SF Sketchfest Review: Mara Wilson’s What Are You Afraid Of? with guests John Ross Bowie and Sarah Thyre, 1/8/2016 at Eureka Theatre

by Stacy Scales on January 11, 2016

What Are YOU Afraid Of? (Photo cred: thanks Greg Garthe!)

What Are YOU Afraid Of? (Photo cred: thanks Greg Garthe!)

So, I follow Mara Wilson on Twitter. It’s not specifically because she was the cutest-ever child star who happens to still be equal parts clever, funny, and brilliant. (See her in Matilda or Mrs. Doubtfire for further evidence on the aforementioned childhood cuteness.) See, I found Mara through a circle of funny ladies on the Twittersphere (@goldengateblond and @ohnoshetwitnt, in particular) who like to create (and retweet) the best of the best. Long story boring, that’s how I found and followed Mara, and how I found myself at The Eureka Theatre last Friday night to listen to Ms. Wilson (and guests John Ross Bowie & Sarah Thyre) wax hilarious about the things that frighten them, and why vulnerability is worth the risk.When the show began & Wilson took the stage, the first thing I noted was “well, she’s adorable…” This show is structured around all three contributors, beginning with Wilson, who then introduced Sarah Thyre, reappeared for a few minutes before bringing out John Ross Bowie, and then returned at the end to conclude the evening. Each bit is funny, as you’d expect from an act in Sketchfest’s lineup, but the best part is that no one pulled any punches about themselves: in order to admit what we’re really afraid of, don’t we have to come clean and be completely honest? Because, really, we’re all afraid of “normal” things like spiders and heights, but that’s not the sort of thing that will have an audience laughing till they cry or on the edge of their seats: what keeps us rapt is hearing something interesting, something real that someone’s afraid of. To go there requires guts and vulnerability, which is exactly what made me want to see this show in the first place, and I’m happy to say I got exactly what I was looking for.

Take Wilson’s first bit, for example. After a brief shout-out to San Francisco (her “favorite big city,” where she filmed Mrs. Doubtfire, which “helped me pay for college”) and the explanation that she’s from the “shitty part of California: LA,” which she said has a very “condescending, chiller-than-thou” vibe that doesn’t work for her, Ms. Wilson got straight down to business in explaining she’s never been one for jokes about doing one’s business. Specifically, she’s never been into toilet humor or poop jokes, and called herself a germaphobe, relating the story of a time when she had a medical issue that forced her to come to terms with this fear. I won’t go into details because 1) you had to be there/hear it for yourself, and 2) I realize that this fear/discomfort affects a fair amount of the population, and for them I’ll err on the side of sensitivity to the issue. I will try to give you a few highlights, though, such as Wilson’s lament as to why, of all the cancers, she would have a scare with the one kind of cancer she can’t talk about? “If you have skin cancer, you’re a survivor. If you have ass cancer, you’re a Cards Against Humanity answer!” Also, what I can only imagine was utterly horrifying, the moment just before she’s pulled under the anesthesia, a doctor says, “you look familiar. Were you in a movie?” And for those of you who are having troubles like Ms. Wilson’s, you should know there is such a thing as too much fiber. Apparently, “doctors are as full of shit as I was!” Wilson went on to describe some of the questions she’d covered when interviewing an expert on the subject; the best bit here was the mention of “poop transplants,” which apparently can be done via an enema bag or in “freeze-dried” form if you prefer to swallow a pill. (I want to be snarky here, but I’m literally at a loss for words. This almost never happens.)

At this point in the show, it was time for Wilson to introduce Sarah Thyre (of the podcast Crybabies with Susan Orlean. During her introduction, Wilson called Thyre “Andy Richter’s husband,” which neither corrected, so I’m quite literally still trying to figure out whether she got that a little mixed up or said it on purpose. At any rate, Thyre showed the room her “copious notes,” admitting that she was “afraid of forgetting all I’m afraid of!” While she suggested she was afraid of a bit of everything, she went through a sort of quick biography of her life by way of fears over its course: first, the devil, Satanic cults, and all the scary goings-on at her local playground. Next she progressed to Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Manson family, which she said she conquered by becoming a “death nerd,” meaning that she would ease her anxiety around these topics by learning as much as she possibly could about them. One of the funniest things she said that evening was that Jaws was “my favorite movie, and it ruined my life!” because it takes a “certain kind of narcissism to think a shark would pick you,” adding that it might have to do with a fear of not being special. Her child, she said, was afraid of “being shot in a movie theater,” which she admitted was “far more realistic than my own childhood fears,” which she went on to say involved her own vagina and her sexuality as a broad concept. Her husband, when asked, told Thyre that she’s afraid of “everything,” but also that she’ll die in a plane crash, which she insisted was not true. (“He says this because he can fall asleep on a plane before the landing gear is in place!”) As the neared the end of her admission of her greatest fears, Thyre really admitted what she’s struggling with: the fear that she’s going blind. “Serious is boring, I’d rather not talk aobut it…” She explained that she’d recently had surgery on both detached retinas with no guarantee of any success, saying that her vision has deteriorated and will continue to do so, that she’ll miss reading, and that she “can’t do audiobooks because I’m a terrible listener!” before coming clean: “I’m lying. I’ll probably miss looking at my phone!” At the end of the day, Thyre said she wasn’t obsessing about the impending loss of her vision, but that she would just eventually be “blind-sided” by it, quickly apologizing for her pun. She closed with Steve Jobs apparent last words, “oh wow, oh wow, oh wow,” saying that it was pretty cool. “Now of course, I can’t say that, but I can think it when it happens,” she conceded, saying that she’d like to pass away in a room full of loved ones, but that if they were the “wrong ones,” she would be blind and not be able to see them, which she takes comfort in.


