The juxtaposition was both bemusing and a little startling. Here was performer/playwright/comedienne Jane Anderson snuggling up with her cat, Schlomo. Behind her were the wooded glens of Laurel Canyon, framed and tinted by stained-glass windows. And then, she recalled her first night as a stand-up comic in New York.
"I had prepared five minutes of material. It was August, hot and humid, and I was wearing something with rayon, so I was sweating like crazy. That's when you know you're nervous--you just ooze nerve fluid. When I finally got on stage, people were eating hamburgers right up front. I could hear the forks clicking, but other than that, it was silent for the whole five minutes. All I could see was black space because of the spotlight. I couldn't see a face. The act was a real flop. Comics have a word for this: Flopsweat."
For 99% of the comedians beating the bushes, that would have been the end of the story. With Anderson, it was different.
"As I left the stage, a disembodied voice near me said, 'Good, very good. I know what you're doing.' I never saw her. But when I climbed aboard the Third Avenue uptown bus stinking of flopsweat, I could only think of that voice. It was like a guardian angel nudging me on. I never stopped from that point on."
Anderson's solo show, "How to Raise a Gifted Child," is a kind of culmination of a comic's dues-paying journey, in which the characters created for a stand-up act have taken a life of their own, and the act itself has become a bona-fide play. In it, Anderson performs all the roles, from Leslie the not-so-gifted offspring to her mother, father, ballet teacher and one-night stand. None of them, the performer insists, are autobiographical.
"If I were to create my show strictly out my childhood," she considers, "I think it would have been a very indulgent piece. The characters here are very ethnic, whereas my parents are very WASPish. So it's not based in any literal way on my childhood--there are elements of it here and there--but on characters who simply intrigue me."
Anderson has been doing "Gifted Child" on the comedy club circuit for two years, "but it had to compete with bartenders talking with their girlfriends and the tuba-playing comedian downstairs. I tried desperately to get it into a legitimate theater, but the Ensemble Studio Theatre was the only one that offered to give it a chance." She even designed the lavender-tinged set, drew the slides that segue each section of the piece and painted the childlike wall paintings of a mom and dad (her own in this case).
Anderson grew up with the clear intention of wanting to be an actress. In the early 1970s, she escaped her native Los Altos Hills, next to the Silicon Valley, for the less suburban, big-city chill of Boston and Emerson College. "Instead of having regular classes," she recalled, "we'd sit around in groups and discuss. It was such a waste.
"I then went to Ohio University for their drama program. A teacher encouraged me to go to New York. It was all I needed, because when I hit the New York streets, I went crazy. Every possible character I could hope to write about was there, bumping into me. If I had never gone there, this show wouldn't exist."
Like a journalist starving for a story, Anderson would interview types that interested her, such as the fanatical stage mothers upon whom Sylvia, mother of Leslie, is based. "I had no idea that her character would end up producing a whole family. The story just happened to grow. It was an uncontrollable process."
Anderson the actress-in-training became Anderson the comic for several reasons. "I didn't have the equipment to be a dramatic actress--I was too small, my voice was funny, and I liked laughing better than crying. Besides, while actresses are dependent on others for material, a comic creates their own work. I had too much to say to go on any more cattle calls.
"I vowed to myself that I would always be a responsible comic. I followed Lily Tomlin's advice to respect whom you portray and never put them down. One of the comic's roles, I think, is to make us like all kinds of people. It's a way of getting rid of prejudice. If people are laughing, they're vulnerable, and the harder they laugh, the more something gets under their guts. That's why putting across sexual or racial stereotypes is very dangerous."
Even C.B., Leslie's truck-driving sperm donor, elicits the sympathy of Anderson and the audience in the most unexpected of ways. And now, Anderson, maker of families, is giving C.B. one of his own in a work-in-progress. Before this writer/performer is done, we may need a genealogy chart to keep up with her.