“I don’t need you to protect me,” I say. “I need you to tell me when someone is saying shit about me, so I can take care of it myself.”
It’s 2 a.m., and I’m walking to my car with James Nghiem. It’s a pleasant night to walk, but the walk’s not pleasant. I’ve spent the majority of it ranting about Chicago comedian John Roy, who had worked in Oklahoma City at the Loony Bin the week prior. On Sunday night, all the Oklahoma City comics roasted me at the club, a traditional comedian goodbye, and John Roy came in later on in the night to headline the regular show.
We reach my car, and I open the door, flustered.
“Fuck that guy,” James says. “I don’t want you to move to L.A. with a chip on your shoulder because of John Roy.”
“No, see, that’s the thing,” I say, tossing my tiny backpack full of bouncy balls into my car. “I don’t have a problem with John Roy. I already told him what I think about him. I already took care of it. My problem is with you.” I point at my best friend, and I can see by the look on his face that I’m hurting his feelings.
“What did you want me to say?” he asks.
“I don’t know, man,” I say. “How about, ‘I know Leah, and she wouldn’t do that.’ You should’ve stuck up for me.”
I get in my car and drive away, James standing there on the curb. We normally don’t fight because we’re both stubborn, and neither one of us make enough sense to argue with each other—the last argument we got into happened because he dissed me by pulling away from a fist pound, so I refused to fist pound him for the rest of the night. He ended up walking home in the rain.
Tonight, I’m arguing with James Nghiem. Actually, I’ve been arguing with everybody.
It’s a Tuesday night, and the open mic just ended. I walk outside to the patio to find some of my friends. Standing just outside the door, there’s a young-looking kid, probably about 22, with an acne problem and drunk-hazy look in his eyes.
“Hey,” the kid says. “You were really, really funny up there.”
“Thanks, man.” I smile and attempt to walk past.
“No, really, you were funny, and it was surprising.”
I turn back to him. “Oh really? Why was it so surprising?”
He shrugs. “Because you’re a woman, and women aren’t funny.”
I inhale one slow deep breath, put my hand on my hip: all systems go for my argument with Mr. Zit in 3…2…1…“You’re a fucking idiot if you really think that.”
“Name a woman, alive or dead, that is funnier than Richard Pryor,” he says. “You can’t do it.”
“What the fuck kind of logic is that? Name a black man, alive or dead, that is funnier than Richard Pryor. Name a Jewish man in a half-dead zombie state that is funnier than Richard Pryor.”
He smiles. “Yeah, but you can’t do it.”
“Your logic is faulty, idiot. And you know what? You’re not going to win this argument because I’m smarter than you. And funnier than you. And better than you at everything.”
I suppose I could’ve handled that better. I suppose I could’ve taken the high road, said something like, “Well, good sir, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree,” but that would’ve implied that there’s a possibility that his point could be right. There’s not. He’s wrong. And I’m not coddling these assholes any longer.
I’m in a strip mall plaza in Wichita, Kansas at the Loony Bin for The World Series of Comedy. I’ve just found out that I didn’t make the next round, but I’m fine with it. Before I leave the club, I walk over to the back of the room to Mark Payne, the guy who runs the room. Since I met him in January, I’ve liked him, so I figure I’ll say goodbye.
“Hey, Mark,” I say. “I’m leaving.”
“Well, call me when you want to work, Girl.”
“I would,” I say, “but I’m moving in a month.” I bask in that brief moment of joy, a moment every comic relishes, the moment you get to turn down a booker. It’s like saying, “No, thanks. I don’t need your help.” There are few things sweeter in life.
“Oh?” Mark says. “Where you going?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I knew you were going to say that. Why is it a bad idea?”
“Because you’re too green. You’re not ready.”
“Well, I’m having trouble finding my audience here.”
“Look,” he says, “Wichita is an industrial town…”
I roll my eyes. I’ve heard this speech before.
“You gotta look at it this way,” he says. “People around here know who you are.”
“That’s the problem.”
“You’re nobody in L.A. You’re nothing. There are a million Leah Kayajanian’s out there trying to do the same thing.”
