I’ve worked a lot of jobs over the years. And I have been fired from exactly two, which I think is a pretty damn good track record. What I learned from these experiences was critical to my development as a person, even though at the time I shook my fist at the sky and behind the backs of the fucks (as I perceived them) who let me go.
The more memorable of the two was when I was twenty and worked for a radio station in the early 90s that played contemporary adult pop music like Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton and other nauseating, syrupy shit. I had a short-term internship, performed at barely adequate levels, and when that ended I somehow convinced the station manager to pay me five bucks an hour to stay on full-time and help out on the morning show.
That’s right — FIVE DOLLARS AN HOUR. I’m not even sure if that was a legal wage at the time and I probably could have made more money working at a factory in China, but I was thrilled to death to start what I believed was a glamorous career in broadcast radio.
It was not.
Morning shows suck because they start un-Godly early in the morning to entertain people in their cars on the way to work, telling bad jokes and making prank phone calls and doing other silly things to keep listeners from flipping the dial. It’s also a crap job because you have to do a lot of prep and planning ahead of time and you must act happy as we are essentially in show business and this is the gig we signed up for.
My main functions were to help the news director and be an extra on the morning show. The news part was easy and mostly involved gathering stories and headlines from various sources. Being part of the morning show was harder because my primary role was to laugh. That’s right, laugh. Fake or real, I was to guffaw loudly at the host’s jokes and this was harder than you might imagine. At 20, I hadn’t yet developed the ability to carry on small talk at a party or giggle at the boss’s jokes. I was young, stupid, and misguidedly defiant.
So between pulling stories from the Associated Press newswire (no internet back in those days, kids), I’d jump from the newsroom to the studio, feigning attempts to laugh at the morning show host’s jokes. But I’m afraid I proved not to be much of a laugher, and this pissed off everyone to no end. “YOU. FUCKING. LAUGH.” I was told by the morning show guy.
I told him I’d try, although I had no genuine intention of doing so.
Another thing that angered people I worked for was my inability to get my ass to work on time. Part of this shitty job was to be on site by 4:30 a.m. as the show started at 5 a.m. I’d set not one, but two alarm clocks for 3 a.m. — one next to my head and one across the room so I’d have to physically get up and turn it off. Unfortunately, because of the unholy hour and the quarts of cheap gin I sometimes consumed in the evenings, I would many times turn off BOTH alarms in my sleep and go right back to bed, none the wiser. Only when the phone in my apartment rang loudly at 4:35 a.m. with a call from my boss, her voice screeching through the phone asking, “WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU, JENNIFER?!?” was I able to scramble up and race like mad to the station, rounding corners on two wheels in my little silver Nissan. Again, I promised everyone I’d try harder.
Again, I had no intention of doing so.
And then one day, I got my big break. My boss was going out of town and I lobbied her and the station manager, begging to fill in and deliver the news. This was nearly unheard of, allowing dipshits like me actual air time. They were rightfully skeptical of my skills, my work ethic, and my ability to actually show up. I pestered them for days on end and finally wore them down, probably because they didn’t have a suitable replacement.
Now, I actually had to perform.
That morning, I made it to the station extra early — like 3 a.m. In fact, I don’t think I even slept that night. I pulled the news clips from the wire and wrote them up. I distinctly remember two big stories that day — Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was on trial for being caught on video smoking crack, and Evander Holyfield defeated Buster Douglas in a battle for the heavyweight title. I was thrilled to be sharing such rich, journalistic gems with our listeners.
It was go time. I had my scripts ready. I was excited. The station manager came in to the newsroom to give me one last vote of confidence and warn me not to screw it up, as if I wasn’t fucking nervous enough. The morning show crew was in the other room and we were separated by a thick pane of glass. They were going to give me the high sign when it was my time to deliver the news. The seconds counted down. I inched closer to the puffy microphone. My hands were trembling. My heart had risen up through my esophagus and was beating in my mouth. And then, I was on.
I started strong, reading each word slowly and trying to sound professional, using my best radio voice. I got about halfway through my two-minute script and was feeling good. And then I flubbed my words. Just a little. Not a huge flub and flubbing your words isn’t unheard of. Most people correct themselves and recover. Instead, I said loudly, “SHIT,” paused, and kept going. My face got red hot. I finished my news stories and looked up. Morning show dude was staring right at me through the glass, annoyed as fuck.
