“Swipe This!” is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email [email protected]
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Dear Swipe This!
I’m an artist, comedian, and performer, but I’m also a middle school teacher in New York City. Sometimes my comedic work can be a little inappropriate or weird, and lately, I have been frustrated because I really want to make my Instagram public, but I don’t want to get fired or have the kids talk about me.
I feel like if I had a public Instagram, the silly stuff I do would get seen more and I might get invited to perform or do podcasts or who knows. Maybe I’m just imagining missed opportunities, but maybe I’m not? I also make visual art and would love to get a wider audience for the possibility of commissions and potential work.
The kids and my administrators know I do stuff because I have a viral video on YouTube that everyone knows about. But I’ve also made some things that I keep private. For example, I do special news reports, but I call it “News Channel 69”… so, that’s inappropriate but also silly and funny and immature.
Also to clarify, I don’t “perform” on a stage anymore, mostly just on my Instagram. But my personality is a performer, and I want to share my work with the world. What should I do?
Star Without a Stage
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Dear Star Without a Stage,
Did you ever do that thing when you were a kid where you lined up all your stuffed animals and put on a big show? If you did, I bet you had the time of your life. And if you never did, I highly recommend it. There is no audience like a plush audience of pink and purple bears who already love you.
This might sound silly to you since you’re looking for an outlet to share your work with an adult audience. But reading your letter, I found myself thinking about the simple joy of playing and performing that so many of us lose as we get older. It is so exciting to be young and imaginative and uninhibited. And I think maybe the private world you have where you create stuff is more special than you may realize. It’s great to have a real, human audience. But having sacred spaces where we can play is so valuable.
So, before you put your work into the world, I hope you’ll take a look at your private creative practices and see their value. Are you carving out time for yourself to perform and play in the ways that make you feel most alive? Are you tending to your creative ideas with the kind of attention and encouragement you imagine you’d get from devoted fans? I ask these questions because sometimes the joy we imagine we’ll have when we “make it” is an illusion.
Being an artist is exhausting, challenging, and often pays poorly. For every comedian you’ve come across on Instagram who seems like they’ve “made it,” there are countless hours of work. If you’re looking at someone successful, who’s got a following, they’re likely showing you their best, most polished stuff. They aren’t showing you all the times they’ve bombed, or all the doors they’ve had shut in their face.
So, while I understand your eagerness to get your work out there, and I can see why you’d daydream that “if only” you didn’t have to censor yourself for the work of your day job, you’d be discovered, I think you’re missing a huge part of the picture. You don’t have to be a superstar to get joy from your creativity. And you don’t have to have upwards of 10,000 followers to connect with people who will enjoy your voice. A public account may represent freedom to play to you, but what I see standing between you and a public account is a whole lot of work. You simply have to be willing to turn your attention toward yourself and your ideas.
Do you really believe a few curse words or a dick joke are standing between you and building an audience? To me, these sound like excuses. If you are serious about entertaining and making people laugh, you don’t have to go blue to get there. I understand that might not be the answer you want to hear. It might be frustrating even, to have a job where you have to be the “grown-up” and then to go to the space where you create and play and still face these restrictions. But if you’re being really honest with yourself about what makes you a compelling voice or an exciting performer, I doubt telling raunchy jokes is the only way you know how to connect. I’m sure there are occasions even when you’ve made your students laugh. Because real humor relies on human connection, on identifying something unusual and interesting and sharing it in a relatable way. So unless your dream is to be a shock jock, I think you need to abandon the idea that censorship is what actually stands between you and success.
What’s evident to me from your letter is that you really do love to perform. You have enthusiasm and optimism in spades. And that leads me to wonder why you’ve abandoned live performances. At one point in your letter, you suggest that “if” you had a public Instagram you might get invited to perform more, or to appear on podcasts. But it seems to me it’s the other way around—if you put in the work of going to open mics and pitching yourself to be on people’s shows, if you create your own podcast and do the not-so-easy work of making, engaging, high-quality content, that will put you in a position to build a social media following.
Unless you are Justin Bieber, I think it’s highly unlikely you’re going to be discovered because of a 30-second video you post to your Instagram. That said, I do think it’s healthy that you’re feeling the urge to put your work out into the world. And if you’re eager to do so, I think there are several ways you can approach it.
If you want to put your work out on Instagram as a comedic performer, I think you should challenge yourself to get to some open mics and do some new material. There is no feedback like live feedback, and—as unglamorous as it may be—doing the work of polishing your jokes before you post will pay off way more than throwing some ideas up and seeing what sticks. It’s also possible that performing on stage again will soothe your hunger for an audience. Maybe you’ll meet new performers and put up your own shows.
You also might consider leaning into the constraints you find so frustrating. Writing things that are funny enough for an adult audience but clean enough for kids may be challenging at first, but it will force you to get to the root of what’s funniest to you. And when you go back to writing without constraints, your brain will be more alert.
You also mention that you are an illustrator. It sounds like this is might be the perfect middle ground for you to experiment with a public humorous persona. Are there jokes or topics that you can explore through a visual medium? Can you illustrate funny events that happen in your classroom? If you’re not sure where to start, you might want to check out some of the many lovely Instagram illustrators that are out there, today. Some of my personal favorites are Liana Finck, Mari Andrew, and Bjenny Montero.
They each have their own, unique flavor, but their art isn’t always strictly comedic—and yours doesn’t have to be either! You can create, express, and connect without a punchline. Perhaps you’ll discover that you have a tender side. Or maybe you’ll want to make art that’s more surreal than you’ve made in the past. Or you might just discover that making people laugh is the number one thing that you want to do.
The important thing is that you keep making and doing. So figure out a few ways you’d like to get back to playing, line up those stuffed animals, and get to it. Your ideas are waiting for you.