“Actually,” I say, “I am literally the only Leah Kayajanian. Here or there. I got a weird name.”
He stares at me over the top of his glasses. “I just don’t want to see you go out there and start blowing people for work.”
“Uhhhh, what? Blowing people for work? Seriously?”
He shrugs. “Well, I’ve seen it before.”
“You’ve seen a woman go to L.A. and start trading blow jobs for stage time? You’ve seen that happen?”
“Just be careful who you run into out there.”
“Yeah, Mark, I got it,” I say. “I hope you know, though, I would never, ever do that.”
I hug Mark goodbye, and he pats me on my lower back, half an inch above the top of my ass. His hands are just high enough that it’ll be weird if I say something, but low enough to make me pull away. I consider saying something about it anyway, but I decide, no, it’s not worth the time and effort I’d have to put in to this particular argument.
Guess I’ll just write a story about it and post it on the Internet.
The day after the World Series of Comedy Contest, I stop by the graveyard where my brother is buried. I stand and stare at the headstone for a few minutes.
It’s weird to see my last name etched in stone like that. Because there aren’t a whole lot of Kayajanians walking around in this world, I suppose. Maybe to a John Smith or an Ashley Jones, seeing your name on a gravestone is a pretty regular occurrence, but when I see “Kayajanian” on a headstone, it means that someone I know has died. Someone I know, or me.
I drop a bouncy ball on the grass next to my brother.
“What do you want today, R.J.?” the waitress says, hands on her hip, an amused look on her face. “Did you come here just to bother me?”
“Oh, you know it,” my uncle says. “And I’d tell you what I want, but I don’t think you can give it to me.”
“You couldn’t handle this.”
He laughs, “Oh, boy, I’m telling you, at my age, that’s probably true.”
I get the feeling this conversation happens a lot. Me, my mom, and R.J. are all sitting in a diner on the corner of Doolin and 13th in Blackwell, Oklahoma. My hometown.
I haven’t been here in so long, I’ve never seen this diner. It used to be a Chinese restaurant owned by my friend’s parents. It was the type of place that you can’t wash off your clothes, and when you leave, your hair smells like Chinese fried food for a week.
R.J., born and raised in small town Oklahoma, has the quirky character and quick wit that Jeff Foxworthy might’ve ripped off had they ever encountered each other. He has a thick Oklahoma redneck accent, and he’s fond of saying big words and then saying, “I don’t think I’m using that word right,” even though I can tell by the twinkle in his eye that he knows exactly what the word means.
He’s always made me laugh because he’s likable and funny, and on top of that, he has many weird hobbies and strange talents. He plays the drums, he writes humorous poems, he paints, and, my very favorite of all his hobbies, he makes authentic arrowhead weapons out of rock and deer antlers. No kidding. A tour of his workshop actually prompted my weirdo mom to say, “Geez, R.J., you got antlers out the kazoo!”
I’ve never met anyone quite like him. He is the only R.J. Ruiz in Blackwell, Oklahoma, but he is also the only R.J. Ruiz in Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. I love him for that. I love him for many reasons, but especially for that.
“Are you coming back around here before you go?” R.J. asks while he spreads jam on a slice of toast.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m leaving in a month. Not sure I’ll make it back this way.”
“That reminds me,” he says. “I haven’t given you an earful yet about moving to Los Angeles.”
I turn to my mom. “Here we go.”
“This is what I have to say to you.” He puts down his toast and looks at me over the top of his glasses while he speaks, each word coming out slow. “Do you think…you could have chosen a place…just a little bit farther away from us? I mean, gol-ly! Did you consider Alaska?”
I laugh. “Yeah, it’s far. I thought you were gonna tell me how much L.A. sucks.”
“It does suck,” he says. “But I can see how, doing what you want to do, you need to move somewhere horrible like that. You ain’t gonna be able to do what you want here, that’s for sure. It makes sense, and I wish you the very best.”
I hide my smile behind my coffee cup. That’s it, I think. That’s the difference. That’s what people who believe in me say. “Thank you for saying that.”
“Well, I don’t care what anybody says. I think you’re all right, Kid.”