The segment ended and I swiveled around in my chair and dropped to my knees on the carpet, rolled on to my back, and closed my eyes, wishing a hole would open up in the floor and take me away. Then whooooooosh, the heavy metal soundproof door to the newsroom opened and the station manager stomped in and stood directly over me. “YOU CANNOT SAY SHIT ON THE AIR, JENNIFER!”
“I know, I know…” I trailed off. “I’m sorry.” And with that, he spun on his heel and left the room.
I couldn’t move. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to vomit but was terrified to walk down the halls to the bathroom. I thought everyone in the station had heard what I said because of course the show was piped through speakers throughout the building. I felt like a total idiot. I was wondering what I possibly could have been thinking, asking them to trust me with something so important like crackhead news.
I finally got up from the floor and made my way to the door. Whooooosh. I peeked around the corner. I was waiting for some guillotine to come down on my neck, ending this whole, miserable life. But it was weird. No one looked at me funny and no one said a word. I wondered if the station manager and the morning show crew were the only ones who were listening and heard my curse word? I was baffled.
About a week later, the station manager called me in his office. He asked me to sit down and I sat. He explained, with a wry smile on his face, that they had run out of work for me to do. I was confused and asked when more work would be coming. He said he didn’t know, but that he’d call me when that happened. I asked what to do next. He handed me a box he’d been hiding behind his desk and he told me to gather my things and I could go home. I asked if he was sure he had my phone number handy when this work reappeared. He assured me he did.
So I got up from the chair, slightly dazed, turned and left his office, and started down the hall to the small office I shared with a few other young people. No one was in the room when I got there. I quietly collected my stuff and walked to the reception area. I told the receptionist that I’d be back soon, I wasn’t sure when, but she could call if she needed anything from me. She looked at me quizzically, and I left.
I got in my car and went home to my apartment. I sat on my twin bed just staring at the rug. I wasn’t sure what had happened. Had I been fired? Surely not. I was the one-time fill-in for the news director and a semi-contributing laugher on the morning show, for God’s sake. They needed me. I thought about calling the station manager and asking exactly when I should come back. Maybe I missed that part. But something told me not to, and instead I took a nap.
For about a week I waited by the phone. In pre-cell phone days, that’s what you did if you were expecting an important call. When that call never came, it finally dawned on me that I’d been canned. And then I was angry. And embarrassed. I called some friends and told them what an injustice had been delivered to me. I told everyone how it came out of the blue, that the station manager hadn’t even had the balls to tell me I was fired. He’d just politely excused me from my job. I gathered the requisite amount of sympathy and well wishes and and then I started to think about how I was going to make the rent.
Perhaps this was the story I needed to help myself get through that period of time. It’s likely I needed to be a little indignant about the whole thing, just to move on. Maybe I needed some anger to fuel my search for a job where I felt I’d really be valued. That station didn’t deserve me, I told myself.
Now, of course, all that seems silly and I see the situation for what it was. The station should have let me go well before they did. I was a pretentious, unappreciative brat. I served up several opportunities for them to whack me, in the form of being late and being a pain in the ass and not laughing, even though I didn’t think the jokes were funny. I didn’t fulfill the very basics of the job, and even though I had some moral ground I believed I was standing upon in not laughing at things I didn’t find humorous, I was working for a morning show where laughing was a requirement. It was entertainment. It was comedy.
What I learned is that radio was too good for me. Not because it was comedy at its finest, but because radio knew its limitations far better than I knew mine. My whole body fought the radio culture, and my mind too. I had an entitled way of thinking, that the show and the station owed me something. That they should provide me a job with upward mobility and opportunities to be on air when I wasn’t deserving of those things, not even a little bit.
The other thing I learned is that letting people go is hard and the station manager handled it beautifully. The fact that I was too clueless to know what was happening was my own damn fault. My regrets from that experience center mostly around not taking the job seriously and not understanding how lucky I was to have the on-air opportunity, as that just doesn’t happen often. I also regret making smart people feel like they weren’t funny or talented. They spend their whole lives putting themselves out there, and I couldn’t even crack a smile or give them a sympathy giggle.
I have since honed many skills that were sorely lacking then. I developed a sense of respect for people who do jobs I know nothing about. I now have empathy for those who have to make hard decisions. And I’ve even developed a laugh that you may not be able to discern as fake.
Go on, tell me a joke.