“Like, that is totally squaresville, man.” Maynard G. Krebbs, to Dobie Gillis
Do you recognize the quote, above?
If you do, you’re old enough to remember when the world was pretty much divided between the “squares” (buzz-killing, humorless mainstream zombies)…
… and the “hipsters” (the dudes and dudettes with no boundaries on experience or knowledge).
I’m not gonna go into the history of the word “hip”… because it would take me days to get through it. Entire Ph.D programs are based on research into this peculiar area of mid-last-century American life…
… and you might be shocked to realize where the original term comes from. (Hint: It’s more about overdosing on cough syrup than being well-read or artsy.)
(Though it was still important to BE well-read as you toasted your brain.)
No. Today, I just want to touch on a small part of this history…
… as it pertains to business.
Here’s what I’m talking about: I have always been attracted to intelligent people…
… and through that attraction, I learned that many smart-ass folks tend to be “free thinkers”…
… which means they aren’t afraid of new ideas, or excursions into the darker areas of human experience.
As a slacker, I was obsessed with writers from the Beatnik ranks (Kerouac, Wm. S. Burroughs)… the “Lost Generation” (Hemingway, Henry Miller)…
… and the travails of First Amendent “freedom of speech” heroes like Grove Press (whose owner was frequently prosecuted, along with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, by insisting on publishing books the uptight element of American politics wanted to ban and censor).
(And yes, they went to jail because The Man didn’t want Americans reading stuff that might be dangerous to the power structure.)
I wanted to know and experience the world as deeply as possible… so reading “dangerous” authors and studying “degenerate” art movements opened me up to ways of thinking completely alien to my otherwise normal lower-middle-class small-town upbringing.
The early lesson I learned from this was alienation.
When you care about stuff that most of the rest of the world is appalled of…
… you start to feel “different”.
Nowadays, geeks have earned some respect. The greatest directors in Hollywood indulge in sci-fi and fantasy, comic books are regarded as high art forms, and wealthy people collect vast archives of childhood memorabilia without shame.
Back in the last century, though, being “different” made you a social leper.
Unless, of course, you were lucky enough to find other like-minded souls to hang out with.
This is why my professional career veered sharply from working with “A List” clients like Rodale and large corporations…
… to entrepreneurs.
The corporate world paid well… but was soulless.
And pretty much mindless, too.
It nurtured conformity and mediocrity.
So when I met Gary Halbert, I chucked everything (and I was one of the rising stars in the “A List” ranks of copywriters) to go slumming in the entrepreneurial world with him.
I turned my back on millions in royalties. Because I valued intellectual stimulation more than collecting coin.
Then, as now, that entrepenurial world was sharp, edgy and wild — like a great street party in a bad part of town.
(While the corporate advertising world is like a mild, boring cocktail party in an overpriced condo where you gotta be careful not to get the white carpeting dirty.)
Changing gigs like that was like taking off a tight-fitting girdle… and breathing deep again.
We could swear like sailors around clients. We were irreverent, on all subjects. We glorified in reading weird literature, and in knowing obscure things.
We built our reputations on being different, and made it pay.
And, through fame, we became magnets for other like-minded writers and marketers.
All my life, I’ve yearned for my own Algonquin Table. (That was the infamous back-room table of a bar in New York back in the Roaring Twenties… where the greatest, wittiest, funniest and most irreverent writers in America hung out and drank and created scenes. Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Robert Benchley — of The New Yorker, the Marx Bros. movies, and early comic novels, respectively — held court there, and every savvy writer of every following generation has lusted for the same kind of opportunity.)
I’ve been lucky to get close over the years.
Hell, it’s one of the main reasons I host and speak at seminars. (Yes, the rumors you’ve heard about the exploits around San Francisco after the recent Hot Seat Seminar there are true. Those photos you’ve seen being Twittered about are real, and untouched.)
(Oh, the shame…)
All of my favorite people are voracious readers, eager to explore scary intellectual alleys and unafraid of self-examination, expanded consciousness, and (gasp!) new ideas.
But here’s the thing: You cannot ever, ever, ever forget…
… that the squares still run the world.
And they are uptight about sex… unamused at sick humor… unforgiving about moral lapses… and pretty much permanent assholes when it comes to what they consider “too much freedom to do just anything you damn well please to do.”
Basically, everything the hep cats consider fun, valuable and worthwhile…
… is taboo to the squares.
And they love to make laws against it.
So you gotta be careful.
It is tempting, when surrounded by your pals (who all think your twisted jokes are hilarious… and who all agree that challenging authority and flaunting rebelliousness and one-upping each other with increasing levels of shocking behavior is just the best way to spend an evening)…
… to be lulled into thinking that what you’re doing is innocent, or even acceptable.