I worked with John Roy in Chicago back in February at Zanies Comedy Club. It was my first and only week to feature at a club, and I was all nerves. I had gotten booked because my friend, Kevin Bozeman, was headlining the club in September when I was visiting, and he got me onstage to do a guest spot, 7 minutes. I killed it.
Later, Bozeman and I are talking to the club’s manager, and Bozeman says, “So are you gonna have Leah open for you?”
Martin shakes his head. “No, feature,” he says. “She can feature.”
Bozeman and I exchange a look like we got away with something, and I manage to make it out the door before squealing with excitement.
A couple of emails to the guy who books the club, and it’s official: I’m the feature on the week of Valentine’s Day. And when I finally get to Chicago, when Zanies finally gives me the chance to move up a step in the comedy hierarchy, what do I do?
I suck. I suck a giant cock. All week long. It’s painful. It’s embarrassing. And it makes John Roy, the headliner, hate my guts.
It’s the morning after my roast, and I wake up hungover. I should feel supported and loved and refreshed, but I feel weird about the night before because John Roy is in Oklahoma City. He was last night’s headliner during the regular Sunday night show at the Loony Bin, and I had heard through the grapevine he had some extra-horrible things to say about me. Why, I wonder, is John Roy still talking shit about how unfunny I am? It’s been three months, for Christ’s sake. Let it go, man.
As these things often do, this tiny thought stays with me and just starts to get bigger. Just a tiny grain at first, then snowball sized, then snowman-head size, then giant-killer-snowball-tumbling-down-a-hill-to-kill-some-unsuspecting-skiers size. When I call Dan Skaggs at 3 in the afternoon, I’m in a pretty bad state.
“All right,” I say. “I have to know. What did John Roy say about me?”
“Okay.” Dan sighs. “He said that you got booked at Zanies because you fucked Kevin Bozeman.”
“What?! He said what?”
“Yeah,” Dan says.
“Oh my God, what a fuckin’ douche! Why the fuck does he think that? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Well, it was your roast, and I didn’t want to make your night suck.”
“You should’ve told me. Did you tell him that wasn’t true?”
“What? Why not?”
“Because I figured I could get him talking about it on my podcast.”
After a pointless conversation in which I say “fuck” 1,000 times, I hang up the phone and sit there in a rage. I have no idea what to do. This is my worst nightmare come true.
I fucked somebody to get booked? That doesn’t even make sense. First of all, if I were going to do that, I might at least hold out for a T.V. spot, not give it up for a middle spot at a mediocre club. I guess in John Roy’s mind, not only am I a whore, but I’m a cheap whore.
Also, I don’t know a whole lot about Kevin Bozeman’s mating habits, but from what I know about the guy, I don’t thing he’d put that much effort into getting pussy. He seems like much more of a “let the pussy come to me” type of guy. And, contrary to popular belief, my pussy is not made of gold. And if it were, it would be a very uncomfortable place to put a dick.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m trying to make a joke about it because that’s what I do when things get bad.
I know that if I’m a woman comedian, I have to be thick-skinned. I have to be tough. But as a human, I’m sensitive, and this hurts.
What hurts most about it isn’t the implication that I’m a whore. It’s the accusation that I got something that I didn’t earn. I resent that. I’ve worked hard my entire life at everything I do because I never wanted anyone to look at the things I’ve accomplished and say I didn’t deserve them. I’ve supported myself independent of other people, and I’ve never, ever compromised myself to get anywhere. My mama taught me never to do that. Yes, John Roy, I have a mother, and yes, she knows what you said about me.
I send John Roy a message on Facebook. I’ll spare you the specifics, but let’s just say I told him exactly what I thought about him. If you’re curious about my tone, I’ll tell you that I ended the message with this: “Fuck you, you sexist piece of shit. I’m writing about this in my blog.”
About five minutes later, John Roy replies. This is what he says:
“I’m sorry. You’re right. Full apology.”
Just like that, he concedes the point. Meanwhile, my name is floating around out there in the minds of God-knows-who he told, little whisperings about my talentless hack-whore comedy career. Think I’m paranoid? Maybe. But I recently ran into comic AJ Finney at the Loony Bin, and he had heard John Roy’s theory about me and Bozeman.
