Wednesday, September 26, 2012

From Underdog To Schadenfreude


Mike Birbiglia used to be my hero. He was exactly the kind of storyteller I wanted to be. Just a few years ago, he was a relatively unknown comedian delivering his tales of dangerous sleepwalking, shitty car accidents and one pathetic dating life. He told his stories in an emotional, almost apologetic tone, reassuring his audience whenever they cringed at a particularly embarrassing detail by saying: “I know, I’m in the future also.” 

Now he’s got his own movie out in theaters, Sleepwalk With Me, with a lot of the same amusing material. But watching him speak at a Q&A after the movie, I realized there was a certain off-putting confidence about him that I hadn't noticed before. Movie star Mike Birbiglia was successful and assured. A few questions in, I raised my hand and asked him whether he defines himself as more of a storyteller or a comedian, and he seemed to brush it off, saying he doesn't really label himself as anything. He gave me a relaxed smile and turned away to answer his next question, and right then I scoffed and turned my figurative back on him. How could a person I once traveled across three long New York City boroughs to see not have the humility to take a fan’s legitimate question seriously? The fame must have gone to his head. Man, I was so done with him.

Of course, this narrative I’ve created is total bullshit. A few weeks later, Birbiglia was on Reddit doing an “AMA” or “Ask Me Anything,” where fans and other internet denizens could similarly ask him questions directly over a short period of time. Though the move was likely another marketing gesture to support his film, his answers were both gracious and detailed. He thanked his many fans for their support and responded to legitimate questions about his experiences and career along with silly ones about late night pizza and what kind of bear he would be. And to be even more clear about how relative this all is - in the AMA Birbiglia himself readily admits that, to borrow a line from Mitch Hedberg, he is definitely more of an “apartment name,” than a “household name.”

In my quest to reconcile my emotions and the facts, I realized that I have an almost pathological need for the artists I support to be a recognizable underdog. This includes all the many writers, performers, and comedians - including personal friends of mine who have ‘made it.’ I can’t help but lose interest (if not worse) in their journey once they achieve the success I’d been supporting them towards the whole time. I’m honestly no better than the music snob who scoffs at his favorite band for ‘going mainstream,’ something I never thought I’d relate to, since I only ever seem to get into bands well after their alleged prime. Mind you, I’ll still enjoy any artist’s work if it’s good (though their work will be subject to comparison among the upper crust of creative output along with every other master of their field - Louis CK, Stephen Colbert, and the like), but the fan-driven passion I once had - feverishly posting on social networks, gathering support to come see a show, and buying everything I can regardless of quality - is totally gone.

I’ve spent some time wondering if this low level schadenfreude comes from more than just my own sad ego or lack of career success. I’m certainly jealous of any artist who’s become more successful than me, but in analyzing this specific instance, I came to realize that my brain may simply not know what to do with these people past a certain point in their careers, once the obvious struggling stops. Here’s the thing: an overwhelming majority of the character-driven stories I've read or seen throughout my life follow an underdog of some kind right up until the point of success. That success can come in a variety of flavors, and the character’s underdog ‘status’ can be as small as an otherwise awesome guy who is just a little too in love with himself and needs his ass humbled. Barring a few rare exceptions, the protagonist’s life is generally better off at the end of story than it was before. Then the story ends, and we’re content to move on to a different story with another character’s struggle, maybe this time in outer space.

If by chance you or I were given a glimpse of our favorite scrappy, unlikely hero after the credits rolled, it would start with a boring scene about a now-accomplished person likely celebrating his or her success with the love interest they’d just won over. At best, it’d be boring. At worst, you might have the strong urge to yell: “I get it, stop rubbing it in my face!” at the screen in frustration (or maybe that’s just me). The only time the story continues is when once again the character finds himself up against some shitty odds. The second a new obstacle emerges, this one even bigger than before!, we’re back on board until adversity has once again been overcome, hopefully this time in outer space. But that’s not how anyone’s life actually goes. Mike Birbiglia will probably still encounter life challenges, but unless he decides to switch careers and start his own cupcake delivery service, it probably won’t ever be as epic or story-worthy.

The effects of a lifetime of scripted storytelling have a lasting impact. You can’t just watch six years of Dexter, or seven years of How I Met Your Mother and naturally assume life ever stops being a struggle for more than a week or so, whether you’re a serial killer with a conscience or a guy who seemingly just cannot find ‘the one.’ I don’t just project this “narrative resists life” mantra onto others, either - even my own life isn’t immune from this line of thinking. Recently I experienced one of the most affirmative, fulfilling moments of my writing career to date. A piece I wrote got a fair bit of attention on the internet one day and suddenly I felt on top of the world. Walking to the subway with a spring in my step later that same day, I started crossing the street and I stopped short to make doubly sure I wasn't about to get hit by a car. The thought made no sense to me at first, until I realized the fear came about as reaction to the happiness I was feeling. I was actually anticipating some sort of inevitable, narrative retribution. I had experienced too much success, and now had to fall victim to some form of tragic downfall or else, presumably, risk losing interest in myself as the central character in the story of my life.

That night after Sleepwalk With Me, I literally got to watch the no longer underdog Mike Birbiglia emerge from his story post-credits, and converse comfortably in front of an audience in a way the on-screen Mike Birbiglia wasn't able to. Now on-screen Mike, that guy had my sympathy. He needed all the help he could get if he was ever going to get past being an underpaid, amateur performer. The overdog Birbiglia right in front of me on the other hand was just some big shot I couldn't relate to. He probably had to take breaks from counting all the stacks of money in his high rise apartment to come down and pay lip service to us losers, who had nothing better to do on a Saturday night. Jesus, Mike. I get it, stop rubbing it in my face!

I immerse myself in hundreds of hours of fictional stories based around overcoming adversity every year. The repetition of proper story structure and emphasis on drama and relatability trumps the mundane, unfocused narrative of any person’s actual life story. So it really shouldn't come as much of a surprise to me that I’m downright eager to abandon anyone who achieves a certain level of success. Let’s be clear though, I’m not a bad guy with low self esteem who just wants these people to fail. This Shafeekenfreude I’m feeling is simply me wishing them to back to their more relatable underdog status, where I can happily support them. Once they go back to struggling with their smaller audiences and embarrassing paychecks, I vow to vehemently cheer them on from the back of a dive bar in the outskirts of Brooklyn. I know it’ll seem pointless at first, but in time these artists will come to understand that their Sisyphean endeavors make for a much nicer story for devoted fans like me, who like it better when their reality follows a proper script.

-Matt

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