by Jill Kargman
Following is an excerpt from On Being 40(ish), a collection of essays by 15 contemporary writers that muse on the ups and downs of hitting that particular milestone, out from Simon & Schuster on February 5. Editor Lindsey Mead has assembled a stellar cast of women, including including Veronica Chambers, Meghan Daum, Kate Bolick, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Sloane Crosley, KJ Dell’Antonia, Jill Kargman, Julie Klam, Jessica Lahey, Catherine Newman, Sujean Rim, Jena Schwartz, Sophfronia Scott, Allison Winn Scotch, and Lee Woodruff, each of whom offers up personal, poignant, sometimes profane perspectives on turning 40 and the years that follow.
Jill Kargman’s essay, “I Became an Actress at Thirty-Nine,” muses on muscling her way into a youth-flavored industry when she was no longer young—and some of the deeply satisfying surprises in discovering the value that comes with some extra seasoning.
I became an actress at thirty-nine. With stretch marks. With crow’s-feet. With three pregnancies’ worth of cellulite looking like Breakstone’s cottage cheese on my thass, the heinous fusion of thigh plus ass. It was a dream come true—the acting, not the cellulite.
After always being in plays at college, it was a long-ass break till thirty-nine. Of course, as a college grad, I figured if I could press a button and pick a career, it would be onstage. But you can’t just decide to be an actress and necessarily make it happen; in fact I remember saying to a friend, “I just want to act; I don’t want to be an actress; I just want to act!” I truly felt like my motivations were never for fame and fortune but for the love of getting out there and playing characters. But you don’t get to just go do it. Even the people you assume can, can’t.
When I was a freshman, there was a senior who was the prettiest girl at Yale and I knew in my soul she was going to make it big. I was positive: she had it all—mesmerizing talent, the voice of an angel, legs for days. Two years later I ran into her, gorgeous as ever. Working at a restaurant in New York. “Party of five? Right this way…” Holy shit: if she couldn’t make it, I had zero chance.
While most performers are starry-eyed tits-on-stick ingénues with glossy head shots featuring their dewy, unlined skin and perfect duck-lip pout, I figured with my un-Hollywood looks and penchant for workaholism, being a professional actress wasn’t a red-carpeted path I should sashay down, since you can work your tail off auditioning and still never get roles. I figured I’d be waiting on people forever—waitressing tables and awaiting a call for that next self-taped reading. I didn’t want to fuck fat casting directors, which is what I once thought was a ticket to stardom. I also knew that success in this world was not a meritocracy; there are Juilliard geniuses who languish and talent-free idiots who prevail. It wasn’t fair! And that would drive me fucking crazy.
So I went to work as an assistant (read: Xerox whore) at Interview magazine and basically ate shit sandwiches for two years, doing the kind of cheese-Danish-fetching clerical work I hear millennials feel above doing these days. It was so disheartening, because of course as you’re running around in fifteen-degree weather to buy your boss cigarettes, you have no clue how this could possibly move your career forward. But the feces-panini years paid off. You don’t realize it at the time, but one often learns by osmosis, and within a year and a half I was writing my own articles for Interview and other magazines. Work begets work, and as my twenties passed I found that I could juggle writing with raising my kids. I shat out three of them in four years, and I had what I call Placenta Brain, where I was so exhausted and hormonal, I would walk into a room and forget why I was going there. As a result, my ambition had this weird ebb and flow where I would have a burst of creativity and motivation, then I’d fall into an unproductive slump during the next pregnancy or recovery. I felt like I was knocked up for five years, basically. But as the babies turned into crawlers, then turned into zombie-walkers and finally, preschoolers, I figured I could work on my next book. I wound up writing a bunch during those chaotic years, and I could jam when I felt like it or be in mommy-mode when I didn’t. And it was a balance that worked for me. For a while.
* * *
Fast forward: I’m thirty-five in the shower, gripped by a lingering ache: Is this all there is? Not regarding my acting fantasy per se, but just a general missing something. What exactly, I had no idea. I felt like a total asshole even thinking that because I knew I had a great life—hashtag blessed—and shouldn’t feel like I needed any more than I already had. But I’d had a melanoma tumor the year before that left me with a foot-long scar on my thigh and an invisible one on my brain. I weirdly had a sudden and all-enveloping sense of urgency to sack up and do more. Try new things, act sillier, go nuts, feel free. I went skiing off a mountain with a parachute, for crying out loud. Jews don’t do that shit! The adrenalized cheap thrills weren’t enough, though—I realized I wanted to truly shift gears. But with three kids and responsibilities, it’s hard to just shake the Etch A Sketch of life and have a clean slate.
