Archive | December, 2011

Everyone’s a comedian

21 Dec

I’m not a comedian. I’ve said that before, but I liked the juxtaposition of that first line and the blog title post. I’m trying to be funny, which is not the same thing as trying to be a comedian, and every time someone mistakenly identifies me as such, I feel a twinge of guilt. On the one hand, I’m flattered that anyone would think I could perform. On the other, I AM LIVING A LIE. I feel the same need to correct as I do when someone calls me handsome or interesting.

But I do choose to surround myself with comedians. (Also, writers, actors, creative types in general. For the purposes of this blog, I’m focusing on comedian-comedians.) At one point, I felt a little anxiety about that: does going to comedy show after comedy show without actually performing make me a groupie? If I’m a groupie, does that mean I have to sleep with the comics? …Can I sleep with the comics? But no, I think you can be a comedy enthusiast without performing. I also think that writing comedy (OK, my attempts at writing comedy) aligns me with people who perform comedy, even if we’re coming at it from different angles. (They’re not afraid of getting up in front of an audience. I get an eye twitch just thinking about it.)

Still, I’ve been thinking about why I prefer comedians to non-comedy types. And I’ve come up with a list of explanations.

They are neurotic. I mean, some of them are neurotic, and some of them are REALLY neurotic, and some of them are certifiable. I don’t like spending a lot of time with well balanced people. They make me feel crappy about my anxiety, and they can’t relate to my debilitating fears and insecurities. I have a hard time connecting with “normies,” particularly those of the heterosexual male variety, so I appreciate being able to bond with someone over a shared concern that we will never amount to anything, ever.

They are self-aware. I have some totally nutty friends who don’t realize they’re totally nutty. Do you know how frustrating that is? I’ve been in therapy forever (feels like forever; possibly it’s less than that), and I’m a writer, which means I spend most of my time navel-gazing. Comedians seem to do a lot of self-reflection as well, so they know when they’re being batshit (often). More to the point, they know how to turn the crazy into funny. Which brings me to my next point.

They find the humor in life. I had a dream last night that the country was falling apart. I woke up and realized that my nightmare wasn’t far from the truth. What a terrifying, shitty thought! But living in dread is no fun at all, unless you can turn it into a joke. I strive to take all the things that make me unhappy and use them to amuse others—sometimes I want to make my readers feel less alone, and sometimes I want to elicit laughter. Usually, it’s both. Finding the humor in your miserable existence and the world as a whole is an excellent coping mechanism, and it makes you more fun to be around than a straight-up whiner.

They’re conscious of the world around them. Sort of a corollary to the above: in order to joke about the U.S. falling apart, you have to know that the U.S. is falling apart. I’m not saying my comedian friends know as much about the state of the economy as my economist friends do—I don’t have economist friends—but most of them are unemployed, so yeah, I think they get it. And some know more than others, which is frankly just overachieving. What’s important is that they have some sense of what’s going on, in a way that dumber people might not.

They make me laugh. This might seem obvious, but for all the people who make me laugh, there are countless others who are boring as shit. Why wouldn’t I want to surround myself with friends who provide genuine LOLs on a daily basis? Since joining Twitter, I have laughed more loudly and regularly: Twitter is the comedy equivalent of fiber, is what I’m saying. And most of these people are funny in person, too. That is rare, and it is wonderful. Sometimes they depress me, in the way I’m sure I depress others. But I’m never bored.

They appreciate marijuana. Comedy and weed go together like an analogy that would only make sense if you were stoned. OK, not all comedians get high, but a whole lot of them do, and they do it in a way that interests me far more than stoner culture as a whole. Creative people who smoke weed are still creative when they smoke: marijuana doesn’t make you funnier, but it does make you think differently. And if you have a perceptive, witty brain, that is a genuine treat to be around.

So go follow everyone I follow on Twitter. Be friends with my friends. Develop crushes on anyone who tells jokes into a microphone. And laugh more, because as trite as that sounds, it’s seriously pretty great.

