Laughter 5. Bullies
Long discussion of my High School and the relation between wit and meanness.
I was much funnier in High School than before or after. In Middle School I was funny, but not impressive. Since High School I feel surprised whenever I remember that my English teacher predicted a great future in satire. I haven’t even thought much about humor since High School. I haven’t watched comedies or tried to be funny.
After attending a public Middle School I applied to a private school called Catlin Gabel. Because I was new, and awful at Soccer, and a freshman, I was constantly bullied. In a theater class I realized that everybody liked the funny kids, that they were the most popular. I bet that’s not the case in every school. Perhaps it had something to do with our demographics, and the fact that we had no football team. But I was publicly mocked probably every day of my first two years in High School. I started watching comedies, training–I watched the first 10 seasons of South Park, all of Family Guy, much of Adult Swim, Futurama, Simpsons. When I realized that references were often quite funny, especially when unexpected, I delved deep into culture, consuming comic books, watching every famous film, and browsing Wikipedia. Thus armed, I began to experiment with different comic styles. With bullies jokes happen fast–that’s their main tactic, to bewilder you and keep you from responding. In fairness to bullies, though, they relish it when you do respond. That’s what I started trying. It was constantly dangerous, since to some extent the bullies could guarantee themselves laughter and treat my jokes like duds (or better, occasions for mockery.) But they could be made to laugh. My strategies weren’t always good–as my English teacher pointed out, many of my jokes were mean, bullyish, or irresponsible–but what I want to emphasize here is that the audience was not guaranteed for me, and that every day was extremely challenging.
At UChicago very few people have dared or been so rude as to mock me in public. Either people aren’t aggressive that way, or they respect me. I think this is the main reason why I am no longer funny. By that I mean, I no longer find myself funny. My jokes, except when cute or random, are stale. My writing is serious. When somebody is mean to me these days I ignore them. It wouldn’t even occur me to try a comeback. The world is big enough that I don’t have to confront anybody. When later I come up with a good comeback, I think, well, no big deal, they were being mean and I was being nice. Bullshit! I’ve let myself atrophy, and worse, I’ve let myself devalue what once I was so proud of, simply because I no longer measure up. And with the worst kind of excuse: moral indignation at strength!
I don’t wish for the bullies of high school, since their jokes were mostly stupid, and I would find them stupid even today. But nothing about being bullies forced them to be stupid; their kind of conflict would be just as beautiful and devastating if every joke revealed a truth.
So, what if talk became dangerous again?
The first answer, that we have to be prepared for, runs: Many would suffer.