How to Know You’re Not Insane (And how a Cards Against Humanity Staff Writer was fired.)
Now that the Polygon piece has been released, I feel like parts of the story deserve more details, and I want to express some of the thoughts I’ve had in the last two years since I was placed in a mental ward against my will for five days by my bosses.
I’ve thought about writing this piece many times. When I was working 40 hours a week at an ad agency immediately after being released from the mental ward, the creative director told me I should title it “How To Know You’re Not Insane.”
How to know you’re Not Insane
The idea of madness has been debated for millennia. Socrates believed that madness was essentially inspiration from the eternal. In the Phaedrus Dialogue, he describes how Rhetoric, the study of how to communicate, is best not taught at all in traditional methods. The best, most poetic rhetoric comes from the person who believes what they say. The words aren’t coming from them, they come from their soul. I think all the best artists speak this way, and so it started to make me uncomfortable when I realized that in my role as a Staff Writer at Cards Against Humanity, my words were stifled.
I had the problem many people from poor families have. I couldn’t afford to speak up. It’s ironic that the web of discretion extends to the rich kids too. One writer, a New Jersey improviser, had an Au Pair growing up, a word I didn’t learn until I was 26, and travels to NJ to see her family in their palatial Jersey estate about ten times a year, but she was terrified of speaking up. I can’t count how many times I tried to get the CAH writers to unionize. They were petrified of being fired. For me, though, my entire life depended on my job.
That changed when I started working as a copywriter at a mid-sized agency in downtown Chicago. The job paid 40 an hour and by the end of 2018, I was working there 40 hours a week. The job at CAH was the same hourly, but only 12 hours a week. Plus I liked the copywriting work. I got to write with the best writers I still have ever worked with, people who grew up in the golden age of Second City- the 90s. They had performed and written with Martin Short, and Tina Fey, and are themselves of that cut of comedy talent.
I could suddenly speak my mind because I didn’t need the job. That was when the Head Writers Jo and Julia came into the writing room and told us that they and Max had been forced to veto the n-word as a card. The way the CAH writing process worked before we came was that the eight owner-writers, all equal stake-holders, would write cards remotely and submit them into an anonymous google sheet. They would then go over the cards and highlight ones they liked. Those highlighted cards were put into another Sheets tab called the short list. Those cards would be discussed and punched up in hours long writing meetings. (Punching up refers to the process of improving jokes by clarifying the language or humor of them)
As a part of the newly minted Writer’s Room, I was one of the first writers for the game that were not white men from the white-flight suburbs of Chicago. My job was to work on new decks-like specialty packs we made with Mass Effect- and help replace old cards that we deemed too offensive to continue printing.
We worked in an identical fashion to the owner-writers, with the only exception being that our short-listed cards were sent to them to look over at their writing meetings, so that our non-comedian writer-owner bosses could pore over them, punch-up the jokes, and ultimately decide which of our cards were worth printing in their eyes.
When CAH released their explanation of the accusations, they listed 14 “Black Culture” cards. To be honest it’s sad that even though I wrote cards like “An Octopus giving seven hand jobs and smoking a cigarette,” and, “twisting my cock and balls into a balloon poodle,” those aren’t considered Black cards. In order to be Black, apparently I must write cards like, “My Black Ass,” which I didn’t write, by the way.
In 2017 I wrote a novel about a black teenager who pretends to be white online and gets drawn into the world of hate-crimes. It explores what’s attractive about American violence and power and in the research of it I was reading a lot of philosophy, sociology, and post-colonial theory. For the first time I read Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks and learned how psychiatrists in the Antilles had diagnosed the colonized people there with congenital nervous disorders after violently colonizing and repressing them, and Katz’ Seductions of Crime which illustrates the transcendent morality undergirding our life. I learned how we’re forced to pretend to be happy at work in The Managed Heart by Hochschild, and how everyone in our society takes aggression out on each other in Chancer’s Sadomasochism in Everyday Life. Richard Edwards’ Contested Terrain discussed the ways capitalists use management to control workers, and how those had evolved into a hybrid structure that utilized promotions and rewards to incentivize workers to play along. Only the most docile, loyal supporters of the company are promoted into positions of power. All you have to do is be willing to say yes.
