Comedy, empathy, sickness, stepping up, and the balance between fun and seriousness in life.
Susan is an improviser and iconic comedian from Chicago's The Second City, the Annoyance Theater, and iO Theater.
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Sim Salis (host): Welcome. Blah Blah Blah!
Susan Messing (guest): Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Sim: I was really happy to see you and I guess you were happier than I was to see you to be back on stage.
S. Messing: I was, I was very, very, very nervous. You know, I've been doing this for 30 years straight up. And when my husband got sick I was like, well if a tumor in your spinal cord isn't going to stop you from doing make him ups, nothing is. So I was on high alert for many, many months. And normally if I'm awake and alert, it's going to be a good show. I just know that but this was one of the few shows in my life that I actually had to turn to people afterwards and say, was that okay? Oh, oh, okay. Were you at? You were at that...
Sim: I was.
S. Messing: Was that okay?
Sim: I think it was really okay.
S. Messing: It was, it was pretty dark, apparently.
Sim: It was, it was, I thought it was dark and I thought that was interesting because you talk about whatever the fuck you want.
S. Messing: Yes , I do.
Sim: And you did even here, even if it was dark and it was inside you, that's, that's a brave thing to do. It just came out of you?
S. Messing: Yeah, I didn't, I didn't know what, I mean, I never know what's going to come out of me, you know? And, and again, I don't know what's going to come out of Rachel and everything is a gift and we are very, very good at complimenting each other in each other's choices. We trust that it's right and our job is to make it more right. You know what I mean? Instead of go, no, I had this preconceived idea and now I want to pursue that. If I did, I would write sketch. You know what I mean? Right. I mean, if I have this idea of the way I wanted to control it, then that's what I would've done. But it's out of my control, which is actually pretty great, you know, because there's so many things in my life in terms of taking care of my husband and my daughter that I have to make sure that I have absolute control. Otherwise he doesn't get his pills and he doesn't go to PT and he doesn't get his chemo or whatever the hell or my daughter doesn't get to school. But with this, it's, it's very liberating, it's very freeing. And it definitely was too long since I had performed because I felt very, very shaky. But once I was in, I was in, I just didn't know it was. I was, I mean, honestly, that's...
Sim: I think so. No, I don't care about...
S. Messing: But you know what I'm saying? Like you had to watch it.
S. Messing: And again, normally I don't ask for affirmation from other people at, but somebody said to me that was the shittiest year ever and you are the cherry on the shit show. And I went, okay, I can handle that then that I can live with.
Sim: It's interesting how improvisation for you becomes free from responsibilities and within that you actually enjoy yourself and you can explore yourself with no responsibilities. And that is like for some young improvisers that is a reason of anxiety but for you it's actually a reason to release yourself and enjoy yourself more.
S. Messing: It's, here's the thing, being in the moment means smell it, touch it, taste it, feel it now. You know what I mean? And I'm like a good pool player in life. I'm always setting up the next five shots. So, my husband's 1:00 am pills are, and 9:30 pills are right by the bed with a new thing of fresh water . He has his 5 PMs that he's ready to take and they're already in his knapsack for his class today. You know, like my daughter is at rehearsal for her school show. Everything is set up. You know, my, my dogs had been fed. I don't take care of the cats. My friend Christopher does, you know, like all this other kinds of stuff is going on. So, I don't have to worry about anything except having more fun than anyone else while I'm on stage, which is another reason why I was so anxiety filled because I was like, I don't know if this is going to be fun. I still wonder what's going to come out of my mouth. I mean, I'm always surprised, but I'm always inspired by what is in front of me instead of here's an idea I would like to pursue. With ideas I'd like to pursue that's when I contact Rachel and say, hey, let's put up a bit for the shit hole.
I don't like writing coming on stage with an idea. I'd much rather be inspired by the look on your face or why your arms are folded like that. That to me is far more interesting. I'd much rather justify that then invent something better because then you might as well write glorious, perfect sketch. And the audience doesn't think to themselves, oh, I, I can't wait for that preconceived great idea she has. They're like, why is she standing like that? And then when you explain that or justify it, people are happy. They're like, oh, that's why she is that way. And that also doesn't throw off your partner because your partner knows that you're inspired by what they're up to instead of a better idea that now they have to agree with. There's no, I don't like coming up with an coming out with an idea. I think that's a, I don't think it's very organic.
S. Messing: And I like coming from a purely organic space because then my imagination runs free. And then, you know, it's like when I used to use in class, an example where somebody comes on stage and says, I killed all your puppies. And I'm like, really? And then that's when I take out a basket and show you a beautiful, tiny golden retriever puppy and start ringing their necks. You know what I mean? And then the audience goes oooh, because it's true. You know what I mean? As opposed to, here's a funny wacky idea, it just because that means the only way to heighten funny as to be funnier and good luck with that. When the audience doesn't get off on the funny in Improv, they get off on specificity. They're like, oh my God, I did go to Lowe's and I did buy that cabinet and I couldn't put it together either. Okay. And I'm not, I'm not listening for the light of, of the laugh as my affirmation. My affirmation is they got their flat asses off, off their chairs and, and gotten to a lift and came to my show. That's my affirmation. And, and I, that's why I'm so grateful for an audience and that's why I thought after 10 months, oh, nobody's going to know who I am anymore. Oh, well bye, you know what I mean? I was thrilled that we had a full house.
Sim: It was a pretty affectionate audiences. And I'm not just saying this because like, you know, you've been doing this for 30 years and also the way that you are.
S. Messing: Although I have to say, I felt for awhile, like I was on the Gerbil wheel where you just keep, you know doing the same thing again and again. And I was like, what is new for me? What is, what is challenging for me? I guess in this instance, what was challenging for me was actually getting back on stage, that was super challenging for me. And then Rachel and I did a tiny bit as it's going on, people are laughing and I'm thinking, Oh, oh, we do comedy. Oh, good, good that's not a waste of the last 30 plus years. Good, good, good.
Sim: Yeah, you been training on that and doing it.
S. Messing: But I'd never take it for granted. You don't just go, I'm funny. Fuck you. You know what I mean? Like they're like, no, you're not as my reg. You're less then funny right now. Yeah.
