Overkill

David Iscoe weekly update #18

My very first newsletter update was written last fall, in the aftermath of a comedy show I wrote for called Sketch Cram in which a bunch of writers write things up quickly. Normally, people write up two or three of their ideas as sketches. Some write up four. I usually do seven or eight, sometimes more. I don’t do everything well, but I always have been able to produce work at volume, and it’s a trick I’ve applied many, many times in my life (again - if you have the comedy polishing / editing / distributing / promoting machinery to put this raw resource to use, please hook me up to the system and compensate me for my labor).

In that first post, I wrote about how compressing my work into a tight window helps for my internal process, because my self-critical instincts are suppressed by necessity – and that’s still basically true (though I also need a phase for self-criticism, and a phase for brainstorming space where time and other obligations aren’t an issue). But another element to that process is the idea of overkill, and it’s a little more externally focused, more linked to my place in the world. It’s really hard to deal with being a person in general, or a “creative” person in particular, and focusing on one particular arena where I succeed can be really comforting, because instead of having to evaluate everything, I can focus all my attention at the one thing that already looks good, and continue to build on it while ignoring the mediocrity around it.

Overkill can get compulsive. Sometimes when I play video games, or computer chess, or something like that, I’ll turn off my brain and buff up one character attribute until it’s way more powerful, just to see it work, to play a rigged game that’s not really a competition at all. “Ha-ha!” I’ll say, “Look at this idiot game, not knowing how easily defeated it is!” Obviously, I’m the idiot here; my straw man is only an idiot because I’ve imbued him with my own characteristics.

Those kind of momentarily soothing but useless and dissatisfying instincts are on the benign side of my love of overkill. So you throw away some time turning your mind off. It’s not great, but there’s worse things in the world. On the more malignant side, I have often worked myself to the bone and left no time or energy for myself and others because I fundamentally don’t believe I can keep my head above water without outworking everybody. That doesn’t always mean I’m actually productive. I’ll give myself twelve hours to work, and spend eight of them freaking out at the fact that I haven’t spent enough time working. Better to have a good four hours, if I could believe it was okay, and leave space for the rest of life.

I’ve often thought of these habits as individual peculiarities, good-but-bad strength-but-weaknesses baked into my personality. Some of it is gendered; guys are given a lot more license to be “productively” focused at the expense of others who have to create the support system without compensation. And a lot of it is economic. We’re encouraged to value individual productivity because it makes us emphasize the part of us that can be used by others for profit, instead of saving things for ourselves or others that can’t be captured by employers.

In other words, it helps me to catch myself in these moments and think, “oh yeah, you’ve just internalized capitalist exploitation.”

One sort of minor road-to-Damascus moment came when I started seeing these dystopian Fiverr ads in the subway:

This is obviously a horrible thing to make somebody do, and to glorify or encourage it is not to promote individual empowerment. I knew this, in bits and pieces. I’ve been in workplaces where we’ve had to make concerted efforts to assert rights (I even launched an underground newsletter to talk about this at one workplace), I’ve talked to countless colleagues about burnout, I’ve had people describe me as being “a good capitalist subject” and other similar things when I’ve pushed myself this way, I’ve read critiques of capitalism and Westernism and toxic masculinity, I’ve seen and mocked the Silicon Valley mindset. All these pots were cooking. But these Fiverr ads put the writing on the wall in the clearest way I’d seen yet.

For people (especially dudes, I think) with an anti-authoritarian and artistic bent, and competitive individual personality, seeing yourself as a cog in the an exploitative system can help intervene on these habits in a way that calls to personal health or balance can’t. It’s easy to see the restrictions that direct authorities - strict parents, governments, 9-5 corporations - put on your life and individual freedom, but it’s a little harder, when you’re sold an idea of individualism as strength, to see how you’re doing things to yourself. I’ve been thinking of libertarianism lately as just crowdsourced authoritarianism - and you can see this in the number of libertarians who have an even harsher view of criminal justice than the government does, are okay with even more unequal outcomes just because they’re prescribed by the starting rules of a game rather than by regulation, who assert the need for rigid hierarchies that traditional authorities weren’t empowered to enforce. There’s a reason religious hardliners and atheist libertarians find themselves so often under the same roof, and how often members of both groups will drop their principles when a sufficiently authoritarian secular government emerges.

