The paradox of performance

Cutting Room Floor

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This is a confession.

I perform everyday, in the sense that I act unlike who I think I am in order to assure myself that I’m not alone. And I don’t know if I’ll ever stop performing, whether I should or shouldn’t be, and whether there’s such a thing as a self that exists independent of others. The pursuit for authenticity has always driven my decisions, but only recently have I realized how much of a paradox it is.

In a cozy Westwood apartment in West L.A., I sat separated from my high school friends, mindlessly scrolling through Netflix as they played video games. We weren’t sitting apart on purpose, either. It sort of just happened. The distance isn’t just physical — there is a chasm in our friendship that I’m reluctant to acknowledge. So it only seemed appropriate that I decided to watch Bo Burnham’s “Make Happy,” one of the most unexpectedly piercing things I’ve ever seen.

In the most honest moment of the stand-up special, Burnham turns up the lights in the auditorium so they can face each other without the artifice of audience and entertainer. Resigned, he asks the crowd to do their best to live a life independent of performing. And in a bolt of existential dread, I realized that hanging out with the people I’ve grown up with means resurrecting a side of me that I buried long ago, one that I no longer identify with. As much as I love each person in my old group, we have little in common except our shared pasts.

But if I were to stop performing in order to be totally authentic, that could mean losing some of my most loyal friends. Is it ethically sound to live in the past to maintain these connections? Is being inauthentic necessary for friendship? Is there such a thing as performance-free social interaction?

These are all questions that run through my head as I say things I no longer find funny. The back-and-forth of recycled memes and laughter feels like a ritualized dance. I feel bound by loyalty to memory rather than actual emotion, and this retreat into nostalgia wraps me like a tattered blanket I can’t bring myself to throw away.

Is the self an amalgamation of all the different performances you put on? Can a self be defined without contextualizing it against all the groups that you claim to be a part of? Who are you away from the white noise of social interaction? All my life I’ve internalized the idea that authenticity is the key to contentment, but I’m not sure if dropping appearances keeps a person from feeling lonely. It’s scary to think that I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve felt genuine connection with since I came to Berkeley.

In the final segment of “Make Happy,” Burnham confesses in an opulent, Kanye-esque performance, complete with dramatic lights and generous Auto-Tune, that he wants to please others while staying true to himself. I think I see why he can’t reconcile the conflict: Neither of the two are antidotes to isolation. His understanding of himself has been muddled by his desire for connection because he’s not just performing for other people — he’s performing for himself.

I used to act out some bastardized fantasy image of who I thought I wanted to be that I’ve subconsciously incubated for years. I thought that cultivating an interest in Haruki Murakami, Kendrick Lamar and French New Wave films would increase my social capital, leading to the “Breakfast Club” with a dash of “One Piece” group of friends I’ve always romanticized. (I’m human trash, I know.) But so many seismic changes have taken place in me over the past four years that I’m at a point where I can barely recognize who I used to be. Now, I’m comfortable with who I am.

But when I stopped performing this inauthentic self-image, getting interested in people was suddenly a chore. Without exaggerating enthusiasm and asking questions I’m not interested in knowing the answer to, it’s nearly impossible to close the rift between them and myself. Am I wrong to think that friendship should occur naturally without pretense?

As the camera pans over the sea of faces in Burnham’s audience, I wonder how many of them never end up finding another person they can be wholly themselves with. I wonder if these people are too self-defeating, and if they were more tolerant, if they could perform just a bit more, then maybe they’d be happier.  

It’d be insincere to draw neat conclusions and provide answers to this thick tangle of questions. Burnham knows this. After he reveals his conflict about his relationship with his audience, he admits he has no solution; his only response is to continue performing because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. And though it seems as if he’s giving up on authenticity, I can’t come up with a better answer either. I’ll continue to perform because there doesn’t seem to be a way of living without it.

When the live show ends, the special cuts to a song that Burnham plays privately for the Netflix viewer, in which he asks, “Are you happy?”

As long as performance is a paradox, I’m not sure if I’ll have the answer.

Contact Kelvin Mak at [email protected].