I’ve always wanted to be funny. Like, milk coming out of your nose, laughter like a bellyache funny. I measured my worth by my ability to make people laugh on a regular basis. My thing was: I wasn’t very pretty, and while I was pretty smart, I didn’t think I was smart enough to bank my personality on it. As such, I needed to be funny.
If a person were to ask someone about me — “Oh, who’s Areyon?” — I needed to, at the very least, have funny be among the adjectives that followed. Because humor was something I could control. I was consumed by fear of there being a multitude of people that didn’t like me. I worried that if those people outnumbered those who did, that when someone asked, “Oh what’s Areyon like?” all people would ever hear about would be how much of an annoying little gremlin I am.
So, I sought out to make everybody laugh, and on the chance that they already didn’t like me, I had the perfect bud of every joke. Me.
Self-deprecation is a nasty little thing that lets you think you’re mature and wise for acknowledging your faults. Self-awareness is a good thing, but as they always say, nothing in excess is. And in comedy, self-deprecation has to be the excess of self-awareness in order for it to be successful, and I was always a glutton.
I drowned my humor in the acid that was roasting myself at any opportunity. “Yeah, well, I’m literally the worst person you’ll ever meet” was a common entry in my arsenal of self loathing. I’d routinely let people know all the ways I thought I was flawed, never realizing that my goal of controlling the way I was perceived was not at all the result. I was really letting everyone know just how much I hated myself and giving them permission to do the same.
I would zero in on all the ways I was different, all the ways I didn’t fit in with my peers, and target those differences before anyone else could. So many of my jokes were racial, because growing up I was surrounded by white people. I can’t even count how many times I’d comment on my “obvious” love for fried chicken and watermelon. How often I’d code switch for the wrong crowd and turn myself into what they could describe as “a black sounding boo-boo the fool.”
Race became performative, something I could slip into when it suited the joke, and out of when I wanted to prove, “No, that’s not really me.” And we’d all have a good laugh at how ridiculous it would be if I were actually “that Black.”
I wish I could follow this with, “but I learned that loving yourself is more important than being liked, and now I’m unbreakable” or some other contrived inspirational bullshit. The truth is I didn’t learn to start addressing this until last year when comedian Hannah Gadsby released her stand-up show “Nanette.”
“Nanette” was formative in a lot of ways for a lot of people and felt most formative for Gadsby herself. Over the course of the program she addresses a number of painful experiences and a number of ways she’s been hurt by others. But she also addresses the harm caused to her by herself. The catharsis of turning performative behavior into self-reflection was beautiful to watch, and it felt like I was being given permission to do the same.
At one point in the show, Gadsby begins to deconstruct all of the ways that turning her story into jokes has stunted her growth and her ability to heal. She tells the audience, “You learn from the part of the story you focus on. I need to tell my story properly.”
I cried for a long time after I heard that. I cried for the ways I saw myself in her pain, and I cried for all the people who have lived their lives in a similar way. And when I let myself feel that pain, I realized I have a lot of work to do. And that starts with telling my own story properly.
I’m not a comedian and I probably won’t ever be one, because in truth I’m not actually that funny. I’m not a lot of the things I’ve made myself out to be, and that’s OK. Because what I know for a fact is that I am incredibly smart, talented, queer, Black, Japanese and I’ve got this column.
So I guess I’ve got a lot of other things going for me.
Areyon Jolivette writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on finding and celebrating identity through art. Contact her at [email protected].