Because, you know, all your buds are “in” on it, and you’re not hurting anybody, and it really IS funny stuff. And the deep thinking really IS profound and intellectually invigorating.
It is a mistake to think there is no danger in embracing and enjoying your “otherness”.
It is, in fact, extremely dangerous.
And I’m not talking about the more obvious stuff, like letting your sexual freak flag fly, or imbibing illegal substances, or even challenging political or religious orthodoxy.
Naw. That’s too easy.
The lesson I learned, early, was this: Most people do not get the joke.
Not “some” people.
A few universities have studied humor, and the results I’ve seen are shocking.
A pitiful minority of folks actually have ANY sense of humor at all… let alone a sophisticated one.
Many learn to laugh on cue when the crowd laughs. They don’t actually “get” what’s so funny, but they want to be part of the fun.
It’s akin to asking someone “You believe in the Bill of Rights, right?”
In America, most will nod enthusiastically. Of course I do. It’s the foundation of our strength as a country.
Of course, if you list out what’s actually IN the Bill of Rights — without telling the average person what you’re quoting — you might get slugged as a commie terrorist.
The disconnect in the brains of most squares is breathtaking.
If you’re smart…
… and you revel in being smart, and educated, and interested in life deeply…
… dude, you’ve got to be careful about how you engage with others.
Halbert and I both had bizarre senses of humor. Our “hobby” during seminars (and we both enjoyed this tremendously) was to try to crack the other one up on stage through passed notes or whispered messages.
Extra points if we did it so well it interupted things. (I almost made Gary wet himself once from laughing so hard. On another occasion, he made me fall off my chair, giggling uncontrollably and snorting snot. On stage. God, I think it’s on film somewhere.)
One of the other ways we entertained ourselves was to insult each other in cruel and vivid terms, publicly.
Oh, we were vicious with each other. It got ugly at times… and I remember those episodes with a smile on my face.
We were good at it. And praised each other’s capacity to absolutely stun ourselves with what seemed to outsiders as hurtful taunting.
Don’t ask me to explain it. I think we shared this trait with a lot of other folks in high-stress positions. It’s the premise of the movie M*A*S*H. (Not the lame-ass TV show, the movie.) (Okay, and the book.)
But here’s the strange part: Frequently, someone from outside our little group would think it was just the greatest idea in the world to join in.
So they would come up to us — as complete strangers — and toss out a crude insult.
And expect us to just laugh, and let him into our confidence as “one of us”.
Remember Curly from the original 3 Stooges? Their routine involved fake fights — they poked eyes, pulled out hair, slugged each other with fervor and generally performed constant assault and battery throughout their Hollywood careers.
Outsiders, however, didn’t always understand that it was part of an act.
So they would come up and poke Curly in the eye. Like it was just the funniest thing in the world.
The squares don’t “get” it.
If you’re on the inside, and you enjoy breaking taboos and challenging social hierarchies and questioning authority…
… don’t ever get complacent about it.
You may not get blow-back for years. Maybe not ever, if you’re one of the lucky few.
However, eventually, being too casual about ignoring the power that squares wield in the world…
… can bite you in the ass in ways that will crush your reality.
Don’t fight it.
The rule is simple: Know your friends, and know when the circle has been breached by outsiders.
Most of the world sleep-walks through their day, and they are genuinely insulted by people who are different.
This is why I love America so much. Thanks to the First Amendment, the pursuit of intellectually-stimulating and challenging humor has been a first-rate entrepreneurial adventure for decades here.
Just never forget that ALL of your favorite current comedians wouldn’t exist…
… without the Lenny Bruce’s, the Smothers Bros., the George Carlins, the Cheech & Chongs, the Mort Sahls, and all the others…
… who often went to jail, and suffered ostracism and FBI stalking…
… so that you could laugh at politicians and religious leaders today.
This is not something you should take lightly.
There has never been a situation like this in the history of civilization. Your smart-ass ancestors always had to look over their shoulders.
It’s better now. But you’re not completely in the clear.
Keep your edgy humor and your twisted behavior under wraps amongst the squares.
And cultivate the situations where you truly can create your own Algonquin Table of like-minded people.
For most of the really good writers I know…
… we have to constantly remind ourselves we’re strangers in a strange land.
And I’m okay with that.
You just gotta stay frosty, and not kick the beast unnecessarily.
If you guys want to hear it, I’ll get into the whole subject of “cool”… which is completely and stupidly misunderstood in this culture.
But it’s heady stuff. Writers talk about it a lot in our small groups.
Let me know if this subject — or any other subject — is something you’d like to see explored on this blog.
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