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Never Play a Joke Unless You’re Sure They’ll Get It

A couple of years ago, I played a joke on a new friend. Instead of laughing about it, she accused me of harassment and breaking and entering. Granted, it wasn’t a very funny joke, but I wasn’t aware the penalty for a comedian bombing was so severe. So I’d like to post a warning for any practical jokers out there: never, never play a joke involving somebody’s car, house, or computer without getting notarized forms signed in triplicate that they’re planning on getting the joke.

First, a little background. This was not the first time I planted a joke grenade on someone’s computer. Allow me to describe just three prior offenses.

In college, back when “sound cards” were brand new and nobody but geeks like me knew how to record or play sound on computers, I changed my friend’s computer startup sound. He was ahead of the technology curve himself and had managed to hook it up to his stereo, so the next time he booted his computer, he got blasted with a deep-voiced recording of God instructing him to fill his disk drive with potato chips. (For the record, he denies following the instructions.)

A couple years later, my girlfriend was running sound for a play that was being performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I’d rigged up a system for them to run the sound cues off of a laptop computer—way ahead of its time back in 1997! When she got to Scotland and booted it up, the joke grenade deployed and she got a very cute romantic animated message from me.

A few years after that, I installed a widget on my brother’s computer so when he booted up, he got HAL9000’s eerie red light on his desktop, reporting loudly that all systems were functioning perfectly.

If you haven’t detected the pattern yet, let me spoil it for you: these jokes are not very funny.

Some very generous souls might say they’re kinda cute in their way. They’re just stupid little joke grenades. They’re mildly subversive, in a spirit of fun, and you wouldn’t think someone would respond to one by suggesting she might file a harassment suit. Right? Then keep reading.

The Characters are Presented

I was producing a regional Shakespeare festival. It was a great group of people that year, younger than usual, and they all joked around a lot together and partied and poked fun all the time. I was friendly with everyone, and joined in on the backstage fun here and there, but I was their boss so I mostly didn’t socialize except with the few who were already my friends. Once the play was in performance, however, most of my job was done and I started to relax. I goofed around with everyone at the opening night party, and over the next few weeks got playful with a few people. One guy I started an ongoing friendly feud with over whether “Superman Returns” was a good movie. One girl I had a laugh with over how obscenely pink her outfit was. Another girl I made fun of because in the play she played a guy. Meanwhile, the cast was regularly making blatant sex jokes backstage and at parties—they were a rather crude bunch, which is part of what made them fun to be around.

The Scene is Set

So one weekend we got rained out and this girl, whom I will call Girl for the purposes of this story, had a party. It was a great party. Great music, nice house, a deck, lots of drink and munchies, everybody up to their eyeballs in alky and having fun. I finally let myself totally relax and drop the Producer title. Girl’s family and friends were there, since they had been planning on seeing the show that night, and I started joking around with them, too—particularly her mom, who was very sweet and smart and a lot of fun. I made fun of Girl for some stuff, she made fun of me, same with the rest of the cast. Good times all around.

At some point, I got to talking about Pride and Prejudice with Girl’s mom; apparently I was the only heterosexual male she knew who was a fan of the book and recent movie. Girl overheard and offered to lend me the BBC version. I was on my way out a bit later, and Girl waved me up to her room to grab the DVD set. She was pretty sotted at this point, much more than I realized at the time. She went through half her DVD collection, talking about how she loved Wes Anderson, then flounced around the room showing me all her posters and art prints and asking me who were my favorite artists—adding a blunt self-deprecating sexual comment I will not repeat here, which I took as another typical backstage joke—then talked about guys a little. Then she sat at her computer and started flipping through her blogs and saying “this is my main blog” and “this is the one where I talk about my love life” and so forth, and checking her gmail, and showing me the avatars and icons she’d created for her blogs. I gave her my official Graphic Designer congratulation for her icon-design skill, and she kept talking about movies and blogs and stuff. It was really cute, actually. She was a spunky girl, obviously a bit tipsy, and just extremely approachable and friendly to me for the first time since I’d hung around her. We continued making fun of each other. It was loads of fun and I thought we were becoming buddies!

The Protagonist Makes a Perilous Mistake

So she bounced out of the room to grab something, and I was just standing there with a couple DVDs in my hand, waiting for her to come back so I could ask if I could borrow another one. A couple of minutes went by, and she never showed up. It turns out she had completely forgotten I was up there, and had re-joined the party!

So I was about to leave, but got another one of my crazy notions. Her gmail was still open, so I hit “Compose” (or whatever it is) and sent an email to myself from her email account, saying something along the lines of “you are the guy I’ve always dreamed of” and a bunch of girlish stuff about arrows and hearts and unicorns—I mean like seriously ten-year-old-girl silliness—just laughing to myself the whole time. I also mentioned the sexual comment she made, saying something along the lines of “I can’t believe I even told you <sexual comment>.” (I don’t remember the exact wording because I deleted the email permanently from my Inbox the next day after finding out she was upset by it.) Why would anyone do that? Because we were buddies talking shit, giving each other a hard time, just like we’d been doing all night.

