Embracing Awkward

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  • Tweeting Myself to Death: The Rise & Fall of @prodigalsam

    “What is failure? Failure is what people do ninety-nine percent of the time. Even in the movies: ninety-nine outtakes for one print. But in the movies they don’t show the failures. What you see are the takes that work. So it looks as if every action, even going crazy, is carried off in a proper, rounded-off way. It looks as if real failure is unspeakable. TV has screwed up millions of people with their little rounded-off stories. Because that is not the way life is. Life is fits and starts, mostly fits. Life doesn’t have to stop with failure.” - Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome

    One of my friends is fond of saying that every person you meet is like a book: they have a spine and a story. If that’s true then the last six months of my life would make for an incredibly interesting chapter. Not everyone can say that the lead voice actor of Ratatouille called you a “piece of sh*t.” But I can. And I hope with all my heart that makes it into my eulogy somewhere. 

    I joined Twitter in March of 2009 (in my head I sound just like Morgan Freeman right now). My first two tweets ever were as follows: “Heading to [some friends' house] for our bible study cookout...hope the potato salad turns out alright. Good times hopefully to be had by all...” followed up by “Had a great time at the cookout. thankful for friends. good times had...” Slow down Ernest Hemingway! The Pulitzer committee isn’t ready for your gripping descriptions of bringing potato salad to a cookout.

    I quickly moved on from tweeting the mundane parts of life in painfully boring ways to set my sights on becoming the next big “gospel tweeter.” If you don’t know what that is, then you are a normal human being. Don’t get me wrong, I still love and follow a lot of guys who mainly use Twitter to share quotes and articles about grace. I love grace. I just sucked at tweeting about it, mainly because I was doing it for all the wrong reasons. Nothing betrays a genuine resting in grace like a desire to be widely known and heavily retweeted. Pretty glad Google hasn’t come out with a Hidden Motives Translator yet because all of those tweets would simply read, “Listen Jesus is great, but I really need this guys.”  

    Then something strange happened. Three things really. The first was a good friend straight up told me one day, “You should stop being so serious on Twitter and just try to be funny.” By this point I had found @JonAcuff (I think he was still going by @prodigaljohn at the time, the inspiration behind @prodigalsam in the first place). He was the first Christian I ever met on Twitter who was really funny; not “church youth group” funny, but “could write jokes for SNL” funny. So I listened to my friend and started trying my hand at writing funny tweets. I still remember my first attempt at a joke: “I’d trust a drunken Gary Busey before trusting someone who buys cheap toilet paper.” Probably should have just called it quits there, but I kept going, just like that jogging scene in Forrest Gump

    The second thing that happened is that we found out our youngest daughter was diagnosed with a rare condition called Dandy-Walker. You should know that she’s doing great now. She’s 2.5, and to quote Shakespeare, “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” I will never forget the day my wife came home in tears from a routine ultrasound, though. They told her that something was seriously wrong with our little girl's cerebellum. Then there were tests, visits to out of town doctors, and more tests. All they could tell us was that something was deeply wrong with the way our little girl’s brain was developing, and there were no guarantees how it would all turn out. 

    One of my favorite comics, Tig Notaro, likes to say that “comedy = tragedy + time.” I love that because that’s what comedy became for me, a way of holding on to a pocketful of light in a sea of darkness; a way of laughing at the (hard) days to come. It’s the conversation between Gandalf and Sam in The Return of the King: “A great shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then as sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed.”  Twitter became an outlet for laughter. And if you listen to laughter closely enough you can hear the echoes of hope.

    The third thing that happened, and easily the most embarrassing, is I paid money to join this website called Favstar.fm. They should change the name to Internetcrack.fm, because I was irrepressibly and obssessively hooked. The short version is you pay $30 for a 6 month membership so you can give people a virtual trophy for the “Tweet of the Day.” It’s not as sad as it sounds; it’s way sadder. It’s the most successful World of Warcraft gamers in the world purposely throwing a party to make fun of you sad. But it was a great way to meet other funny people on Twitter, and I eventually ended up making it to the “Most Popular of Favstar” page, which, in the words of another funny person on Twitter, is “like being a best selling author in Narnia.” 

    The great thing about Twitter is that it's a safe place to say those things you often think, but rarely feel comfortable saying out loud. This is also the terrible thing about Twitter. Which is why one of the most profound parts of Louis CK’s most recent appearance on Conan is when he talks about the difference between calling someone fat to their face vs. online. When it’s face to face you’re forced to watch what it does to the other person. But when it’s online you're solely concerned about what it does to you. And it feels so, so good. It’s porn but with words.

    And even though he never mentions Twitter by name, part of his broader point is that the danger of being constantly connected is that we lose the ability to connect. This was the dark side of Twitter for me, being so connected that I gradually stopped connecting with the most important people in my life. Or to quote Justin Timberlake in The Social Network, “First we lived on farms. Then we lived in cities. Now we live on the internet.” The problem with living on the internet is that it’s not where your family lives, or most of your friends. They're at home. Waiting for you to come sit down, look them in the eyes and connect with them.

