I’m sure you’re all familiar with the beloved children’s program “The Magic School Bus,” in which a batty school teacher leads a group of intrepid elementary school students on wacky adventures through time and space, learning a broad array of facts about the natural world along the way. Each of these little nerds has a distinct personality — the black girl is sassy, the ginger Jew is a weakling and the Italian-American boy is the natural leader of the bunch. All these neat character-types did a fantastic job force-feeding a generation of pre-adolescent viewers a host of useful prejudices by which to exclude and exalt one another in their mature years — but what did they do to help them learn about themselves?
I always identified with “Carlos Ramon,” not because I’m a Mexican-American, but because Carlos was a clown. In every episode, I could expect Carlos to throw himself headlong upon each micro-opportunity to crack a bad joke. I was on the edge of my seat, listening carefully for the conditions of humor to arise. And then they would, and Carlos would get his annoying one-liner and then the entire class would turn to him and groan “CARLOS” with a mixture of endearment and irritation.
I wondered whether Carlos would replay these episodes in his head at night, wincing at the memory of having bothered his friends with his incessant attention-seeking. Did he feel, in the moment, like he had no choice but to make the joke, knowing already how poor it was and what the reaction would be? Did he enjoy all the eyes on him, or feel scrutinized, or both? Did he feel like was being laughed with or at? Did he feel like he, himself, was just a bad joke Pinocchio’d into a small boy?
I wondered this because, I confess such is the case for me. I am, to slightly alter a more common but misogynistic term, an “attention-hoarder.” For my entire life, I have been “That Guy,” interrupting and dominating conversations with an endless string of jokes, declamations, trivia and anecdotes. I forcibly seize the spotlight of every discussion and thrust it upon myself. My hand is always raised in class. I ask questions and offer commentary at the end of discussion. I go nuts on online forums and Listservs. I write for four campus publications, in addition to managing a satire page on Facebook with 12,000 followers.
At all times I am torn by feelings of helplessness at my own inability to resist the urge to grab so much attention, the pressure to perform not just at, but above my previous level, the immense relief that comes with waking up with new ideas, the fear that one day I will run dry and lastly, the unmatched joy I get from making people laugh, rethink things or doing both at once.
And yet I feel the need to apologize and explain things from my perspective, since I have more than enough data to verify that besides my friends and fans, there are always people who just find me self-centered and obnoxious. I feel guilty about the people I’ve hurt by talking over them, for all the regrettable jokes I’ve ever made in poor taste or ignorance of harmful social issues. I have wasted a lot of people’s time they will never get back, listening politely to some or another absurd rant.
My defense is one that resembles insanity — I can’t stop writing and talking. I become itchingly conscious of myself as I sense a great welling-up in my chest and ignition of my mind in the presence of people whom I suspect I can entertain, but at the same time know that I will try and keep trying even when it becomes obvious no one cares what I have to say. Even when I’m alone, I plan out stories and puns and points to make in arguments I might not actually have for years, so that my brain constantly bears a thundering swarm of ant-like tidbits of logic, irony, factoids and plot. I summon to my presence my friends and professors and even dead authors I admire. I force them into hypothetical dialogue, I make them laugh and furrow their brows in my imagination.
Being stamped a “Funny Guy” early on in life brings with it a share of little-discussed unhappiness. You feel pressure to meet expectations, you regularly misjudge other people’s positive or negative opinion of you based on whether or how much they laugh, you are embarrassed and loathe yourself in those moments where you feel like a clown, a human joke. You go through all of this with an obligatory smiling exterior.
I was severely affected by the death of Robin Williams. The terminus of his depression suddenly looked like it was marked as that of my own, and that of all the other sad, funny people of the world: Joan Rivers, Evelyn Waugh, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Conan O’Brian, George Carlin, Pagliacci. Their misery differed in quality and magnitude, but every case feels cosmically inappropriate to me. How could these people not be tremendously happy? They have the ear and eyes of the entire world.
Yet all the laughter in the world cannot restart a broken heart, or alleviate an inch of loneliness. A room of people roaring in rapture at my words is a magnificent simulation of community, but it is really just a lot of breath. None lingers. My closest friendships, I realize, have been with people who liked me for reasons that had nothing to do with the 24-7 Pellowski Performance. In their company, I feel wordlessly warm.