Over sixty books this year. Whew. No time to review them all, but I did want to share a few recs for my most impactful and enjoyable reads. Click on each book for more about why it made the list, let me know what you enjoyed, and check out the full list if you’re looking for more!
The summer of 2016 brought me a silly but welcome challenge: writing a joke a day for 100 days as part of Elle Luna’s 100 Day Project. Despite being a prolific (if nothing else) writer, writing with the aim of humor has always proved to be a considerable, but always worthy, challenge. Writing on days where I was tired, or busy, or not feeling funny, gave me even more respect for some of the best jokes I know and giggle at.
So, as a means of rewarding the hard – and superior – work that surrounds me, I am sharing with you my list of outstanding laughs that 2016 put forth. I can’t/don’t want to play favorites, so they’re in alphabetical order. Check them out!
Ali Wong, Baby Cobra (Netflix)
The press would have you believe that the revolutionary part of this special is that Ali performs it while seven months pregnant. And while that’s true, it’s among the less interesting parts of her hilarious hour. Her jokes about bathroom stall dominance, countering Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” argument, and wishes to eat mango sliced by white people are hysterical.
The revolutionary part of this to me, as someone who knows several women who have struggled to have kids, was for her to write and tell jokes about those struggles. The revolutionary part wasn’t that she did this while pregnant, but that she used such a public forum to talk about how hard it was to get that way. And that matters. Infertility is both fairly common and wildly underreported, so I appreciated – and laughed at – her successful efforts to make these circumstances funny. As she says, “it’s super common, and I wish more women would talk about it so they wouldn’t feel so bad when they go through it.” Glad you did, Ali, and in such an accessible way.
Aparna Nancherla, Just Putting It Out There (Secretly Canadian)
Aparna Nancherla speaks for me. Her ruminations on struggling to work from home, moving awkwardly within office norms, and struggling with anxiety were a comforting reminder that other women out in the world are ill-at-ease in their own skin, but managing to do big things and make their mark on the world anyway. It’s especially comforting to know that this is true of another woman of color; we don’t typically get that opportunity.
I was familiar with her writing and supporting work, including the criminally underwatched Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. But this album was an exciting discovery. I look forward to making a live outing to see her part of my 2017.
Atlanta– “B.A.N.” season 1, episode 7 (FX)
Atlanta is something special. In a year that has given us a few examples that confound black TV portrayals and black humor (see also: Insecure), the surrealism and quiet humor of Donald Glover’s brainchild hit me just perfectly. Of the ten episodes released this year, “B.A.N.” is my favorite for its stark departure from its surroundings. Beyond a “bottle episode,” “B.A.N.” moves into “concept episode” territory, taking on the gestalt of a public access show about black issues. And as the sole thread between this alternate format and the show’s regular happenings, Brian Tyree Henry (as Alfred “Paperboi” Miles) plays it perfectly.
The humor is niche, to be sure, but it’s also spot-on for those familiar with the genre. It takes on the falsely combative nature of talking head television, while also poking at cultural and identity appropriation. Like the invisible car or black Justin Bieber from other episodes of the show, Atlanta cements its status as newly representative and wholly original with this episode.
Chris Redd in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
There aren’t a lot of people who have paid money for a Lonely Island album. There are even fewer who have done it more than once. But that’s who I am. So from the first mention of Popstar, I was already sold. Combine that with the fact that my honors thesis was on documentary filmmaking, including mockumentaries, and you’d think they basically made a movie for me.
This was a midweek, midday movie outing with my sister- one that allowed us to be alone in the theater, and therefore react authentically. Turns out, our authentic reaction was heaving, sobbing laughter for the duration. And the surprise source of many of those laughs was Chris Redd’s Hunter the Hungry, a bombastic and underhanded (or is he? I don’t know!) rapper who joins Connor 4 Real’s tour. I need Redd to go places. There were rumors he’d be joining SNL this year that, sadly, proved to be untrue; let’s fix this, Hollywood? Please?
Dan Soder, Not Special (Comedy Central)
When your favorite comedians recommend someone’s work, listen to them. This is how, in early May, I happened upon Dan Soder. I listened to it for the first time during the intermission of a hockey game, and got caught up enough in the laughs to miss parts of the game. And those who know me recognize that that is a big deal.
This album is comfortable in the best of ways, like a hoodie- a comparison I’d like to think Dan would appreciate. It’s my go-to album when I need a giggle, and anyone who’s been in a car with me over the past six months has been made to listen to it. You can ask, I’ve got references. As someone who loves stories and appreciates their power to bring people together, Dan’s easy conversational style appeals to me. You’ll feel the same. How do I know? Try listening to Not Special, and then seeing how many daily occurrences make you giggle afterward. Guys in tank tops. Abandoned cell phones in cabs. Crying at videos of unlikely animal pairings.
Dave Chappelle monologue, Saturday Night Live (NBC)
I believe my exact words projected to the world via Twitter when I learned that Chappelle would be hosting SNL were “AMMA’S NOT HERE ANYMORE SHE IS DEAD.” After so many years of following Chappelle – yes, even when we lost him to Africa for a bit – it was a dream come true to see him take on Studio 8H (serious question: did they lure him there with the promise of A Tribe Called Quest, or was their appearance part of his terms to do it? Anyone know?).
His monologue had the feel of his standup, which wasn’t a given when you consider the nature of his language and what the FCC tends to allow. It felt unfiltered and true to him, and that tenor was precisely what I needed on the Saturday after a historic and earth-shaking election.The full episode echoed with his frank and critically observational style of writing. I needed his perspective, and I’m so glad that SNL gave him the freedom to provide it in his own way- and I’m so glad that Netflix will be giving him the stage three times in the years ahead. We need you, man.
David S. Pumpkins, Saturday Night Live (NBC)
I can’t explain why this one tickles me as it does. I have no explanation. All I know is that the song was stuck in my head for a solid week, and I laughed harder every time I watched it. And the fact that it was Tom Hanks’ actual Halloween costume? My God.
