On this past episode of “This American Life,” ultimate Bro Ira Glass affectionately eulogized his friend, recently deceased writer David Rakoff, like so: “He was just a great writer; lucid and funny and mean and big-hearted. He was that way in conversation, too.” I was struck by this -the way “mean” was used as a compliment, almost wistfully; as if it were a quality for which we all strived. And, having read a bit of Rakoff’s writing, I guess I would say the same; though it took Ira Glass to put a word to it, simple as it is. “Mean.” You learn that word when you’re four: the connotation negative. But now as I’m a full-blown adult (I’m almost off of my parent’s cell phone plan - another year or two, here, guys) the use of it as a compliment seems apt. “Mean” seems to represent something else now, a kind of honesty.
There’s a guy I’ve known for a while and he’s just friggin’ nice. He’s like a big, blond Golden Retriever. Everything he says is encouraging, he always smiles, and he wears the clothes of someone who doesn’t even consider that other humans could potentially judge him in this regard (a LOT of left-breast-moose-insignias and cargo jeans). He might be the nicest guy I know. And I can’t stand him. Talking to him is a brutal exercise in patience, a Chinese water torture of words; every moment I speak to him I feel closer to madness, like I’ll go home and paint my walls in my own sh*t. And I think I’ve pinpointed the issue - he’s never mean. He’s like an island of honest kindness in the middle of rotten Manhattan. But isn’t that my problem, not his? What is wrong with me that I have nothing to say to someone so nice? He’s unwilling to utter a bad word about anyone or anything. Am I only capable of conversing at great lengths about the sh*t I hate? Is Phish the worst band of all time? I wrestled with these ideas for a long time (when I wasn’t ragging on hot chicks or hipsters) and for a few times when I’d see the Golden Retriever, I’d try to keep up with his positivity, his endless earnestness. I can be a better man, too, I thought; a perfect beacon of human kindness upon which all others would gaze and steer toward. Me and Mother Theresa: models of the selfless soul. Hell, when it was all said and done, they’d probably reserve a bed in heaven waiting for her and I to bang like orangutans, the sweat dripping from my heaven-sculpted biceps onto her prone, heaving body. And I would successfully maintain that idea for about a minute before I almost fell over dead from the fumes of my own bullsh*t. I couldn’t do it. I was weak. Or was I? The more I rolled it around in my head, the less sense it all made to me; the less I thought about Mother Theresa’s heaven-shorn pubic region (just a wisp of soft hair...perfect).
Then the other night a comic I’ve gotten to know came strolling over to some friends and me and just casually starting talking about how he fell asleep during a film he was acting in - or as he called it, “during the shoot.” We are not friends. This was not a friendly anecdote thoughtlessly placed in the middle of a discussion about movies. This was an act of petulant insecurity, meant to build him up on the pathetic, non-movie-acting backs of the group he just approached. I was feeling punchy. I said, “Spielberg must have been pissed.” Not terribly clever, I know, but the missile hit its mark. He stopped in his tracks, mouth agape, pondering the pointlessness of his life and his tiny, tiny penis (at least in my memory). He and everyone else around us knew that those five words really meant, “I don’t give a shit about that NYU film student’s movie you applied for on Craigslist.” He walked away. I felt a kind of charge, a sort of righteousness. My friends thanked me. This wasn’t the first time he’d pulled this crap and I made it clear I wouldn’t stand for it. It was an honest reaction and I didn’t have a whisper of regret. I felt like the Spartacus of New York basement open mics.
And so I came to an earth-shattering conclusion: that kind-hearted Golden Retriever of a man isn’t kind on purpose - he’s just too stupid to be anything else. I mean, how can you operate in life without a negative opinion? How can you not hate a guy in a button down shirt, under a t-shirt, which is THEN under a zip-up hooded sweatshirt!? How can you not roll your eyes at a person who walks too slow or too fast down the sidewalk? How can you take a subway and not care about the guy leaning against the pole making it so your hand is caressing his gross hair? Doesn’t that inherently designate no opinion? If nothing is bad then what’s good? You are either a seventh-level buddhist, or you’re just dumb. Nothing he says has any depth or opinion to it - you can’t float a boat on an empty ocean. Or perhaps he’s a genius, but refuses just to say unkind things; but at that point, aren’t you just mislabeling the person you are? If your actions misled people about the thoughts you have, aren’t you living a lie? Maybe the right kind of mean subtly teaches others to cut the bullshit. Maybe “Mean” IS a word worthy of a friend’s eulogy.
And listen, I know there is a downside here, like everything. I mean, of course there is, especially these days when it seems like the internet exists purely to write an online column about Bro-culture from a coffee shop (cough cough), and to call people “ass-cats” or “pussies” or “lion cum eaters” or “kitten vaginas” (I just watched a bunch of cute kitten videos on YouTube). And there is the kind of “mean” that’s sadistic, built only to cut others down. But that’s not just mean, it’s snark, devoid of any honest self-awareness. I’m referring to meanness as a method of honesty. It may not reveal an unassailable truth, but it will reveal a truth about you, and really, that’s all that matters. So be mean, be a dick - just be upfront about it. Don’t subtly hint at some meanness with a wink or a nudge or under a veil of sarcasm. Tell truth and know sometimes the truth is mean. Tell truth, so long as you tell it about yourself as well.
After all, no one wants to talk to a saint. Unless she’s going to leave that cool Nun hat on while we bang. Oh, baby...
Jared Freid is a New York City-based comedian. You can follow him on Twitter @jtrain56 for videos, columns, and more descriptions of what sex would be like with Mother Teresa.