Sim: Did you start like this? Like, did you start being like born like were you born none needing affirmation? Like, yeah,
S. Messing: No, I do. I needed a lot of affirmation. The affirmation I needed at the time was please like me, I think was that, or I don't want to be your problem because I have been called out in my early years of ... If you want to stay here, this is what you have to do. And I kept thinking, well, why does she not have to do that? Or why does he get away with it? And then I realized, oh, I got to put my blinders on and go, my path is my path. You know what I mean? Like my life lessons are different than other people's life lessons. And once I started kind of dealing with some hard notes and I'm taking them to heart, then my world got a lot easier, especially as a performer. And that was when I felt like I was in a position to support other people and having more fun than anyone else. And then they win because I think in this art, if they win, I win too. It's almost like you ever watch a couple get into fights and someone wins. I'm like, yeah, but...
Sim: You didn't win.
S. Messing: Yeah, you won.
Sim: So, what?
S. Messing: But that means your partner loses.
S. Messing: And I'm like, when? Where is there anything good that comes out of that? Isn't, isn't my success, your success, isn't it your success, my success? So, I feel like when we build each other up, and I don't mean scene choices, I mean, but as human beings, I think good things happen and I think that's why Improv is sort of exploded all over the world because people need something positive. And they need creation and they need joy. That kind of makes me put my toes back in. I put my toe back in gently for workshops and stuff. I'm just starting, I'm just agreed to do University of Chicago this fall and I had, you know, not done DePaul and University of Chicago. I hadn't done anybody; I hadn't done school at Steppenwolf. I quit IO Annoyance, Second City. I quit everything. And I have to say, these buildings have been exceptional at going, oh, please take care of life. I'm grateful that hopefully there'll be, you know, a place for me when, when I come back in a more, you know, stable choice of, of teaching. But I also need to make sure that I perform too because that needs to be a balance. And I think I was doing far more teaching than performing and I need to balance that out. I think in this city you can get away with teaching and not performing, but there is a bit of prone it Bitch, you know what I mean? Don't you think?
Sim: I think so.
S. Messing: Oh, I mean if I wasn't performing while I was teaching you, you would kind of go, well that sounds interesting, but I want to see you put that in action and then I do. And then you go, oh okay that works.
Sim: You mentioned hard notes.
S. Messing: Yeah.
Sim: When you started to take those too hard, and that is a hard thing to do to start thinking like, oh, I'm not fucking special and I am not strong there. So...
S. Messing: I didn't come from a generation where you got a trophy for participating. I came from a generation that you got a trophy for doing a really, really good job, you know. Commitment and recommitment and tenacity brought out my talent as opposed to, I'm talented, why don't you think I'm wonderful? And I'm not saying that this generation is that way either. I think that, I think when people want them align this generation, that's what they say. But I know people who work their off, you know, young kids, it's are in a much worse world in many ways now it's a world where up is down and down is up and people are being lied to every second. So I have great respect and compassion for this generation and I look forward to when I come back to support people because if people get on stage, they belong there. And I feel like my job is to, you know, make them shine and to shine them up and send them out in the world. And I don't care what they do with it, but I know it's going to be helpful in some ways.
Sim: You start to understand that you had your own path to follow and you have to put blinders...
S. Messing: And it's difficult because it's very easy to look at other people and say, ooh, what are they doing and why am I not doing that? It's, it's hard not to let jealousy and competition and weirdness get into your art, especially because, you know, everybody is very prolific, but in their, in their creations. But that doesn't always mean it's good, you know? So that's why the more you know, the better you can do or fucks with it. And even now, I have so much to learn, everyday I'm learning something new and it'll end up being, you know, put back in my art. Like this coobooshoe stuff that you just gave me, which smells like ammonia and tastes like Miso soup.
Sim: It is, Selina inside.
S. Messing: Either that, or I will wake up sobbing naked on a cold tile floor somewhere and not even in this apartment, whatever.
Sim: How is, the, the Annoyance allowed you to be? Well, what are the difference,? I mean...
S. Messing: I'll explain it very briefly, the brief explained...
Sim: The brief version.
S. Messing: I, oh, you know, I always never created an initially to create character work and stuff like that. It was, it was created to work as a really work as an ensemble and create, take one theme and expand it together until you've created a bunch of disparate scenes that all come back and it's beautiful. It's very beautiful, and I love IO and that's where I started. In Second City was dealing with social and political satire, and I enjoyed that too while I was doing main stage. I'd, I'd gone through the training center years before, but I had never believed that there was a place for me because at the time there was more of a type that they were looking for. There was like a really pretty woman who was like kind of handed eliminate.
And then there was a goofy woman and, and I just was like, am I goofy enough to be goofy? Am I pretty enough to be pretty? I don't fit there or I didn't think I did until I did it and I realized, no, it's changing. And, you know, maybe that was just something I noticed and maybe it wasn't even part of the makeup, but it looked like it to me. But the annoyance was we would improvise something and then we would set it and make a play out of just improvising until we had beets. You know, that it was sad, but it was still pretty loose within that structure, we created musicals. We, which is something that I had always, you know, I'd always made up shit in my bathtub all the time and so I didn't know that you could actually make something saleable out of it. As a matter of fact, my mother, when I remember when she went to see, You're in Town, she said, oh, it reminded me of an Annoyance show. And I'm like, well, yeah, because Greg Kotis was of that generation doing Card of Giant while we were doing The Annoyance. And we were all friends, and that kind of loose structure ended up creating something that got to be reviewed in the New York Times that you might find, you know, important mother, you know, that kind of thing. But The Annoyance was a place where it's about uncensored content and uncensored content being protected merely by coming into the building. The building was protected, that said, I don't even know if it's protected now. It's a different world. I always did my show messing with a friend at 10:30 on a Thursday night because I thought it was a fuck you slot. Like nobody's going to come to that and it's a fuck you night. We still don't work tomorrow. You know what I mean? So I didn't think that people were, would, would take umbrage at whatever came out of my mouth that said, I think I kind of get a pass where some people don't. Maybe because I'm old, I don't know, but he just said...
Sim: I did wagged a finger [16:08 cross talking].
S. Messing: I had to tell the audience here that he just wagged his fingers at me slowly but deliberately.
S. Messing: Now, I'm just wondering what that means.
Sim: It means that initially this is fine if you're doing it to an American, they're going to go like, what the hell did you just do to me? Did you...?
S. Messing: Oh, so that means fine?
Sim: No, no this means like nobody in a more gentle way. But that said, it's not because I'm gentle. It's because I think that, I think that, I don't know because I'm old. You have starting to being yourself. Like...