Hasan Minhaj, Homecoming King
This is one of two live performances that made this list, which is likely remarkable given how much live comedy I consume. And Hasan earned it. The Daily Show correspondent crafted an engaging, emotional, and incredibly funny one-man-show talking about his experience as a first generation American. And from the transformation of his relationship with his younger sister, to dismaying experience “dating white” in high school, the full ninety minutes felt intimately familiar. It stuck with me for days. Because while I hear relatively few stories like his, or like mine, they exist in huge numbers- and I love that Minhaj created a companion space for those stories online. If you have the opportunity to see this show, get there. It’s amazing, no matter who you are.
Josh Gondelman, Physical Whisper (Rooftop Comedy)
I consider myself to be a reasonably kind person, and Josh exceeds my kindness by an embarrassing measure. And whereas most stereotypes of comedy imply shades of rudeness or even meanness, Josh manages to be wildly funny and profoundly nice at once. Wherever his writing is – Last Week Tonight, Twitter, or a terse email to a nemesis – is a happier place.
Physical Whisper is a pleasure of an album to listen to, touching on the quirks of family members and our friends at fancy events in a way that is so relatable. As an example, I haven’t been to a wedding where this bit didn’t come to mind since the first time I heard it. So get it, listen to it, love it. It comes on cassette!
Lady Dynamite, “Jack and Diane”- season 1, episode 4 (Netflix)
I’ve written before about why I love what Maria Bamford did with Lady Dynamite. It was something I needed to see this year to deal with my own stuff. And there are so many episodes that caught my attention that could have landed on this list (give “White Trash,” “Bisexual Because of Meth,” and “Mein Ramp” a watch). But I love the episode in question (a) because it explicitly calls out how introverts fake fun at parties, and (b) a relationship ends because someone doesn’t find farts funny. Farts are funny. I’ll carry that opinion to the grave.
In a larger sense, I needed to see Maria Bamford joke about her mental illness for the same reason I and so many other women needed to see Ali Wong joke about infertility. It legitimized humor as a viable way to cope and heal for me, in a way that I desperately needed. And being able to count jokes about my anxiety as part of my hundred, came in large part because of what I saw them do. And going into the year ahead and years to come, I plan to continue laughing through it. Why the hell not, right?
Last Man on Earth, “You’re All Going to Diet” -season 3, episode 3
Last Man on Earth is a quietly hilarious staple of FOX’s Sunday night lineup- but anything that allows the minds of Clone High creators Phil Lord and Chris Miller to run free, I’m on board with. It challenges the viewer by blending legitimate drama and serious topics, with a silliness that allows it to hold its title as a comedy.
This moment, from earlier this fall, brought me to sobbing, gut-cramping tears. Easily my heartiest laugh of the 2016-2017 TV season to date. Like David S. Pumpkins, I couldn’t really explain why if pushed to use my words. But it’s the fact that moments like this can exist on a show that’s about a civilization-ending plague and the loneliness that presents, that forced my hand in adding it to this list (and yes, it was the last one added despite its relative middle positioning). So watch it. Love it. And keep it from getting cancelled because I have terrible luck in that way.
Matthew Broussard, pedantic. (Comedy Central)
I’m smart enough to recognize that most of the jokes that we see on specials or in albums originated long before we see them. And the benefit of a line of work that lets me watch comedians develop, is that you get to celebrate when they get the recognition they rightfully deserve. Whip-smart and wildly talented Matthew Broussard got that this year, and I refuse to stop talking about it.
pedantic. is an accurate portrayal of the Matthew I’ve come to know: self-aware and unapologetic in nerdiness, and yet accessibly hilarious. Yes, he knows that his face makes it a surprising development. But stick with him- you’ll laugh AND most assuredly learn something.
Michael Che, Michael Che Matters (Netflix)
Most people’s Black Friday was dedicated to a hasty return to Stars Hollow. Mine was spent watching this special, more than once. As a longtime SNL fan, this was going to be a must-watch for me regardless, but those only familiar with Che through the Update desk will find something new and hopefully entertaining about his one-hour outing with Netflix. His “Black Lives Matter” and 9/11 joke has gotten all the attention, but I’m a bigger fan of his arc on women taking hats at clubs to dance.
Che’s matter-of-fact delivery and willingness to tackle tough topics is in some ways like his Update stints that come into our home on a weekly basis, and yet there’s an element of freedom from his surroundings that feels palpable as he tackles topics like Jesus’ carpentry record, his desire to be best friends with Donald Trump, and phrases that only white people can say. For me, it was a welcome addition to my go-to stable of standup specials, and I recommend you give it a watch.
The Characters, “Natasha Rothwell” season 1, episode 5 (Netflix)
“Riddle me this! Why are you dressed for the job you have, instead of the job you want?” Tynesha, the precocious kid sent home from school is only one of the fantastic personas that Natasha dons during her half-hour turn on The Characters. Her outspoken and well-read hobo, her cadre of jury duty candidates, and willing girlfriend of “Black Bernie Madoff” Tyson Beckford pack her episode with so many outstanding moments, I can’t even name them all here. Rothwell just got upped to series regular on Insecure, and I can’t wait to see more of her. She may identify as a basic bitch, but I’m fine with it- she’s a genuine joy.
Two Dope Queens podcast (WNYC)
If you’re reading this, Jessica and Phoebe, couple things. Thank you for Two Dope Queens- it’s a welcome refuge for a black female standup geek, which up until you hit the block I was made to believe was on par with being an actual unicorn. Thank you for hitting upon the challenges of my late twenties and early thirties with equal shares of humor and critical truth. Thank you for introducing me to some of my new favorite comedians, and for introducing some of my favorite comedians to the rest of the world. And do you want to hang out when you’re in Boston? We can get nachos and walk around near the water.
