Thank You For Not Being Realistic

21 Mar

Dream it Out

As a comedian in New York City for the past five years, I meet a lot of people who say to me, “Do you have a backup plan? What are you going to do if this doesn’t work out?” The subtext of that question is, “When are you going to get a real job?” And my answer to them is two-part: 1) Never 2) They don’t exist.

I remember being a kid and having no concept of reality and being so much better for it. When you made tents and built forts or told your parents you were going to be an astronaut, no one said, “But your resume sucks!” The so-called proper career channels of school, college, job, was not even a fleck in your imagination and that imagination was a good place to hang out.

My favorite movie last year (sorry Transformers 3) was Being Elmo: A Puppeteers Journey. The film is a documentary about Kevin Clash, the voice and the creator of Sesame Street’s Elmo. Growing up, Clash was mocked, made fun of and diminished for being a handsome, tall African-American teenager who loved puppets. Fortunately, Clash did not listen to the naysayers and became the creator of the most popular Sesame Street character ever. The movie reminds us that the childlike innocence of a dream is the rocket fuel of every fantastic creation.

For a society that tells everyone to be realistic, we are obsessed with all things that are not. Millions of practical Americans will tell their kids that they can’t be movie stars or musicians and then turn around and spend $760 million dollars on a 3D movie about blue people in space, and take their kids to see Taylor Swift, who earned $97.7 million dollars on her 2011 American tour alone. Sports fans show up hours early to a game just to get a glimpse of their favorite player or an autograph for their kid. If we can’t be dreamers, we’ll pay any amount of money and wait in any kind of line to be with those who are.

In the 1960’s political leaders of every race told Martin Luther King Jr. that the time for integration was later rather than sooner, and because King wasn’t realistic, radical sweeping integration laws were passed during the Johnson administration.  Bruce Springsteen’s father famously rejected his son’s career choice until finally in 1994, sitting across from Bruce, with his son’s Academy Award for “Best Original Song” in hand, looked at Bruce and said, “Son, Ill never tell you what to do ever again.” Steve Martin’s father didn’t think much of his son’s career either even as he was selling out 17,000-seat theaters and performing some of the most innovative comedy in the last 80 years. These cultural icons followed no rules and by doing so, stretched the limits of our collective imagination.

The next time that you say things like “This isn’t realistic,” “This isn’t practical,” ask yourself this very important question, according to whom? And I bet the answer nine times out of ten is, according to the expectations of someone else. “Why should I go to college?” My parents told me I have to.  “Why can’t I be a musician?” Because everyone says its too hard to make a living out of it.  “Why should I work at an office?”  Because the media says the economy is really bad and it’s hard to find jobs, and I should just take what I can get.  “Why do I need to diet?” Because advertisers tell me I’m fat. “What do I need to take this pill?” Because a western medical doctor, one school of medicine, told me I should.

Now some of these statements might be true but it’s important to note that these are all examples of someone else’s opinion.  And make NO mistake about it, these opinions and things we refer to as realities are nothing but fluid. Three hundred years ago we thought we could cure diseases with leeches, 70 years ago, we thought smoking was good for you, and ten years ago conventional wisdom said we would never have a black president. And what we call fact or realistic today can change by tomorrow.

It is realistic for Will Smith to make a movie that makes $500 million dollars. It’s realistic for Barack Obama to pick up the phone and call the President of China. It is realistic for Apple to invent a product that changes the way we communicate. It is realistic for the American Red Cross to allocate $314.7 million dollars to the hurricane relief effort in Haiti. One person’s reality is another’s fantasy and the only difference between the two is the belief of which side you belong.

So the next time you see a painting you enjoy, witness a dunk you can’t believe, an organization that saved lives, or an invention that made things easier, instead of saying to those artists, athletes, politicians or inventors, “Great work,” or “Good job,” try saying, “Thank you for not being realistic.”

Tonight, when I’m at the stand-up show I co-produce, and I’m surrounded by some of the best comedians in New York City, who night in and night out make people laugh, a lot of times for free, I’m going to make sure to take in that amazing scene, and think to myself, “This is pretty realistic to me.”

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