If I were a middle aged white man

13 Dec

If I were a middle aged white man, I wouldn’t write articles called “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” for Forbes. With a title like that, it wouldn’t matter what points I was making. You are not a poor black kid, tech writer Gene Marks—you never were, and you never will be. The problem with this hypothetical is that a middle aged white person lacks the necessary context to begin understanding what it means to be a poor black kid. You know only what you would do with your means—it’s easy to imagine how you could be “better” at being a poor black kid when you’re doing so from your privileged, middle aged white male perspective.

I imagine the title of Marks’ piece was designed to draw attention to it, and yes, controversy does equal page views. So, you know, kudos. But it’s shocking to me that neither Marks nor his editors at Forbes realized the inflammatory nature of the article detracts from any legitimate points the author might be making. If the attempt were to write a piece about how technology can help students bridge the inequality gap, that’s short-sighted but it’s arguably worthy of discussion. A piece about what Gene Marks would do if he were a poor black kid—that’s a whole lot easier to dismiss.

If I were a middle aged white man, I wouldn’t write, “If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. … I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city.” Because no, it’s not just as simple as studying hard. The worst schools may have their best students, as Marks notes, but the challenges those students face far outweigh the challenges of students in more privileged suburban schools. Marks did not go to a public middle school in the worst inner city, so maybe he doesn’t know that those schools are frequently understaffed and always underfunded. Certainly he didn’t consider that the socioeconomic conditions facing the students who attend these schools might make it more difficult for them to focus on their studies, as he humbly suggests they do.

Marks continues, “I would use the technology available to me as a student. I know a few school teachers and they tell me that many inner city parents usually have or can afford cheap computers and internet service nowadays.” And for the inner city parents who can’t afford cheap computers and internet service? Will Marks be inviting them into his home to use SparkNotes and Wikipedia? (These are seriously two of the great equalizing tools he recommends.) Or perhaps there is more than one student living in the same house, and they have to share one computer between them and their parents. I wonder if Marks has ever had to pass his iPad over to a sibling or parent before he was finished using it. If the parents don’t own a computer, Marks notes that students can use the computers at their school libraries—because despite being government institutions in serious financial distress, they can surely afford enough technology to go around, right?

If I were a middle aged white man, I wouldn’t write, “Is this easy? No it’s not. It’s hard. … But it’s not impossible.” Here are some other things that aren’t impossible: climbing Mount Everest, inventing Facebook, winning the lottery. And lest you think “winning the lottery” is an unfair comparison, Marks goes on to discuss magnet schools and charter schools, which—as it turns out—sometimes use a lottery system to sift through the thousands of students who want to attend. Either way, saying that something is “hard,” even acknowledging that it’s harder for a “poor black kid,” is a cop-out. How does Marks quantify how much harder it might be for someone not born into privilege? He doesn’t. He just notes that someone can. The implication of the article’s title is that he himself could, if he happened to be poor and black and growing up in an inner city.

Once in these schools, Marks suggests that students talk to their guidance counselors about scholarship opportunities and minority programs. What Marks may not realize is that higher education is a seriously troubled institution as well. Public schools once designed to give everyone the chance to attend college continue to raise tuition by the thousands. And in the current economic market, a college degree doesn’t guarantee employment, so the implication that just by getting into these universities, the former “poor black kid” will be set for life is ridiculous. He might have trouble obtaining the kind of job he’d need to pay off the student loans he’d certainly accrue. (Not all schools offer need-based scholarships. Chances are, a student born into poverty is going to be indebted to someone before he’s graduated college.) And need I address the elephant in the room? That a culture of racism and white privilege might make it more difficult for a young black man to get a job over a young white man with the same skills and educational background.

If I were a middle aged white man, I wouldn’t write, “If I was a poor black kid I would get technical. I would learn software. I would learn how to write code.” I am a twentysomething white person, and I am terrible at software and code and technology in general. I don’t consider it a personal failing, and no one has ever told me I’m not worthy of success because it’s not in my skill set. Marks seems to be saying that “poor black kids” should neglect their interests and strengths and focus entirely on technology, something he himself has had luck with. And sure, there may be more jobs in the tech sector, but the notion that the underprivileged kids Marks writes about need only sacrifice their personal life goals in favor of “practical” skills is absurd and insulting.

