Searching for the meaning of work:
Comedians hand me some answers
Years ago, my friend Gay jokingly accused me of being a “lazy talker.”
What she meant was that I have a tendency to describe myself as lazy.
My reasons for this are predictably pedestrian.
I’ve been a writer for most of my life, and because my work day seems to involve lots of trips to Dunkin, punctuated by short bursts of sitting and typing, the way I make my living does not seem quite legitimate.
Or quite like work.
Because I grew up on a dairy farm, I had it drummed into me pretty early on what real work is.
Real work makes you sweat. Or freeze. Or quit.
My siblings and I had daily chores, and these barn jobs were fairly physical – hauling full milk pails to the cooler in the milk house, stacking hay bales in high heat of autumn, and weeding designated rows in our large vegetable garden.
Like farm kids everywhere, we perfected the fine arts of procrastination and malingering. My particular specialty was making myself invisible during milking, lest our father notice me and bark out an order.
I suppose that on some level others might consider me a hard worker (I’m sort of productive), but down deep I’ll always be that child wearing winter boots and a hand-me-down jacket, hiding out behind a Holstein and dreaming of a time when I might perhaps find a job I could do while sitting down.
I like knowing and being around hard-working people because they are invested in what they do, and they accept the high stakes risk of failure.
As an adult, my favorite wisdom about work seems to come from comedians. I happen to know a few comics (most are hybrid comedians/writers/actors), and while I can’t really imagine how a cell tower climber or a day trader does their job – or gets out of bed in the morning – the comics I know and whose work I follow all seem to be almost compulsive workers.
Maybe choosing a vocation where success means you “kill” and failure is a “bomb,” draws a special kind of person who is willing to labor like Sisyphus to push a comedy rock up a hill, over and over, for the rest of their lives, or the rest of their career – whichever ends first. (Comedians never seem to retire; they work until their bookings disappear.)
To see this dynamic in extremis, watch the wonderful series “Hacks,” on HBO. Jean Smart (always perfect in every performance) plays the aging legendary Las Vegas diva Debra Vance, whose need to stay on top compels her to spin her wheels in a new direction, visiting some emotionally risky places to rebuild her act.
When a bored and cynical 25-year-old comedy writer named Ava (played by Hannah Einbinder) arrives from LA to assist her, one of the first lessons Vance imparts is … that you need to get out of bed every morning and work work work.
All good work starts with showing up.
JERRY SEINFELD: My all-time favorite documentary about work is called “Comedian” (now available on Netflix). This is a fly-on-the-wall look at the nightly slog of A-list performers, focusing on Jerry Seinfeld, who retired on top with his hit show “Seinfeld,” and then threw out ALL his jokes and started again from scratch.
(In this context, “scratch” means Seinfeld appearing at tiny clubs and going on stage with ONE JOKE. A couple of minutes of material. (Bonus — you get to see this master bomb on a small stage.)
At one point Seinfeld is musing on his dread of taking the stage during those horrible Saturday nights, when much of the audience is too drunk to focus. Cut to wonderful Colin Quinn, who says: There is only one way to do this. You “work work work.”
And Seinfeld says: “Of course you do!”
Every comic I know grinds it out, night after night. It’s a unique kind of hustle: unrelenting and without the certainty (or even the probability) of a payoff.
Also available now — and such a treat — is a two-part documentary about George Carlin (also on HBO), "George Carlin’s American Dream. Carlin’s work ethic was almost as legendary as his ground-breaking material.
While Seinfeld seems to strive for balance, Carlin takes himself very seriously, and while he was an extremely devoted family man (early footage of his inspiring partnership with his ever-supportive wife is beautiful), his work — and his need to stay relevant — kept him on the road well-past the time where he should have retired.
The film, lovingly, produced by his daughter Kelly, lands at a place that makes the viewer wonder what all that work was for.
My own constant effort to achieve some kind of balance — between my work and my home life — has led me back toward a tender echo of my childhood. I have become an avid gardener, and as I put my typing aside to dig and plant and tend my rows (hard, sweaty, demanding work), I often think of that last moment from Candide, where the title character, having suffered through mishaps and unspeakable tragedy, muses: “We must cultivate our garden.”
[My garden — video by Amy]
Railey Jane Savage’s: JUNK FOOD: Stuff I Consume to Feel Better
THE OFFICE SPACE.
“I lovelovelove [the American] THE OFFICE. Love it. However, I haven’t watched a single episode in about three years, and certainly not since Covid. When I was in my deepest, darkest depression the Dunder-Mifflinites were constant companions, and the razor-edged line between cringe and care helped me lean into absurdity while keeping hold of the sentimental stuff. I’ve sent fan mail to Rainn Wilson (“Dwight”) and Paul Lieberstein (“Toby” and a genius TV writer). My first Amazon screenname was rejected because “PhyllisVanceVanceRefrigeration” was too long. I was out of work, but the crew of The Office helped make my time at home a little less grim. However, I don’t dare return to my touchstone because I really, really don’t want to find it has aged poorly.
And since its release in 1999, the show’s slightly older step-cousin, OFFICE SPACE, has only grown more prescient. And infuriating. And less and less satirical.
Going even farther back, some American workplace films that cry for revisiting are WORKING GIRL (1988), NETWORK (1978), THE APARTMENT (1960), MODERN TIMES (1936). These are all great, and only some of them are stuck in time. Others—looking at you, NETWORK—continue to resonate in increasingly alarming ways.
