“Yeah, well, you know . . . comedy is tragedy plus time.”
I scribbled down the quote.
“That’s really good, Kissy. Did you come up with that?”
“Oh God no. Thank you for thinking that I might have. I wish I could have made that up.”
Kissy Dugan, the Irish-American writer, producer, and comedian, speaks in zingers and quips. Right when a joke begins to intimidate the other party into stepping up their wit, she softens her tone and welcomes their words. It’s rare to find someone so funny be so aware of other people in the room. Kissy lives as glamorous a life as I would ever desire. She is an expatriate in Rome with a husband, two kids, a dog, and a production company.
When we met, I was a college sophomore ready to begin my semester abroad in Rome. After an uninspired year-and-a-half of film school, I was ready to escape and test the idea of transferring. I enrolled in Italian 1001, Mafia 3230, and the school’s internship program. The internship director, Caitlin, had paired me up with a mom at her kid’s school, Kissy. We exchanged emails. She invited me to attend the first meeting of the Women in Film branch that she was spearheading in Italy.
I got off the plane thirty-six hours before finding Caitlin at school. She printed out detailed directions to help me find the restaurant where the meeting was held. She told me how much I was going to love Kissy. “She always has me in stitches.” I ended up getting off at the wrong stop with a cell phone that had not adapted to European service. My brown boots didn’t match my black velvet dress and now I was running late. How was this woman going to take me seriously? A bus driver named Vincenzo picked me up and took me to Kissy.
I found the group in the back of the restaurant. I recognized Kissy from the headshot on her website. Her strawberry-blonde hair was as pictured. She waved me over. I imagined her eyes to be green because her name and bio seemed so Irish. To my surprise they were bright brown—not a typical descriptor of the color, but encompassing of their size, warmth, and spirit.
A group of beautiful, elegant Italian women sat at a table and emoted with their hands. Kissy would translate bits of the discussion after a collective laugh, moan, or applause. Doubling as the master of ceremonies and my safety blanket she introduced me to some women. This was January 2018, a few months after the exposés of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse were published. The group of women discussed the misogynist culture of the Italian industry. Duolingo helped me pick out words. I heard “Uomo” with a scowl. I nodded along; it probably meant “stupid man” in this context. “Idiota” spoke for itself. As words per minute doubled with fury, I got lost in the sea of frustration.
Kissy broke up the heavy topic with commentary. “Oh my gosh, I know. When I first came here I see my husband watching Jeopardy and there are these girls randomly gyrating.” Kissy, a dancer with a dainty figure, went on to do a sort of Elaine dance from Seinfeld. “I look to him in horror and he says, ‘What? They dance.’” I retold the joke to my mom over the phone. “Then she said, ‘They dance!’” My mom gave me a little chuckle, mainly to humor my laughter.
I have been told that I laugh more than the average person. Funny people like to have me around as protection when they tell a joke. A childhood in musical theater trained my lungs to laugh longer and louder. To me, the cathartic feeling of laughter equates comedy with joy. To comedians like Kissy, laughter is a twisted gateway drug.
Before moving to Italy, Kissy performed in comedy clubs across America. When talking to her about standup, Kissy painfully jokes that she “sounds like a recovering alcoholic. It is very personal.” Unlike many qualitative art forms, standup’s success possesses that crucial unit of measurement: laughter. “It’s literally asking people to validate you. It’s ME.”
Dramatic acting can be measured by silence, like when people say, you could hear a pin drop. Hearing a cell phone or the turning pages of a Playbill might be discouraging to an actor, but hearing crickets as a comic translates as failure. Each beat of a performance plays off of the last. If the last beat bombs, then redemption becomes more difficult.
Every type of art can be argued as the most vulnerable form. Marina Abramović would argue for the simplicity and loneliness of performance art. Joni Mitchell would argue for turning your insides out to write an album like Blue. Kissy’s testimonial for standup: “Unless you’re putting on a persona, there is nowhere to hide. It is your material, your stories, your life. It’s glorious and fucking devastating.”
Kissy doesn’t need a persona. Aggressively humble, she told me, “It’s sad that I’m the funniest person you know. I will introduce you to more people.” In conversation, she is committed to every word that pops out of her mouth. “Fuck” comes out a lot. Sometimes the anecdotes are prepared and other times they are found in the moment. She assesses her audience then alters material and delivery accordingly. Very intimate, Kissy is emotionally aware of how she feels and how she is making the other person feel. Her goal is more than a laugh; it’s a connection between one person to another. I have never seen her perform standup, but have witnessed her humor as a friend, reader, and collaborator. I use these experiences to imagine Kissy onstage.