Marks continues with this stunningly ignorant final thought: “Technology can help these kids. But only if the kids want to be helped. Yes, there is much inequality. But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it.” If solving inequality were as simple as wanting it badly enough, I’d like to think we’d all be equal. Who in his right mind would put himself at a severe disadvantage? The economic and social disparity in this county has less to do with apathy than Marks might think. Being “smart enough” to know about the resources Marks identifies doesn’t mean having access to them—and having access to the resources doesn’t guarantee success.

I’ll put it this way: If I were Gene Marks, I’d be ashamed of myself.

If I get too mellow, I ripen and then rot

1 Dec

“I’m a guy who can’t function well in life but can in art.” – Harry Block, Deconstructing Harry

I could fill this blog post with quotes from Woody Allen films that relate to my life. I could talk about the Woody Allen characters with whom I most overidentify, which is all of them. Nothing I write will seem adequate, because it’s impossible to quantify the influence Allen has had on my life—as a writer, as a neurotic, as a Jew.

Woody Allen didn’t make me the person I am, but he encouraged me (however indirectly) to express aspects of myself I wasn’t sure were worth expressing. He helped me find the humor in self-hatred: you can take a mostly useless persecution complex and find an outlet for it. There is something inherently funny about social anxiety, and—thanks to the magic of the internet—you don’t even have to leave your room to express it.

Sometimes I think of writing as therapy, but more often, it’s my attempt to make the best of a bad situation. I will continue to mature into a functional member of society, but I know I’m always going to be at least a little bit fucked-up. I’m fine with that: I couldn’t handle the dullness of being completely well-adjusted. And while I don’t exactly want to model my life after Woody Allen’s, when has he ever been normal? He grows as a writer and a director, but his persona remains the same.

There’s no cure for Judaism. And sure, it goes beyond that, but a culture of guilt and a history of bitter persecution will do a number on a young person’s psyche. Religion aside, being a nebbish is, in some ways, a lifetime condition. In high school, that freaked me out: I will never be the cool, collected, sexy Aryan I once longed to be. (Oh my God, what if I dyed my hair platinum blonde?) The trick is to own the glasses and the Jewfro and the overwhelming sense of self-doubt. Some people find neurosis sexy. If you don’t believe me, watch any number of Woody Allen films.

It’s worth mentioning that I’m writing this on Allen’s 76th birthday, and I’ve managed to make it almost entirely about me. That seems fitting, though, right? I am a self-obsessed, navel-gazing narcissist, as sure of my own superiority as I am of everyone else’s poor opinion of me. I didn’t learn that from Allen, but I learned how to articulate it when I first watched Annie Hall as an adult.

The other important joke, for me, is one that’s usually attributed to Groucho Marx, but I think it appears originally in Freud’s ‘Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious,’ and it goes like this—I’m paraphrasing—um, ‘I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.’

That paradox of being both above and beneath it all defines most everything I do. And comparing myself to Woody Allen—feeling that I am both worthy of the comparison and also completely unable to achieve his greatness—is certainly a reflection of that.

My two favorite Woody Allen movies are the ones I’ve quoted above, Deconstructing Harry and Annie Hall, but I’m fond of what I believe to be the first of his films I saw in the theater, Everyone Says I Love You. While it’s not commonly regarded as one of his best, I still love it—for the cast, for the music, for the quintessential Woody Allen-ness that was missing from my life before I discovered him. I had just turned 10 when my parents took me to see Everyone Says I Love You, and as much as I didn’t understand, there was something in the character of Joe for me to grasp on to. I got him in a way I’d never gotten a leading man before. He got me.

I’ll leave you with this exchange between Allen’s Joe and his ex-wife Steffi, played by Goldie Hawn.

Steffi: You always pick the wrong women.
Joe: Hey, I picked you.
Steffi: Yeah, I know. We got divorced.
Joe: ‘Cause you were impossible to live with.
Steffi: “I was impossible to live with,” I love this. You couldn’t figure out whether you wanted to be a psychoanalyst or a writer!
Joe: So I compromised—I became a writer and a patient.

I’m doing my best to excel at both. Thanks, Woody. Happy birthday. Don’t ever stop making movies.