But instead of ruminating on office culture and what Americans have been conditioned to view as ‘work,’ I’d rather wax nostalgic from the sanctity of my current workspace: I get to work from home most of the time, and it has changed my life. I am lucky enough to have a job that can be done remotely, which makes the workplace ‘perks’ of shared spaces, noisy neighbors, and motivational posters ring hollow.
No, I will NOT hang in there, baby!
So, while I do miss out on the unique relationships office culture can foster, I wouldn’t say I miss it.
Bonus #1: A red Swingline stapler signed by “Milton” Stephen Root – one of my all-time favorite character actors who, if you don’t know his name, I guarantee you’ll recognize from seeing his face in no less than three of your favorite movies or shows. For example, he plays Gaston Means in ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ which is how I knew I wanted to include Means as one of the con artists in my book, A Century of Swindles: Ponzi Schemes, Con Artists & Fraudsters(Chapter 6: Ways and Means).
Bonus #2: The last time I went to New York City (fall 2018) I spent a lovely afternoon in Central Park drinking bad wine with my pals. My phone was at 1% battery so I pleaded with my companion to use his to take this picture:
On the left is Ajay Naidu, who leads the vengeful charge against the jerk printer in Office Space. Just to the right is his partner, Heather Burns, who Miss Congeniality fans will recognize as Rhode Island’s #1 fan of April 25th and light jackets. They were walking their teeny-tiny baby through the park until they reached this wine bar, sat down wearily, and proceeded to chug two glasses (apiece) in silence…
Stars: they’re just like us.
Railey Jane Savage is a writer living in central New York state. Find more of her essays, books, art, and cats on her website, www.raileyjane.com
Laura Likes: (Where my friend Laura recommends great stuff)
“When I think of "work," my immediate thought is of physical labor. This may have something to do with me growing up in Kentucky, where one of my first memories is of the Brookside Mine strike in Harlan County in 1973. It was very big news up in Louisville. That's not to say that I don't consider what I do to be work -- I know it is. I'm a radio broadcaster and an editor. It's work. I'm sure whatever you do is work as well.
I'm just saying "worker," to me, means laborer, until I really think about it. At any rate, I like books about work, and thinking about working, and what it means on both the physical and metaphysical senses.
One of my favorites is Studs Terkel's 1974 book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. I think it's almost impossible to be in the radio industry and not have some sort of connection to this book. Studs Terkel was an oral historian, a writer, an actor, and the host of a long-running radio show on WFMT in Chicago. If you're not familiar with his work, you're in for a treat. There's an audio version of the tapes that Terkel recorded of the interviews he did for the book available as well, narrated by Joe Richman of Radio Diaries fame. The book itself is a compendium of people talking about their jobs -- waitresses, miners, sanitation workers, businessmen. It's like a wonderful, intensely thought-provoking time capsule.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is another book I revisit probably once a year. It was written by James Agee, with photographs by Walker Evans. It's about the lives of tenant farmers during the Great Depression. It began as an assignment for Fortune Magazine on sharecroppers, but the project morphed into a proposed three-book undertaking. This volume, published in 1941, is the only one that ended up being written. Fascinating and heartbreaking.
You might also try Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, which touches on similar themes and began its life as an article for Harper's. She drew on her skills as an undercover journalist by taking several minimum-wage jobs, interviewing her co-workers and others, and explaining some of the less-obvious challenges faced by low-wage workers. This book had a major effect on me when it was first published in 2001, and sort of rekindled my interest in journalism and using radio to help people share their experiences.
Certainly, all have a component of social criticism involved, and maybe that's not your thing. Either way, the stories these authors tell are unforgettable, and worth thinking about in the larger context of what work might mean in your life. “
[Laura Lorson lives in Kansas. You can follow her on Twitter @prairielaura]
Emily Mason’s Targeted Upsell: What the Internet Wants me to Buy
Thanks to my perpetual scrolling of various “quality” (garbage) social media sites, I have happened upon BionicGym.
Apparently, BionicGym is not JUST a name that sounds like it came out of a bad ‘80s movie.
It is also not a leg brace or a very weird pair of shorts as the photos might indicate. So what is it?
I cannot wait to tell you.
BionicGym is an exercise device, only without the exercise. Now, anyone has the ability to exercise by sitting perfectly still!
Just stick it on your legs and turn it on, BionicGym creates electrical impulses that make your body shiver and think you're exercising without actually, you know, exercising.
Ohhhhhkay, yah, sure!
Why am I seeing this?
The internet seems to think I need more exercise and that I’m lazy. The internet isn’t wrong per se but…manners.
Did they sell me?
Well, every time I so much as glance at this I start to giggle so….no.
It’s not just that this device is too good to be true…
And it’s not just that it's silly-looking.
Oh no, of course not.
It’s that it’s too-good-to-be-true-and-silly-looking for the low, low price of $750.
Seven. Hundred. And. Fifty. Dollars.
I have absolutely no problem making a fool of myself. But… there are so many ways that I could do it for free:
I could dance to the “get pumped” playlist that I made in 10th grade, fold a fitted sheet, or try to eat spaghetti without making a mess…
Honestly, there are many, many more,
…and none of them will cost me seven hundred and fifty dollars.
[Emily Mason lives, writes, and doesn’t always work out in Chicago]