I had the opportunity to see Two Dope Queens live in August, and it was such a fun experience. There was a dog there! I laughed so hard! And I got to watch Jordan Carlos crush a set- on the day that he learned of The Nightly Show’s cancellation. As odd as it might sound, that was the best part to see. Eight hours after crushing news, Jordan got onstage and killed it. Blew me away. It was a great reminder of how powerful humor can be- yes, when it’s easy to be funny, but also when it’s hard. Can’t wait to do it again in January!
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt– “Kimmy Goes to a Play!” season 2, episode 3 (Netflix)
I won’t say much more about this one, because I have written about it before. But I bring it up to reinforce the idea that some laughs can be explicitly designed to encourage you to ask questions. What was designed to be a throwaway joke about Aisha Tyler on Friends, thumped me in the chest hard. This conversation ensued (internally):
“What’s going on with you?”
“That felt weird.”
“Doesn’t feel weird to assume Aisha Tyler was white.”
“Because she isn’t!”
“Yeah, I know. But why would Kimmy have come to that conclusion?”
“Oh, I don’t know, the whole rest of Friends’ run? There weren’t many other black people, so her reasoning was that they must have just assumed she wasn’t”
“Yup. And what was that about, by the way? Where in New York was that even possible?”
“Not now, you’re watching something, remember?”
As I go into 2017, particularly since the grant work I’ll be doing means I’ll be watching A LOT MORE COMEDY, I plan to engage with it in ways that lean into the challenge of tough jokes. More from the previous post:
I think problematic comedy can be good. Now, unlike the Internet commenter refusing to get to the end, hear me out here. Well crafted jokes, ones not purely out for shock or amateurishly slapped together, can provoke thought and encourage the listener to examine their behavior. A joke that you struggle with is telling you something, whether you’re ready and able to hear it or not. But there are two sides to that process, and that means the listener has to be willing to rumble with it a bit.
Special Commendation: Rogue Island Comedy Festival
This past October, I spent three days in Newport, RI, watching a fantastic and diverse slate of comedians show their best stuff in one of my favorite cities. I would’ve spent four, but I had a thing…never mind. The brainchild of comedians Doug Key and Rob Greene and supported by an incredibly kind and competent support team, RICF attracts top-level local talent while also bringing national acts to a town that doesn’t always get to see them. And frankly, the commendation designation is only because I can’t identify a favorite moment. Too much good to rank! Only in its second year, I can’t wait to see how it’ll continue to grow. Try and get rid of me, guys. I’m just gonna keep coming 🙂
Coming next week: this, but with books. Stay tuned!
BONUS: a few of my favorite #100dayproject jokes. Maybe not the best ones, but my favorites!
We’ve all said it, and I’m sure many of us have fallen victim to it. A friend, family member or colleague comes to us with a story they’re eager to tell. They start strong (or not, that happens to), but the story starts to fall apart as they forget things, stumble over the delivery, or leave out crucial details, finally trailing off with “you had to be there.”
When I started working with the students at Startup Institute Boston over the summer, I decided to harness the lessons of this infuriating phenomenon for good. I see these students in the fifth week of their eight-week bootcamp program, just before they start making contact with prospective employers and network with people who could be their future colleagues and bosses. And as I think about the nature of these “you had to be there” stories, they have some instructive elements that could help those who struggle in networking, job interview, and other scenarios dependent on connection.
I have them break into groups (typically the ones they use for a separate project they work on), and have them rotate telling the story of something funny that happened to them. I focus less on having them tell a joke, and more on a funny occurrence, because many are intimidated by the burden of having to be funny on command. After they move around the group, I have them designate a “winner” in the circle, and talk through why that person’s attempt was so successful.
This is where the connections start to come together. All the stories we tell one another, no matter the goal (educational, entertainment, informative) are sensitive in a number of ways. And the best ones are brief enough to hold the listener’s attention for their duration, detailed but not exhaustively so, and invite minimal clarifying questions. I encourage students to tell stories with humor as a goal, because funny stories are especially sensitive to missing details; in the absence of these details, they don’t “land.” For anyone desiring to make a good impression, being able to master sharing information in this fashion is crucial; as such, I like this exercise for students (or anyone!) needing to be compelling because it can help them refine strategy.
This conversation, for them, is framed in terms of temperament because each “side” can help the other when participating in this refinement. Introverts, with their natural neural proficiency for listening, can invite meaningful clarifying questions and encourage their extroverted counterparts to include key details while leaving out or changing less important ones. And extroverts, who find more comfort in verbal expression, can coach their introverted counterparts on details of delivery like tone or accompanying body language. Together, working to practice and prepare in advance of high-stakes scenarios, each side can prove highly advantageous to its opposite.
If you’re interested in doing a version of this with your friends, classmates, colleagues, or students, here are a few tips to harness the power of “you had to be there”:
- Provide individuals time to come up with a story; this story can be about anything, but I find that the exercise is particularly effective if its goal is humor. The few minutes of think time will reduce the particular conversational tics that come with a lack of preparedness. Further, this underscores the idea that one should not go into any scenario where an impression is being made – an interview, a networking social, even speed dating – unprepared.
- Let each individual tell their story, noting their tone and body language. Sharing focus across words, tone, and body language is crucial for first impressions, because those meeting you will have little else to judge you on.
- After the story is told, share the questions that arose during it. The storyteller can choose to answer them or not, but it’s important to note the nature of the questions and the bearing of their answers on the final results. For extroverts, their “external processing” tendency may mean that they talked past an important detail without realizing its role in the understanding of the story. Conversely, for introverts who process inwardly, they may have skipped a crucial detail verbally while addressing it mentally. By sharing the questions that arise during these stories, we can pinpoint our individual weaknesses and address them in service of a good final story.
- Continue to refine the story, addressing questions that arise along the way, and checking in with your “counterpart” or “wingperson” to assess clarity and effectiveness.
What are the qualities of a good storyteller that you admire? What is your favorite story to tell, and why?
My face still tight and salty with tears, trying to negotiate nearby luggage and an airport dinner of tacos and rice, I clumsily fired off a text:
I just cried on a plane. Are we ever going to be funny again?
