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R. Eric Thomas On His New Essay Collection, ‘Congratulations, The Best Is Over!’


R. Eric Thomas is here now. Only, he’s still sussing out what “here” means. No one can fault him: Our modern understanding of “here,” in this pandemic-hardened, hyper-digital, increasingly isolated era, leans heavily on the nebulous end of the abstraction spectrum. After the success of his bestseller Here For It, the humor writer (and former ELLE.com columnist) has released another essay collection, this time in an effort to pinpoint that definition of “here”—if he is, in fact, “here for it.” This latest work, out now from Ballantine Books, is called Congratulations, The Best Is Over!, and its cheeky memoir-in-essays format traces Thomas’ move from Philadelphia back to Baltimore, his birthplace and a source of some developmental consternation. The key, he hopes, is to go back without going backward.

Even in the midst of enormous joys—one of the book’s many touching essays highlights the mountaintop proposal shared between Thomas and his now-husband, David—Thomas wrestles with a creeping sense of disembodiment. Some of it, naturally, is pandemic-wrought. But not all of his depression has such an easily identifiable root. As he writes, “The world is not neutral, and I am not neutral, and as many times as I send my little emails using an appropriate number of exclamation points—but not! Too! Many.—and have small talk with Uber drivers and try to remember if I’ve watered the plants or taken my pills or eaten, I still always have the thought, Can anybody see what’s really happening here?

That word again! Amidst Thomas’ many hilarious observations about Boston Market mac and cheese, The Pelican Brief, The Hours, Zoom church, Vin Diesel’s eyebrows, “You Rock!” balloons, Oprah’s Favorite Things, The Office memes, survivalists, seasickness, and Cheryl Strayed (not to mention the gay frogs that took over his garden, and thus his home, and thus his whole life), there’s a deep strength in his yearning for direction. But perhaps it’s not direction for which he’s searching; it’s grounding. It’s connection and security, and the stability they bring in tandem. As he writes, “The beauty of modern times is that it doesn’t matter where you are. You can be anywhere. But the beauty of life is that sometimes, the most important times, you have to actually be here.”

 

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Congratulations, The Best Is Over! explores these themes without definite borders, all in Thomas’ signature manner: accessible and sidesplitting. To get more background on the book (and, honestly, just to spend more time with his thoughts), I reached out to Thomas with a long list of questions. Below, a condensed version of our resulting conversation, in which we discussed Instagram stalking, college orientation, and the importance of doing the work: of it—and all of us—being here.

Congratulations, the Best Is Over! by R. Eric Thomas

<i>Congratulations, the Best Is Over!</i> by R. Eric Thomas

Congratulations, the Best Is Over! by R. Eric Thomas

Credit: Ballantine Books

How did you decide on the title? It reminded me so much of the tone of your ELLE columns, where there’s this exuberance, yet you’re talking about something that—at least on surface level—is rather dark.

Truly, titles are such a challenge for me, which is so weird because, at ELLE, sometimes the headlines would just come first. I miss that so much. Sometimes you write a deranged headline, and you’re like, “Well, I got the whole essay.”

For this one, I originally called it, Determined to Enjoy Myself, which is the end of a quote that Mrs. Peacock gives in Clue. And I think the feedback that I got was like, “Outside of the context of Clue, you don’t get it. It feels a little bit sincere.” And that’s my problem: I am too sincere, and people think that I am too serious all the time.

We tried a couple different options, and then I was like, “Let me send you the most deranged thought I have,” which is a beautiful—that’s my advice to high school students who want to get into publishing: Just send the most deranged ideas you have! It was like, “How do I capture the spirit of this moment?” And I felt like I learned a lot from writers like Sloane Crosley and Samantha Irby about tone. And this title is really my attempt to be in their company a little bit.

It’s funny what you just said about sincerity. You’re actually quite earnest in the book, particularly about your struggles with depression and isolation. I think we live in this time—and maybe I’m generalizing—where earnestness feels increasingly fraught.

Exactly.

Was there ever a point where you wanted to hold that part of yourself back from readers? Because you can’t always be sure it’s going to be received with kindness.

Absolutely. I mean, my ambition with every book is always to write a happy book of jokes where nothing goes wrong. And I get encouraged a lot by my editor, and by my people I trust, that people want to know the real thing. People want to know what’s really going on. And to your point, you don’t know where people are going to be receiving this. I read a comment about some of the essays in this book where someone was like, “I don’t agree with any of the choices he made.” I’m like, “Babe, neither do I!”

That’s the point.

Right! If I agreed with my choices, I wouldn’t have a story. I am a cautionary tale. But I always had to remind myself—I learned this at ELLE during the pandemic. I was trying to write the humor column, but also I was writing more serious things as the news got more and more serious, and people would respond to that.

