The Art of Taking a Joke
Hi. Fooled ya. Welcome to my clickbait.
There is no art of "taking a joke". You can either "take" one, or you don't.
But is it really that fucking easy?
All the memes and think pieces have been written, so I'm not out to crack any codes or find a deeper meaning in what happened, so here goes:
Today's blog post is what the Will Smith/Chris Rock Oscars situation triggered in me, and me only.
I've had a few weeks to process it. I actually wrote this the Wednesday after, got scared, and stopped. Today, nearly a month after the incident, I am full-swing in a depression day - the type of hell scape where rolling all the way over to my nightstand take my meds at 3:30pm is the first productive thing I've done since yesterday.
For me, the greatest thing that comes from a depression day is that around 4 or 5pm, I am hit with a gigantic wave of guilt and shame for succumbing to the sunken-in-my-own-filth gambit, that I end up with a burst of "fuck you" energy that ultimately gets me out of bed to make up for lost time.
So here I am, still smelly, finishing what I started to spite the first half of my day:
When the "Slap Heard Round the World" happened and confirmed that it was not, in fact, a joke, I turned to my girlfriend and said, after a full day of drinking wine, "I would have done the exact same thing."
Stay with me.
For as long as I can remember, it was drilled into me that "sticking up for yourself" is a crucial element to survival on the big, bad streets of Staten Island, NY. I mean, Christ, I hung out in the woods of a Little League baseball field in the suburbs. It wasn't exactly a "rough" upbringing. But even in our tiny bubble, pre-internet memes, there was a Lord of the Flies mentality of making sure that you weren't the weakest one in the pack. Don't be the "Herb". Otherwise you'd be the one who gets "abused". (These are all late-90's Staten Island terms. Ya Herb.)
The "abused" one in the group was, you guessed it, the one who routinely takes the brunt of every joke. With a side dish of physical assault. Or getting hog-tied by a group of kids and being dropped on and abandoned on some random old lady's lawn.
Not to digress, but yes, that did happen to me. Don't say aww. But a couple of years ago, I ran into one of the guys who was involved in that psychologically and emotionally shattering incident for me. It was in a Staten Island bar and I had just wrapped two weeks on a really great shoot. My younger brother had met me at the bar. I hadn't thought about the incident in year. I had fully blocked it out.
In talking to this guy and reminiscing about all the sort-of happier times of drinking 40-oz beers and crushing Newports in the woods, he gleefully, nostalgically, fondly, and hysterically said:
"YOOOOOO. Remember when we hog-tied you and dropped you on that lady's lawn on Wardwell?!"
I'll never forget how I felt in that moment. My brother, who looks up to me, was sitting right there, and this fuckhead was recalling a humiliating, traumatizing moment in my life like it was the good ol' days. My face and neck got hot. I got a nervous pit in my stomach. My hands started shaking. I felt the impact on my back from the way the kids dropped me that day, which knocked the wind out of me. I felt the duct tape on my wrists and mouth. I felt the coldness of the metal rod on my forearms.
Here I was, riding the high of working on my longest acting gig to date, having a celebratory beer with my brother, and my posture was all of a sudden shrinking. My confidence evaporated to dust. It was as if he performed a magic trick to teleport me back to the 10th grade.
The difference between 15 year old me and 30-something year old me is, I was able to use my words to address this situation. After taking a few breaths, I looked him in the eye and said:
"Dude, do you really think I look back fondly on that memory?"
I'll never forget the expression on his face. I watched his eyes recall the entire incident as the smile melted away. I could see the remorse of what he was a part of as a teenager, as well as his lack of maturity to realize, in his thirties, that what he did was wrong.
He apologized. I forgave him. We ordered another round.
Now, back to, "I would have done the same thing."
I wouldn't have.
But I know why I said it. It was a reflex. It was a conditioning I have in me to take every opportunity I can to remind those around me that I can be the protector. The hunter. The superhero. I've been with my girlfriend for four years. If there is one thing she viscerally rejects, it's violence. Yet I still said what I said. I needed to let her know that she was in good hands in the event that we go to a comedy club and the stand-up targets us for their crowd work.
And that, my friends, is… badump badump… toxic masculinity!!!!
It lives in me. It lives in all of us. Because, for my generation and those before me, you were measured on your toughness. If you couldn't defend yourself in a fight, you were the one who would be "abused." And what's worse? Those abusers, the ones with the power, are the first ones to tell you to learn how to take a joke. They're the ones that will tell you that you're too sensitive when you ask them to stop. Telling someone that they need to learn how to take a joke isn't advice. It's gaslighting. Because the more you "take" their jokes, the more they can belittle and abuse you.
I'll bet dollars to donuts that the person in the friend group who "can't take a joke", is usually the one who is sick and tired of being the brunt of every joke.
What it also brought up in me were the few times where I actually clapped back. It brought back a specific high school memory of one of the kids who bullied me on a daily basis. He always said cruel things that cut deep, about my physical appearance, where he thought my sexual orientation fell, and so on.
One day, I had overheard one of his friends say something very specific and sexual about his sister to him in a joking manner. It pissed him off, but he took it in stride. Later that day, he was giving me shit in front of the class, as per usual. So I struck back. Said the thing. Ended up in a headlock heading a muffled, "If you ever say that again, I'll fucking kill you" to the silent sounds of a stunned classroom.
So much for joining in on the fun. Was I wrong for aiming low with my comeback? Yup. (Way to keep asking yourself questions to answer, Chris, you pedantic ass). I definitely crossed a line. It was probably worse than anything he ever said to me, and I wasn't in whatever social circle that he allowed to say that thing. Looking back, I was totally wrong. But I had no idea how to engage in that type of "ball-busting".
At 37, I still fucking don't. So I try not to. But every so often, I'll take a joke too far and not even realize it. And luckily, I'll have that person tell me that they didn't appreciate it. It's a sucky feeling, and I'll find myself apologizing 30-40 times. But man, I wish I had the words to say those things when I was younger… but they would probably have gotten me slapped.
SO. The moral of the story is, there is no winner here. Maybe be fucking kind to each other and try to have some god damn social awareness when you can clearly see that someone isn't comfortable being the one laughed at.
If you are struggling with your mental health, there is no shame in getting help:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a United States-based suicide prevention network of over 160 crisis centers that provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline with the number 1-800-273-8255. It is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.