It was Thursday, November 10th, and I was flying to California for a conference- a day after learning the results of the US presidential election in a crowded room from Between the World and Me author Ta-Nehisi Coates. From Wednesday morning up until that flight, I hadn’t felt much of anything. My body hadn’t yet decided if it wanted to cry or throw up (and it made its erratic uncertainty quite public while I was at another conference), but finally settled on crying as I journaled over the Mountain Time Zone, prompted by Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State.
Even as I talked out my worries with this friend, my mind raced to think of the jokes yet to be written, the hot takes waiting to be served to an at times bewildered, at times emboldened citizenry. And as a child whose family spent late Saturdays playing Scrabble and listening for Don Pardo’s signature “Live from New York…” I was of course curious about how Saturday Night Live would handle this reality, one they didn’t seem fully prepared for. Their approach delayed a ruling, which prompted me to share this question the following week:
Thought I’m sitting with this morning: what would it mean for SNL to not select a Trump, not write him into shows, leave the task to Update?
— Amma Marfo (@ammamarfo) November 13, 2016
The “tweetstorm” that followed this entry into the debate revealed some complicated feelings I have about humor in this specific instance but also humor as a whole, and I warn you that this post holds no solutions about the conflict.
Now. On the one hand, you will find few greater proponents of humor as a coping mechanism when things get tough. I’ve spoken on this publicly, and few who know me would deny it. I regularly joke about difficult things to get through them- anxiety, fear, heartbreak, and other dark moments all need to be infused with humor to make them manageable. Without this type of comedy, I’m not sure where I’d be. Surely somewhere far darker and less productive, as these hard things threatened my peace of mind and perspective. And for that reason, as a political climate emerges that unquestionably provokes many of these same feelings (anxiety and fear for sure, and also even a sense of grief), I think that this type of comedy needs to exist. It allows the marginalized to maintain some sense of power in a situation that renders them otherwise disempowered, in some cases even powerless.
However, I’m struggling to consume it.
It hasn’t always been this way. You will find few bigger fans of Donald Trump’s SNL 2004 parody ad, “Donald Trump’s House of Wings.” I wish I could link you to it, but the powers that be have erased its existence from the Internet. It was a really catchy takeoff of The Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (For My Love),” and I still remember the slight mimicked dance my mom did around the house in the days after it aired. The very second I find it, I promise to share. What’s the difference between this 2004 turn, and the one he made as a presidential candidate, some might ask? Fair question. My honest answer: 2004 was benign. 2015 wasn’t.
This next bit involves theory. You’ve been warned, so here we go.
FastCompany recently did a rundown of comedy theory from past to present, providing a number of frameworks by which to evaluate comedy and its effectiveness, a way to decide objectively if something is funny. Their most current metric, one that I use often when explaining comedy to colleagues and students, is the Benign Violation Theory. To sum up:
Broadly, benign violations theory asserts that all humor derives from three necessary conditions:
The presence of some sort of norm violation, be it a moral norm violation (robbing a retirement home), social norm violation (breaking up with a long-term boyfriend via text message), or physical norm violation (purposefully sneezing directly on a child).
A “benign” or “safe” context in which the violation takes place (this can take many forms).
The interpretation of the first two points simultaneously. In other words, one must view, read, or otherwise interpret a violation as relatively harmless.
As someone with an extraordinarily high burden of offense, I’ve been able to fit most things into this framework; that is to say, I find a lot of things funny. Far more than most people, and often more than is professionally advisable. I like being able to find humor in hard things; again, it’s a coping mechanism and one that I believe in strongly.
So it feels odd to be this person that consciously, willfully, turns away from jokes. I haven’t watched an SNL cold open since the second presidential debate. I’ve seen Alec Baldwin’s Trump impersonation maybe twice. I have seen other successful approximations of Trump that do the difficult work of making this public figure funny (most notably UCB’s Anthony Atamanuik). But I can’t find the laugh. I’m finding myself in a wholly different territory from where I normally live – not only can I not find the joke, and not find funny the jokes that are out there…but I’m seriously questioning whether those jokes should exist at all. And the overly analytical part of me – the part that can generally be quieted by comedy when needed – is starting to see why.
We have a norm violation. In a big way. We’re about to see a presidency that defies convention in innumerable ways. Sometimes groundbreaking ways. And as an advocate for creativity, that’d be exciting…if the norm deviation weren’t so dangerous. Therein lies the problem: we have violations, but they’re not benign. They’re past malignant, into the realm of toxic. Those who can laugh are likely in a position to frame some of these violations as benign. And I envy them for it, because I can’t yet. Yes, some of that is based in identities that I hold (Black, female, immigrant), and the perceived threat to them. For the first four days, I didn’t laugh because I was too afraid. But much of it is also grounded in identities that I don’t hold but don’t believe should be treated as dismissively or wrongly as they are (Muslim, LGBTQ, undocumented, Latinx). 2004 Trump is laughable because he’s not a threat. 2016 Trump demands gravity because the consequences of his actions are grave.
In that regard, I’m genuinely having a hard time believing (a) that the scenario in which we find ourselves can be funny, and (b) that any attempts should be made to lighten it. This post has no answers, and I truly welcome your feedback on which side you take. Can we joke about this? Should we? What do you think?
So back to that question I posed, taco in hand, tears still drying: are we ever going to be funny again?
To quote associate professor of education Tom Miller, “it depends.”
I talked to a friend several months ago who was having a hard time writing a joke about a difficult relationship. I told him that things can be hard to write about when you’re in them, but the laugh will come when the open wound has healed. Joking from the proverbial eye of a storm is possible, but incredibly hard to do. The jokes can come later, when the threat has passed. I’d like to think this counsel applies here too. In the event that we move past this threat unscathed, the current state of affairs will be easier to laugh about. If we don’t…well, this post will require a follow-up.
