I have confidence in most of what I value about myself. In spite of my fears of looking dumb, at the end of the day, I know that I’m an intelligent human being. Part of this is that there’s some kind of objective basis for intelligence, and part of this is that being smart is different from looking smart; someone calling me an idiot may embarrass me in the moment, but it doesn’t cause me to question my own intelligence. I don’t know if it is because of that security, but I have come to greatly value traits that are both objectively provable and independent of their appearance to the exclusion of almost all others. Attractiveness or taste in clothing, for example, are judged subjectively, and can’t be separated from their appearances, so I disregard them entirely. There is, however, one exception to this rule, one transparent, subjective thing on which I place a lot of value: Humor.
Ever since middle school, I have had a nearly pathological desire to be funny. I’ve mentioned before that this may have been a deceptively non-competitive way of competing with my friends, but what I haven’t mentioned is that I wasn’t particularly funny in middle school. I got more laughs than everyone, but only because I tried disproportionately harder than everyone else; my laugh-per-comment ratio was terrible, but the sheer volume of attempts more than made up for it. I was a walking Shrek movie, tossing off dead line after dead line in pursuit of even a small chuckle, and exactly as annoying as that description sounds.
Part of my problem was that I honestly just thought everything was funny (and still do). I’m sure saying that I think everything is funny suggests to you that I don’t have a discerning sense of humor, but I actually mean that I find anything and everything funny. I laugh out loud when I hear a noisy furnace. This does not make for a discerning joke-teller. Curiously, this ability to find all things hysterical doesn’t extend to things that are supposed to be funny. I’m actually pretty hard to impress with humor, possibly because I’ve worked so hard at it myself, but almost certainly because I’ve developed a pretty specific taste. This, I have to trace back to elementary school.
One of my best friends growing up was a subscriber to MAD magazine. At the time, it struck me as strangely out-of-time that a nine-year-old should subscribe to anything, let alone MAD (something my parents might have grown up reading), but I think that actually made the magazine more alluring. I suppose people read MAD for the film satires, but the humor there always struck me as too broad for my tastes; I preferred the borscht-belt humor of Don Martin’s visual gags. Almost every weekend we would spend one or two nights at one or the other of our houses, staying up late to watch David Letterman or Saturday Night Live, something that struck us as very adult and sophisticated. In hindsight, some of that stuff was probably pretty bad, but the important thing was the reverence we had for humor — it wasn’t just entertainment; it was magic.
In middle school, I fell in with a fairly precocious group of eggheads. We liked to consider ourselves smarter than everyone around us, which meant we had to constantly be mocking how dumb everyone else was. This is pretty easy in middle school. It helped that the people most deserving of our mockery were the ones who would try to pick on us. To sarcastically commend our would-be-bullies for having just discovered sarcasm struck us as proof that we were smarter than they were. We were using the same tools, but with an ironic detachment that put us above the fray. Meanwhile, I was starting to appreciate the deadpan delivery of Bill Murray, as well as the self-deprecating nature of comics like Letterman and Larry David, whose works I had been consuming for years, but had yet to fully understand.
As I moved into high school, I expanded the purview of my jokes to make the entirety of the world the potential butt of any joke. This included opening myself up to mockery, though always with the wink that I was in on the joke, too. This was probably when I was at my most annoying, as there was now no subject that I wouldn’t try to squeeze a few laughs out of. My friends put up with it, and I was able to spin the fact that I wasn’t that funny into its own kind of meta-humor. I was now steeped in irony, relying on it to make the things I said funny, regardless of the humor inherent in them.
When I got to college, I found people generally less patient with my way-too-eager-to-please joke pace, and much less impressed with my carefully cultivated ironic air. Irony was everywhere, which caused it to begin to lose its meaning. When Snakes On a Plane came out, I couldn’t understand the buzz; here was a movie designed to be so-bad-it’s-good, but if the stupid premise and wooden acting are intentional, isn’t it categorically different from an actual B movie? If everyone is in on the joke, what are we laughing at? This started to make me think that irony had consumed itself, but I didn’t declare “Irony is Dead” until I saw this video:
That video is the worst thing I’ve ever seen, and I saw Spider-Man 3. For those of you who somehow missed this whole phenomenon, Soulja Boy was (is?) a kid who made a terrible demo in his home which described a line dance, an art form widely agreed to be the nadir of western civilization. This demo and line dance became a viral video hit, causing many, many parodies, like the one above. I have no idea why these are supposed to be funny. You can tell from the self-satisfied smirks of the morons in the embedded video that they think it’s funny that they’re doing this dance. I timagine the same thing applies for the cartoon versions I linked to — the incongruity of these characters with this music is supposed to be funny — I just don’t get why this song works better than anything else. I think it’s because people have an association with who should be doing this dance, but I simply don’t think that there is such a group. This is a LINE DANCE; nobody on earth doesn’t look dumb doing a line dance, and there is no demographic on the planet for whom line dances are intended — everybody looks dumb dancing the YMCA, whether or not they’re gay.
I get a little frustrated talking (and even thinking) about the overuse of irony, but the point is that I my new-found disgust forced me to abandon irony altogether. I stripped myself of my protective ironic shell, and was left with just my over eagerness to make my friends laugh. People are polite enough at a few small jokes, but their eyes start to glaze over when they realize when I’m going to keep going. I have gotten better — not at cracking jokes, but at filtering which jokes I do tell — such that people (some people, anyway) think of me as a funny, if preternaturally quiet person. There are certain people who pull me out of this self-censorship who end up hearing a lot more of my jokes, both good and bad. I’m suddenly in a writers room, unafraid to pitch even the worst ideas in hopes that something will stick. This is on my mind because I observed this weekend that my girlfriend does a similar thing with the theater; if we’re hanging out with theater people, she gets much more theatrical, dramatic, and outspoken in a way that’s actually pretty jarring. I can’t fault her, because I do the exact same things with my funny friends, but it’s weird that we have these different gears at all.
I think people are comfortable having different personalities for work or their close friends or their families, but that thought sets off my poseur alarm. Why are we adjusting our behavior in this way, if not to please others? Ick. The more I pull back the curtain on my poseurphobia, the more I see how deeply it’s rooted. I won’t really have addressed my fear until I’ve addressed the much more basic desire to be liked by others. I don’t know how much adjustment of behavior is permissible or if even wanting to be liked is okay, but I’m really down the rabbit-hole now. Geez, and here I thought this was going to be the funny post where I make fun of Soulja Boy.