S. Messing: 55, I'm pretty fucking old.
Sim: You're fine.
S. Messing: Underneath the clothes I am very 55.
Sim: I'm too gay to know that.
S. Messing: Good, I can save you the screams later.
Sim: You have starting to be yourself, I think much earlier than now. Its now you start have to be yourself uncensored like before that, but perhaps when you were younger...
S. Messing: No, no, no, no, no. I believe that, and this is something that Mick, Mick Napier at The Annoyance had always pushed for all of us. That content needs to be protected in order for people to laugh. One of the best quotes I've ever heard him say, I think it ended up in the second city Almanac of improvisation was if you want to alienate your audience, just stand on the lip of the stage and say, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you. Until people leave. So people don't get to just say, I'm a comedian, deal with it. I mean, you might be a truth teller, but you're not funny. Do you know what I mean? And, and there's a very fine balance, especially now about what people find funny and what people find horrific. It's very interesting to watch the swagger of Louis CK right now. I'm really amazed that he is not more reflective of the things that come out of his mouth and out of his dick, whatever. But I was really disappointed, especially when he started on the Parkland Kids, the father of one of them, put out this standup act in response to him about like dead baby jokes and stuff like that. And he called Louis CK out, he called him out so hard and those jokes were unprotected. Yeah. Maybe some drunk asshole from Long Island might've thought that was hysterical that day.
And that's really too bad because it says a lot about them as human beings. You know what I mean? Like there's a very fine line. And The Annoyance had always been very good about maintaining that, you know, and, and now, for example, we can't do coed prison slots. It wouldn't play now. It was, it was very, it was very subversive for the time and now it would not play. There are a lot of shows that I look back at the Miss Vagina Pageant could not do the show. I could not play the character that I played then.
Sim: Who did the character there?
S. Messing: My character was a woman who was white, who disguised herself as black in order to win the pageant because at the time, women of color with [18:52 unclear] features are winning these things because it was at the time of Vanessa Williams and her runner up who ended up getting the title, I'm sorry, I don't remember her name, but at the time they just finally started letting African American contestants win because they were finally discovering the beauty. But even then they had, you know, they had, they were light complected...
Sim: Suffered that stuff.
S. Messing: Yeah, it was, it was not, it was not the full beauty of, of anybody I thought. And so I was making a big comment on that and it was subversive, but at the first, within two minutes of the show, everybody knew in the audience that I was an interloper. I was someone who should not have been there and I was a bad person. And they knew that from the beginning, that said, now I wouldn't even consider that character. Because it's, it's, it's just wrong in so many levels because blackface is so horribly wrong. Even when, even though I had contacted the equity board and ask them at actors' equity, even though The Annoyance wasn't an equity show, I was, because it's like illegal to, it's, it's completely a moral and unethical, but I also wanted to make sure it was illegal and, and we, we really fussed with the material to make sure that they knew that she was a horrible person. As a matter of fact, when Lauren Michaels and Quincy Jones came to see the show, everybody in the audience was looking at Quincy when I was doing my talent portion, which was the escape of a Harriet Tubman on the underground railroad. Yeah, the dramatic escape, they were looking at Quincy to see if it was okay to laugh. And Quincy chuckled, so the audience chuckled. But normally the audience was all over it. So, you know, you look back in retrospect and you say youth and an experience and toeing the line and it's not somewhere I want to go, now. It's not somewhere that I say to myself, well, I'm a comedian. I'm a comedian for over 30 years. I can get to say what I want. I don't, ugly people say ugly things, but then they become ludicrous or laughable. You don't take someone who is, is, of a minority and make their lives worse.
You, you show how an unequal and privileged certain people are. And I think that just lives in my soul. It's not something that I deliberately come out on stage and do, but I will say this, if something comes out of my mouth that is ugly and distasteful, I have discovered that I am an ugly and distasteful person. You know, I will discover that this kind of Trump is a fine man. You're realizing this woman is sitting in a gated community in Prescott, Arizona sipping a scotch and watching our kids in the pool and complaining about Carpool and you know, and, and saying, we really do need to keep our borders shut. Yeah, they really are a menace, or like what kind of human being says that kind of an asshole. So let's see how more of an asshole they are. And then the audience knows that and they have the ability to laugh at that person instead of thinking, oh Susan Messing thinks she's funny because I don't in those situations things just come out of my mouth. And then we've got to justify that.
Sim: Hello Simone here. And this is the Hoomanist, exclusive interviews, articles and newsletters to discover your true self by learning to listen to authors. Get the latest episodes now for free on your favorite podcast APP and on Hooman.ist. That's HOOMAN.IST
Sim: So, Susan, what comes out of your mouth? Is it because you observe and then eventually you kind of channel that?
S. Messing: Yeah, it just happens.
Sim: And you discover yourself as that character, and you go through that process yourself too?
S. Messing: Yeah, I mean, here's the thing. I watch a lot of bad reality TV. I watch a lot of bad documentaries and good documentaries, but I do not watch, I do not watch comedy and I do not watch drama because I feel like I do make them ups. That's enough for me. I want to see what's really happening in the world. And I really do believe ultimately this is a sociological study of the human condition, good, bad and ugly. So, I'm always interested in how people think, even-even horrible people. Because I think once you come to an understanding of why people think that way, you might be able to get an edge and about supporting change in thinking. I mean that's a hope because if somebody sits there and laughs at it, it's, it's almost like when Chapelle who I've mixed feelings about as well. But when Chapelle realize somebody in the audience was laughing when he, using the N-word and he realized that some white guy was laughing in the audience and he was laughing in a way that he just thought it was funny versus the point that Chappelle was trying to make or whatever. And he realized that he was being flippant and that this was not working for his soul and he got the fuck out of Dodge for awhile. I mean, I get it. I get when, when things aren't funny for a comedian anymore and they need to take a break. I think that's what happened to me for a little while. I mean, beyond the fact that I was responsible for everything in terms of, you know, taking care of everybody in my little world. Yeah, you start realizing some of this stuff ain't funny. Some days you just have to mourn that we have an ugly world in some ways and search for the beauty again so you can find what's funny about it. It's not always easy, but by the way, though, my gallows humor is great.
Sim: Your what?