I didn’t even know AJ Finney.
Because I want to be fair, I will tell you that John Roy, apparently addled with guilt, has sent me a list of contacts in L.A. and all of their information. I’m not going to use them because I don’t feel the need to help assuage his guilty conscience. Also, I know for a fact that John Roy doesn’t think I’m funny, and I will not be accepting any help from anyone who doesn’t believe in me.
Fuck you and your contacts, John Roy. I’m never gonna owe you shit.
My last few months in Oklahoma have flown by like flashes from a chaotic artsy film. Just random scenes and characters that come in and out on the edge of my consciousness, people that I love and people that I don’t love either hating on me or bending over backwards to help me get out of town.
One random scene that comes to mind brings me to an afternoon spent inside Abby Hale’s garage, where Adair Fincher is taking our picture.
Here’s one of the pics:
I love this picture because it will always remind me of Oklahoma. It’s silly, yes, but there’s more to it than that. For instance, the “I’m with cunt” sign is a creation of none other than Oklahoma comic, the hilarious BradChad Porter, who walked beside me in Bricktown holding it up one pleasant Sunday afternoon. He just makes me laugh. Always.
The woman holding the sign is Abby Hale. She has a successful career as a result of her hard work: she worked her way up the chain of command to be the boss. She likes Burlesque shows, and she teaches pole-dancing classes. She has a beautiful house just outside of Norman, a good heart, and a body that is impossible not to look at. Seriously, I washed my socks on her stomach once.
The woman taking the picture is Adair Fincher. I met her ten years ago when we were both freshmen, and I taught her how to make letters out of pretzels. Since we met, she has spent way, way more time than any person should trying to figure out how to get a still shot of me with bouncy balls suspended in mid-air. She’s interesting, incredibly smart, and her brain moves faster than the rest of her. Walking around with her is like walking around with a tornado. Adair moved to Hawaii last year to got to law school.
I have a point, and it’s this: I could give a shit about Oklahoma as a state. Sorry.
What makes Oklahoma so hard for me to leave is its people. That’s what this place means to me, all the people I’ve met here. And so help me, if I ever hear anyone talk some shit on BradChad Porter, or Abby Hale, or Adair Fincher, I won’t think twice before I shank them with the arrowhead-slash-antler weapon my uncle R.J. gave me, an Oklahoma-style stabbing.
For the past year, I’ve written a very self-involved and narcissistic blog that has recently gotten more and more trapped in my mind. I’ve spent hours obsessing over some, admittedly, bizarre experiences. I’ve held a mirror up to myself and faced myself down, and then I put everything out there in public. Through that, I’ve learned a lot about the kind of person I am, the good and bad things that make me.
This is what I want to say to you, Oklahoma. Hold a mirror up to yourself, analyze what you see, and try to pick out all the good and bad things that make you. Stop walking around with a chip on your shoulder. Remember that you’re not inferior. And know that just because some people leave to go to other places doesn’t mean they’re gone. They still exist here.
Adair is just as much Oklahoma as Abby is. I am just as much Oklahoma as BradChad Porter is. Some people move away and bring the character of this state with them, and some people stay here and work their asses off to make things better.
For all the people who have told me in the past few months, “Leah, don’t forget where you came from,” I’d like to say that I won’t. I promise you that. But I’d also like to say this to you: don’t forget where I came from, either.
That means that when someone comes to you and says vicious things about me, stand up for me and tell them they’re wrong. Don’t do it because you think I need protection, or because I can’t take care of myself. Do it because you know I can and because that makes you proud of me. Do it because you know Oklahoma is great because of its people, and, whether you like it or not, I am its people. Do it because you know that if we’re too meek to stand up for our own people, we are inferior. Period.
My uncle R.J. points to me across the breakfast table. “Listen up, and listen good.”
He pauses for dramatic effect, I suppose, then launches into a poem he wrote:
I’ve labored long and labored hard
For honor and for riches.
But I won’t take this shit no more
From all you sons of bitches.
So take this note,
The one I wrote,
And perform this layman task.
Fold it neat,
Make it sweet,
And stick it up your ass.