February 28, 2020

On Being a Character

The Talmud says that we should always judge other people favorably. We must also judge ourselves favorably. — Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

You’re being judged no matter what, so be who you want to be. — Anonymous

Mark: Listen, Mom. You’re not my judge.
Mother: Oh yes, I am.

An expression you hear a lot these days is, “I don’t know what to believe anymore.” I also heard it a lot as a kid. Growing up, I constantly was judged for certain things I said and did. At times, the “judgments” were right. Drawn from “Aesop’s Fables,” I was labeled “the boy who cried wolf.” 

I can’t tell you how many times while growing up, people said to me, “Is that true?” “We can’t tell with you.” “You say everything with such a straight face.” “I’d like to believe you.” “You’re a little faker.” A few times, when I asked my aunt or uncle something, they would look at my parents and ask, “Is he on the level with this?” I guess if you’re 6 and you ask your uncle to lend you $1,000 for a week and won’t tell him why, then adults aren’t quite sure what to think. 

In school, I used to raise my hand to answer a question and the teacher would say, “Mark, if I call on you, are you going to be funny or are you going to answer the question?” I never knew how to answer that because I never knew what was going to come out of my mouth. 

When I became a comedian, it got worse. Almost everyone I met would say things like, “I can’t tell when you’re joking and when you’re not joking.” If a person can’t tell when a comedian is joking, that’s a bad sign. Often I’m not joking and really want to say something I think is important but it’s frustrating when I’m trying to be serious and I see people waiting for a punch line that’s never coming. 

Being a character means that life is generally never dull. The little boy who cried wolf did it because things got dull. 

In 1990, I got married and started a family. You would think at least these people would get me. Not the case. My wife and kids can’t figure me out. They say things like, “Oh yeah, sure.” Or, “Show me where you read that.” Or, “You’re making that up.” Unless it’s confirmed that I have either smallpox or diphtheria, they think I’m exaggerating if I say I’m sick (although when I was a kid, I did stick the thermometer under hot water so I could stay home from school. I never understood why my mother didn’t call the doctor when I handed her the thermometer and it read 109 degrees). 

Even now, if one of my kids gets ill and I tell them that I’ve had what they have, I hear, “We know you’ve had every disease known to man. It’s amazing you’re still alive. What diseases haven’t you had?” When I was young, my mother would say to me, “Mark, you’re not normal. Nobody acts the way you act.” I know I exaggerate and at times, make up things. That’s nothing new to me. 

In spite of my obvious character flaws, the good news is that people seem to like hanging out with me. I think it’s because I’m what people call a “character.” I’ve been blessed that people seem to like characters and are willing to put up with me. Accusing me of being a character is something I’ve never minded. I’ve heard, “You know, Mark, you’re a real character.” or “You little character, you.” 

I must admit it made me feel good. It seems special. Being a character means that life is generally never dull. The little boy who cried wolf did it because things got dull. Being a character means keeping yourself and other people on their toes. Being a character is fun. As long as no one gets hurt, why not?

If you think I’m joking about any of this, I’m not. Or am I? I don’t even know myself anymore.

Mark Schiff is a comedian, actor and writer.