This mindset requires a few things, though. Most importantly, in my estimation, it requires allowing those with complicated and unpleasant feelings about all that’s happening to feel them fully and recover from them in their own time. This may be longer than some might expect, and provoke calls to “move on,” “get over it,” or accept the fact that a side “won” or “lost.” This notion is already being challenged in conversations I’ve been a part of, and at times loudly and rudely in my presence. Such a mindset is coded in so many challenging elements – who gets to mourn, for how long, and who gets to decide – but ultimately delays the process of healing to the point of humor.
It requires the understanding that there are circumstances that will definitively keep people from laughing. The jokes we tell can’t please everyone. They’re not puppies, Nutella, or shirtless photos of Idris Elba. (Incidentally, I’ll take any/all of those as I continue to heal). And there is a difference between the joke critic who “has something to add,” and the one whose life story doesn’t allow them to laugh. One of those demands considerably more respect than the other; as we cope with humor, keeping that difference in mind is essential to the community that comedy can build.
And finally, it requires the desire to bring people to a place of brightness again. As I fumbled toward jokes, any jokes, after the election, I had to hold tightly the idea that it was worth it to laugh. I know how much I need it, and I know how hard life can be when I don’t create space to. So if you’re funny, keep doing it. We need you. If you like to laugh, support the folks who make that their life’s work.
Where do you find laughs in difficult times? How do you decide what’s okay to laugh at?
Today’s Defector is searching for a new next place, after seizing an unexpected opportunity by working in a position of change. The experience, working on a political campaign, provided new challenges and a wholly new environment. I am so thankful to Erika for reaching out with her story, and admire the freedom with which she is pursuing her next steps. Read on to learn about her experience as a “reluctant Defector,” and what it’s taught her about herself and her larger goals.
Not sure what we’re doing here yet? All is revealed here.
I’m unemployed for the first time in 20 years. This job loss was an abrupt, and slightly messy affair- the result of the shifts in upper management when a new Vice President or Dean comes on board. Oddly enough I find myself at a hard-fought peace with it.
This was THE job I’d been angling toward for the past 3 years. It met all of my perceived professional needs and played to all of my perceived professional strengths. It was my preferred institution type, in the geographic area I wanted and most importantly had THE title. It was my next step up and I gave it my all. I upended my husband’s and my life and moved us to a different state. We bought a house because I was in for the long haul. I made sure my business cards, nametag, and email signature featured this snazzy new title as prominently as was prudent. I worked long and hard for this role and was rightfully proud. After a full year that culminated in praise and promises of promotion, my professional potential dried up within a couple of weeks of the arrival of the new manager.
The warning signs during my short tenure were there- newer president on chilly terms with the current management, a completely new and inexperienced team who were squeezed in with a disgruntled staffer who had clearly been there too long. Optimist that I am, I embraced these challenges as opportunities to prove myself.
I proved myself alright. I was an excellent relationship-builder, had a good reputation across campus, and went the extra mile to give struggling staffers a chance. It’s that last part that always gets one into trouble. You see, the higher up you go the more exposed you are to the whims of the next administration. The relationships of the past don’t mean as much, and any inadequacies in your team are your fault. One year in, and I was out (along with two others).
My unceremonious and unexpected ouster meant that I missed the usual higher-ed hiring season. I was stuck with plenty of time on my hands before an opportunity in my now very narrow field might present itself. On a whim and with a little luck, I was able to land a temporary job working on a political campaign. To participate in such fulfilling, meaningful work, without the burdens of being the boss helped ease the pain of my lay-off and gave me new perspective.
There are many lessons I can take from my campaign experience and current unemployment situation. The biggest benefit of my situation has been the freedom to try other things and time away from the stresses of student affairs. I’ve learned the skills from a career in higher education are beyond transferable. The office politics, schedules and stresses that we endure on our campuses prepared me well for work in real politics. The laws and policies we navigate are the same at any secondary or prep school, and the communication skills we must have to build partnerships with the diverse agendas of students, faculty, parents and service staff make us an asset to any office.
IF I remain in college student affairs (it’s very freeing to not feel I that I MUST return) it will be as a wiser, and more self-assured woman. No more will I ignore my instincts in the name of positivity. I also refuse to accept the model of ‘do more with less” and I object to student affairs’ lower status in the ivory tower. That is no way to treat an entire field of dedicated educators. My presence in higher-ed will also be as someone far more interested in fulfilling work than finding the right title for the resume.
I deal with words a lot, and yet the past few weeks have left me at a loss for them. It has been an emotional and anxious time for me as I grapple not with the loss of an election, but the loss of safety and security that plagues me and many of my friends and family members. I’ve struggled not just because I normally have the words, but because words didn’t seem like enough here. Trying to respond honestly when people ask “How are you?” doesn’t feel like enough, nor does trying to pick apart the reasons things went as they did.
But this use of words, the ones I’ve already written that I know are coherent and have value, feels right.
So for the next month, I’m proud to donate all proceeds from my two books on introversion and higher education, The I’s Have It and Light It Up, to the Southern Poverty Law Center. For those needing a primer on what they do:
The Southern Poverty Law Center is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. Using litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy, the SPLC works toward the day when the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity will be a reality.
Proceeds from both the digital and print editions will be eligible for this donation, so feel free to choose what works best for you. And if you already have them? (a) Good work, and (b) consider purchasing a copy for a friend, colleague, or graduate student you work with, or donating a copy to a departmental or campus library.
In the meantime, take care of one another. Be kinder than normal. And listen – really listen – to the people around you.
Last week, I attended and presented at GSMI’s Social Media Strategies Summit for Higher Education. This gathering of social media professionals from across campuses – admissions, marketing, student programming, and alumni relations – was a great breath of fresh air, as I got to work with and meet professionals who use social media in their everyday work. In addition, I got to meet face to face some new Twitter friends, including Chris Barrows. He was nice enough to feature me on the SMS Summit edition of his Why I Social podcast. Give it a listen (click above), and thanks so much to Chris for the chat! I had a lot of fun 🙂
This post is part of my bi-monthly email newsletter series, The Dedicated Amateur. I don’t cross-post often, so sign up for these GIF-packed dispatches to get early access to pieces like this. No spam, just thoughtful fun. Promise!