When I heard that the majority of the owner-writers wanted to put the n-word into the game, I felt like my presence might have always been a simple permission structure for them. By occupying that space, I was implicitly endorsing them and allowing them to do what they wanted while pointing to me and saying, “but, look, we have a black guy.”
We hadn’t submitted the n-word to them, so I was confused about how it was even in consideration. It had no clear comedic perspective, and I was deeply offended that a word used against myself and my ancestors for centuries of violent oppression was apparently funny enough to the owner-writers to include in the game, on its own with no context or voice. We were told at that time that it was liked by the majority of the owner-writers, so that would mean everyone who signed their name on that CAH release, for the most part.
When Max Temkin ran a meeting soon after, I took the opportunity to ask him questions about it. I wanted to know how this had happened, what the owner-writers who had fought in support of the card had said as their arguments. I had trouble imagining this room of 10 white people arguing over using the n-word as a joke in a multi-million dollar card game.
In a mediation that occurred between myself and CAH in 2019, I learned that Max had told Jo and Julia, the Head Writers, to fire me after our conversation. They offered this information as a part of their narrative of how my behavior had diverged from “normalcy.” They admitted to the fact-finder that I was one of their “foundational” employees, that my performance was extremely high, and that I had never had any issues in the room prior.
Why did they fire me? Madness! I was mad. And I got more mad when I began feeling like the game we were writing, a kids version of CAH, was catering only to the upper crust of white kids by codifying themes of their lives as cards, and not those of poor kids. I tried to express this in the room, and was told, “we don’t want to be sad,” by the head writer Jo Feldman.
Around that time we did a show for about 150 Instagram employees at the Cards Against Humanity Theater. I was paid 50 dollars a show to improvise as a part of the Late Night Writer’s Room. Our show happened in the afternoon during our one full eight-hour workday we had a week, and I had a PBR from the fully-stocked fridge in the writer’s room before the show. This was later used as an example of my behavior’s “deviation,” even though many writers, including the head writers, regularly drank beers during meetings and every fridge in the building was stocked with PBR.
Julia Weiss went on a vacation to Germany, which left Jo Feldman as the sole Head Writer for a period of weeks. Andy Kushnir, a white man and Jo Feldman’s husband, had always had conversations with me about race while at work. At one point I expressed to him how growing up white men rarely smiled at me, and how one of the most insidious tricks of racism is convincing little black kids that there’s something wrong with them by expressing constant vigilant disapproval and observation of their every action. He thanked me later and told me he had started smiling at black boys as he passed them. I do think we need to take our white allies how and where we can get them, but what happened next changed my mind about well-meaning white liberals.
From what I’ve been able to gather, Andy, Jo, Jack, and Eunji felt that my behavior had changed so dramatically that I must have been facing a mental break. One of the side-effects of having money was my mood improving, who could have known, and the combination of me saying what I really thought and being happy didn’t seem like my normal self to them.
Andy reached out to my sister who was a senior in college. He told her that I was going to be disciplined at work for my behavior and could lose my job, which so frightened my parents that they drove from New York to Chicago overnight. My dad came to my apartment and asked me to “see someone.” I agreed, since I was imagining a therapist on a couch asking me if I was suicidal. He drove me to Illinois Masonic, where the combination of my parents’ concern and the collateral of a co-worker who was operating with the head writer were enough to have me forcibly kept there.
I was admitted on a Friday at 6pm so I didn’t see a psychiatrist until Monday. She was tall, blonde and flanked by two med students. When I told her I had been in a stressful home environment growing up due to poverty and the fact that my parents told me I had to be better than the white boys to compete, she told me that was preposterous. Why would two anti-racist scholars teach their son to see white boys as competitors? Anti-racists would teach their son that race didn’t matter at all. I asked her if we could bring a single person of color into the room besides me to illustrate how common I felt it was to be taught this, she said no. She later listed my concerns as “spontaneous delusions” on “racial topics.”
I had realized I needed to lie to get out after my conversation with the psychiatrist, so I spit my 5mg Abilify pills into the water fountain and said I was grateful until they let me out after five days.
