Too old to goof around, too young to be square: walking the tightrope of silliness

Conor Bartol, on “real thin ice, buddy”

Illustration by Paloma Link.

I see people in the street and they say to me, “Conor! It must be nice, living life as a devil-may-care humor writer for the illustrious publication The Whitman Wire! Surely your profession must be one of endless mirth!”

Now, dear reader, I wish I could tell you those people are right, but the truth is that this job is not for the faint of heart. It is true that the work I do is significantly easier than those of my cohorts who write actual articles about real events. Unlike them, I am unshackled from notions of “truth,” “citing your sources,” “journalistic integrity,” or “plagiarism.”

But there’s the rub, isn’t it? I’m a child in the corner of my dad’s office on take-your-kid-to-work-day, banging against an unplugged keyboard and pretending to be a real newspaperman while the actual journalists report genuine news. And if I bang on that unplugged keyboard too loudly, then I’ll be found out and sent away to make my racket elsewhere while the adults do the real work.

That’s the true burden of my job, you can only be so much of a goofball until people get wise to the fact that you only sort of know what you are doing. Furthermore, there’s always the risk of tipping people off to the fact that sometimes your jokes are simply… not very funny. Every now and then you’ll find you’ve wrung the last drops of humor from your brain, and there’s still a hundred words left to write. Consequently, there’s a lot of duds.

It’s times like these that you start to wonder, have I got what it takes? How long will it be before I’m found out and they replace me with some real funny guy, like one of those bigwigs at the Onion?

To avoid the mortifying ordeal of being discovered as the unfunny fraud you are, you must walk a razor-thin tightrope between bland humorlessness and incoherent ridiculousness to avoid being thrown to the wolves. It’s a cutthroat life, but there are ways to make it work.

The first strategy is to cry “satire!” if someone doubts that you’re pulling your weight. It’s not always easy to think of something kinda funny and vaguely insightful, let alone in a timely manner. However, if you get close enough to actual satire then you can make it work. My fallback is saying “Oh, yeah, my article? It’s satirizing gridlock in the federal government through the lens of [insert article topic here].” Works every time.

If a flaccid attempt at satire doesn’t work, you can always aim to please instead. Kissing ass is a tried-and-true method of getting out of trouble, after all. If you put in a few flattering words about the editors, they sometimes will overlook the flaws of your work. For example, it must be noted that Rachel Husband is very cool and has impeccable taste in music. Is this true? Yes…. But it will also, hopefully, make up for me missing my last deadline.

Finally, you can prove your worth by making things easier for everyone else. Articles are too long? Make them shorter. Editors are mad at the overuse of passive voice in the paper? Double-check your work before you turn it in. If a joke or two doesn’t land or your topic isn’t particularly relevant, you can stay in your boss’ good graces by being consistent.

So what is to be learned from this whole affair? Well, other than that I’m out of ideas beyond navel-gazing attempts at self-parody, I’m not sure. I guess the moral of the story is that in life, if you feel like you aren’t up to snuff, or that you’re just some goof-off jokester, then there’s only one thing to do: buckle down, do the best you can and show that you can be a valuable part of the team.

What, you thought I was gonna joke the whole way through? Everyone gets a case of imposter syndrome from time to time, but in my experience one way to work through it is to put in some elbow grease, keep your nose to the grindstone, and show you’ve got what it takes. After all, if you really were just a hanger-on, do you think everyone else would keep you around for this long? Well, maybe for your charming personality and handsome face, but still.

So if there is a lesson to this meandering piece, let it be this: if you think you’re some kind of court jester dancing around in the corner while everyone else does the real work, then don’t despair. If your job is to be a little silly, a little bit of a fool and a huge time-waster, then by golly it’s time you earn your keep.