I think a lot about Jenny Lawson, who’s extremely funny, but there’s one essay in Broken (In the Best Possible Way) where she writes very seriously and straightforwardly about her own mental health struggles.

“Someone was like, ‘I don’t agree with any of the choices he made.’ I’m like, ‘Babe, neither do I!’”

I think of that all the time, and I’m like, “Eric, if this iconic funny person can stick in your mind for both being funny and also for being true and vulnerable, then the people that are ready to receive whatever you’re giving, will receive it in the spirit that is intended. And the people that don’t agree with any of your choices will have something to talk about in a group chat.” And ultimately, I’m just trying to give my haters more fodder because I don’t want them to get bored and move on to somebody else.

The book is arranged around the idea that you had expected Baltimore to close itself off to you, and instead, you found yourself closed off to Baltimore—sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. You write that you “couldn’t access it.” So many of us have endured iterations of that same feeling, that the world is wide open to you but you can’t find the entry point. Having written a whole book about that problem, do you think there’s any real method to discovering that entry point? Or do each of us have to stumble upon it?

I feel like one of the keys to both going back to a place that you knew as well as going back to people that you knew is to treat them, mostly, as if they are new creations. I’ve had this experience a couple times. I moved away from Baltimore for years, and I came back. And then I was in Baltimore for five years, and then I recently moved back to Philly. And I tried to jump back into my friend group in Philly, and I was like, “Well, these people are so different, and they got all these different things going on.” I’m like, “Yeah, Eric. It’s been five years. People keep changing, and they all lived through a pandemic.”

And so with places—I think it sounds corny, but I’m so mid—it’s really useful to treat a place that you know really well as if you were a tourist, and go to the dumb tourist thing, or join the stupid kickball league.

I think cities, particularly, are kind of for younger people, whether they have kids or not. But people in their 30s and 40s—I’ve decided that those are younger people, and I will not entertain any other ideas—they’re organized around this loneliness. There are ways of sort of jumping [out] of it, but it always feels so awkward. I think [about] when you were in college, I remember orientation week, we sat on the grass and did get-to-know-you games.

Deeply awkward.

Yeah, truly, like passing a ball around and zip zap zopping. I would never zip or zap as an adult, but sometimes you got to. You got to pass the ball around, zip zap zop, and see the city as just a thing that has continued to move, and change, and doesn’t know you. Just like you don’t know it.

You write in the book how much of your career you owe to the internet. But you also write about how—even with a lot of followers, and the work you’ve been able to do through the internet—that you felt disconnected from community. In your experience, do you think there is such thing as true internet community? Or is there always going to be an element missing when you’re not connecting in the same physical space?

That’s a great question. Here’s how my brain works: I think that everyone else is hanging out on the internet, and I’m just not.

Look, there were times that, in the glory days of Twitter, I was like, “I’m going to go hang out with my friends in the cafeteria called Twitter, and we’re just going to joke around.” But I realized that a lot of the people that I follow also know each other in real life. And so there was a shorthand that I was kind of jumping into.

I think that it is possible to have real genuine community and connection online. And I think that some people are really well suited to it. During the pandemic, I was invited to a couple of different Discords, and they’re very active, and it just feels like going on Blackboard in college, and I’m like, “I don’t know! I didn’t do my journal for the week!”

But it’s really meaningful to them. And so I think it’s just, like, where you get your energy from. I find that I’m a Cheers kind of person. I need to be able to walk into a place, and know that everybody in there is somebody that I kind of know, and then sit down, and hang out. And I learned that in the pandemic. I was like, “I kind of want to hang out on the internet,” but you don’t ever really know who you can expect to be there on the internet.

You also write about nearing the end of your tenure at ELLE, and how the comedy of your column had started to feel like this endless “middle.” You were having a hard time “writing toward hope.” Do you ever find yourself feeling that way now? And if that’s the case, how do you reorient yourself to the point where you can write toward hope again?

I think a lot of it was conditional. Because one of the things that brought me hope in writing the column, particularly during the Trump years, was that there were people who were beacons of light, or of ridiculousness, or of energy. And so for everything that I wrote about the Trump administration, or Jared Kushner, or whoever, I was also able to write about Representative Maxine Waters or something that Vice President Harris did. And then I was also able to write about celebrity. And I think we have a different relationship to celebrity now.

I wonder, “Would I go back and do the column again?” And every once in a while I’m like, “I could do this. I could do that.” But I think one of the things I’ve learned is that you don’t always have to place your hope in celebrity, or in politics, or in entertainment. When I think about how to write about hope now, or how to reach for hope, it really is coming more from inside, and from stories from my own life. And I have to say—I miss the glory days of, like, “Beyoncé did something incredible on a Monday, and there was something weird with Trudeau on a Tuesday,” and whatever. But I don’t want to have parasocial relationships with billionaires. I’ve learned that maybe that’s a double-edged sword.

