Focus on the family
In humorist Polly Frost’s new one-woman show, the drama is all relative
Over the years, humorist Polly Frost has taken on myriad topics—erotica, art, technology, et al—but her latest subject may be the most challenging of all. Frost’s new one-woman show How to Survive Your Adult Relationship With Your Family tackles marriage and other unwieldy relationships, love, loss, and religion. For the New York City resident, whose essays have appeared in the The Atlantic and The New Yorker, the intimate, live-show setting offered an opportunity to log off the Internet and finally connect with people, face to face. In an interview with SN&R, Frost, who originally hails from Santa Barbara, discussed flaky actors, the importance of not trying to be funny and how her brother’s death changed her writing.
How did your one-woman show come about?
I was touring [my erotica show] Sex Scenes … [and] working with actors [which] was really fun [but] when you have actors doing your stuff—at the last minute I’d have one say, “I really can’t do this.” And I thought, well if I do it, then I know I’ll show up.
So actors would chicken out at the last minute about reading erotica?
Yeah, at first they’d say, “I have to do this,” and then at the last minute they’d change their mind and say, “I can’t.”
Tell me about the new show.
It’s a one-person show about the last few years of my life and how the adult relationship with your family can be so difficult no matter how much therapy you’ve had or how much you’ve come to terms with your childhood. I had a great childhood, but you can be thrown so many curveballs [as an adult].
What are some examples of those curveballs?
The average number of marriages in my family is three. I have all these step relationships—people coming and going out of my life; even my grandparents. They got divorced in the ’80s, and my grandfather was my grandmother’s third husband. There’s just this whole mess of an extended, blended family. Everyone talks about having a traumatic childhood but I think you can have a perfectly happy childhood, and still have [upheaval]. All these people who come into my life—these people who are wonderful and crazy—they bring emotional curveballs with them. When somebody you love marries someone you hate, it’s something you have to face. You can have wonderful relationships and then somebody comes along who is crazy—and not fun-crazy but crazy-crazy.
Is there a lot of crazy-crazy in your family?
I have the whole gamut. I have all these people in my life who believe in the amicable, friendly divorce—which is a great concept, but then they want to spend as much as time with their ex’s new spouse, and they want me to be Facebook friends with that person.
Has your family seen the show?
Oh, god, no! I’ve told them to stay away, please stay away! A lot of my family is cool about it; their friends will go, see and they’ll say it’s cool, but I tell my family, “I just have to do this—if you love me, and I know you love me, you’ll stay away.” They’ve been wonderful about it.
So, that means you don’t have to worry about self-censorship?
Right, I did this show in Santa Barbara, and all these people showed up who knew everything about [me]; I was sitting there the whole time thinking, “Oh my God.”
What was the impetus for wanting to do a live show like this?
I really love writing humor pieces—when you write one and someone writes you up and tells you they read it in The New Yorker, that’s fantastic. However—and this is something that I just started feeling—these days, we’re so much on the Internet and so removed from things, that I just wanted to do some live performances I wanted to deal with an audience directly. I wanted the intimacy of seeing the audience’s faces and seeing their reactions right there. … I wanted to do live performances in a way that I never wanted to do when I started out as a writer. I’m the biggest Internet junkie that there is, but I love it when I see their faces, even if they hated [the show].
When did you start to feel that shift?
I just felt that suddenly I was spending so much time online. I do a lot of new media. I have a Web series, and I do audio books, but I was also doing some live performance and just realized that people had a hunger to get away from their damn computers and get out and connect with somebody in a real, live situation.
Is there a difference in writing for a live show that’s going to be performed by you instead of actors?
It’s a really interesting process, because I’m not an actor, but I’ve worked with some of the best actors in New York City. When I write for an actor, I write for someone who is a really skilled performer and can somehow become someone else. But when I write for myself, it’s just me in front of an audience, connecting.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing for 26 years. I moved to New York City to be a writer because I felt that was the place. That’s not really the case anymore; I think the Internet has changed things—in many ways for the better. There’s this wonderful Renaissance of writers who don’t’ feel they need to be in New York to be successful.
You’re a humor writer but I once read that someone, early in your career, told you to stop trying to be funny.
It was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. I was in my 20s in Los Angeles, trying to be a serious writer, and I took a writing workshop from [Bookworm radio talk-show host] Michael Silverblatt, and I started reading this story [to the workshop] that I thought was a brilliant, searing, depressing literary story, and everybody started snickering. I was humiliated, I thought, “I’ve made a fool of myself.” Michael took me aside and told me, “You have no gift for writing literary fiction.”
It was one of those moments when you go out and get drunk and then think, “I’m going with it.” That’s my karma. That’s what I had to offer—being funny, seeing things in that way. There were the Joan Didions—the people who could be serious and beautiful, but I had my thing.
Your brother Daniel died from complications from Parkinson’s disease in 2009. Did that impact your writing at all?
It did. That’s one of the things I talk about in my show. My brother was a brilliant cancer surgeon, and he was diagnosed at an early age, before any of the symptoms manifested themselves. He was diagnosed when he was 39 and died when he was 60. It was a long, horrible battle [and] my brother lost his ability to speak, but he never lost his sense of humor and that made me realize the importance of making people laugh about all the tragedy in our lives.
Was it difficult to write about—still being so close to it, time-wise?
Yeah, actually, I thought about it a lot. I don’t usually like when people write about tragedies right away, but I realized that I had to talk about it. I was experiencing what so many people had gone through, and I needed to celebrate my brother and connect with people.