When pressed to talk about her comedic chops, she admits that she’s always been funny. Growing up, through genetics or observation, she blended her parent’s humor. “Mom was goofy and Dad’s wit always knew when to chime in with a punch line.” Permission to stay up late to watch The Carol Burnett Show or Saturday Night Live was an early incentive for good behavior. As a teenager, she read Gilda Radner’s memoir about her struggle with ovarian cancer. Like so many girls she felt an instant connection to Gilda’s endearing, fearless, inventive style of humor. Unlike many girls, Kissy felt so connected to Gilda she thought, “I HAVE OVARIAN CANCER!” She went on to mumble, “I did get an ovary removed when I was sixteen, though” before drifting on to the next topic.
She would end up auditioning five or six time for Saturday Night Live. After knowing Kissy for two years, I was quite shocked that she never mentioned this. “Oh yeah. They’d make the rounds every season with us.”
Her first gig was performing at Danny’s Seafood Palace in New York City. Her second gig was performing in the Young Comedian Contest at Caroline’s on Broadway. In a lineup of five seasoned comedians, she was the only woman and the person with the least experience. She won. First time out of the gate, beginner’s luck. The prize was opening for Jon Stewart.
She called her parents to share news of this talent she had discovered. They responded, “Of course you’re funny because we’re funny.” For years, Kissy’s family avoided her Shakespeare performances. Now they were coming to New York to see her onstage. Her opening act was a horrendous, traumatizing flop. Crickets, uncomfortable, “I cannot even give details. It was like being raped or murdered. Jon told me it was like ‘Flight of the Bumblebee.’ I didn’t stop. He told me, even if the jokes don’t work, you have to stop and give the audience time to laugh.”
Jon presented the caveat of a career in standup. Once a comedian succeeds, like Kissy had at Caroline’s, your desire is more valuable than your talent. He told her, “Now you know. You’ve had the high. You know what it’s like to not need to eat for the next few days because you feel so good.” Now Kissy knew that success is never guaranteed. You need more than a big break. “Chase the tiger, or monkey, or whatever animal he said, on your back or don’t. If you want this craft you have to get out every night.”
Kissy chased whatever imaginary animal Jon had drawn for her. She entered a life of waiting every night backstage for her eight minutes under the lights. “Homeless people probably have more dignity.” But, for all the horror stories she has about these days, Kissy didn’t want to do anything else. Running into the same gang every night brought Kissy into a group she will always consider home. When getting together with her comedy friends today she says it’s like a game of tennis with their banter. Outside of the group, Kissy accommodates to the everyman’s sense of humor which is why she is adored by most humans. But, when she’s with “her people” she can be challenged and let loose. Kissy has the chops to be in the game.
Aspiring standup comedians are deeply committed to a scheduled life despite its unpredictable future. Sometimes they put up blinders to the rest of the world to maintain a clear goal. They live their life to do comedy. “Life was fodder.” Kissy compares living for comedy to living for social media. You live life so you can tell a joke or post a photo on Instagram. Thinking too much about how you present your identity can rob you of a true sense of self.
But what does a sense of self mean in standup comedy? Kissy started off with a bang at Caroline’s, receiving instant validation for being herself. As a standup comedian performs each night, how much should they change themselves? The crowd is always different so the response is, too. When does the comedian know if they are the constant or independent variable? Comedians aim to hone their voices. Is there ever a danger in totally abandoning one’s voice?
Some standup comedians are appealing because they perform regardless if the audience enjoys it. One of Kissy’s greatest traits is her generosity. She is willing to let people in which is incredibly courageous and dangerous as a standup comedian. There is no character, writing, or directing to hide behind. It’s all about the comedian. If they want people to have a good time and the audience doesn’t, then the performer is to blame.
After a year in New York, “two weeks of success and then failure,” Kissy’s manager advised that she move to Los Angeles for pilot season. She could be branded as “the wacky neighbor sidekick.” Kissy got a taste of the West Coast by joining the Los Angeles improv group, the Groundlings. On the road she played “comedy magic clubs and shitty road gigs. Like a Mississippi riverboat casino.” Tourists in Middle America had no shame in telling her, “That wasn’t funny. You’re not funny.”
Each night was different, but she always had her group. Together, they were on the chase for the animal on their back. Kissy is vibrant and gifted in making you feel like you are the only person in the room. She has enough presence to take up a stage, but thrives when helping her audience be seen. Kissy gets what it’s like to tell a joke to a blank audience. This motivates her desire to make each acquaintance and friend feel heard. Seeing people as individuals is a sign of a morally good person, but is it too large a goal in standup?
Kissy remembers hearing her friends talk about how much they love standup. She did an impression of Tig Notaro saying, “It just fucking makes me happy.” Kissy looked to them and thought, “Am I doing the right thing? Because it makes me so fucking anxious.” Kissy faced the painful question that every artist must: What happens when the thing you love most can’t recognize what you bring to the stage?
Jon Stewart did not warn Kissy that the goddamn animal on your back could keep you from living a life. Higher powers decided to intervene and order the universe to take a massive shit on Kissy’s hopes and dreams. In one week, Kissy’s boyfriend and her talent, literary, and commercial agents had dumped her. Still committed to the chase, she stuffed one hundred envelopes with her headshot, resume, and reel to send around Los Angeles. She shoved them in her car to mail out on Monday morning.