Then I pasted the links to her blogs into the email, because I thought she was cool and wanted to read & comment like everyone else. I mean, I really could have asked her to just email me the links and she’d likely have done it, but that wasn’t my main goal. My main goal was the joke. I hit Send, and rubbed my hands together mischievously, and waited for her to see something was wrong, check her Sent folder, and then BOOM off goes the joke grenade. “I wrote THAT??? HOW DRUNK WAS I???”

I am the naïvest person alive.

But on with the story. I left with the Pride & Prejudice DVD set she’d lent me. I was jazzed as I drove home, picturing her face as she read the email she’d “written,” scratching her head trying to figure out how drunk she must have been to write such an absurd, childish love note to her producer, doubting her own sanity. Like I said, it wasn’t a particularly good joke—but fun with your friends is made of lots of little bad jokes, not one big good one.

When I am paid to do a job, I generally keep a firm wall up between myself and those who work under me or on my team, excepting those I already know well or are friends with. There were several people in that group I could have played the exact same joke on and gotten a jovial slap on the back, and had the group giggling about it, or planning a practical joke in return. But Girl was not one of those people and I was a moron not to notice it. It never occurred to me it would be seen as anything other than silly and cute.

Unprofessional behavior is common in any field. But even among people, like me, who pride themselves on professionalism, it happens from time to time to break the tension. Office Christmas parties are gold mines for it. Watch The Apprentice and see how some of the best, wealthiest businesspeople turn snarky or childishly playful when they’re not on the job. In the theater, it’s especially pronounced. Every now and then, people—from fellow actors to directors to producers—let their hair down and do things like glue naked pictures to props on closing night. If a character in the play is supposed to open a box and look inside it at a crucial dramatic moment in the play, you can bet on closing night someone will put a rubber sex organ there. The point is, my joke was not only typical, it was tame.

The next day I brought a couple friends and my girlfriend to the play. Girl approached me backstage, and I expected a playful punch on the arm, and maybe some finger-wagging and cheerful chastising. I seriously figured she’d tell everyone, and the cast would all be laughing at the joke. I live in a fucking fantasy land.

The Central Conflict Appears

She was furious. She said calmly, eyes on fire with anger, that she never wanted to see me or speak to me again except as absolutely required for production business. That I had taken advantage of her being drunk to break into her computer and violate her privacy and moreover she was not interested in me and never would be. (How anyone could read the outlandishly fawning dribble I wrote and interpret it as me thinking she was interested in me is beyond me.)

I didn’t know exactly what had just happened, but knew enough to not make things worse by defending myself. (By explaining, for example, that she had sat me down in front of her computer and showed me her blogs, that we were laughing, that she told me some crazy goofy stuff she had no business telling me, etc.) I simply apologized sincerely if she felt I had violated her privacy, and that she had misunderstood my intentions; that my girlfriend would be relieved she wasn’t interested in me, and that I wasn’t the least bit interested in her either. She thanked me for the apology and walked away. I was in a daze. Did that just happen?

The Protagonist Escalates the Misunderstanding

I went home, found the email in my inbox, and permanently deleted it without opening it. I wrote her an email apologizing again. Even though I’d only meant it as a joke, I felt bad. I felt terrible. I hadn’t done what she thought I’d done, but I saw how hurt and violated she felt and that genuinely hurt me too. Empathy, you know. I regretted it.

But then I went on in the email to attempt to explain myself. I tried to explain everything I’ve just explained here in a series of very personal and heartfelt paragraphs, so she would understand that she’d misunderstood what happened. It was just a joke! To make her feel a moment of embarrassment (“How drunk was I???”) and then laugh at the whole thing! Ha ha ha! Whoops.

They Separate as the Tension Builds

Traveling Matt’s
Backpack Almanac:
Tip #3
Apologize now, explain later. Explanations cancel apologies.

What I know now, that I didn’t know then, is that you never explain after apologizing. It nullifies the apology. Explanations cancel apologies. The other person will almost always take it as you defending yourself rather than taking responsibility. No matter how much dirt you have just finished eating, you now have to start all over again—and eat twice as much of it.

Anyway, I flew to Philadelphia the next day to work a weeklong trade show in what was, until halfway through, one of the best weeks of my life. Until I started getting phone calls.

The Climax

The Executive Producer of the theater company called and said I’d been accused of breaking into someone’s computer and reading private diaries. (And variations, like that I’d snuck into her room without her knowledge, and opened up her computer and rifled through it, and so on.) The President of the Board at the theater company called after that, and said he’d heard the same accusation. Then the Stage Manager called and repeated it all over again. I tried my best to explain what happened. At that point, however, it didn’t matter anymore what had actually happened. Once cat pee gets on a couch, the smell ain’t never coming out.

