The other day I walked past Bahgo Beega, and I immediately had a feeling of dislike. Most improvisers who I have not seen in nearly a decade would elicit no strong opinion at all, but merely seeing Bahgo made me think "I can't stand this guy." It was involuntary. I don't think he saw me—though I don't think he ever saw me—and we did not say hi. It was not just that he was unfriendly so many years ago. I can forgive unfriendliness pretty easily. It was that he was unfriendly and talented. I admired him, thought he was hilarious, and I wished he thought the same of me. He didn't—so fuck him.
My first reaction to that reaction is that I am less charitable than I used to be. I did not like him very much when I did improv, but I tried not to judge. He was shy, I sometimes thought, like how a pretty girl in high school merely seems snobby but is really just defensive or nervous. Or, even more simple than that, I figured I didn't know him well. Nearly a decade out of improv, baptized in the bitter waters of professional disappointment, I look at him more harshly. I think he was one of those great improvisers who only tolerated other great improvisers, and if he and his peers did not lump you into their group, he did not have time for you. Sometimes I even think of him like a minor villain in a F. Scott Fitzgerald story—talented, smart, and indifferent to people not lucky enough to live on Summit Avenue.
Plus, I disliked him. I found him, like Bahgo, unfriendly. And also like Bahgo, Dingo only appeared to be friendly to the other people who were accepted into the right clique.
(A drunk improviser I will call Pete because that was his real name, and who I rather liked, once gave me the exact same assessment. I did not know him well, and during an otherwise pleasant conversation over beers he told me he thought I was an asshole. You know, because it seemed like I never had time for him, only liked the right people, etc. The nerve.)
I know I never found Dingo funny. Now, with the jaundiced view of the ex-something, I wonder if I would find Bahgo funny today. Being jaded can purify one's critical eye, right? Maybe not, but I wonder how much of my laughter was deference to someone higher in the pecking order, how much was deference to received opinion.
Laughter is a social tool, not just a spontaneous reaction. Sometimes you laugh at your boss's joke because he is the boss, and sometimes you laugh at the boss's joke because he is being funny. Do you always know the difference? Are you always in tune with your emotions, and not just your emotions, but your constantly shifting needs and social calculations? Bahgo and Dingo were opportunistic, at least according to my accusations. They only laughed at those, or even smiled at those, who they were supposed to like. Was I that much different?
At the time I thought yes, of course. There were many improvisers who struck me as assholes who were hilarious, and many I thought were nice, kind, great people who were not remotely funny. I felt I was objective, and doled out my laughs to those who earned them. In fact I gave myself points for objectivity. Some of my friends hated a guy and that was it. On stage, he was done. Nothing he could do would make them crack a smile. I was not like that.
Should I have been? I am not making an argument for being a jerk. I am wondering if a little less deference would have been better for me. If I treated Bahgo's jokes more skeptically, would I have removed myself from the pecking order that I believed he was sustaining? And what if I skipped all the "he's having an off-night" stuff with Dingo? Would I have been a better improviser if I owned my opinion, and, in some weird way, been both less deferential to and less judgmental of guys like them? Would I have emerged from improv less bitter-- or maybe, not emerged at all, but still be in comedy somehow? Or on a more human level, would I have liked Bahgo and Dingo more, being free of needing them to like me?
There is an off chance that Bahgo saw me the other day, and an off, off chance he too has a strong opinion about me that he has since spent some time analyzing.
But probably not.