Louis C.K. told David Letterman that in a sold-out comedy show of 15,000 laughing audience members, what he sees are the 1,000 people who aren’t impressed. Letterman chuckles knowingly. Anyone in the business of making people laugh can probably relate. I notice that Louis C.K. is not good-looking, but his fame and comic genius make him appealing. I have no doubt he dates women 20 years younger who would be considered “out of his league.”
I’m a teacher not a comedian, but as Neil Postman pointed out in his brilliant book Amusing Ourselves to Death, all discourse is entertainment now. I’ve even had commenters here tell me that if I made education “fun” I’d have an easier time with students. Even the president needs to crack jokes to keep the nation’s attention during important speeches.
Louis C.K.’s comments made me think of high school and how people develop their popularity. The genetically-blessed don’t have to do anything but be. Everyone else has to do something. I’ve seen an awkward boy on the autism spectrum with echolalia be taken in by a group of thugs who find him entertaining. At first, we teachers tried to “rescue” him, only to discover that somewhere in those thug hearts where there exists no trace of empathy or respect for teachers and learning, was a protective instinct to keep this kid safe from other bullies. He became a sort of bully mascot.
The chubby boy studies John Belushi, John Candy, and Chris Farley and becomes a comedian whose genetic disadvantage is his comedy brilliance. He’s able to attract a cute cheerleader girlfriend. Not an A-lister, to be sure, but one of the peripherally popular girls. Enough to get him invited to the right parties because he makes everybody laugh.
The intellectual elite are in a group by themselves. They are going places. They will run the world. All of those jerks who call them four-eyes, nerds, suck-ups, and losers are going to be begging them for jobs. These kids are going to top universities. They may long for the kind of popularity that we all long for, but they’ll be fine.
No matter when you go to high school, nothing much changes except the technology. Kids submit essays as Google Docs now and read textbooks on tablets. We teachers text our students homework reminders and run literature discussions via blog. The hunt for identity that characterizes adolescence is impervious to technological advances.
I was promiscuous in high school. It isn’t generally accepted for women to admit that, much less to brag about it. The dance of adolescence is supposed to involve boys pushing girls for sex and girls being the gatekeepers. “Nice” girls and “good” girls don’t “give it up.” For all that adults may think high school kids have lost all morality and are basically humping in the stairwells, that dynamic still exists. Longterm couples are probably having sex (we all knew that couple who disappeared together during every social event, or if you were as unlucky as my group, didn’t feel the need to seek privacy). Everyone else is navigating the rules: the explicit and the implicit ones.
Pretty girls don’t have to be funny nor do they have to work to attract men. So the stereotype says. If I’m funny, does that mean I’m not pretty? I’m married, so I don’t need to pursue other men, but I can’t help but want them to look at me with desire. I worked to be seductive and amusing. I never possessed the kind of beauty that made it unnecessary. My self-esteem is wrapped up in being funny and pretty. As I approach my 43rd birthday and tote around my adorable daughters, I relate to E.B. White’s narrator in “Once More to the Lake,” who sees his own inevitable decline and death in the person of his replacement: his son.
I feel a combination of pride and sadness watching my beautiful girls grow. One has big, wide-set eyes and silky blonde hair. The other is tall and skinny with thick wavy long hair. If all goes well, they are both poised to fulfill cultural ideals of attractiveness.
But you bet your ass I’m teaching them how to be funny.