I explained what happened. “You read her private diaries?” they asked me. They President and Exec Producer knew me well and gave me the benefit of the doubt, and to their great credit I don’t think to this day that they believe I did anything other than make a boneheaded practical joke.

In fact, one of them called Girl an unflattering name and said she’d blown it all out of proportion—and I defended her! (Given the fact that she didn’t remember much of what happened and honestly believed I had violated her privacy, I thought her feelings were understandable.)

I patiently explained that I had simply sent links to her Livejournals (a concept I had to define for them), two or three of which she’d shown me, and that I deleted the email and never once looked at any of them, except fleetingly while sitting next to her in her room with her pointing at the screen. If I hadn’t meant for her to find it and get a laugh out of it, I would have deleted it from her Sent folder. But how do you explain that to people who aren’t computer literate? “But some of her journals were marked ‘Private!'” the Stage Manager chastised me. I pointed out that on Livejournal, no one is allowed to read “private” blogs except for designated Livejournal friends, so if that was the case I wouldn’t have been able to read the private ones even if I tried. “But she’s considering filing a suit against you!” said the Stage Manager. “Well, she’s more than welcome to,” I said, baffled. (I wasn’t the least bit worried; playing a joke on someone using a computer they themselves sat you down in front of isn’t a crime, no matter how dumb the joke.) “But you said in your email to her,” said the Stage Manager, “that you were deliberately trying to embarrass her! She had accepted your apology until she read that!”

First of all, let’s set aside the irony that she showed people my very personal, heartfelt apology email while I never even so much as looked at her journals I was being accused of reading. Setting that aside—it was a practical joke. Of course it was supposed to embarrass her—for ten seconds, tops! Then it was supposed to be funny. Or at least cute. Whoops.

The Denoument

I was sick with worry about it. I had scared this girl half to death, when I only meant to have a little funny mischief. (Except for the blog links; I was legitimately interested in being her friend and swapping blogs and whatnot. That wasn’t part of the joke; that was just a very bad misread on my part.)

I felt terrible for making her feel like that. I was also stressed and worried because in all my years of doing theater, I had never up until that point crossed any ethical boundaries or offended anyone or done anything I had ever felt was mean or genuinely unprofessional. I had a great reputation and never heard anyone say anything about me the least bit bad. (Believe me, in a small theater community like this, when someone says something bad about you, you usually find out pretty quickly.) It was the first legitimate danger to my reputation I felt I’d ever faced. I never gossiped, nor did I listen to gossip. The closest thing to personal drama I’d ever experienced was that I dated a fellow cast member once—and only once, in fifteen years!—but respectfully and discreetly enough that many people didn’t even know it. (We were in the theater together and we didn’t even have sex! Imagine that.) About me, the rumor mill was and always had been totally silent. It hurt me deeply to feel I’d lost that.

This girl’s feelings mattered to me, even though she wasn’t actually a friend. I was sorry I’d hurt her. I was worried about my reputation, too. I was also mad at the same time, in spurts, and frustrated. I wanted everyone to know, because the truth was embarrassing but not bad. I wanted it to have been funny.

Mark Twain said, “Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of it.” A related proposition might be: “Never play a joke on someone who’s not going to get it.” If he had said that too, it might have saved me from this entire affair.

Tempers settled; the show closed; the cast and crew—undoubtedly well aware of her account of my awful, horrible transgression—didn’t mention it out of courtesy. On closing night I returned Girl’s Pride & Prejudice DVDs, along with another very, very short note of gentle apology. I loved the film. It was the lengthy BBC version starring Colin Firth, and I found it profoundly moving. I’m tough to move, but Pride & Prejudice really strikes me hard in the heart. (Along with Star Trek II. My inner life is pretty weird.) I watched Pride & Prejudice in episodes while dealing with this whole series of events, and one exchange stood out to me and kept knocking on the back of my brain as the days passed:


There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.


And your defect is a propensity to hate everybody.


And yours is willfully to misunderstand them.

The Epilogue

Two years later, someone actually did break into my computer and actually did read my private correspondence. I thought back to the awful situation from that summer, and realized that Girl must have felt then a lot like I was feeling now. Even though Girl had mistook me and I had not actually read any of her writing or deliberately intruded on her privacy, she must have felt just the way I felt when someone did it to me for real. I saw her again at a play rehearsal and took a moment to tell her this. I told her how deeply sorry I was that my little computer-geek prank had scared and hurt her. I told her what it felt like to me—the grief of profound violation—and that if what I’d done had felt anything like that, I had underestimated the awful effect of my mischief, and to please forgive me.

Every now and then, a playful act has serious consequences. I thought I was throwing a joke grenade, but it turned out to be a boomerang. It was stupid, yes. I was sorry about it, yes.

After all this time, I still wish she’d thought it was funny.

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