S. Messing: My gallows humor is great, when my husband, he was, when he was diagnosed with a glioblastoma in his spinal cord Doctor Sympthist, the Neurosurgeon was a Greek man who I couldn't understand in the beginning. I couldn't even understand it as his accent I didn't even know that it was Greek until he finally said he was Greek. And I was like, oh my God, can I put my brother in law on the phone with you who is very Greek and is a Neurologist, but ... and understood definitely about tumors and spinal fancy shit like that. So, I put him on the phone and the two of them, by the end of the conversation, we're just talking about their villages that they came from in Greece and I'm like, my husband has a tumor in his spinal cord, whatever. But then he told me before the operation, he said, you know, this could make him very disabled. Even just getting, you know, a biopsy of the tumor could make your husband, you know, completely quadriplegic if I do not do this very carefully. And we also, by the way, discovered that spinal cords are not the size of garden hoses, they are size of a pencil. So, these guys, Neurosurgeons are like, they're big deals like so they do have the right to be pompous assholes. Like he was being sorry, Dr. Sympthist, you were a pompous asshole. So, so right before he, he's putting Michael under, he said, you know, again, I am going to remind you this could make him physically compromised.
And I looked at him and I said, don't fuck with his Dick. And I said, would really like really straightforward. I didn't smile at all, and he looked at me like you fucking crazy. Like, are you fucking kidding me? And so after the ,the operation, he said, we had to get out as fast as we could. We got this much of the biopsies we could. But his right side is compromised. And I looked at him and again and I said, so you fucked with his Dick. And he's just staring at me like, oh my God. So, that was the second time. By the fifth time, I had told him in different meetings with him that he fucked with my husband's Dick. He finally understood, and he finally started loving me. So, Dr. Sympthist and I are super great friends right now, but it took him a long time. But my gallows humor is like hundred percent I am, I am there. Like if I have to empty a urinal, you know, I'll like pretend we're doing Oktoberfest, and I'll be like, hump papa and my husband, you know, he laughs because if you don't laugh you're going to cry. And I already had enough tears, so fuck that shit. Right. So, I'm glad I'm pleasing you Simone.
Sim: You are like Kurt Vonnegut. He was like, you can have two reactions that shit in life and it's either crying and it's your laughing.
S. Messing: Very thin line, very thin line that separates both of them. So, you might as well. I mean, I remember thinking throughout most of this, I remember thinking, I'm so grateful I'm a comedian because I was able to add levity to some really, really horrible situations. It, it was really scary and it's still not perfect and Michael is still working really hard to be strong again. It really dipped with his right side. And that wasn't even to treat the cancer. That was simply just to get a biopsy of the tumor...
Sim: Yeah. And, and Vonnegut was saying like every laughing because there is a lot less cleaning. But after...
S. Messing: Yeah. I mean, don't get me wrong. I did not, I mean, I cried a lot. I, yeah, I didn't ask for this. No, I did ask. I asked me, I volunteer, I have to say that I, I mean I, I have cried a lot and I used to cry like it was an old shrimps trip. Anybody who's ever taken shrimps when, if you've ever laughed a lot and then you went, fuck, I'm laughing so much that tears are coming on my face. You know what, why don't I cry some more. Yeah, I'll cry some more. Oh, I'm laughing again. Huh? That's kind of what happens when your husband has a tumor in his spinal cord. You cry and then laugh and then cry and laugh. Yeah. Yeah.
Sim: But how do you go through the process of deciding to stop for a second and look at life in a different way? Did you need...
S. Messing: I probably didn't want to be somebody who cried all the time. And I probably found, I seem to look at life in a very twisted, I don't want to say perverse, perverse always means, feels sexual to me, but a kind of perverse, twisted sort of way. And when I met Mick, I remember thinking, Oh, you think that's funny too. Like that's you and I, we have similar...
Sim: Not insane or alone.
S. Messing: Yes. I mean its...
Sim: Necessary like in a way.
S. Messing: Like, oh I could see myself in comedy because my sensibilities seem to line up with that. And you're a comedian, so, oh, okay. Good, good. I'm in the right, I'm certainly in the right place for me. And even when I went to Second City, they told me for my first review, Kelly sat me in his office and he said, you know, we are going to say that you can't go blue. And for people who don't know what going blue means, it means saying pissy, conti, fucky, tiddy ,tiddy...
Sim: The seven words from [29:38 inaudible].
S. Messing: Yeah. Like whatever. He said you can't go blue on the main stage. And I understand that there's a bunch of tour buses coming in from God knows...
S. Messing: Yeah, Schomburg. Like you don't, you know, and again, protecting content of the building, it's not, it's not my right to say whatever I want. And, and but Talerico Rich, Talerico said, well, they hired you because you were Susan Messing, and then they told you not to be. And I thought to myself, my desire to be on this stage is going to supersede the weirdness I have to go through to be on this stage. And I don't have Tourette's I mean, I can certainly control myself. We talked to our grandparents differently than we talk to our best friends, right? You know, so I can handle that. So, I exercise different muscles and it worked really great, and then after the first review, Kelly sat me down. He said, you did everything we asked you to do and we really appreciate that, that said this next review you can do and say whatever you want. And for some reason I sort of, it's sort of froze me up. I sort of didn't believe it because I was like, yeah, okay. And I had more, I think I had more fun the first review when I was given restrictions. Strangely enough. I don't know. I mean I think everybody, you know, for three steps, we take forward, we take one back, we take two sideways, you know, then we find a three leaf clover and wish it was a four leaf. You know, I mean there's just, and I'm a slow learner. I think that's why I think that's why I teach is to save people time. Because they could be having more fun faster.
Sim: How do your personal learning pour into your teaching? Like because...
S. Messing: I kept thinking, I don't know if I'm going to have to do dumb ass improv exercises, I'm going to give them names that would make me interested in doing them. So it did, so some of the things like apparently Double mint twins get fucked up the ass is now just called Double mint twins and that's fine. But I know where it came from.
Sim: Well, I think I did one that was my, my pupil has...
S. Messing: My pupil is hungry.
Sim: My pupil...