Vulnerability = Sexy. (Photo cred: thanks Greg Garthe!)

Next Wilson was back to teach the audience to correctly breathe deeply, insisting that it’s a good way to alleviate anxiety if you do it right. The guy in the front of the room she picked on was not, so she showed him how. “It’s relaxing, in a good way. You can do it anywhere… you can be driving, or be on the subway… they’ll never know!” Next she introduced John Ross Bowie, who I know most recognizably from his work on The Big Bang Theory. His fears began with rats, which he called “grey, fat, hairy” and “disease-ridden,” which sounds about right. His wife insisted, however, that he’s not afraid of rats so much as he is of looking stupid. “When your spouse knows you that well… it’s the worst!” She’s right, though, he admitted, explaining that he grew up in NYC with parents who were “intellectual snobs who aren’t actually that smart,” describing the fine line. His mother, for example, took pride in correcting someone who misused or mispronounced a word in front of them; Bowie said she would tell the story of those examples for years, that it was her “favorite kind of anecdote: someone didn’t know something, I informed them, and they were grateful.” He went on to describe his father, a language lover, who had once suggested that Crime and Punishment might be “easier if you were reading it in the original Russian?” Ultimately, Bowie’s parents were “constantly waiting for you to fuck up and misuse a word” so that they could inform you, which caused Bowie himself to develop certain coping mechanisms. For example, a great trick he learned: “hang on – how are we defining ‘hedonist?'” is the kind of trick he said “kinda worked,” and is one he “kinda used repeatedly throughout life.” (I gotta say, I too struggle with wanting to be too cool to ask because I want to look like I know all the words, too, and this is a fantastic bluff for words we don’t completely know!) Bowie’s longest story was a bit about his life in show business, and about an audition he once had for The Daily Show, which went so poorly that, though he was a mere 12 blocks from his childhood home, he never told either of his parents about it. To this day, even, they don’t/never knew: his dad passed without ever knowing his son had had a chance to be on a show he respected, and he wasn’t podcasting this particular story because he doesn’t want his mother to know the details. Ultimately, this all came down to an actor sharing his fears of inadequacy or not being good enough for his parents with a room full of stranger, and while I found a lot of the details comical, I can relate so hard that it really struck a chord with me. This is the kind of gold Mara Wilson is really going for in these shows, and I was really impressed with Bowie’s courage – would I have the guts to do this same sort of thing? I doubt it, and not just because I’m not an actor and am, at best, the infamous “extroverted introvert.” At any rate, I am now completely impressed with Mr. Bowie as a person, in addition to appreciating his comedic talents.

After Bowie, Ms. Wilson was back again, admitting that her parents might be thrilled that she met someone who was on CSI or Monk (as Bowie had described brief episodes on both). “I too used to be someone who corrected others, but then I realized I liked having friends more!” (Again, I relate to this. That’s what I most appreciated about this event: not just that it was funny, but that we were laughing at our own faults in an honest way. I don’t think there’s enough of this: so much of what we laugh at these days is at someone else’s expense. This was a refreshing change, and an exercise in courage, even as a spectator.) Wilson began a game with the crowd called “Guess the Phobia,” giving winners lollipops via her “assisterant” (which she insisted her sister-who-is-her-assistant urged her to call her). A few highlights included “parthenophobia,” which is the fear of young girls or virgins, “ecclesiaphobia,” which is the fear of churches (which I occasionally suffer from, mostly in jest), and “copraphobia,” which Wilson agreed was the “fear of shit,” to which she added an apology for any sufferers that might have been in attendance.

Wilson concluded the show with another story of her own, which began with her father’s remarriage when she was 13. She called herself a “feral tomboy” raised by her three older brothers who “saw myself as one of the guys” until her stepmother “put an end to that” by valuing class, poise, and dignity. Wilson was terrified of her stepmother, saying she “never knew what to expect.” Suddenly, she was forbidden to go out alone, to be on the phone after 10pm, to use tampons (which would, apparently, “devirginize me”), etc. Any time she heard the bedroom door open, she would jump, Wilson explained, for fear that she might be in trouble again. Her story went on to describe in detail a time she’d volunteered with an organization who’s T-shirt proclaimed that “safe is sexy!” but that she’d been so utterly terrified of it being discovered that she’d tried to destroy it with no evidence, first by cutting it up into pieces, then by attempting to paint over it with nail polish or Sharpie ink, then by flushing pieces of it down the toilet, and finally by actually ingesting it. (“We’re starting and ending with my bowels tonight, guys, sorry!”) Thankfully, she didn’t have to go to the hospital for that particular insanity, but there “may still be undigested bits of T-shirt in my body.” Thank God, there’s a bit of a respite: Wilson’s stepmother eventually “chilled out,” and both now appreciate the values each other has and how the other would feel. “And I punished myself so much worse than they could ever have imagined that night,” Wilson proclaimed, adding that she was proud. With that, she concluded by reminding the audience to “keep breathing!” before taking bows with her guest stars and making her exit.

I really don’t have much more to say that I haven’t said in my recap, but I left really impressed with all three. The truth is, it wasn’t about comedy for me. I wouldn’t have cared if they’d have been CEOs or homeless people, doctors or librarians or pro athletes – I just respect the cajones on anyone who can stand in front of a room full of people they don’t know and be frank about what really scares them. Bowie, Wilson and Thyre did so with such poise that night that it makes me think twice when I try to hide my fears from the world. At any rate, I’ll go back if they do it again anywhere near me!

Stacy Scales

California native. Word nerd. Music lover. Linguaphile. Amateur foodie. Basketball junkie. Travel enthusiast. Future therapist.

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