    “The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush. You then start to care about the abstraction of the network more than the real people who are networked, even though the network by itself is meaningless. Only the people were ever meaningful.” - Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget

    I thought I knew what awkward was until a Sharpie handed girl asked me to autograph her tank top at the beach one day. No one ever tells you what the other side of this creepy exchange feels like, a tornado of flattery and embarrassment. Do you sign it, or respectfully decline? If you choose to sign it, what can you write to seem as less douchey as possible? All I know is somewhere in Texas a girl woke up today with a tank top tucked away in her drawer that reads “@prodigalsam” in all caps on the back. This is as close to feeling like Drake I’ll ever get. Unless you count that time I bought a pair of Wallabees with cash. Thanks Dave Ramsey. 

    This is the part of the story that could come across a little arrogant. So to keep it in perspective think of it as that party in Titanic before they all die. They’re dancing and drinking, doing whatever the 1912 version of grinding was, and they have no idea what’s about to happen. That was me. Minus the making out with Kate Winslet part. 

    In my wildest dreams I never thought I'd have as many followers on Twitter as I did. 130,427 to be exact. But who’s counting? I was. It was my self-worth stock market, and I followed it hard. Counting your followers on Twitter is like counting your money in Monopoly: you know it’s not ultimately worth anything, yet in that moment it feels like everything. Your card may have just been declined at Chipotle, but guess who owns Boardwalk and runs that town like Rihanna and Jay-Z?

    Becoming internet famous did buy some cool things. Brunch with Flynn Rider in LA. Texting with the Bachelor. Disney’s Jessie sending a birthday message to my girls. Dwight from The Office giving me a shout out. These are moments I will work into as many conversations as possible for years to come. "This rain is really coming down. Speaking of rain, did I ever tell you about that time Rainn Wilson defended me on Twitter?” 

    But it also cost me some things too. Namely my integrity and identity. Sometimes people ask, “How did you do it?” and I typically shrug my shoulders, give some important tipping points and say, “I honestly don’t know it just sort of happened.” What I should say is that all you have to do to get a lot of followers on Twitter is figure out who’s cool and desperately align yourself with them. Because it’s about perception, not reality. It’s the “he’s with us” of the internet.

    Jonathan Franzen warns about this danger in his recent essay “What’s Wrong with the Modern World.” He writes, “One of the worst things about the internet is that it tempts everyone to be a sophisticate – to take positions on what is hip and to consider, under pain of being considered unhip, the positions that everyone else is taking.” Integrity is about being the same person, with the same convictions, in any and every situation, with any and every crowd. But it’s hard to have convictions when you’re constantly wondering if they’re cool. 

    The other danger is looking to the internet for your identity, instead of the other way around. That's why Jaron Lanier likes to say, “You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.” The internet cannot hold the weight of your identity; only reality can. Twitter became a place for me to be someone else, someone I struggled to be in real life. It’s what I call pulling a sad Batman. You change into your alter-ego at night, but instead of fighting crime you’re fighting for retweets. Also you don’t wake up in a mansion with an amazing car and a butler. 

    A wise person I know once said, “Fame is a great consequence but a terrible goal.” The problem of fame, even the internet kind, is that you sacrifice knowing yourself for being known. In turn you sacrifice friends for fans. And the reality is all the love in the world means almost nothing when it comes from people who know who you are but don’t really know you.

    “Looking foolish does the spirit good. The need not to look foolish is one of youth’s many burdens; as we get older we are exempted from more and more, and float upward in our heedlessness, singing Gratia Dei sum quod sum.” - John Updike, Self-Consciousness: Memoirs

    “Will my mom be able to read this and still be proud of me?” That was the only question I had for the reporter from our local newspaper as he called to let me know he’d put the finishing touches on his story. A few weeks earlier we had spent an hour or so sipping coffee, him jotting down notes as he listened to my story. It hadn’t dawned on me then that he might not actually believe what I was saying. Now it seemed disappointingly obvious. Like a twist in a M. Night Shyamalan movie. Somewhere M. Night Shyamalan is eating pretzels as I write this. He loves twists.

    They say that there are two sides to every story. More like three. Four even. This is the point Sarah Polley makes in her brilliant documentary, Stories We Tell. The film tries to piece together the tragic, mysterious story of her family, filtered through the lens of her siblings as they remember it. It opens with her father reading from Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace: “When you are in the middle of a story it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion, dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you're telling it, to yourself or to someone else." Our stories aren’t often as neat as we’d like them to be because we ourselves are messy.