S. Messing: I don't even remember. I don't even remember what, what's up with that. Actually, my pupil is hungry, it came from me doing a commercial with Brian McCann, where we were at the craft service table and I picked up a peanut M and M and so did he. And we started saying my pupils hungry and nobody would eat lunch with us. So That's how my pupils hungry started. I don't even remember what the exercise is attached to it. I just remember now the title because I can make up exercises. I mean, it's so amazing sometimes when I go places and people are scribbling down my exercises and say, I am going to do this in Bulgaria, or I'm going to do this wherever. I'm like, do it wherever you want. I will make up a new one tomorrow. It means nothing to me. Here's a new one, it's called a toe. Here you go, let's, let's play it. And I, especially at The Annoyance, I will make up a lot of new stuff, at IO I was sort of beholden to my own curriculum that I created because other teachers were teaching it. So, I wanted to make sure...
Sim: Standardized it.
S. Messing: I did standardize it as much as someone like myself could standardize anything. But it's, it's kind of good to know, oh, classics, you will do X as opposed to what do you need today? Oh, I'm going to make up something new. But I mean, teachers need, teachers can't get on a Gerbil wheel you have to make it new for yourself because it won't be new for your students. You really can't just say, well, this is just the way it is. And I'm like, no, I have, I watched people, I've seen people teach things that they created 30 years ago and still decide that this to be the gospel. And I'm saying, well, there's so many different people in so many ways to approach this work. Nobody is right, when did you decide how right you were? That's another, that's, I don't improvise correctly.
S. Messing: I just play and I mean, don't you remember the kid you hated because the way they played with you, you're like, okay, today we're going to play house, and you're the prints. This is what you're going to say, I remember when my daughter was really young, she used to direct me when we played and I finally said, no, Sophia, I am my own character. My character says whatever it wants to. She was just like, oooh I can't control play. And I'm like, no, no, you really can't, so cut it. That was great.
Sim: All the good moment.
S. Messing: She's such a good kid. I mean, honestly, her worst day is some of their kids best. She really is amazing.
Sim: What kind of person is your kid? Like what kind of kid comes out of Susan Messing...
S. Messing: A much better kid than Susan Messing.
Sim: Is it Susan Messing 2.0 or is it Susan Messing alternative version?
S. Messing: It's of Susan Messing was polite, kind, smart. I mean, I'm not saying I'm not, but like she's, she's Neil Flynn once looked at a picture of her and she's, he just looked at me, and he went, she's you, but better like she is so... She was born evolved and wise and kind. Like, I think she, if you have to say, old soul, young soul, I would be a young soul, and she'd be an old soul. She's teaching me and raising me well, she's preventing me from being a hypocrite because I don't, I can't tell her to do something that I myself can't do or wouldn't do. Which probably makes me a little empathetic, but I was also an older mother. Like I had her before I clawed when I was like 39, so I felt probably I had a lot more patience than I would have had I been younger. I mean, she's, she's just a fantastic human. I can't even, and people who meet her are...
Sim: I have, you were not there. She was with Rachel Mason and we were watching Emo Phillips and [35:04 inaudible]
S. Messing: Oh, so you met Sophia, you did meet her and she loved Emo. She loved Emo better than weird owl, Emo was a very, very nice. He's a brilliant man.
S. Messing: And it's interesting, my father Emo was his very favorite comedian, and after my father died, I didn't think about that and then realized when I met him years later he's tight with Michael. I just went, oh my God, you are my dad's, like how strange that just all comes back in that we're all just different generations in this work. But Sophia, so what did you think of Sophia when you met her?
Sim: She was very well like she seemed like present to herself. She's just like, she's like very well composed...
S. Messing: Very well composed, very sweet, very kind. But she's also so funny, like the kind of funny that has me like doubled over. I mean she and Michael make me laugh probably more than anybody. They just like Michael because his humor is just so dry and kind like I'll just obsess about something and he'll say very gently that I'm just a pit bull on a pork shoulder. You know, like he's just, he just dry and great about everything.
Sim: How did you guys meet?
S. Messing: Michael Clayton Mccarthy was a man I had known for over as soon as probably when I, once I first started improvising, he was over at Second City. Michael is dyslexic, so he did everything backward, and he wrote for SNL when he was like 23, 24 and then he went back to Second City. It's usually the opposite.
Sim: Yeah, who does that?
S. Messing: Who does that? And as a dyslexic, as always, you make life even harder for yourself. So you become a writer. I mean, you know, as a screenwriter at that too. But I knew him because I did a pilot for Mick; it was before Comedy Central came about. It was called the Han Network at the time, and we did a pilot presentation and he was in it and I was in it and McKinnon, Jay [36:59 inaudible] and a bunch of, and Jackie Hoffman. But it was this bizarre experience. And Michael was in it and just seemed like a very sweet human being. But then we sort of were out of each other's radar, but we knew of each other for years and years and years. And at the Second City, 50th Anniversary and Oh, I also, in 2008, he came back to Chicago because he hosted a radio show on Q101 for a year. And he was also teaching at the IO, his pilot production sitcoms speck, SNL packet, and talk show packet. That's what he teaches. And because he's a really, really, really, really good at it.
And, and I remember asking a friend, you know, what's up with Michael? Because I had been, I'd been divorced a few years and I was like, what's up with Michael McCarthy? And she said he's going through a divorce. And I'm like, nope, wouldn't touch that with a 10-foot pole. You don't touch, you don't, you don't go anywhere near somebody who's getting a fresh divorce.
Sim: In the moment, like...
S. Messing: No, because you're going to deal with all the complaints about the Ex and, and you're just going to be the stepping stone for someone else. So, I was like, that's great but I did flirt with him all the time. His class was after my class and I would flirt with him, but even my flirting wasn't like the kind of flirt that would lead to anything fun. I was like, Michael, like he just, you wouldn't fuck that ever. And that's also something, he was too kind and too smart and too funny and way too attractive for me. Way, way, way oh then it was the Second City 50th anniversary in 2009 and he brought some Hot Blonde Chick to the 50th anniversary. And I had just broken up with someone and I remember looking at him going, who's that? And I am not a jealous person, but I was like, not okay. And I was like, who am I? Like, this is not okay. Then years after that in 2011 I was on Facebook, I think a commented on something he wrote and he sent me a message and he said, how are you, sweetheart? Really? And we started chatting and within two weeks our messages, it was like either profound or porn. There was no middle, middle ground, no middle ground...
Sim: Thai's a great thing.