I remember around that time a bunch of moms were hanging out after a pal’s birthday lunch. Someone said, “The freaky thing about getting older is that the funnel is closing.” I asked WTF that meant, and she explained that when you’re young you can decide to do anything and options are wiiiide-open, and as we age, our lives are poured down a funnel and options narrow. Por ejemplo, with all the interminable years of medical school, hospital residencies, specialty boards, etc., it’s pretty unlikely someone pushing forty could decide to be a doctor.
In a sudden whirl of claustrophobia, I started hyperventilating. Was she right? Okay… maybe being a doctor… but what about… acting? It was not even a fully formed “dream”of mine, because I never would’ve had the balls to dream it. It’s not like I had to learn how to hold a scalpel ’n’ shit. Art (or quirky TV) isn’t saving lives, right? In a weird way, though, it did save mine.
At thirty-seven I was a copywriter at Ogilvy for the production company Piro (Tim Piper and Daniel Rosenberg’s company, hence the name) literally doing maxi pad and adult diaper commercials. One tagline I pitched: “With Poise®, Urine the clear!” Daniel and Tim were so amazing and hilarious to work with, and I felt understood. Plus the collaborative aspect of working in an office versus at home with my Karglings for eleven years banging out novels on my tragic CB2 TV-dinner table in the corner of my bedroom felt invigorating.
After one particularly hysterical goofball brainstorm session that left us all in stitches, Daniel asked if I’d ever want to do television. I mean, of course I would, but one doesn’t just snap her soy-sauce-bloated fingers and make that happen. But they had ideas. And more importantly, they had faith in me. One thing led to another and we wound up making a guerilla sizzle reel for an R-rated talk show, kind of like a late-night program, but in the morning. It was called Wake the Fuck Up! No saccharine smiles and coffee mug bullshit. I’d drink from a straw an entire pot of coffee, sitting in my pajamas with hair like a rat’s nest. I’d get ready while on camera. I’d do the weather report by opening my window: IT’S FUCKING FREEZING!
Piro sent it to networks, and Andy Cohen wanted to meet. In the room at 30 Rock that day was Lara Spotts, who would become my writing partner, showrunner, and all-around goddess. Together, we developed what became Odd Mom Out, a scripted comedy about trying to fit in on New York’s Upper East Side. Now, say what you will about Bravo and their slate of mostly reality shows that often include catfights and people with implants weeping, but NO other channel on your dial would ever pluck someone pushing forty from obscurity? from regular life? and have them star in a TV show. The cool thing is that Bravo always does that. A word was even coined for the phenomenon: Bravolebrity!
Suddenly, while many women around the age of forty were freaking that the best was behind them, I was proof that is not the case. I was proof that it’s never too late to switch shit up, and the key is having just a couple of people who believe you can. But even more important, you need to believe it. True, without Daniel and Tim pushing me along, I probably never would have had the balls. But why not? Because women tend to think in terms of that ever-tightening funnel. Our boobs drop and our asses widen and the world tells us we’ve peaked. But here’s the special secret: we’re more productive and better than ever because by forty, we know who we are.
I have no doubt that I would have been a failure as a performer at twenty-two. Maybe I had higher tits and no cellulite, but honestly, who the fuck cares. When we are young, we are diluted versions of ourselves. We become balsamic reductions as we age—our very best parts distilled and clarified. Which is why they make needlepoint pillows that say aging is great like wine or cheese—and not like bananas, but that’s besides the point. The key is that now I am a fully formed person! Mistakes have been made, relationships terminated, and the cocoon surrounding my forty-plus-year-old self feels like trusty battle-worn armor for my soul. Time gives you that. Things don’t bother me as much as they used to. When I was a new mom who didn’t breastfeed, I literally had a nursing nazi say “SHAME ON YOU!” and I walked around the corner and burst into tears. Years later when I had my third and some asshole started pontificating that if I don’t nurse, my son wouldn’t be as smart, I replied with a smile, “Oh, I was bottle-fed and IQs don’t come higher than mine!” and walked off. Little did I know, honing my ability to not give a shit was a tool that would come in handy in my new career.