I’m not sure if it’s the former dancer in me, or the Gene Kelly birthday mate in me, but my all time favorite movie is 1957’s Best Picture winner An American in Paris. It tells the story of Jerry Mulligan, a GI who stays in Paris after the end of World War II and falls in love with a young shopgirl despite her engagement to a stage performer. The dance numbers are captivating, the story has just enough conflict to stay interesting, and it features a seventeen-minute ballet near the end that I’ll sometimes watch on YouTube to brighten a slow or sad day.
So, needless to say, finding out that it was being adapted into a stage production was pretty exciting.
I missed the show in New York, but had the chance to see it last week when the touring production premiered at Boston’s Boch Center. Now, I’m not the sort of person who likes to go too deep into the mythology or content of a play before I see it (case in point: I listened to the soundtrack of Hamilton twice before seeing it), so I wasn’t aware of what was coming. And the stage version is…different from the movie. Markedly so. Significant plot details are changed, some of my favorite songs from the film are replaced with new ones, and the arrangements of the ones that remained. Something I loved was wildly different from what I expected it to be. And initially, that jarred me.
In the early moments of what was a wholly different experience, I flashed quickly to earlier outrage over a pop culture phenomenon that differed from its “source material”: Ghostbusters. The blowback from Paul Feig’s entertaining but distinct 2016 take sparked loud and angry vitriol across the Internet, particularly in the direction of SNL’s Leslie Jones. That outrage was fueled by some terrible things – namely sexism and racism – but also showed one way people react when a confirming worldview is seemingly taken from them. For over thirty years, Ghostbusters had been a boys’ story. This year, Paul Feig and his cast and crew challenged that. I’m going on record and saying: I think that’s good.
Earlier this year, I engaged in a chat that was hoping to elevate the life stories of marginalized groups through a Facebook “blackout.” In the chatter that surrounded that event, someone posed a poignant query that I wish I could properly attribute (so if anyone can recall, please let me know): What do you lose by validating the experience of someone else? I hold this question with me closely as I encounter dissonant or uncomfortable perspectives. As I’m challenged by something unfamiliar, I think often about whose perspective it represents, and how I need to incorporate it into my thinking.
As the stage edition of An American in Paris unfolded before me, with new dance steps, songs, and plotlines, I consciously recognized that a few stories from the original were better fleshed out this way. A few characters endeared themselves to me in ways their film counterparts could never. And I left with an appreciation for this new incarnation of something I loved. Was it as good? Yes and no. Was it better? I honestly don’t know yet. But it was different. And that’s okay. For the record, I feel the same about Ghostbusters.
This next bit’s important, so stay with me here.
Sometimes history needs a rewrite. Versions of the story that we learn first may have inaccuracies, or skew in a way that disadvantages others. And as we evolve as a society, new perspectives arise that should be shared. In 1957, there was less commentary to be made about World War II; years later, more nuance could be written into the portrayal of Lise’s protection during the Occupation. This plot point is blown past in the original film, but is crucial in the stage play- because we have perspective to allow that. There are other characters whose stories were minor in the movie, who got the chance to tell bigger and more personal stories this time around. Jerry and Lise’s love story still takes center stage, but the other plots – namely those of minor characters Adam and Milo – were stronger this time around.
Similarly, 2016 gave women the opportunity to be heroes against ghosts in a time that can (generally) appreciate the power that women have to be smart, strong, and marketable at the box office.
However, there are dangerous ways to rewrite narratives. The examples I’ve cited above are powerful rewrites because they allow more people to tell their stories. They hold up the value that previously silenced or overlooked actors/characters have in a story. Dangerous rewrites do the opposite: they silence, they deceive, they erase. This type of erasure keeps important stories subordinate to those of the majority. As an example, look to Roland Emmerich’s widely panned Stonewall, a film that centered the seminal Stonewall riots around the experiences of a Hollywood-friendly white male, instead of the women and people of color who actually started this revolution. (Want a better version? Drunk History’s got you.)
In a week where readers in the US can’t (and shouldn’t!) ignore the story that’s about to be committed to the history books, I have to say this: we have an auteur who is actively working to expand who gets to tell their story, and one who is actively working to diminish this. America’s pool of prospective storytellers is only getting more and more diverse; this latest edition to the history books can literally decide whose stories have the potential to end happily. Although one op-ed from the Washington Post believes that this story ends well for most of us, I know many for whom that is overly optimistic at best, and flatly false at worst.
November 8, 2016 is about more than deciding who gets to shape economic policy, be the face of the US’s presence internationally, or who gets to pick Supreme Court justices at a crucial time in judicial history. This election has the added power to declare openly, in front of the rest of the world, what sort of rewrite the country is prepared to undertake. Will it be one that unlocks rich, varied, and valuable alternate perspectives? Or will it be the sort of rewrite that not only does little to advance the original, but actively hurts its legacy (lookin’ at you, 2016 Ben-Hur)?
So I’ll close with 1-2 challenges for you this week, depending on who you are: first, vote if you can. To an extent, I don’t care for whom. If you have a voice, use it. City, regional, national scale: get on in there.
Second, think about the stories that challenge you. Think about the people who may have challenged you during this seemingly interminable election cycle. A lot of muting, blocking, and unfriending may have happened as a result; what will those relationships look like on the other side of Election Day? Is there common ground that can be found through acknowledging the sources of challenge? Sometimes yes, sometimes not. But let’s all find one small way to do the work.
While I don’t typically cross-post content from my fortnightly newsletter, this one felt too good to not share. If you’d like more posts like this in your inbox on alternating Monday mornings, get on in here. We’d love to have you 🙂
Yes, the pronunciation debate rages on. I’m not here to correct you on it, I promise.