S. Messing: There's no middle ground. And he said he was going to come out and visit me and I was like, you're not meeting my kid yet. I'm thinking, so I kind of put her somewhere down the street. She was at a friend’s, she was not locked in a closet, although she would have been very patient and kind and knitted you a sweater while that was happening. No, she was not a knitter, but she would have made you something nice or she would have tagged all the furniture with I love you, Mama. Which is what she did when she would write on furniture. She would, I would be like Sophia, we write on paper and she, then you'd look at the furniture. I still have pieces of it that I don't paint because it says I love you Mama on it. I mean, what are you going to do?
Sim: That's passive aggressive though, because if you're painting the furniture...
S. Messing: I don't care, she loves her mother. I do not care. Anyways, so Michael did come and visit me and I remember seeing him at the airport and going, oh, oh what if, what if I was completely wrong? What if I don't like him? Like, oh God, like we have gone from profound to porn to profound again and we've already told each other we loved each other. And Ah, but then as we were driving back in my tiny yellow Chevrolet Aveo, which could crush me on the highway or it could get crushed on the highway because it's made of tin and is no longer a car. So, do not worry about my safety. I looked at him and I thought to myself, oh, we're going to get away with this. And two weeks after we had started talking, when he was coming to visit me, he said to me, he said, I'm going to marry the fuck out of you one day. Oh, no. He actually said, stop farting around messing life is short, we should be together and you're perfect. And I went, oh, what about taking it slow? He said, oh, we can take it slow, but I'm going to marry the fuck out of you one day. And I thought to myself, if I do not marry this man, I will be the biggest idiot on the planet. It's just that was what I was like, that was what came to my mind because the idea of marriage has always been important to me. I think living with someone who is more than enough and making their baby is even more than enough. Like I did not need to be married. It was never a goal of mine ever.
Sim: What was the difference when it happened?
S. Messing: Well, when Joe and I got engaged, Joe said, I said to Joe as he is like handing me the ring practically. I said, oh, we don't have to get married. I can live with you and make your baby. And he said, no if we have a family, we have to be married. And I thought, oh, he knows something I don't know. He knows that we should be married like so. But I was like, apparently you're supposed to know too. You know what I mean? I always, I already felt like we were committed. We were already living together.
Sim: You don't need a certification for that.
S. Messing: I didn't think I needed that. But with Michael, I thought I have to. And I'd said to him later, I said, how did you know? And he said, I don't, I just did. He goes, she's the one and I am going to, while the window of opportunity is even a sliver opening open, I'm going to take it. And so he did. And believe me, everybody who knows me and knows him, looked at him initially and was like, seriously, really Susan Mess. Why? Because if you've ever met Michael, he is the most thoughtful, kind, smart, genuine, awesome human being. And I'm not saying I'm not, but I might be a different kind of that and it wouldn't be someone you would expect.
Sim: Hello, Simone here. And this is the Hoomanist visit digest.hooman.ist to subscribe and receive six degraded links at Jeff, a quote and all the exclusive podcasts interviews delivered to your inbox every weekend. Get in now for free on digest.hooman.ist
Sim: Susan, you said that you and your husband are very different on the surface at least. So, what do you guys share it at a core level?
S. Messing: With Michael, for me and Michael is, he loves me unequivocally. He loves me because I am who I am and, and my core, he, he, he likes what kind of human being I am. I am, it's different, but the core values are the same. We're both, you know, liberal and we both care a lot about the human condition and we're both sort of bleeding hearts. And Michael's whole Gig is, you know, he's on this earth to help people and learn a few things. And I'm like, me too. So...
Sim: So, it's apple and oranges. It's different things. But at the end like this...
S. Messing: A different way of doing it.
S. Messing: He's definitely a different way of doing things, but it's very complementary. It's not the same but it's extremely complimentary and, and, and I can't say that, you know, I think if we approached a lot of relationships that way, you know, if I had learned more from them in the past and, and came to it with that kind of acceptance of my partner or came to it with that kind of benevolence and looking to lift each other up. You know, I think life would be a lot easier for everybody because this relationship at its core is extremely easy. It is very easy to love Michael and it is very easy for him to love me.
Sim: But it was hard to get to get to that point. I know ,it was hard...
S. Messing: Yeah.
Sim: It was a discovery for you to get that point in life.
S. Messing: Life, life, life, life. Some people are born with it and other are very slow.
Sim: Okay. Well Sophia was born, evolved.
S. Messing: She was born incredibly evolved and, and I'm not saying she doesn't struggle and has, you know something that you might even look at and go, oh that's very teen. But it's, it's not that often. Again, her worst day is some of their kids best. She, and I don't say that because she's mine. Because if she were hateful I'd be like my kids hateful [44:53 inaudible]. But I love her, you know, but she's, she's not, she's, she's not even me but better. She's Sophia Mia. She is her own. Sophia means wise and mia means mine and she's my wise baby. And also that SM didn't suck because in case I had anything monogrammed I could pass it over to her.
Sim: Because everything outside Improvisation I say is very well organized and engrained.
S. Messing: You know what, again, I have to, you know, I plan things...Also my husband has a slight case of OCD, which means that like his clothes are folded like the Gap and he leaves no stone unturned in bed. I'm not complaining like his, his OCD is great. And because we have five stupid pets running around my house...
Sim: That's a lot.
S. Messing: And that's a lot of pets, that's a lot of fucking pets. And it's, and by the way, it smells awesome in my house because the litter boxes are all in the basement and it's all wonderful. All the animals are stupid, but everybody lives together in harmony and we have enough space for it. So why the fuck not?
Sim: So, getting to that point was also...at the end it sounds like if it's kind of a different variation of what you do on stage with Rachel, well, you support ideas and funny stuff and without worrying about that, but you have to accept each other. And the idea that the other person bring, right,
S. Messing: You can't be in a relationship and not accept them at their core. It's, it's, you will constantly fight and it will break everything that you found adorable about each other down, you know, down to dust.
Sim: Can you try to change something in another person, either on stage or in a relationship?
S. Messing: I think you can support what's great about them and hopefully things that are unconscionable or not okay might drift away a little bit, but I think you can't, like core values are very difficult to, to change. You know, you have to accept them as they are, now what if they were hateful human being that you just want to fuck? Well then fuck them and then don't be their spouse.
Sim: Nobody's forcing you.
S. Messing: Nobody has a gun to your head unless they do in which case 911.
Sim: What do you, you say that at the end, you and Michael are trying to share this thing that you are trying to do. You're both leading arts and you're trying to sync, just to be around, learn some stuff, get better at what you do and who you are. And that's all you can basically do in the order you're going to try to do.
