BoJack Says the Darndest Things

Since last October, when standup comedian Hannibal Buress told a crowd at Philadelphia’s Trocadero Theater to look up the allegations of Bill Cosby’s sexual misconduct, it was a matter of time before popular culture decided to take on the topic. An unlikely candidate stepped forward to address the controversy with humor and gravity- Netflix’s BoJack Horseman (season 2 now streaming).

IMAGE CREDIT: USA Today

Episode 7 of season 2, “Hank After Dark,” features journalist Diane Nguyen (voiced by Alison Brie) accidentally derailing a book tour by mentioning that personal transgressions rarely hinder commercial success. She goes on to cite several real actors – Christian Slater, Mike Tyson, Woody Allen – before mentioning the show’s approximation of Cosby, variety show host Hank Hippopopalous (voiced impeccably by Philip Baker Hall). Just as with the aftermath of Buress’s charge, people (and animals, as is the show’s custom) seek out the information and are appropriately outraged…before they seek to ignore or discredit the claims. Subsequent approximations of real dialogue feature Diane’s interview with a news pundit (an emotional whale voiced by Keith Olbermann) who vocalizes dismissals of victim testimony in the same way many real newscasters did as the story broke:

TOM JUMBO-GRUMBO: Everyone says he’s a really nice guy.

DIANE NGUYEN: That’s exactly the problem. Because he’s so nice, people don’t wanna think he’s capable of awful things, so they let him off the hook.

TOM: We don’t know what happened. It’s a classic “he said, she said.”

DIANE: “He said, they said.” It’s eight different women. Are they all lying?

BoJack Horseman has earned acclaim since its first season for its combination of realistic darkness and profound humor; while it didn’t seem immediately obvious at first, its premise (following the life of a washed up nineties television star) seemed the perfect setting to address a storyline such as this. Cosby’s peak of fame came in the nineties with The Cosby Show, and the show opens with his BoJack equivalent winning a 1994 Animal Choice Award (a few short years after Cosby ended, and a few years before his revival of Kids Say the Darndest Things). The show is especially adept at showcasing the denial of those who idolized the iconic accused, through the character of Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tomkins), a man (dog?) torn between his career support for Hippopopalous, and personal support of Diane, his wife.

BoJack’s choice to have the revelation made by Diane is an important one; choosing to have the lone lead female with a reputation for being an intellectual creates a rich narrative that differs sharply from the one we saw play out in real-time. Her broaching of the topic, combined with subsequent public dialogue, seems to be a composite of roles that Buress, Judd Apatow (who has spoken vehemently against Cosby since the news broke), and even, albeit to a far lesser extent, Tina Fey (who notably reported on SNL’s Weekend Update on the 2005 deposition when it was taken). But unlike Buress and Apatow, Diane suffers considerable backlash from her comments- making a statement about how we treat the female whistleblower. Comparatively, Apatow’s and Buress’s careers have been relatively unscathed for their involvement with the scandal. In fact, each of them has had their celebrity rise since (Apatow with the recent release of his book Sick in the Head and film Trainwreck, and Buress with the start of his Comedy Central show Why? with Hannibal Buress).

And how does it end? On the show, Diane decides to pursue a new chapter in her career; as she awaits an airplane, she spies an interview with Hippopopalous and Jumbo-Grumbo that all too accurately represents the state of our rape culture:

TOM: Hank, I have to ask, did you do it?

HANK: No, I did not.

TOM: Well, that’s good enough for me.

The episode ends with popular media, and all the people who trust it for validation of their own wishes and desires for their admirers, taking the accused for his word. BoJack’s writers had no way of knowing that a few short months later, we’d be forced to take the opposite stance for the same reason. But the streaming cartoon’s willingness to tackle this controversial topic, and to do so in a way that highlights additional problems with our culture, was especially prescient on a weekend that Cosby’s long-looming descent is most assuredly sealed.

 

How Do You Handle Your Hecklers?

One of the things that I love most about Boston is the access I have to live comedy, and I’m excited to be seeing comedian Colin Kane at the end of this month. And yet I’ll be watching his set with a hint of fear, hoping against hope that nobody heckles him. In addition to just being hilarious, Kane has become famous for a scathing takedown of a heckler at a 2012 show. Be warned, less than appropriate. You’ve been warned, so please don’t freak out.

