path of self-humiliation.
Ames had the idea for My Diary when she discovered a dozen of her old journals, spanning a period from the age of seven to twenty three. After happening upon this trove of self-expression two years ago, Ames found a home for My Diary at Upright Citizen’s Brigade, the improv juggernaut under whose banner she regularly performs. “I thought it would be so fun to have a show where your favorite comedians read from the dark pages of their diary. Because you never get to see the real true intimate side of these performers. You’re seeing their act.”
The bare-all confessional is in vogue, and My Diary is part of the honest comedy landscape. This year, Richard Gadd won the Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Award with his extremely personal show Monkey See, Monkey Do. Podcasts like The Moth, Mortified and The Talk of Shame also showcase comedy mined from real life.
My Diary is distinguished by its flexibility—Ames’ definition of a diary is loose. “A diary is anything that has been recorded, it could be a text message, it could be a letter, an online entry. Your to-do list on your phone is diary.”
That said, Ames recognizes that diaries are not exact or accurate representations. “A lot of performers point out to the audience how they wrote in a certain way, as if they were talking to somebody else who was also reading the diary. Even though people are being very real, it’s still a curated real.” On stage, comedians skewer the person they were trying to be, the external act put on for the rest of the world.
Comedians are clearly drawn to the sharing experience of My Diary. October’s event saw SNL alumnus Kevin Nealon and Kate Micucci of Garfunkel & Oates take hilarious trips down memory lane. “My show is the only show that the performers get nervous and scared because they aren’t doing their regular material,” Ames said, “I think it’s very fun for them and also horrible and painful. It’s cathartic.”
Events like My Diary work because of social mores. When a social expectation is broken and external judgement is feared, embarrassment ensues. In this way, embarrassment always involves an audience—even when it happens in private—and long before it’s been converted into an anecdote for public consumption. According to psychologist Rowland S. Miller’s book, Embarrassment: Poise and Peril in Everyday Life, it’s a quintessentially human emotion learned through social conditioning. Luckily for My Diary, it’s ripe for comedy.
Ames finds that some of her most embarrassing diary entries come from an age when she’d yet to learn what was socially acceptable. “Really, I envy that part of myself because I know that I don’t have as unbridled bravery in my writing anymore. And I think that’s such an interesting trait to lose. Or, to acquire a protectiveness. ”
Embarrassment is a momentary, physical reaction to an event, often distinguished by blushing. Whether it’s discovering an old diary, slipping on a banana peel, or singing Ronan Keating’s “When You Say Nothing At All” very badly at a holiday resort in France at the age of ten and realizing your family left mid-rendition, the sensation of embarrassment is intertwined with a happening.
Though the My Diary readings are highly entertaining, they don’t necessarily cause all that much embarrassment. The Mortified podcast isn’t really mortifying. Because embarrassment is inextricably linked with the occasion that caused it, it’s a difficult emotion to stimulate through recounting as an anecdote. A sudden recollection of an old mishap can certainly provoke a bout of the blushes, but storytelling events are (usually) voluntary and pre-planned affairs. Embarrassment is a hot shock felt in the moment, whereas the performers at My Diary know what’s on the menu. They’re in control.
No one recognizes this more than Ames herself, “I know what this show is about, I’m very comfortable with who I was, the things that I wrote and I’m constantly remembering my life over and over.”
Potential embarrassment is tempered at storytelling events because, instead of fearing judgement, the performers judge and mock themselves, like snakes reviewing some scraggy skin they shed long ago. “I was a different person back then,” is a familiar refrain.
If the My Diary audience anticipates the shocking, then it belies the unexpected nature of the emotion. What’s a transgression in a share-all-space? Never mind that there can also be a gulf in what the performer believes to be humiliating and what the audience finds cringe worthy, a phenomenon known as “spotlighting,” which psychologists attribute to the human tendency to skew events through an egocentric lens (not that comedians would ever do a thing like that.)
At the My Diary I attended in October, there was one moment of genuine and collective embarrassment. One actor-writer spent the vast majority of his set prefacing his diary. His desire to keep providing context—to fully illustrate the nature of his unhappy childhood—was dramatic and compelling, more like a heartfelt monologue than a whimsical nostalgia trip. The audience was enraptured, if not necessarily laughing. And then, out of nowhere, he accidentally knocked over his beer on stage. The whole room inhaled in empathy and winced as one. With the audience on side, he resumed his singular performance.
It’s no longer enough to just be funny. Comedy has evolved in such a way that, not only are comedians expected to generate their own material, but they are also expected to provide the audience with insight into their real lives, in the vein of David Sedaris or Louis C.K. Perhaps the trend will pass, and self-revelation will lose its currency. But at My Diary, genuine connections are made within the space of a set, and the audience leaves with much more than a few quotable one-liners.
My Diary is on at UCB Sunset Monday 12/5 at 10:30pm with Nick Rutherford, Jess Rona and more. Buy tickets here.