The Joker’s On Me
Middle-school boys shouldn’t look to supervillains for romantic inspiration
As a combination theater kid/comic-book nerd, I was not designed to thrive in the cutthroat middle-school scene of the late 1980s. This held especially true when it came to my third obsession: girls. But for one glorious night, thanks to an unlikely pop-culture zeitgeist, I was poised to beat the odds and turn my liabilities into assets — until I sabotaged the whole thing at the last minute.
The girl in this story was another theater kid, on whom I’d had a recurring crush for years, named Janelle. Despite the social pressures of junior high, she had energy, spirit, and humor to burn, making her more receptive than most to my loudmouth antics. It didn’t hurt that she was both pretty and popular, which was more than I could say for myself.
As 8th grade kicked into gear, my friends were tired of hearing about my feelings — so much so that eventually one of them took it upon himself to walk over at lunch and ask if she’d go to the Halloween Dance with me. I was mortified, sure, but it wasn’t a loss: She said no, but she didn’t barf or scream or laugh — in fact, she told him she’d be happy to dance with me once we were there.
This was the most traction I’d ever made, and to pull it off, I’d need to keep my cool — so of course, I did the opposite. You see, it was 1989, the year of Tim Burton’s Batman, and for the first time, I was able to take my inner Joker out of the shadows and put him center stage.
A year earlier, I would have been laughed out of the cafeteria for striking up a random conversation about superheroes, but now, the world was embracing my obsessions. I was proud to publicly pledge my allegiance to the hit movie of the year — not on behalf of the Dark Knight himself, but rather his counterpart, the Clown Prince of Crime.
As a kid whose communication gambits consisted of groan-worthy puns, prop comedy and false bravado, who was I going to root for — the dark, brooding slave to justice, or the charismatic candy-colored anarchist with nothing but mirthful contempt at the world who shunned him? The neon yin to Batman’s monochrome yang, the Joker transcended the evil intent of his actions. In his own twisted way, he represented light, color, humor — the carnivalesque vitality of life itself.
The truth is, I didn’t even care much for Jack Nicholson’s take on the character. He was louche, ironic, too cool for school, and on top of that, he was old — his outrageous criminal schemes seemed more like a mid-life crisis than an expression of transgressive transcendence. MY Joker was exuberant, insouciant, capering with boundless energy in defiance of the very laws of physics, charming everyone with a mordant wit that delighted even as it cut its victims to smithereens. You know, just like me.
My path to fulfillment was clear: The Halloween Dance would be my ultimate chance to capture the adulation of the masses and get the girl in the process.
My mom, an amazing seamstress with a long history of stellar creations, sewed up a bespoke purple suit. She brought me to a theater supply store to pick out the right pancake makeup, heavy-duty industrial green hairspray and ruby-red lipstick. I still have some old Polaroids from the big night, and let me tell you, I looked sick.
I turned heads as soon as I strutted into the school gym, but I was looking for one head in particular — and it didn’t disappoint. Bedecked with a big blonde fright wig and about three cubic feet of eye shadow, Janelle made an incredible Tammy Faye Bakker. Between the makeup and the theatrics, she was practically a female Joker herself. We were a match made in a particular late-‘80s iteration of Hell.
But even more, dazzling was the recognition and delight my costume provoked among people who normally wouldn’t give me the time of day. I was so excited by the attention that I never broke character, jumping around, cutting capers, and dropping corny one-liners at every opportunity. Circling through the gym during the big Costume Parade, I shamelessly out-showboated Nicholson, grinning and pointing and prancing to cheers on every side. At last, I thought, people recognized me for who I was: a dangerously seductive psychopath with glamour to burn. Why couldn’t EVERY night be Halloween?
Of course, my grinning and cackling encountered a frisson every time the DJ faded into a slow jam. Were Janelle and I going to dance? I was willing to do the Electric Slide in her direction every chance I got, but whenever the tempo slowed I uncharacteristically clammed up; beneath the demented rictus, I was still shy as hell. It’s worth mentioning that Harley Quinn hadn’t been invented yet — there was no constructive model for how a Joker might relate to the opposite sex.
So, suspended in my own shtick, I couldn’t stick to the accepted adolescent script and take the initiative, the way boys at the time were supposed to. At first, it was easy to laugh it off — the evening was young, and I somehow thought I was flirting by NOT asking her to dance. As the night wore on, the bit was clearly failing — she started to get a bit chilly for a hyper-demonstrative TV preacher.
Before I knew it, the DJ was announcing the last dance of the night. I have no idea what song it was, but since it was 1989, I’m going to plead dramatic license and say it was Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting for You.” The teacher who ran the Drama Club sidled over to me and jerked her thumb out the side door. “You might want to do something, or you’re gonna miss the boat,” she said. I bounded out, still 100% in character, to see Janelle sitting alone against the wall.
What did I do? Exactly what the Joker would have done: I shaded my eyes against the imaginary sun, flipped my heel jauntily into the air behind me, and said “Is there a boat over here???”
It’s obvious what happened next: Capitulating to my irresistible savoir-faire, she stood up with a sexy glimmer in her eye, said “You’re incorrigible!” and swept me off to the dance floor, initiating a sophisticated romance that would last the rest of our lives.
Haha, no. Instead, there was a deathly pause, while she refused to look at me and I refused to face up to the situation. If I wanted to dance with her, Jeff would have to ask, not the Joker — but apparently, neither of them could manage it. So I bounded back to the gym and left the moment behind forever, just another supervillain bringing about his own downfall.
As an adult, it’s easy to see that the clown bit is a dodge — take off the mask, and there’s inevitably something sad underneath. At the time, I had it backward — if the fantasy version of myself couldn’t get the girl, then what chance did the regular me have? It took a long time to figure out that I couldn’t address my issues by blowing them up into cartoons — humor was almost always my entrée to romantic attention, but I eventually learned that there had to be some substance behind the silliness.
Halloween itself fell a few days after the dance, and, what do you know, Batman had just arrived at my town’s tiny third-run theater. For the first time, I decided to forego trick-or-treating and went to the movies instead. As I sat there, watching the film for the 13th time, I finally had to admit — I was getting a little sick of it.