I remember, in my sophomore year computer science class, learning how to make animated GIFs. The technology (in 2005) was less sophisticated, it was used FAR less, and I was only partially paying attention because it was a Wednesday night class and I had vowed loudly to drop it the first time the professor ran long enough that I missed LOST. (He never did, so I didn’t have to.)
But in recent years, I’ve learned to have fun with GIFs, playing with them as a form of expression, a supplement to stories or jokes I’ve wanted to tell, and to share emotions that I – even as a writer – couldn’t always pin down with words.
At some point, the effort felt incomplete. And that realization came in tandem with several other realizations that I shared in my piece for Femsplain, “The Wake Up Call.” The realization, as with many others during that time in my life, was one of representation. When I shared a GIF, it was indicative of what I was feeling, or wanted to say…but it was hard to find people that shared that emotion or sentiment that looked like me. Actually, I’ll own that the previous statement is incomplete. It was hard to do, and I had never considered the implications of why.
From “The Wake Up Call”:
My reset is vocal and it is visible. It shows when I seek to elevate the voices of colleagues and leaders in my field of higher education who others might not see. It shows when I help lift black students to their highest potential because I know few others are looking out for them. It shows in small ways, like accenting pithy tweets with GIFs featuring Black faces (which are too hard to find, by the way — who’s working on that?); and it shows in big ways, like forgoing my former “TV Christmas” — the Academy Awards — because I couldn’t see myself in it anymore.
I’m so thankful that conversations are expanding to recognize that being able to see yourself in a piece of art – a book, a film, a TV show – is a right that is extended to far too few people. And the result? When I wanted to express an emotion through a GIF, I was using imagery that featured white males, sometimes white females.
When anyone who deviates from these highly available norms can see themselves in a narrative, in the world, it matters. It matters when Luke Cage allows millions of comic book enthusiasts to see themselves as something other than a sidekick, as the New York Times would apparently rather relegate them. It matters when most actors in high profile roles with disability, are played by those without- save an exception on this season’sSpeechless. It matters when celebrated creators like Tim Burton shirk their ability to create these worlds, leading to responses like this beautiful and heartbreaking thread from one “blerd.” And it matters because in the absence of proper representation, hurtful and offensive stereotypes can persist unchecked.
My decision to change the way I “GIF” (that’s a verb there) was part of a larger reset, but it’s something I pay far more attention to than most people might think. And luckily, I have an answer to the “who’s working on that?” in Jasmyn Lawson of GIPHY, who is very open about the work she’s had to do at GIPHY to make diverse GIFs available for those who shared my concerns. Her efforts, paired with ones like Jesse Williams’ Ebroji and Kevin Hart’s Kevmoji has literally placed a new face on digital expression, and it’s one I’d love to see more of. But in addition to showing others that there are options, there’s another deeply personal reason that the seeds of change in GIFing matters to me.
My friend Matthew opens most of his standup bits by disarming the audience about how they perceive him when he hits the stage. With descriptors like “80s movies have taught you not to trust people with my hair and bone structure” and “incorrectly assumed to be a lacrosse player,” he calls out the idea that people who look like him are usually labelled the villain. To be quite clear, he’s not; Matthew is lovely and brilliant and hit the genetic/good human lottery in an embarrassing number of ways. But he looks it. So he closes that portion of his set by saying “I want you to know that I know.”
And to me, choosing to pick GIFs that look like me does that. A big part of the wake-up call that I wrote about earlier this year was about challenging my understanding that I push what many expect of “people who look like me.” In ways small and large, I defy expectations- which is at once gratifying and heartbreaking if I think about it for too long. But these small but consistent reminders that I’m as much an Issa Rae as I am a Liz Lemon, as much an Oprah as I am an Ellen, and a Retta more than anything else, remind those around me that I’m not trying to “transcend” or “defy” anything. This is who I am, this is how I see myself, and this is how I want you to see me.
So the challenge that I issue to you this week isn’t as active as usual, but nevertheless: look around you. Look at the images you see. Who’s elevated? Who’s relegated to second or third-class status? How do you know? And what can you do to even the playing field, from the picking of a GIF to the elevating of a voice?
Someone far smarter and more technically adept than I created a Google Chrome extension that automatically changes all instances of the word “millennial” on a webpage, to the as useful term…”snake people.”
From Refinery29: What’s the “Snake People” Whoop, and Why Is It In Almost Every Song?
From the Boston Globe: Navy Seeks to Adapt Training for “Snake People”
From Buzzfeed: 19 Reasons Why “Snake People” Are Totally Destroying This Country
(although let’s be honest, that’s probably actually a headline on Buzzfeed somewhere.)
With that said, I’ve not yet installed this extension. I prefer to do it manually, via an occasional Twitter hashtag: #ReplaceMillennialWithHuman.
— Amma Marfo (@ammamarfo) January 30, 2016
— Amma Marfo (@ammamarfo) February 21, 2016
— Curtis (@80mins) August 6, 2015
In my experience, most writing about millennials suffers from one of two problems:
(1) It’s too specific. A trait being ascribed to a blanket group of adults within a 16-20 year age range (depending on who you ask), like values, lifestyle, or – my favorite, WORD CHOICE – is one that is by no means out of the reach of the rest of the general population. Who can ascribe the same metric other than age to accurately group myself, Justin Bieber, DeRay McKesson, Laverne Cox, and Mindy Kaling? (Yep, all millennials by the numbers)
— Amma Marfo (@ammamarfo) February 2, 2016
Yeah, in this instance someone between the age of 20 and 36 used a curse word on TV. Betty White’s done it too. It’s an extraordinarily common storyline on situation comedy for toddlers to use them. And let’s not talk about the middle-aged football coaches who get caught doing it on TV every week between September and February.
But it’s the second issue, being too general in our assumption of who a millennial is and what it does, that I want to address here at length. Most of us, when we say millennial, are using far too broad a brush to paint a picture of a generation that is significantly more nuanced, and needs several smaller brushes, to be able to see anything of consequence.