    It’s a funny thing to read articles written about you, all by people who have never met you or talked to you. It feels a little bit like being robbed, except instead of your wallet being stolen, it’s your chance to tell your story. One of the most profoundly human things you can do is talk to someone instead of about them; to listen to them tell their story instead of telling your own about them. This is my attempt to tell a story that I feel rightfully belongs to me. It’s kind of like a burrito from Taco Bell in that it has 5 layers and made me a little sick to my stomach. As a pastor, naturally I love alliteration, thus the title, “Things that Start with P.” My apologies in advance that it sounds like it was written by a depressed Dr. Seuss. 

    1. Plagiarism. There is only one thing comedians hate more than other more successful comedians: plagiarists. Take it from Dane Cook, or Carlos Mencia, who both faced serious accusations of plagiarism in the course of their careers. This was an accusation leveled against me as well, that I was purposely stealing other peoples’ jokes and repackaging them as my own. Even though my initial reaction to these accusations was to be hurt by them, the more I’ve thought about it the more I think there was fair criticism in the accusations. To me, plagiarism has always been about a person’s intentions. While I can honestly say in my mind I never purposely ripped off another writer or comedian (lots of people I supposedly stole from actually followed me at the time), I do think it’s fair to say I repackaged jokes. At the time I thought I made them enough my own that it didn’t qualify as plagiarism. I know better now. I never should have repurposed a joke without first checking with the comedian or writer who originally wrote it. This was foolish and selfish on my part, and not the first time in my life I’ve been both of those things. Just ask my wife. 

    2. Parallel thought. A friend once described twitter as “3 million people all trying to make the same joke.” I was one of those 3 million. I felt like many critics minimized the possibility of parallel thought, or a common joke premise, leading me and other writers to a similar joke. This was exactly Rainn Wilson’s point when he came to my defense. Most people don’t know that whenever someone pointed out that a tweet I had done had been done by someone else before, I almost always took it down. The mistake I made was to apologize for it, which looking back people took as an admission of guilt, instead of a polite way of saying “we both had the same thought, but because you had it first you win.” When critics say people approached me time and time again about plagiarism, I assume this is what they mean. But to me this was always about parallel thought, never about plagiarism. As an introvert there are few things I hate more than being misunderstood, which is a problem since introverts typically hate talking, especially to human beings.

    3. Patton Oswalt. What Batman is to Gotham City criminals, Patton Oswalt is to comedy plagiarists. He has very little patience for anyone attempting to advance their own career based upon the work of others, especially his friends. I actually love this about him, that he has a strong sense of justice and honor. But I think when it came to me there were two major assumptions he made. One was to assume what everyone was saying about me was true. In reality, if you followed the chain of accusations all the way to the bottom, you would find a couple of peers doing everything they could to discredit me, to prove that I was a thief and a fraud. But some of those peers were Patton’s friends, and typically we trust what our friends say about someone. The other was to assume that non-comedians can’t be funny. Part of Patton’s critique felt like him basically saying, “leave comedy to the professionals,” which is similar to what @briangaar, the comedian behind the Borrowing Sam tumblr, tweeted the night he launched it: “I don’t care about Twitter but @prodigalsam is starting to f**k with my money and needs to be stopped.” All of this was in response to rumors that I was getting into stand-up comedy and had a book deal in the works, when in reality I’ve done stand-up once and am nowhere close to having a book deal. Patton Oswalt is a hilarious, successful, and beautiful human being. I just wish he had treated me more like one.

    4. Pastor. Did it matter that I was a pastor? Yes and no. No in the sense that it was more about the allegations than it was about my vocation. Yes in the sense that being a Christian pastor in the comedy world is like being a muggle at Hogwarts. People either hate you or are just generally confused and suspicious about why you’re there. It also mattered in the sense that the creative approach is vastly different in both worlds. In ministry the last thing you want to be is original. You want to see yourself as building upon the work of those who’ve gone before you. And you’re not afraid to take a thought or idea and put it into your own words. Not so with comedy. I think I brought what Kirby Ferguson calls “Embrace the Remix” into writing jokes. For me the tension was “Thou shall not steal” versus “There’s nothing new under the sun.” But I definitely made mistakes and now realize very few, if any, comedians hold this same position. And I understand that if my living depended on my jokes, I probably would feel much more protective of them too. 

    5. Pride. I was proud. Too proud to receive fair criticism. Too proud to not respond to unfair, or false criticism. Too proud to admit when I had been careless. Too proud to give up a platform that had become too much of an identity. As a pastor who loves to quote, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” I should have known better. But I didn’t. And for that I am truly sorry and ask forgiveness from family and friends, fans and critics. I am super thankful to know and serve a God of second chances. But I am also not naive enough to think the world works in the same way. And that’s ok. Because my life is much, much better than I deserve. 

    If you went back to Facebook around the time we found out the hard news about our youngest daughter, and when I started finding comedic solace in Twitter, you would find the following quote from Marilynne Robinson on my wall: “That is how life goes--we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord's.” It was a line I desperately clung to for her. Now it’s become a line I desperately cling to for me. By the way, my mom read the article. She told me she has always been so proud to be my mom. The wilderness is still the Lord’s.