Last week, before the premiere of my new show “While You Were Out,” I got my first big national magazine review.
I wasn’t expecting it. I had just had a tooth pulled and my mom was in town for the day to take care of me. I was just minding my own business, sprawled on the couch, taking painkillers like Pez, flipping through a magazine. There it was: my name with the two-word description, “incessantly vacant.” Incessantly vacant.
Me? Vacant? I got up, gripping the folded-over magazine, and commenced one of those slurry, self-important monologues not uncommon to guys hanging out in front of a halfway house with no teeth (fitting, since I was down a tooth myself).
“I’m a lot of things, Mom, but vacant? I didn’t put down ‘The Bell Jar’ until the end of junior high. I won first and second place in a poetry contest when I was 9 — and both poems were about the Holocaust! Vacant! There’s no vacancy here!”
It wasn’t clear whether this was a review of the host I replaced or of me, but it didn’t matter. As I must have said 30 times in four minutes, pacing and stumbling around with that stupid magazine in my sweaty grip, “You can’t un-ring a bell.”
What I felt at that moment was so painful, it was hard to believe I was on painkillers. Sure, I thought, no one reads this crap, other than all of my peers. It was a humiliating sucker punch. It was picking teams and I was last, right after the kid with an inhaler in his pocket. It was what we humans live to avoid — being shamed in a public forum.
I sat down, looked at my mom, and realized I should do her proud by acting with grace and dignity. Instead, I got on the Internet and got the journalist’s home phone number in Staten Island, N.Y. He was going to get a piece of my drug-altered mind. I wrote his number on a scrap of paper and my mom gently suggested I wait 24 hours before making the decision to call. If you shouldn’t operate a car on Vicodin, you probably shouldn’t get behind the wheel of your career.
The longer I thought about it, two things became clear. The first was that, once and for all, I would have to accept the idea that not everyone was going to like me. I really hate that. But if I was visiting a mental hospital and a patient yelled, “You’re Marie Osmond,” would I start singing “I’m a Little Bit Country”? No. I don’t agree with that narrator. Do I honestly think I’m vacant? I don’t, and my opinion of myself has to matter more than some guy in Staten Island who doesn’t even know me.
The bigger lesson is that most painful things in life are eventually funny. My friend said to me, “At least you’re consistent. He could have called you ‘periodically vacant.'” Within two days, the review was becoming a funny anecdote, and that’s no small thing. That’s everything.
In college, I had this blond-haired, blue-blooded boyfriend from Massachusetts. I went to stay with his family for Thanksgiving and I was so in love and so nervous that I actually wet the bed. Yes, wet the bed. It traumatized me so much I’m pretty sure it actually changed my DNA. Five years later, I wrote a show about it. People loved that story. They could relate.
I finally understand the trick. If you can compress the amount of time from shameful incident to funny story, you’re golden.
In the recent flap about the movie “Barbershop,” Jesse Jackson took offense at comments in the movie about several black icons. “You would not make Golda Meir the butt of a joke — it’s sacred territory,” he said. Once again, Jesse is wrong about us Jews. I swear I’ve looked at myself with a severe hair-do and no makeup and sighed, “Ugh, I look like Golda Meir.”
Humor is healing and we’ve always needed it. My dad made a joke at my grandfather’s funeral. We joked when my aunt killed herself. We still joke about that, not out of disrespect but out of necessity. Taking tragedy and death and humiliation seriously won’t stop them, so it seems the only course of action is to feel, process, grieve and, finally, lighten up if you can.
I never called that writer in Staten Island. I did call to cancel my subscription to the magazine (I may not be able to chew solid food, but I do have my pride). The phone operator asked, “Why are you canceling? I have to put a code in the computer.”
“Well, I try to understand your magazine, but I’m too … vacant.”