(Some of you may be saying, “that’s true of all generations.” I agree. But most other generations aren’t dealing with the needless vitriol of this one, so hang with me here for a minute.)
More often than not, the headlines you see – and the traits they purport to reveal – are negatively oriented. The paint applied to that broad brush includes hues of indifference, entitlement, myopia, defensiveness, and a lack of gratitude or focus. Who’s racing to buy that painting? Few people, which is likely why so millennials are feeling as though managers and supervisors aren’t investing in them or their development. Even as attempts to temper these assumptions popped up (most notably for me, Managing the Millennials by Chip Espinoza, Mick Ukleja, and Craig Rusch- some of the wisdom from which I’ve written on previously), it couldn’t be ignored that the traits assumed inherent simply weren’t wholly representative of the differentiated generation that I grew up in.
Thankfully, more nuanced portrayals are starting to crop up. I heaved a sigh and teared up at the first part of awesome human (and my former editor) Nona Willis Aronowitz’s series in Fusion on the millennials we aren’t talking about, which included the crucial passage below, written as she compared the millennials she had just interviewed at a Midwestern startup, with the ones that were rallying for a $15 minimum wage on the block outside, “looked to be under 30, black or Hispanic, and not the least bit concerned with the issues of the white startup kids”:
I understood then just how much talk of “millennials” had been aggressively focused on college-educated, upper-middle-class young people, even though they were hardly in the majority. There was a swath of millennials out there who grew up with entirely different financial baselines and cultural values, and they were being ignored.
Think now about the bill that too many, including those who can play a crucial role in the development and success of millennials, have been sold.
We can’t invest in these “kids” because they’ll just leave. I’ll try to teach them things, but they’ll either choose to not listen or assume they know better. They think they know more than me anyway, so what’s the point?
Before I get to this point, a word from those who insist on conflating “millennials” with “kids” or “twentysomethings”:
*steps to the mic, taps on it*
“There are millennials in their MID-THIRTIES.”
*dodges press’s flying shoes and potatoes*
— Amma Marfo (@ammamarfo) May 3, 2016
Okay, I’m good now. On we go.
Are there millennials who fit that bill? Oh yeah. I’ve met them. Worked with them, too. It was not enjoyable, so I understand the frustration associated with it. But think about what sort of psychological, developmental, and financial safety has to come with an attitude like that in the workplace. That sort of safety – the security of knowing that if you don’t get what you want, that you can jump ship and land safety in a net of some kind – isn’t common. I knew that intrinsically as these headlines kept popping up.
This summer, the Center for Talent Innovation gave me numbers to back up that sinking feeling I’d held reading news headlines for so many years. In their book Misunderstood Millennial Talent: The Other Ninety-One Percent, they revealed the numbers behind the massive miscalculation we’ve made in this up-and-coming generation. How many millennials fit the doomsday thinking we’ve been taught to identify with this age group? Nine percent.
Here’s how they define it:
It turns out that, in our nationally representative sample, Millennials who have a financial safety net – those who have families who could support them indefinitely, were they to quit or lose their jobs, or who receive financial gifts from family members totaling at least $5,000 per year – are more likely than those who do not say they plan to leave their jobs within a year.
[…] But only 9 percent of Millennials, we find, have such a safety net. The vast majority – 91 percent – do not have such financial privilege.
For those curious, the nationally representative sample in question included both “a US survey of 3,298 college-educated men and women working full time in white collar professions in the US, and [a] multimarket survey of 11,396 college-educated men and women working full time in seven critical markets (Brazil, China, Hong Kong, India, the Philippines, Singapore, and the UK).” Imagine, by the way, how the numbers would bear out if you included those without the means to go to college!
The “other ninety-one percent,” as the books’ authors Joan Snyder Kuhl and Jennifer Zephirin, falls into a category that we must pay attention to if we are to change this sour perception: millennials without financial privilege.
This distinction matters.
It matters because a large swath of this age group when looked at from an intersectional standpoint (not just socioeconomics, but gender and upbringing based on culture and values) has been discounted unfairly, based on the high-profile ability and behavior of a small cross-section.
It matters because the perception of this large swath of the workforce is affecting how leadership training, advancement, and security measures for organizational prosperity are being executed.
It matters because the animosity that is being fed all too often…is baseless in a large percentage of cases.
And it matters from a representation standpoint: I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up reading parts of the book where they spoke to millennials of color, first generation Americans whose families affected their work, about their experiences- because I’d never seen that before. How many others might you live with, work with, or interact with daily who have never seen themselves in this narrative before? How might that affect how you treat them or what you assume of them?
Are there entitled, spoiled, difficult, and frustrating millennials? Absolutely. I’d argue I’ve also met Gen Xers and Boomers that fit that bill. Those traits are not new. But the fact of the matter is, there are far more millennials who are eager to work in a way that makes a difference- and are willing to do the learning it takes to get there- than those who fit the narrow scope so many have trained on them. These millennials understand what it takes to be successful, and go to great lengths to do so. They do so while raising the next generation of their own families. And they’re far more humble about their accomplishments and potential for growth than they get credit for. For every wunderkind who creates a dazzling prototype for a flashy new platform or service with a net and copious outside funding, there are thousands others who are toiling on a smaller scale in relative obscurity to build new things.
I’ll be honest, I don’t fully know what my point is in sharing all of this, other than to encourage you to think bigger. Be open to adjusting your idea of what millennials look like. Be mindful of the language you use, as it matters. Be mindful of the assumptions that accompany that language, and what we believe about the people we work alongside when we plan outings, seek input, and determine our target audiences. And as you do this, next time you see others hemming and hawing about the legitimacy, attitude, or behavior of millennials colleagues or coworkers? Push back. Learn more about who we’re dealing with, and then share the wealth. We’ll all be better for it.
And finally: get ready to throw all this out. Gen Z is coming. And that is a wholly different ballgame.