S. Messing: Yeah, I mean Michael, but Michael, I don't know, maybe it's because we're both teachers as well, but we're also both artists. I mean Michael is a profound creator. He goes, you know, he practices really what he preaches every day he is downstairs, even with a tumor in his spinal cord writing. He's finishing up the fourth of his four books on pilot production sitcom pack , SNL packet and talkshow packet . He's pushing the agenda right now of making all this happen because he wants people to have this information so that they can put, they can put their best foot forward. And because you can't just say, you know, I'm funny, hire me like you have to have you, if you don't have experience, you better have knowledge. You know.
Sim: What does matter to you in the end? I get a pretty good idea. But you know...
S. Messing: Well, if you asked me a year ago when Michael wasn't diagnosed, it might've been different.
Sim: How did that change? What was it a year ago?
S. Messing: I just didn't care about...
Sim: About any of this.
S. Messing: About any of this. I didn't care about the art and didn't care about any of it. I cared about keeping my husband alive. That's what I care about now, which kind of changes the way you look at the work, but also might ultimately make me a better teacher because I might be more of a calming influence for students who freak out and think that, oh my God, I wasted my money and what am I doing with my life? I'm like, it's going to all be okay. I think anybody who deals with anything sort of catastrophic recognizes all of a sudden things that mattered mean, nothing anymore. It just means nothing because all that matters is that this person is in front of you and that you get to be with them. I don't know.
Sim: What are the things that matter to you now? Right now, after this I know it's your husband in general...
S. Messing: My husband's health, emotional as well as physical because I think it's very difficult to be very vibrant and bouncy in terms of being, I mean he got a black belt in taekwondo at age 53, you know, and that a guy who was really struggling to regain his physical power. That's important to me for him because it makes him feel like a real boy. Things that make him feel like a real boy are very important to me. Making sure my daughter doesn't get lost in the fray is very important to me, what the struggles that other people in my family and friends are going through are very important to me. Our world is very important to me. Kindness is really important to me. I'm not saying that these things weren't important to me before, but they've really gotten highlighted. Yeah. That's where I am right now. So it's weird when you were like, I'm going to sit down with you and talk to you about shit. And I'm like, better not be about the business because I don't know Shit Dick about it right now.
Sim: Well you know...
S. Messing: And that might even make me a better performer in the long run because since I give less shits, I really give less shit's not in a way to make anybody feel like you know anybody who has power will make them feel like they have less power over me. But I really, I just, I create shit. I just make up shit and if you want to use my shit, use it and if you don't want to use it, hey that's cool, I'll find another place to use it. I was thinking to myself, I'm so good at caretaking right now. I'm getting, I mean I've gotten like really good at it. I thought, huh, I wonder if I could help hospice people like in, like when people are stuck at home, make their surroundings a little easier and show them how I did the pills in little cups with the numbers on the bottom of the time slot that they're given to make cacophony a little for them. Because I really broke it down so that Michael's world would be kind of simple and easy to navigate for him in, in something that is so... In a world that's so unpredictable right now, to have those things that make you feel solid and secure at a time that isn't, you know what I mean? I was thinking, huh, maybe I can help other people do that. People go through, they say five vocations in a lifetime and I've had one and so maybe I'll do something else. I don't know. I think I'm going to go back to this, but I think I'm going to go back to this with a different perspective. Again, if a tumor in your spinal cord don't make you reassess your shit, nothing is, you know, nothing will.
Sim: The magnitude is different for each one of us.
S. Messing: Yes.
S. Messing: Yes, and I don't mean to diminish someone's pain about not getting on a herald team. I don't, I don't even mean to say, oh, come on, this is not as important as anything else. Everything is as important as it is at the time that it is that, but with time and experience and maybe a better, nope, I don't want to say it better. Maybe with more, what is it?
Sim: Perspective, like...
S. Messing: I just...
Sim: Great picture.
S. Messing: Yeah, I mean to be able to see a little more outside yourself. Even like people who are super depressed, they often recommend go volunteer and you're thinking, fuck you, I'm super depressed like I don't even want to get out of bed. And I'm like, I know. And there is someone worse than you and I don't mean to diminish your pain, but this is one way to apply it. You know what I mean? Like one way.
Sim: One way, yeah...
S. Messing: Yeah. I mean, and I do not mean to demean clinical depression where somebody really like, but then again, I also hope that people know that there is hope when they feel hopeless. Like there, there is always a spark, there's always a hand to reach out and if you can get through the minute, then you can get through the hour, then you can get through the day and hopefully you can get even more support that you need in the long run. A lot of people have told me that they were misdiagnosed with things and once they were finally diagnosed with what was appropriate for them, their whole life began again. I feel like mental health right now is a really hard situation. You know, brain chemistry is not an exact science and what somebody's Prozac works for them. It makes somebody sleep for 20 hours means somebody else needs to be meg- dosed on Saint John's ward and even then it might not work and then it might. And then you know, I mean, and you have to be patient not only with the process but with yourself that to say that almost, almost a Buddhist kind of thing that this is all temporary. You know what I mean? Like your pain is there but it is temporary and, and so is your joy, you know, so enjoy your and so enjoy your joy while it is right in front of you. And handle it when you can.
Sim: Do you, there's actually understanding out of control pain, like some stuff happens and the reason why I think it gives a different dimension to all the areas around you, it's because it's out of your control. And then at first my drive you insane because we are used to control. We are used to think that we can plan things and expect them and then something all of a sudden happens, and you go like fuck, I really do not have any kind of control over this. And then you go like, well there's stuff that I can control but it is temporary and the only thing that you can do is keep going through that and getting organized step by step, like you say. And then the evolutionary step is rising. Oh, it's not just being that it is temporary. It's also joy that is temporary. And then as a consequence, you enjoy it more. You're more attention; you give more attention to that. And so sometimes I feels...
S. Messing: That's why Improv works in so many ways because, because it's so, it's so temporary. It's once it's done, it's done. So, if you had a horrible show, it's done. If you had a great show, it's done. You know what I mean? Like it's done.
Sim: You learn to not care too much about it.
S. Messing: You try not to hold onto too much.
Sim: To hold on, so you're carrying the moment, but you then, no, no, no...