While I was in the mental ward, I realized that the conditions we were being diagnosed with seemed socioeconomically and racially dispersed. It was women who were suicidal, and black men who had addictions. A poor man whose father had died when he was 13 and laid dead in his living room for three days before they knew, was an addict. The trans woman of color was suicidal. The tall, square-jawed white man, however, thought he was God. He informed me that I was a flower one day. I didn’t argue with him.
Could the conditions that the institutions of white supremacy tell us we have: anxiety, depression, etc. be side-effects of inequality and oppression? Could the forces of racism drive some people mad, maybe literally in the sense of anger, and could the doctors, whose theories from mere years ago described how gay people were genetically different, black people were genetically inferior, and still can’t explain women’s orgasms perhaps be wrong about what is happening to us?
We spend our lives turning our silence into power with yoga and mindfulness, when maybe the problems we have with the world are because it’s unfair. Maybe it makes us sad or anxious to see the homeless people on the streets every day as we go to work for millionaire capitalists who don’t know our names and wouldn’t remember them if they did. Maybe knowing that I could be killed at any moment by state forces, or feeling like even when I said my opinion- even as a writer whose job it was to do that- it was inevitably stifled and suppressed, had made me mad.
Jo Feldman and Julia Weiss scheduled a call with Nick Markos a week after I got out. They pretended not to know where I had been and said I’d just disappeared. I knew they were lying for multiple reasons, but I later found out that Jo’s husband had called another writer, who was going to tell the hospital I was fine, and told her not to talk to the doctors so I would get the “help I needed.”
Jo, Julia, and Nick told me I was welcome back at cards as long as I signed a contract stating I wouldn’t “disparage” the company in any social media posts, and conformed to behavioral requirements. I asked what those were and they said I had ‘affected the energy of the room.’ I never signed the contract, which is why I’m writing this.
On my first day back at CAH, I realized I had to quit. I asked to have a meeting with Julia Weiss, who had just returned from Germany, since I didn’t trust Jo at all anymore. I told her everything that had happened to me. She begged me not to quit and told me they could change the culture at CAH. She told me the culture trickled down from the owners and that she wanted to move to a commune in Germany. I believed her, retracted my resignation, and told her I’d stay as long as I needed to and help them change CAH for the better.
Two days later Julia, Jo, and Nick fired me on a call. I was stunned, as I’d been thoroughly convinced by my progressive ally. They tried to say I had quit of my own free will. Later they settled the harassment charges I brought against them, so they must not have been too convinced.
The state of being an employee has extended beyond the workplace. We are all employees, in and out of our jobs, regardless of the occupation. In the comedy world, every performer is a potential boss or employee. Comedians just want to be able to do what they love and make money doing it. It’s a simple mantra, and seems innocent, but what it means is that they don’t give a shit who’s paying them as long as they’re getting paid. I know that because I was one of those people.
When the host of my open-mic at the Juicebox told me he was going to accept a job as a staff-writer at CAH, I didn’t blink. He said he needed the job to get out of his oppressive 40 hour workweek. He also replaced me on my improv Harold team at iO as the sole black man.
We pretend we’re being forced to compete for these jobs, that we’re artistic minorities struggling to survive like roses in concrete. The reality is that we don’t need these jobs, we don’t need the status. We want it, and those are entirely different types of things in that one of them is a dependent state and one of them is not.
Who is an artist who can’t criticize their bosses? What’s a writer who can’t say what they really think?
How can a show like SNL, for example, be a satire when they can’t even criticize their boss. Every few episodes they bring their boss, Lorne Michaels, on to do some wooden bit in a North Korean expression of dick-sucking. It’s embarrassing. Lorne sucks, is a republican, and these so-called “cool” and “edgy” comedians like head writer of SNL Michael Che who write these bits for him are embarrassing too. How is it edgy and cool to be a rich “writer” who says nothing of critical relevance to the society? How do you justify what seems to me to be the utter decadence and egotism of standups for instance thinking their carefully memorized thoughts on airplanes and pot somehow make them “cool”. And then they work for Republicans.
I wonder what would happen if the funniest, most persuasive people in the country stopped acting like it doesn’t matter who we work for or what we say. Or that what they do as comedians matters so much. Maybe not as many people would die, maybe some of the kids wouldn’t suffer as much, and maybe some truly important ideas would be argued for convincingly.
My point is we shouldn’t have to play along, I was mad, still am, and you should be too.