To examine oneself — as one usually does in “Personal” “Statements” — a good place to start might be one’s online presence. Let’s see. Functionally, my Facebook serves little purpose other than to like ClickHole articles. LinkedIn, for me, is a place to privately endorse my friends for things like “Tight Gas” and “Stretching.” My Twitter is purely a farce: I do nothing but retweet from the deepest recesses of that strange, esoteric phenomenon known as Weird Twitter.
When you (I) put it like that, this examination has been incredibly depressing. But I promise I’m normal.
I guess it makes sense, though. This resume of online fuckery is of a piece with my general reputation as “the funny one.” That’s a nice moniker to have. It suggests I may serve some social purpose after all, and who doesn’t love to laugh?
To be sure, this is an astoundingly arrogant essay to write. I’m working under the precarious assumption that other people think I’m funny, as well as the implicit acknowledgement that, yes, the fact that I’m writing this means that, on some level, I’d like to think I’m funny, too. (It’s better not to mention the third presumption: that people are still reading this.)
But no matter: Writing to be published on the internet is itself little more than a pathological need for external validation, so let’s ignore that shit.
I remember once performing stand-up — I use the term lightly — at the tender age of 12. My mother’s college reunion seemed, to her, to be the perfect venue to force her middle-school son to do something he is in no way qualified to do. I was too naïve to realize either my status as child prop or how utterly embarrassing this would be. I got up there and dutifully read off a printed Word document of what some (no one) would call “jokes.” This lasted for 10 excruciating minutes. When it was all said and done, I should have been convicted for war crimes: This was, by far, the worst comedic performance the world has ever witnessed.
Years later, I would recognize this moment as the one that broke me as a mortal being and has rendered me incapable of feeling anything. Thanks, Mom. But what pitied laughs I received during that Tight Five, I could recognize as some form of appreciation. No one was laughing because I had, in that moment, channeled a young Richard Pryor. They were laughing because, hey, look, there’s a poor little kid trying to tell jokes because his mom forced him to, the least we could do is make sure he doesn’t cry.
Reader, I cried (eventually).
Here I was at an odd emotional crossroads. This supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again had led to an unfathomable bout of pre-pubescent crying. I didn’t know why then, but I think I might now. From then on, the two emotions became, to me, inextricably linked, conflated in the worst possible way.
When Robin Williams passed away in 2014, the media landscape (that’s a horrible phrase, isn’t it?) was inundated with, among other things, variously titled riffs on the “Sad Clown” narrative. This trend was annoying for many reasons, but chief among them was this: that weeks later, the discussion had subsided in favor of broader, more accessible eulogies. No one wanted to read any more about that knotty buzzword “mental health.”
The link between mental illness and comedy is a thorny subject to broach, and I make no claims, of course, to successfully analyze one or the other. I barely understand either. Rather, it’s that disquieting relationship between other people’s joy and your own sadness, between the optics of your smiling friends and your own downturned head, between the surface-level satisfaction of making someone else laugh and the emptiness that comes with wondering why you can’t feel that way yourself — this is what I’ve tried to figure out for so long.
What does it mean, really, to be “funny?”
What it means to be funny depends on who you’re asking. To everyone else, Nabeel’s hilarious. Nabeel’s that guy. Nabeel’s always armed with the clever retorts and the spur-of-the-moment wit (which, in fact, is often less impeccably well-timed and more embarrassingly planned out). I am nothing more than a random joke generator. I am not allowed to get serious, or say something unironically, lest that permanently off the switch on everyone else’s pleasure. I am not a person harboring wants and complexities and dissonant emotions, but rather a curious object. I am not a human to be wanted, desired, loved. Nabeel’s so funny.
To yourself, you are even more curious an object. You are impressed, sometimes, by your own ability to turn a phrase, to come up with a response that’s agreeable or pleasant or — best-case scenario — funny. You are, however, incurably removed. You recognize that, yes, other people find this shit funny, but you can’t bring yourself to smile. Once the cheap thrills of an earned laugh subside, there is nothing left. No, there is something: It is simply emptiness — and with it, sadness.
Truly, there’s little difference between occupying this role of the standard social group and being the token minority friend (double whammy!): I am not afforded the same agency as everyone else. I know who I am: I am by turns snarky and sad, measured by cheerfully dark sarcasm and tempered by toxically low self-confidence, equally steeped in both heavy irony and incredible loneliness. But my reputation is “the funny one.”
Wow, this got needlessly dramatic, didn’t it? Objectively, there’s nothing quite as satisfying than making someone laugh. And complaining about this ability — whether it’s imagined or not — might be a bit hypocritical. After all, what is being funny if not a desperate craving for attention? And now I want, well, more? Fuck off, man.
I probably cried that night because I was embarrassed. There’s nothing probing or insightful about that. But that doesn’t change the fact that I will never be without my sense of humor or my inherent sadness. There is not one without the other. Funnily enough — I don’t know what that means.