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  • Max Oltmanns

Why I Joke

Preface: I really try to avoid getting up on my soap box as an adult because it’s what dicks do and I was such a dickish child. Still am. But seeing this animation I made reminded me that you have to occasionally lug out the soapbox and brush off all the tears and love songs you wrote for girls you had crushes on. You have to wipe away all the vomit and blood from those embarrassing drunken nights, call your mother and apologize for stealing that money for drugs. Then, you just get on that box and expose yourself to an unsuspecting pedestrian.

I remember making this animation at Montclair State University in the first art class I had taken since the seventh grade. That class was led by Ms. Jacoby, whom I would discuss romantic comedies with. Because it was New Jersey and Visual Arts 101, no one in the class had much artistic education. On the first day, I could tell I was the most practiced artist there because other students would ask me if I could draw a proper circle for them to represent a sun on the horizon in their landscape illustrations. It was bothersome, but it was the closest I had ever come to being regarded as a real artist. I think my work might have also caught them off guard because it’s a depressing animation and I seemed like an upbeat kid at the time. I didn’t learn much in the class, other than the names of some artists I took inspiration from. William Kentridge inspired this particular work.

It was the only animation I had ever done and I haven’t done one since, even though I have a deep passion for the medium. Why? For the same reason I don’t have the patience to learn anything more complicated than “Let It Be” on the piano and put it into practice; I love music, but it’s a field I know I have no future in. I love painting, but I’m easily frustrated when I can’t put exactly what I’m thinking down on the canvas because of my stupid fingers. I love sports, but I have the body of a decaying banana. That is to say, I quit all these things because I wasn’t patient.

Teachers would always accuse me of “cutting up” in class which was the polite way of telling my parents I was an asshole who wouldn’t stop talking, so any real academic aspirations flew out the door in ninth grade biology. It seemed like the only thing I was good at when I was a kid was getting people’s attention, so class-clowning came effortlessly all throughout my adolescence. I believe that’s why joke writing is such a safe space for me. No matter how hacky or clever the joke is, it usually only takes me a moment to write a first draft. Kind of like being an asshole in front of your peers.

That freshman course at Montclair was the catalyst for me transferring to Pratt as a sophomore. Although I was a mediocre artist, I knew that I would be able to surround myself with super talented people at an amazing art school. I have this obsession with being able to prove myself in every facet of life I believe to be captivating, to show people, “look at this thing I can do!” If a porn producer approached me with a contract, I’d have to turn him away because I’m incredibly camera shy, but only after some serious soul-searching. I’m spread incredibly thin. People in my life, I’m sure, can see that. I attribute this distracted artistic nature to childhood ADHD and adult manic depression. It didn’t take long for the class clown within me to morph into Pennywise. All my jokes float down here.

Truthfully, Pratt was just the sidecar to my actual dream. I knew my parents would only allow me to live in Brooklyn if I was attending school there, but I really went to New York for stand up comedy. Some of my favorite comedians came out of New York, so I thought if I was going to get into the entertainment industry, it would be here. That was something I had to convince my parents of. From an early age, my passion was writing because they said I had a knack for it, though they overlooked the fact that I've read maybe ten novels cover to cover. Through comedy, I’ve come to find my real passion is attention, and a great way to get attention is through humor. I’ve often made a complete ass of myself competing for attention, and here I am again, fishing for yours.

I’m guilty of showing peers my work with the pretense of wanting feedback, when really all I wanted was flattery. I can count on one hand the amount of stories I have finished in my adult life because nearly all of the stories I begin writing end up scrapped because I nitpick. Writing jokes is the easiest way for me to receive affirmation so, naturally, all my work is layered with an irony that tends to cheapen its dramatic nature. The first joke I told on stage was this: “As you can see I’m kind of nervous. I’m a nervous person. Very nervous. For someone who’s so nervous, I’ve had a lot of unprotected sex. My mom once told me she could always trust me because I was never much of a risk taker. Okay, I’ve never worn a condom.” I just recently wrapped up my thesis, which is all about protagonists afflicted with various mental illnesses. It’s quite bleak, but hey, it’s captivating too. I’m like a tormented kid at the animal hospital, crying as he watches his Golden Retriever put down, but laughing every time the veterinarian wearing pink crocs squeaks by; the morbidity amuses me.

Seeing girls I had crushes on in high school doing creative stuff on social media reminds me why I do creative shit. I can feign it’s about personal or professional growth, but it’s really about them. It’s about the attention I never got from them. I didn’t learn the saxophone a year earlier than the rest of the eight-year-olds in my class because I wanted to be a more skilled musician. I did it because, at that age, I assumed the sax was a pussy-magnet. It wasn’t.

I really have grown to love writing, though. I love grabbing the attention of someone with language. Storytelling is the first art form that every person is taught because children’s books are so impactful on children. I like to tell stories to a group of friends because it’s one of the only times in life where people have to act like they care.

I don’t know where my life (or this) is going, especially after college. I almost don’t want school to end because of the uncertainty. In all likelihood, I’m probably going to have to get a conventional job which won’t suit me, if I can even find one. And I hope that’s me seeing life for what it is, not admitting defeat. When I was a child, the thought of school ending was refreshing. I would have my full life ahead of me and something to show for it. But right now, that something is just a deep desire to distinguish myself which, in today’s world, is like discovering a new color.

Right now, I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I've only recently admitted that to myself. But it’s okay, and that’s something I'm still coming to terms with. Some day, that light will be overwhelmingly blinding. Some day, affirmation will come freely and I won’t need to curse myself for failing to captivate. By then, this attention-seeking will start to make sense.

I guess my point is this: don’t learn the saxophone.


Video by Max Oltmanns


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