When Odd Mom Out premiered, I was beaming with pride and flattered by the critical praise. But there were also ego-balloon needle pricks by Twitter trolls who said that I was too wrinkly to be on television. That I had snaggleteeth. That my hair was too thin. That I looked like Marilyn Manson’s daughter. Of course some stung for a split second, but then I honestly did not care at all. Because I’m old enough to embrace the look I have (though I did get some help in the chopper department with Invisalign!) and not give a shit about superficial comments. But in my twenties? Oh, I’d have casually walked to my roof and swan-dove off, Louganis-style. I would just not have been able to deal with those comments without the lovely shield of crocodile-thick skin that I developed over time. In fact, I truly don’t know how all these young actresses do it. They strike me as so brave. Perhaps their generation knows that with the internet comes the basement-dwelling assholes, and dismisses them casually as part of the game.
Now, at forty-three, I can honestly say I feel like I’m in the best part of my life—my kids are not laying cable in their Huggies and they’ve become my favorite people in the world. They go to sleepaway camp, which is like a defibrillator on my sixteen-year marriage, giving it a welcome electric jolt. This summer my awesome husband and I got to pole-vault back in time over our thirties to what it was like dating in our twenties, when we were boyfriend and girlfriend and there were no kids barging in and ruining sex with their boner-wilting shrieks. I now have only my sister-level friends around me, no toxic holdovers kept around because of inertia. Your forties afford you the opportunity to cull your circle. As they say aboard the World War Z Atlantic ship fleet, all nonessential people must go.
And the acting? Well, here’s a funny twist.
After my third season of Odd Mom Out wrapped, my agent sent me to a round-robin of casting directors in Los Angeles. Remember my nightmare of obese, rapey, cigar-smoking men with casting couches? Well, all eight meetings were with women. Cool, badass, amazing women. In their fifties. When I said I probably was not the typical new face sent in to meet with them—the Crypt Keeper compared to the parade of Barbies teetering in—I was told that actually many of the women in their forties in the business had been around for so long, while I, coming out of fucking nowhere, was “fresh.” Not a description you hear very often in your mid-forties. Turns out there was a benefit to not acting out of college. And for me, personally, I don’t think I could have brought much to roles then because I hadn’t lived anyway. The tunnel of vision at that age, the ambition to succeed, is so narrow. And then it opens. You know who you wind up with, you know who you are, you know where you’re going. So maybe the funnel does tighten, but all you have to do is turn it upside down: it’s all how you frame it. And if you have one artistic bone in your body, I say pull it like a wishbone and go for it—there’s so much more of you to pump into your work now. There are more laughs to draw from, more manic sobfests you’ve endured. The colors are brighter because you appreciate those ROYGBIVs more after the emotional storm clouds and the hurricanes of turmoil. There is more rage to channel from the injustices of the world that youth often tunes out. There’s more joy to embrace from what we now know is the fleeting cackle of a sugar-cracked toddler or a baby’s cuddle.
I’ve always thought art should be what is clawing its way out of you, scratching for that canvas or computer or camera. For me, holding up a fun-house mirror to the world with writing is what makes me not fear aging. No one watches my show because they think I’m pretty; they watch ’cause it makes them laugh. And you’re supposed to look silly in a fun-house mirror! A regular one is boring. Leave those to the seflie-snapping youngsters.
A born and bred New Yorker, Jill Kargman age 44, is the creator, writer, producer and star of the scripted comedy Odd Mom Out, in which Ms. Kargman plays a satirical version of herself navigating the hilarity of raising children on the Upper East Side in NYC. She attended the Spence School, the Taft School and Yale University. After graduating, and working for magazines, television, and movies, Ms. Kargman began writing novels to give her more flexibility to be home with her three children: Sadie, Ivy, and Fletch. She is a New York Times best-selling author of multiple books, and her most recent book, a comedic essay collection, Sprinkle Glitter on my Grave, was published in September 2016 by Random House. She made her Café Carlyle debut in January 2017 with her sold out show Stairway to Cabaret, singing heavy metal songs cabaret style. Jill is also a performer with the Upright Citizens Brigade improvisational and sketch comedy group. Jill recently made an appearance in her first Hollywood studio movie, A Bad Moms Christmas.
Photo of Jill Kargman by Pamela Berkovic