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The Hope of an Old Joke

[It's the hope that comes from] the banal routine of landing the same dumb goof over and over again, sometimes for decades.

In an email exchange I’ve been having recently, an old friend asked if I knew how to be angry but not bitter. He was referring to the quote from Maya Angelou where she says, “You should be angry. But you must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.”

The question knocked me on my ass. Not because it was new or because it spoke to what I was feeling at the moment, but because it did the exact opposite: it spoke to exactly what I wasn’t feeling. I’ve felt these kinds of anger and bitterness throughout my life. And in a world as decidedly cruel as the one we have constructed, it’s hard not to feel one of these two things constantly. But I sat with the question and I realized that I wasn’t feeling either at the moment.

Instead, I felt a profound sadness.

The world continues to be difficult. The pandemic rages on, police shootings rage on, oppression in all of its horrendous glory rages on. This all became even more clear when a Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back and Kyle Rittenhouse murdered people protesting that very act of terrorism (Rittenhouse, another terrorist, was not shot by the Kenosha police despite using an assault rifle against innocent people, mind you).

And as infuriating as this is, sustaining the anger this situation deserves is absolutely draining. At some point, I felt this anger give out and it was replaced by a deep melancholy. Or maybe an overwhelming disappointment in the world. Because, as expected, the responses to the violent acts in Kenosha played out exactly how they always do. Some, maybe even most, expressed the kind of anger that might eventually change the world. But a meaningful portion of the US population also did the opposite, dragging Blake’s name through the mud while praising Rittenhouse, an actual terrorist, for his actions. And some of these people are those in power. The rest are their supporters.

It’s knowing those people exist in the world that drag the anger out of me and leave room for sadness to grow, like mold in a damp basement. And without anger, I don’t know how to fight back.

But I’ve barely had time to dwell on this sadness. I just started a new job at a new university and to deal with all of the stresses and tasks that go along with that process. To blow off some of that stress, I also had to retell an old joke.

Whenever I start at a new school (this being the third iteration of the joke), I take a first day of school photo and write a letter to my mom about what I did that day. And each time I follow the exact same format. First, I wear the same outfit in each picture: blue blazer, yellow and blue striped tie, shorts, argyle socks pulled way the hell up, and a backpack I can anchor my thumbs into. I also try my best to write what an eight-year-old would write, mimicking the cadence of that kind of letter and also focusing on the absolutely wrong details (i.e. who my new friends are, not what I actually did) while getting the name of the school completely wrong. And the kicker: I ask my mom for Taco Bell money at the end of each letter.

And like the good sport she is, she usually sends some along.

After I sent the photo and email off to my mom, I realized how much of a reprieve from my fixations on the current situation this joke provided. And not in the social-media-dopamine-spike way that I was used to. Sure, that was there as I raked in those IG likes. But it felt like something else and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. So I started looking for similar jokes, some sort of analogue made by someone else to see if I had the same reaction when I was in the audience and not on the stage.

This brought me to one of my favorite jokes of all time: Paul Rudd showing the Mac & Me clip on Conan O’Brien.

Again, the set up for this joke is simple. Rudd goes on O’Brien’s show and sets up a clip for whatever movie or show he is currently pitching. But when they cut to the clip, it’s a scene from the absolutely horrendous 1988 movie Mac & Me. (The movie itself was clearly just an attempt to piggyback off the success of ET, but with far more product placement from McDonald’s. It’s so, so bad. I suggest watching it immediately). When they cut back to the interview, Rudd acts like they had just shown a clip from the movie he was just in.

It’s a dumb (albeit funny) gag, one that could have easily been forgotten amidst the growing mountain of content produced on O’Brien’s various shows. But the reason it sticks out is because Rudd has done this every time he goes on the show. This means that this joke has been running for 15 years and counting at this point. Every single interview, Rudd sets up a different clip. And every single time, he shows the exact same scene from the same dumb movie. As far as I know, the clip has only changed twice (once when Rudd was promoting Ant Man and then again when he was promoting Living With Yourself), and even then he only edited in a few details and left the rest of the scene intact.

Watching clips of Rudd do this again in the current moment, I realized what it was about that gag and the first day of school joke that I loved so much. Sure, I find them funny, but its more than that. It’s knowing exactly what’s going to happen (or, in the case of the joke teller, what should happen), the build of anticipation leading up to the punch line, and then the gag delivering exactly what you expect. The humor doesn’t derive from some clever twist or an unexpected turn. It comes from the exact opposite, the banal routine of landing the same dumb goof over and over again, sometimes for decades.

Thinking through the response to the violence of Rittenhouse/the Kenosha police force and Rudd’s gag at the same time, I understood why this joke provided such a comfort in this moment. The profound sadness I felt after watching a significant and meaningful portion of the population laud acts of terrorism and rededicate themselves to White supremacy created the mirror opposite of the Mac & Me goof. In both moments, the knowledge of what is going to happen has already made an unignorable and (sometimes terrifyingly, sometimes joyously) grand entrance. And when the racist responses come or the gag lands, its not new or surprising. It’s exactly what you expect it to be.

With the acts of terrorism like the ones produced by Rittenhouse and the Kenosha police force, you desperately want a twist ending, one that you know won’t come. And a profound sadness is the result.

But with a gag like the one Rudd has crafted, you want the opposite. You want the joke to be exactly the same as it was last year. And when the expected punchline comes, it lands perfectly.

I’m sure that revisiting this joke was partly an act of avoidance. It’s hard to not want that right now (whether or not you have the privilege to shut out the world for any amount of time). But I believe its something more than that. It’s knowing that we can expect more than just the inevitable and unavoidable horror of people being oppressive and awful. We can also expect people to be better, to be kind and caring, to be truly human and fulfill the humanity of others. People might fail these expectations over and over again as the systems we’ve constructed around us routinely force people to do horrible and inhuman things. But knowing that the world can change and that we can eventually expect a sense of humanity from people without constant disappointment after that change occurs can provide a sliver of light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.

As I think about what it means to be angry, bitter, and sad, I’m realizing that the difference is what we expect out of each: with bitterness we turn to revenge, anger demands justice, and all sadness asks for is a bit of hope. Sadness won’t get us anywhere, so I’m clinging to that hope for now as I claw my way back to anger. Because once we’re all pissed off enough, we can actually make something happen.

Unabashedly pretentious musings on noise, shitposting, and other cultural forces.

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