Sunday morning, Kissy had an appointment with her psychic. She walked out of her apartment in hopes of welcoming a wakeup call from the universe. She found her car missing instead. The only wakeup call she received was from LAPD the next morning with news that her car had been stolen and torched. Today Kissy can joke, “Who calls at 4 a.m. with that news if it’s not a booty call?”
Kissy left all her belongings in Los Angeles and fled to her parents’ house in Florida. With a change of scenery, she had her meltdown. When your love is your work, there is a risk of being held captive. Kissy’s identity was crumbling.
Kissy’s parents had planned a monthlong trip to Europe. The universe, relentless, gave Kissy’s mother a blood clot in her leg. “My psychic sister said there is no energy in Mom’s leg. She told our Mom, if you get on a plane your leg will fall off.” Kissy always took the words of psychics to heart. Her parents complied and insisted that Kissy go on their trip to Rome. A woman named Giorgina had helped them with travel arrangements and agreed to make changes for Kissy’s arrival.
Giorgina would guide Kissy in her personal life in the same way that Jon Stewart guided her career. Kissy met Giorgina at the Ritz Carlton in Rome. “She looked like Zsa Zsa Gabor with her tits propped up. She was walking hand in hand with four men. They looked like a human train.”
They introduced themselves. Giorgina asked Kissy, “Uncle Gianni wants to know if you like the dirty joke.”
Maybe Kissy had found another group. “I LOVE dirty jokes!”
Kissy told me the gist of the joke, “Allora, there was a woman . . . THE PUSSY!”
Giorgina screamed with laughter and pulled on Kissy’s arm throughout the night. “Do you want to fuck the waiter? They fuck like a bull.”
Kissy thought, I don’t want to be fucked by a bull. Giorgina was set on getting Kissy laid. Goodbye to the nondescript animal on her back, hello bull.
Two weeks later Kissy returned to the United States. Giorgina became friends with Kissy’s family. One year later, November of 2004, Kissy returned to Rome on a trip with her parents.
Giorgina could not believe that Kissy was single. She had a bullpen waiting for her. “Your first night you have a date with my nephew. The second night you have a date with my nephew’s friend, the doctor. The third night you have a date with my nephew’s friend, the lawyer.”
Giorgina’s nephew is named Marco. He is now Kissy’s husband.
In her Los Angeles days, Kissy did a comedic bit where she was “a stay-at-home mom with no kids.” Getting married and having children was never essential to her life plan. Her plan was comedy. Many comedians share the journey of bouncing between Los Angeles and New York to revisit the euphoria of a good performance. Kissy kicked that cliché in the ass by moving to Rome and opening herself up to new possibilities.
In Rome, Kissy was forced to shut up, breathe, and listen. She had to write because she didn’t speak the language. In America, her material relied heavily on her family. She didn’t love the stories but they were the best material. In Rome, she was away from everything she knew and unable to verbally express her humor. Kissy, the natural comic, now had time to think about her own voice. Most people enter the creative side of entertainment to share their voice. Together, their voices get knocked around and pinned against each other. Voices are compared and tested until, like wise man Jon Stewart advises, they decide if that monkey-dragon-donkey chase is worth the heartbreak. Kissy took a break to question the chase.
Now, Kissy wakes up in the middle of the night to write when inspiration strikes, which is often because she lives a very rich life. She has a parenting column. She has multiple scripts and documentaries moving in different stages of production. She helps her son with theater projects about Indonesian shadow puppets. She is President of Women in Film, TV, and Media in Italy. A Lucille Ball nut since college, she is ripe with Lucy and Desi, now Kissy and Marco material. A psychic told her that “Once you cross the Alps, you will unlock your creative voice.” Had Kissy not welcomed a life outside comedy clubs, she might have never obtained the voice that she wanted to find.
Regarding standup? “There is never a day when I don’t think about being onstage. Every time someone asks me to do standup, it’s like they’re asking me to do heroin. I say yes. Then I think about it and it makes me anxious. Then I think that’s not normal.”
The deep tragedy of falling in love with a thing, not a person, is how you approach closure. Of course, standup comedy cannot bring you a bouquet of roses and ask you to come back. But, there’s not even a way to scream at comedy for all the pain and trauma it caused you. After signing over your soul, it doesn’t ask you to stay, which makes it all the more difficult to walk away. Leaving the game takes just as much strength as chasing it.
After knowing Kissy, it’s not necessarily one or the other. She will always be a standup comedian. But now she can be funny all the time without trying. She is no longer confined to prove she is funny for eight minutes in a black-box theater. Kissy makes coworkers, old comedy friends, interns, and random strangers laugh. The woman is bicontinental. Love the game, leave the game, own the game, you can do it all. But don’t live your life by the game.