While few of us stand in front of a crowd and tell jokes for a living, many of us have encountered some form of heckling in our day to day. The patient that comes in having diagnosed him or herself on webMD before arriving in your office. The customer that has done all the research online before coming in to buy a TV. The student who insists he doesn’t need to go to class or training because he or she knows it already. The result of these types of situations can be “heckling” of a type. These unsolicited contributions can be handled in any number of ways; how you choose to handle it could determine the trajectory of your day, career, and especially your sanity.

So let’s say you come to a meeting with an idea, and you have a co-worker that instantly comes back with a snide comment or question. Let’s say you get heckled at work. What are your options?

Ignore. This approach is the first instinct of the nonconfrontational. As the originator of the idea, you have every right in the world to ignore the “contribution” or “suggestion” provided. It can be helpful because it minimizes distractions and can protect the integrity of an idea you’re really excited about.
However, ignoring the challenge, objection, or addition doesn’t keep it from existing. It’s hard to do. And eventually…what happens? You could snap.

It should be noted that this sort of “snap” doesn’t have to be a momentary issue; Steve Martin’s snap was a resignation from standup comedy. Similar concerns have been forecast for Dave Chappelle, who has famously left the stage at shows where heckling got out of control. Alternatively, if you don’t snap, the voice that cited the objection or concern could start to sound a lot less like that person…and a lot more like you. Seeds of doubt you previously overcame could start to take root and germinate. What could have been a strong idea has the potential to be weakened by our interpretation of the comment in question.

So that’s one strategy. Doesn’t make a scene, but doesn’t inspire confidence either.

The inverse of ignoring the opposition is to push back against it. That’s the approach Colin Kane is closest to taking. Those who hold their ideas tightly have a tendency to do this. It asserts your control over your ideas, and is permissible in stand-up comedy because the nature of the performance is unidirectional. I’ve seen comedians as young as Aziz Ansari (who even has a disclaimer at the start of his show hilariously but unequivocally banning heckling), and as old as Bill Cosby push back against hecklers to strive to take over their shows. I’ve written before about how Cosby impressed me with his ability to brush off heckling. Louis C.K.’s fictional comedian does something similar, though his style is a hybrid of pushing back and another strategy I’ll get to in a moment. Those who heckle tend to believe they have the right to do so. Louie’s heckler says pointedly, “I’m allowed to participate.”

But, as he pushes back, he makes a valid point: she’s not. Heckling is, in its purest form, forcing your opinion or viewpoint where it hasn’t been requested or isn’t needed. When someone is speaking as an authority on a subject, or providing a performance, objections or heckling are not appropriate and it can be perfectly fine to push back. The force and manner in which you choose to do so, however, can be hard to calibrate. As such, it can be just as hard to navigate as ignoring.

Is there a happy medium? Maybe.

Between ignoring the contributions of a critic, and pushing back (which is, in essence, ignoring with the potential for a splash of vitriol), there is engagement. This is most likely to be possible when we “hold our ideas lightly,” leaving them open for interpretation, betterment, or alteration by others. While stand-up comedy is not typically well suited for this, improv comedy (a whole other pursuit with different goals and rules) is. Its additive construction means that suggestions or additional information don’t threaten or distract from the message, they strengthen it. Louie’s heckler could have been far better served by going to an improv show than to his standup set that night.

Please note: there is a difference between a light grip on a project, and relinquishing control altogether. Where appropriate, do your best to strike a balance between totalitarian control, and the perilous and unproductive “design by committee.” 

Engaging heckling can also mean trying to get to the bottom of it. If you’re getting negative feedback consistently, it may mean that something bigger than you is at play. Are some people just haters? Science says yes. But additional worries and goals can contribute to how ideas are received on any given day. So if you find yourself encountering the same resistance multiple times, consider trying to get to the root of your critic’s objections. And who knows? It could inform the way you conceive or present your brainchildren.

IMAGE CREDIT: Surviving College

Heckling, or its equivalent in your daily work, isn’t likely to go away. If anything, given the wealth of information available to us all, it has the potential to get worse. But you hold control of (a) if you do it or not*, and (b) how it gets dealt with. Between ignoring, pushing, and engaging…which will you choose? 

*should you choose to heckle, recognize that the person you’re heckling can decide to handle it in any of these ways or others I haven’t touched on; I’d also strongly recommend not doing it at a Colin Kane show.

