Even the La Quebrada cliff divers in Acapulco, Mexico, frequently pause and muster up their wills before making their 125-foot plunge into the sea. After all, they are jumping from the relative stability of the top of the cliff into waters of uncertain depth, and from a height where a belly flop could be dangerous.
When New Canaan-born, Wellesley-educated Claire Ayoub decided to pursue comedy instead of medicine, finance or consulting, it wasn't quite like jumping off a cliff, but it may not have been so different either.
"I liken my bank account to someone doing surgery on me -- when you open it up, you don't want to see what's inside," said the affable and expressive Ayoub during an interview over Moroccan mint tea in the Chelsea section on Manhattan.
In April, Ayoub won a spot in the Lloyd group of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, an improv comedy troupe in Manhattan from which several members have graduated onto shows like "Saturday Night Live," "30 Rock" and "Parks and Recreation." In October, she quit her full-time job to pursue comedy, and started a podcast on which she interviews comics while coloring and drinking tea. To make money, she does freelance marketing work for Ladies Who Launch Southwest Connecticut, based in New Canaan, teaches improv comedy and baby-sits. This year, she was named by The Huffington Post as one of "18 Funny Women You Should Be Following On Twitter."
With the UCB's Lloyd team, Ayoub performs with her improv group every other Wednesday night at the UCB East theater at 3rd Street and Avenue A in the East Village. She said comedy allows her to combine being herself with doing what she loves.
"I'm a dork," she said. "A total dork. An out-and-out dork. There's something about being a dork that makes an audience feel comfortable. Everyone has a little dork in them, it's just how much they let it show."
In her podcast, "In Too Steep," Ayoub talks with other comics about what they're working on while drinking Ayoub's beverage of choice, tea. Also, they're coloring. Like with crayons. She said the tea time is a fun break from work for her listeners, as well as a good way of connecting with other comics and showcasing the illustrations of artists she's met either in person or online.
"I have almost 200 subscribers, which is cool. I thought it was my mom on 200 computers but I've had people at the improv group coming up saying, `I really liked your podcast.' "
Ayoub started her tea-time coloring tradition while at Wellesley as a study break. The all-women's school has a long tradition of tea time, which in generations past was a pearls-and-sandwiches affair. In recent years, that has fallen out of favor, but Ayoub resuscitated the tradition as a way for students to blow off steam.
"In Too Steep" has afforded Ayoub a chance to meet some people she has long admired, chief among them, comedian and television journalist Mo Rocca.
"He is one of the greatest people of all time," she said. "I grew up with CBS News Sunday Morning, so it was this moment where this project is not only becoming popular, but I'm getting to meet some of my icons."
She recalled walking into the CBS office of another of her icons, Charles Osgood, when she went to meet Rocca.
"I walked into Charles Osgood's office by accident and couldn't breathe. The only man who could take my breath away is an 80-year-old with a bowtie," she said.
New Canaan roots
Ayoub went to Saxe Middle School and New Canaan High School. She was involved in drama productions during high school and credits that experience with pushing her in the direction of the stage.
"Tony Pavia was my principal and he was so supportive," she said. "He put a major emphasis on the arts ... and I don't think I would have this mentality without having had that great place to grow up."
But New Canaan also offered a world view much more prototypically career-oriented than that which Ayoub, the daughter of two parents in the medical field, chose.
"When I was in college, I felt like I should go into consulting, especially being from New Canaan. There were so few jobs and the jobs that were there were in finance. Had you told me when I was at Wellesley what I'm doing now, I would have laughed in your face. I was so set on the idea of having a career, I was trying to morph myself into the values of that world. I didn't want to fit into comedy because I was like, `that's not a real thing.' "
During college, she was in the Wellesley improv troupe, and during the summer after college, she took improv classes at UCB. Shortly after she graduated in May 2011, Ayoub got a job in Manhattan as a production coordinator for a commercial production company. While the job offered reliable paychecks and hours, Ayoub was torn between it and improv. In April 2012, she tried out and was accepted as a performer at UCB.
"I had a spinny chair at work and I couldn't stop spinning in it all day," she said. "To get a stamp of approval from a theater I admired so much was incredible. It felt like `this is something you're good at, so why don't you pursue it?' I thought instead of just doing this on the side. ... I was going to give myself a year to see what I could do."
She quit the job a month later and decided to pursue comedy full time. Since then, she has had impressive results, but the road has had its bumps.
"I went back (to Wellesley) for the 2012 graduation. It was right after I'd quit my job and I was doing comedy full time. It was basically my comedic coming-out party. I was going back with no job and it was scary."
"I called my dad crying, saying, `I don't know what I'm doing.' He gave me the greatest advice. `First of all, I don't know what you do. But you have to remember that we all chose -- your mother, brother, sister and I -- careers that have distinct paths. You chose a very different path, but it's something you're good at. If you're going to do it, do it right, work hard and don't second guess yourself.' "
Since going full time, Ayoub said she feels that she has grown as a person and is proud of the work she's done.
"I'm proud to call myself a comedian now, where I didn't used to want to say that. As long as you love what you do and you work hard, it's (a matter of) taking those values, but channeling them into comedy instead of consulting or finance."
Ultimately, she would like to write for television or film. She plans on devoting more time in the coming months to writing, in addition to improv. She acknowledges that the career path is uncertain in her line of work.
"A bunch of my friends write for SNL and it's amazing," she said. "I also know so many talented people that aren't on SNL. If it happens, it happens and that's cool, but you can't be crushed if it doesn't, especially because it's so out of your hands."
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