But I think I’ve been a little ignorant as to how some of my personal habits align with views I found abhorrent. These things aren’t mine alone, of course. That’s the whole point. The harms of society run through all of us. But in bits and pieces, I’m trying to get a little more balanced. Part of this is closing the laptop and walking away, being okay with the day or writing period ending and things being left undone, waking up and being okay with some level of limitations in what I’ll do that day. I won’t ever stop loving some forms of extremes, passionate engagement, the fun and discovery of seeing people take things farther than others expected, the willful escape from the ordinary. But there’s something boring and ordinary about overkill in the end. Another thing to work on.


“MAGA MAGA MAGA”

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of takes on these Covington Catholic boys, who seem like a bunch of little shits who’ve taken teenage cruelty (a common phenomenon, dictated by a combination of social structure and stages of brain development as far as I can tell) and directed through political channels they probably don’t understand very well at people who have less power.

I think we should be concerned with these kind of things. The conservative media was quick to rally around their behavior and assert that the teens had done nothing wrong, or that many others had done worse and therefore couldn’t criticize them. But this binary choice between total destruction and instant forgiveness is a false one. Yeah, the teens shouldn’t be stoned to death, or incarcerated, or frozen out of life, but when people do something bad, you need to acknowledge that it’s a harm and make them go through some level of reckoning that may be tough and painful but ends in understanding why the harm is bad. And other people who haven’t done the same harms, but have subscribed to lines of thought or behavior that support those things, need to do the reckoning before it happens.

Hiring PR for these teens and smearing their political opponents isn’t about the belief that they can be a good person – it’s about preserving their privilege for other people, keeping the lines of attack open. I tried writing about this last Monday, but couldn’t get my words in the right order, and later that week Sady Doyle had a good piece about it that described it more clearly than I could.

This won’t be the last time. With the Trump era bringing out unapologetic privilege-based cruelty on all fronts, we’re going to see a lot more of these battles, wars over how much people will be allowed to be cruel to other people and not care (and who gets to do what, and who has to suffer). And it’s important to see the link between the structural and the personal; it’s not that some people are born outright monsters and some aren’t, it’s that over time different feedback mechanisms reinforce bad behavior from some perpetrators against some victims in uneven ways that get worse and worse if you don’t cut intervene.

I’m worried about the influence of MAGA culture on kids, but there are also a lot of good influences out there. One show I’m loving more and more is Big Mouth, which deals with all kinds of taboo and disturbing things with a great mix of insight, humor, and empathy. It gets very dark and disturbing in its subject matter, language, and animation, but its eye on behavior remains strong and it is consistently focused on the drive to be better.

Big Mouth also has the first fictional portrayal I’ve ever seen of a young MAGA kid, in Lola, who is a bully and target at the same time. Lola actually has a really hard life in a way that’s often unfair, but then redirects it in really shitty ways to people around her. That model of a bully isn’t new, but the explicit connection with the political moment still gives it a special contemporary resonance. The end of this exchange from Season 2 made me laugh out loud:

Jessi: Look, you should all calm down. We already live in a society that fixates on the female form in a psychologically decimating way to many young women.

Lola: Boo, feminism! I am NOT with her.

Jessi: Okay, well, anyway --

Lola (using her hand like a puppet in Jessi’s face): MAGA MAGA MAGA!

I think the decontextualized meaninglessness of “MAGA MAGA MAGA!” as just a sound to shut someone up was perfect, and felt real to how kids talk to each other and behave. They don’t look at politics the same way people who have been in the world longer do, but they do generally internalize a lot of the essential messaging.

These Covington kids aren’t Lola; she has to deal with a lot of shit they never had to and never will. But the point is that these structures inflect everything, and it really helps when we have texts that make it possible to talk about them.


A NEW PODCAST EPISODE

The Monday morning joke book podcast is back! I’ve got three episodes in the tank (provided I didn’t accidentally delete one!), dating back to early November, and I’ll be releasing them over the next few weeks and then maybe recording more.

The first one of the season,, with Holmes and Joellyn Rackleff, was pretty cool because we had a mother and a daughter together, and some intergenerational perspective on humor and how it’s changed. Joellyn (Holmes’s mother) isn’t a comedian, and I think that added a cool dynamic too, because I think sometimes people who work in comedy lose perspective on what jokes are in the world. (Reminds me of this Isaac Asimov short story, based on the premise that nobody knows where jokes come from - of course, comedians are like “THEY COME FROM UNCREDITED WRITERS, YOU ASSHOLE!” but it’s a fun thought experiment).

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