Pull, Don’t Push

I didn’t mean to drop the mic. I really didn’t. But during today’s #sachat on “moving up or moving out” in student affairs, we were posed the following question:

I said my brief piece (my standard brief piece on the matter) on how I don’t think attrition is a numbers issue, but rather an issue of how we represent the field. But as I scrambled to hit “Tweet” on a response before I left for a meeting, an additional element surfaced that we sometimes leave out when we’re emotionally invested in this conversation.

Given my recent tilt toward likening comedy to our work, consider the following anecdotes. Bill Cosby is a doctorate-holding educator who, according to Buzzfeed, didn’t mean to go into comedy. In an interview at the American Comedy Awards, he said:

It doesn’t happen, the one moment. I had no intention, no dream to be a stand-up comedian playing nightclubs, nothing. My goal was to become a schoolteacher […] I’ve always been first and foremost the person who writes what he sees, but not for it to be funny. I want people to feel and see what I saw. And then comes tagging on the humor.

Similarly, Ken Jeong (The Hangover, Community) wasn’t always a comedian. He was a doctor of internal medicine. Comedy started as a hobby, a way to decompress after a hard work day, and gradually became a bigger part of his life until he took on comedy full-time.

Parks and Recreation‘s hilarious and continental Donna Meagle is played by actress and comedian Retta Sirleaf, who was a contract chemist for GlaxoSmithKline after graduating pre-med from Duke. Yup, sista is smart.

Now, in all of these instances, could it be argued that these talented individuals left their former roles and associated interests? Sure. But there’s something missing in this conversation, something that finally crystalized during this afternoon’s chat, and I expressed that point before leaving abruptly:

There are those who leave the field because the pressures of their role have caused them to seek other options, or because their belief in the field is inconsistent with their reality. I completely understand that this can happen. However, this post is not for or about those people.

A brilliant article by Elizabeth Keenan in Chronicle Vitae (one I’ve read several times over the past few weeks) encapsulates part of that decision, as well as how professionals around us tend to react:

[…] in academia, you hear those things all the time. As soon as you tell someone, “I’m thinking of leaving,” they’ll come back at you with a list of reasons you should stay, give it another year, try harder, and maybe a job will open up. People who try to keep you in academia mean well: Either they have succeeded and don’t understand why you haven’t, or they’re in the same position as you and they’re terrified of leaving. But that doesn’t make talking to them any easier.

One of the elements of our profession that I struggle with most is our propensity to shame or look down upon those who elect to leave the field in favor of other pursuits. Being a field of personable people, we take offense at this decision, concerned that its our fault or that we have some duty to keep them “within our ranks.” But, as Chris Conzen illuminated in one of my favorite posts of his, this may have nothing to do with us. We’re typically offended, concerned, or hurt by what we’re seeing as a push. I want us, as a profession, to look at this another way.

IMAGE CREDIT: manythings.org

Think about Bill, Ken, or Retta. They weren’t feeling pushed out of education, medicine, or pharmaceutical work. They were being pulled toward careers in comedy- something they loved, were good at, and that fulfilled them. That same calling in light of other factors is, as cheesy as it can sound, what drew many of us to the work of student affairs in the first place. But sometimes, circumstances or experiences create a calling in a different direction. Following that calling once you’re already seeing the merit in a new one can be hard. Ken Jeong, in particular, has been vocal about what it took for him to make that decision. Colleagues and friends can be appropriately curious, but it does little to add to that person’s stress and conflict with uninformed judgment.

We spend our day assisting students in doing precisely this, yet struggle to give the same patience and understanding to our colleagues when they decide to pursue other interests, no matter how good they are at them or how much they feel fulfilled by this new journey. Does that seem right to you? It doesn’t to me.

A lot of time, energy, and bandwidth is consumed on discussions ensuring that we have good professionals doing this work. In my mind (as well as many others, I’m sure), part of that good work comes from being fulfilled. This is not the same as saying you must be fulfilled by your work, mind you. Rather, the nature of work needs to fit within a framework that allows for fulfillment. When we’re talking about a fit in interviews and work between the person and the institution, “fit” should also consider the relationship between the person and the work itself. And when the former outgrows the latter, a shopping trip and some new duds may be in order. Be the supportive friend, colleague, spouse, or force that makes that emotional trip a little easier.