S. Messing: Well, here's the thing. You can hold on to 17 pieces of, of horrible thing, of, of luggage, of horrible things that have happened to you in life. Or you can hold onto a backpack. I mean, how much do you want to...? Like, when do you start using that 17 pieces to say, okay, fine, I'm going to give this part, this piece away, and this piece I'm going to turn into a bed and this piece I'm going to, you know, I mean something to get you through the moment, which it is a moment and it might be a brand new reality, which is really changed the entire trajectory of your life. My divorce did that to me. I felt like the bottom was out of me. I had an infant daughter and all of a sudden we're separated,. And I'm like, and I was like, oh, the worst thing that could happen in my life has, now what? The worst thing that could happen with my husband is so sick. Okay, how are we going to handle this reality? So, I'm not saying that I'm great at it, but every time you get a little better, and if you don't learn from experience, you are a fool. You know, they keep saying history will repeat itself. Like when are you guys going to figure that out? And a lot of things. And, and how long do you want to hold on to your pain and your anger and your frustration? Because really, I mean, your anger is really just your frustration in your hurt. So, when do you get to release that so that you can have a great time? You know what I mean?
Sim: If you're not having fun...
S. Messing: You're the asshole. But then again, there are times where I've been backstage right before a show going, oh my God, I'm the asshole and it's my show and it's my rule. I'm such a fucking asshole. Thanks for being my friend. I'm going to kill myself. And then my desire to play will supersede the weirdness I have to go through in order to create. And I have more fun than anyone else. And then I win. You know? And the more I work that, the more it becomes real to me, the more it becomes something I practice, the more it becomes something that I am. But until then, but it takes a lot practice because you can't, because you know buck up, you'll feel better. No, no, I feel like shit asshole. But yeah, I don't want to demean anyone's experience and say, well, this one's worse. But, but then again, there are people who are just enjoying their family on a beach and then as tsunami takes their whole fucking family away. And then you say, really, I'm going to get upset that, you know, a pilot was turned down or something. You know what I mean? That's when I put a lot of that into perspective. And I'm not saying that as artists, we don't go through a lot of rejection.
Sim: Of course.
S. Messing: But if it didn't kill you, it did make you stronger. And my father used to say, the good news is that you will get through this. The bad news is that first you have to get through this. And once you do, I mean, I knew nothing about cancer treatment. I was overwhelmed. And I remember thinking to myself, if I don't get my shit together right now, this is all going to hell in a hand basket like all of it like my husband was the person who took care of insurance. He was the person who took care, like who was patient on the phone with people for hours where I'd be like losing it. And I was like, you better become that person, and you just better be become that person. And I got a lot of support...
Sim: Did you have a lot of it...?
S. Messing: A lot of it. I am that person.
S. Messing: Now, I am that person. I was always good when the shit hit the fan, but now I know how to navigate through shit hitting the fan. You need to just take it one moment at a time instead of like, fuck, it's all shit fire. Yes, we, we understand that fact. Now, let's go step by step, and that's when I had to do a Ted Talk. It was about, that was the, the thesis was something like it was, you know, it was not, yeah, it was, yeah. This is the part you cut out where I go...
Sim: Well now, I have to give it because you did that.
S. Messing: Okay, for our international audience who is writing things down and then thinking she just made a fart sound in my native tongue.
Sim: I'm pretty assured that people in I don't know, I'm targeting, are you going to do a great intro workshop based all the teachings.
S. Messing: Susan Messing you got an F but in my world it means fantastic. There was a, there was always a part of me that was like, pompously the assumption that you know this, I don't want to know this. You take care of the insurance Michael, I don't want to deal with it until I had to fucking deal with it. And I'm like, now I can deal with it. So, even those things you don't want to learn, even those things you hate. When you attack it slowly and have some knowledge after a while, nothing is impossible. Even dealing with social security and disability was a nightmare that took a month and a half of me and my friend Val working with me to like untangle it and talk to the right people and not taking no for an answer, but being just persistent but quiet about it. And just kind of eye on the prize one day and then looking up a month and a half later and going, oh, this is taken care of.
And now maintenance for this. Oh, I mean, there's so many other things that I can see where it has to apply in my life that even just saying the stupid thing, you know, if one thing makes you brave, then something else will make you slightly more brave at this points. So maybe the theme of this all became joy. And then maybe your herald, there'll be different than mine and it'll be apples and oranges. Oh my God, life is a herald and we brought it back.
Sim: That's going to be the title.
S. Messing: [59:50 laughter] pursuing joy in the midst of a tumor. I haven't said shit. I haven't even said anything on Facebook about, this is Michael. You know, Michael writes these beautiful essays on Facebook about how he's going through this and they've been very... they're not just great to let people know what he's up to, but they're very, very good in terms of, he's just a beautiful writer and people are inspired by his words. And I don't write anything about this because I feel like this is Michael's story and it's not my place. I have... For someone who talks a lot I have said very little. So, this is kind of bizarre for me to come back and say something, that is weird.
Sim: I usually go like Susan Messing, thank you for being on the Hoomanist, but...
S. Messing: Thanks for ruining my Sunday Susan Messing. Thanks a lot.
Sim: No, thank you for just sharing all this stuff on yourself so openly...
S. Messing: But it's very easy to do that with you because I have to say something about you Simone.
Sim: All right.
S. Messing: From the very beginning you have to understand viewers. You were, you have always been like from the very beginning incredibly sincere, always tickled. I mean, coming into a new world of a different country, and a different lifestyle. And it is, it's not an easy journey. And you have done it with grace and compassion and in an absolute honest interest in people and so much joy and lots and lots of humor. And I think anybody who gets to be in your sphere is very, very lucky. I'm very fortunate to know you. So, you were like, would you do my podcast? I'm like, I am beyond grateful to it. So, you are an awesome human being. And again, anybody who gets to listen to you or really know you, this guy's the real deal. He is like the sweetest man in the world. He really, really is. Even his asshole is like 10 times sweeter than your asshole. It's a joke.
Sim: Chicago feels home to me because you were one of the first people that I met here and I'm lucky enough to live with a person that I love.
S. Messing: Oh, Chicago is a good city, isn't it? Isn't it the best city?
Sim: It is to me?
S. Messing: Mee too.
Sim: It's just this wonderful compromise of a contemporary city with wonderful human beings.
S. Messing: Oh, it isn't. It's an, believe me, it's a city that, you know what? It's almost like our motto should be, we can do better than this.
S. Salis: Susan, thank you for being here today on the Hoomanist.
S. Messing: And thank you for having me.