Chevy Chase changed my life.
I know, I know. He's changed all of our lives. But what I mean is that I can point to a before and after moment in my life that involves Chevy Chase.
Let me take you back to the spring of the second season of Community. It's probably the most discussed show on TV at that moment, and my too-long recaps of the show at The A.V. Club are one of the site's most read features. To a real degree, my career was made because I was there recapping Glee at the start, but it was sustained because I was writing about Community, and people seemed to like what I had to say. (I initially tried to pass the assignment for it off to a freelancer. Little did I know!)
So anyway, it's spring 2011, and I'm moderating a panel for the show at Paleyfest, which is a Los Angeles-based TV festival where fans can buy tickets to come and see the casts of their favorite shows hang out and answer questions, both from moderators and the audience. Paleyfest was one of the things I was most excited to check out when I moved to Los Angeles and... I think... it could be better. But that's a subject for another time.
Anyway, Community was coming back to Paley for the second year in a row, which was an unusual occurrence. (It would be invited back multiple, multiple times, presumably because it sold tickets.) The crowd was massive, crazy, invigorating. And I got through my questions for the various cast members and producers there onstage (the Community crew always traveled with a bunch of producers), then turned to the crowd to start taking questions from out there.
Now, this was a big theater we were in, which made it hard to see more than a few rows into the auditorium. Fortunately, there were a bunch of questions in the first three or four rows, and I started dutifully picking through them. However, they were all from dudes. This wasn't malicious on my part; it was just all I saw. (Probably there were women who wanted to ask questions in the front rows, too, but all of the people I called on were men -- make of that what you will.)
After the third or fourth question -- and this moment is on the recording of the event, if you can find it -- Chevy Chase turns to me, stares me dead in the eye, and says, "Why don't you let some women ask questions?" or something to that effect. Why did Chevy Chase pick this particular moment to stand up for gender equality in audience questions? I genuinely have no idea. But in that second, I realized three things in rapid, descending order.
The first thing I realized was that, holy shit, I did not want to get on Chevy Chase's bad side. He was playful angry -- in that way where you toss off something you're actually kinda pissed off about as something you're joking about, because you don't want to set off a fight or make things more awkward. But I could sense behind that joking aside a presence that would tear me to shreds under different circumstances. (Chase's temper is legendary, and plenty of famous people have come up with strategies for avoiding it. I would not be one of those people.)
The second thing I realized was that, yes, I hadn't asked women to ask enough questions. And I could make excuses for that to myself, but it didn't matter, because the obvious thing to do would be to give a woman the microphone for the very next question, which is what I did (more on that in a moment). Feeling bad in the moment could be alleviated by trying to do the right thing in the next.
And the third thing I realized was that I wasn't doing nearly enough in my own life -- where I didn't have a lot of power but I had some to promote voices wildly different from my own. (No, really. I had this lightning bolt of a thought because Chevy Chase yelled at me.) And, like, I don't want to hold myself up as the Great Savior of Mankind, but I really have, since that point, tried my best to hold open the door for people who have had life experiences vastly different from myself. That doesn't count for nearly as much as many, many other things I could do, but I do like to think it counts for something.
And Chevy Chase changed my life in another way, too, because the woman who asked that very next question, who had been waving her hand in the air frantically from near the back, who had just moved to LA very recently (if I recall correctly), would contact me on Twitter a couple of days later to thank me for letting her ask that question, and I liked the question enough to start following her, and then read a few things she had written about Community and thought, "Hey, she's great. We should toss her a few assignments at AV Club."
And anyway, she was Caroline Framke whom I'm still working with today and consider a terrific friend. I would like to have a better moral here than a twist ending, so maybe I'll force one: When somebody calls you on dumb bullshit you're doing, even inadvertently, don't be defensive. Be ready to open yourself up to something new. Who knows when you'll make a new friend, or come to some deeper realization about yourself, or placate Chevy Chase?
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