#39: Tea Time, by Paul Florez
March 19, 2014
The question of when to use humor is a challenge every young writer eventually faces. Humor is a good way to hook a reader at the beginning of an article or an excellent way to present your closing thoughts. However, from my experience as an amateur humorist and all-around awkward person, there is a fine line between being funny and being offensive. I never considered such a line even existed when I was an undergrad at Florida State University and discovered humor for the first time.
For my Introduction to Article & Essay class, I wrote an Onion-style piece about Paris Hilton holding national tryouts for a gay BFF. The piece was written at a magical time in our nation’s history: the Paris and Nicole Richie fallout was a national headline, Bush was using an antigay platform for his reelection campaign, and the question of how far can reality TV go was being asked. I like to think my gag article epitomized this turmoil. I even went as far as putting a mock quote by an angry heterosexual man that read, “Why do those faggots get to see Paris in her undies? I should be able too as well. It’s sexual discrimination.”
When I read the piece out loud, I unintentionally stressed the word faggots, and my entire class busted out laughing. Understand that I was a shy, semi-out-of-the-closet kid who wore wallet chains and JNCO jeans. I took myself way too seriously back then and making people laugh was like discovering I had a secret superpower. It was in that moment I realized high school was over and I could now be openly friendly and charismatic without retribution. Heck, I proudly called myself a faggot, made crass jokes about my sexuality, and people laughed. It was a brave new world.
Flash forward years later, I would feel the same amount of pride again during my grad program.
The New School has tea time for its writing students every Wednesday. The first time I went was with my pal Jordan. Jordan was assigned as my writing partner my first semester and we quickly bonded. Every morning we’d message each other to let the other know our writing schedule for the day. Eventually our partnership blossomed into a friendship and sipping Earl Gray as newfound besties was just a natural part of our relationship’s evolution.
Jordan and I began talking to a female peer (who we both heavily admired) about the dating scene in Manhattan. I like to think Sex and the City showed the public at large that being single in New York is equivalent to being fabulous, but I still hear from my single girlfriends that people pity them for not having a boyfriend. That’s right, you heard me correctly. In Manhattan, in the year 2014 it is still considered a problem if you’re a female above the age of twenty-four and single.
As all three of us sipped our tea and spoke about boys, female peer jokingly asked if we had any single guy friends for her to date and said something to the effect, “I don’t want a guy who would do something gross like say I love you. Eeek!”
Jordan and I laughed. But perhaps my laugh was the deepest. I was empathetic to female peer. I too felt the crushing blow of a patriarchal society that looked to enslave anyone who challenged the system. I was also a Feminist Minor in college. If there’s something I adore it’s second-wave feminism ala Betty Friedman. All I could think was, “Yes, female peer, you shouldn’t strive to have a guy love you. Let’s grab the pitchforks and start a gender revolution.”
Yea, I was overthinking the moment but I was not only drunk on the tea, but the ambience of just being where I was. Female peer is an excellent writer with a bright future ahead of herself and Jordan is not only gorgeous and talented, but she has also made a name for herself in the vegan community, amassing a tremendous following on her blog (check out that amazing blog, The Blonde Vegan, here LINK: www.theblondevegan.com). Like I felt back in undergrad, I was where I belonged.
I jokingly replied to female peer, “Oh don’t worry, the hetero guys I’m friends with won’t ever say I love you. They may roofie your drink but certainly not something as gross as I love you.”
Female peer stayed silent. Her eyes that were moments ago filled with energy and conversation grew black and narrow. I learned a hard lesson that afternoon. You should never make a date rape joke to a feminist or to someone you hardly know. And if they’re both, you might as well accept the death sentence.
Allow me to be crystal clear. Of course none of my friends would ever date rape an aspiring writer nor do I think seeing one of my contemporaries being date raped funny. If I haven’t stressed the point, as an adult I’ve used humor to deal with my own social anxieties. I spent a great deal of my life being tormented by others. I may come across friendly and happy, but I am terrified to speak to others. Even when I speak to my friends, I stutter and fumble over seemingly phonetic sounding words because I feel that my voice is not worth listening to. Humor allows me to be strong.
Similarly, when I use humor in my writing, it’s how I summon the courage to write and to cope with my issues. When you’ve been through the ringer, and spent everyday of your life being called a faggot, your threshold for humor is just higher than normal people’s.
I have a strict philosophy about awkward situations: when in doubt, go meta. Acknowledge that it’s awkward. Think about it, what better way to ease the tension than recognizing I wasn’t funny and accepting responsibility for such a tasteless joke? I mean, it works for A-list comedians like Chelsea Handler and Kathy Griffin (note I said accept responsibility, not apologize).
“Yea, I’m not funny,” I laughed, “but maybe you can humor me with a fake laugh…”
“No,” female peer replied. “I can’t pretend something is funny when I don’t think it is.”
Female peer walked away and I took in the vulnerability of the situation, feeling a way I had not since high school. I wondered if great humorists like David Sedaris or Tina Fey ever felt like they were still the same, geeky person from so many years ago.
As tea time came to an end that afternoon, Jordan (like a good BFF) lovingly patted my back and laughed at the rest of my jokes. Sometimes in life you just need a good friend to humor you and get your back even when you’re not at your best. I’m sure Paris Hilton would agree.
Paul Florez is currently receiving his MFA in fiction at The New School. He is a contributor for the Huffington Post and his work has also appeared in Slice Magazine, Queerty, and The Advocate. You can follow his misadventures over on twitter @mrpaulflorez.