“I don’t want to have parasocial relationships with billionaires. I’ve learned that maybe that’s a double-edged sword.”

So, instead, I’d like to have relationships with the things that really bring me actual joy and human connection. And so, in the book, there’s this essay about Oprah’s Favorite Things. I think that, in a different world, I would’ve written that as more about Oprah and her impact. And instead I was like, “Actually, I’m going to write about the way that people respond to Oprah, and seeing myself in that.” I don’t know. I hope it’s growth.

With that in mind, what is your approach to social media these days? Is there a particular app that brings you the most joy or fulfillment?

Instagram. I’m going to sound so ridiculous, but I get to see little pictures of my nephews and my niece. I never really was an Instagram person, because I don’t know how to frame a photograph to save my life. And so I am like, “My gift is words.” And so when I got off of Twitter, I was like, “I’ll just put all my tweets on Instagram.” And it’s like, “You have to get your life together, please.” And so I literally learned how to take a photograph of myself. I was like, “What if I looked into the camera?” I had to actually have someone teach me where you look in the selfie camera, like I’m 95 years old, unfortunately. But I think I like Instagram. I’m on there too much, apparently, according to my screen time.

Aren’t we all?

But it actually is kind of great for a writer because you’re not creating your “content.” You’re sort of like, “I’m having experience, and I want to document it.” Or, “I’m looking at other people having experiences.” I got to find out which of my friends were rich by seeing who got Club Renaissance tickets. Everyone was walking around like, “I don’t know. I don’t have [any money].” And then touching Beyoncé.

What advice, then, would you give to other writers in terms of their own social media presence?

I say this as somebody for whom various social media apps have been deeply influential in my life, and created my audience in some ways: I don’t think it’s the way to do it. I’m currently on strike [with the WGA], and I’m realizing, “All of this content that I’ve generated over the years, whether it’s on Facebook, or Twitter, or for one of the big Hollywood studios, is owned by somebody else who doesn’t see it necessarily as brand building, or literature, or whatever. They see it as grist for the mill, ways to sell more devices or something.”

And so I think for writers trying to build their social media reach, I think it’s figuring out where people are genuinely interested in what you’re saying, or you’re interested in what they’re saying, and figuring out a way to, as quickly as possible, transform that relationship into something that isn’t rooted in the platform.

“I think for writers trying to build their social media reach…as quickly as possible, transform that relationship into something that isn’t rooted in the platform.”

I started off, I went viral on Facebook, and that’s how I got at ELLE. But I’d been on Facebook writing jokes for nobody for a decade at that point. And so if ELLE didn’t come along, I guess I still would’ve done it. But I was also writing my own solo shows, and I had a blog, and I was thinking of self-publishing a book. And so it was all these little things that were about finding a way to uproot my content, for lack of a better word, from the platform, and make it really rooted in me.

Who are some of the writers on the internet that you read religiously?

Well, Samantha Irby. She’s incredible. What I love is that she has a recommendation newsletter, but she also does a daily recap of what happened on Judge Mathis. And she sometimes writes that people complain to her that it’s too much email, [but] I eat it up. I will read every single one of them.

I love Hunter Harris. I do feel like Hunter’s younger than I am, and sometimes I’m like, “Who are these people that she’s talking about?” I’m like, “That sounds very bad, whatever happened with the people that they did.” So I read Hunter religiously. Alison Willmore writes for Vulture, and I think she just has such a smart voice. These are three people who’ve really navigated a lot of different platforms, a lot of different companies, but they’re so deeply themselves and they have such unique perspectives. And that’s the thing. That’s what I always aspire to.

It’s not necessarily about comparison, and saying like, “Well, do people get that when they see me?” so much as it’s like, “How do I make sure that whenever I’m showing up, it’s fully as myself, and it’s fully realized?”

This has been an existential interview, so I hope you’ll permit me an even deeper existential question. What is it about writing right now that feels important to you? Creating art in the modern age is often accused of frivolity, or otherwise it can feel like pushing content out into the ether. So for yourself, how do you justify it? What makes this work feel essential to you?

Here’s the thing. I think that there’s nothing inherently important about anything a human does. But I think that the fact that we are trying to do something, and that everything that we are doing is ephemeral, and that it’s all going to fall away, and that we are going to fall away, makes the effort meaningful.

And so I ask myself like, “What does it matter? Who cares about these silly little internet thoughts or whatever?” But I think about how much joy I get from a bouquet of flowers delivered, or a really good brunch, or getting my appendix taken out. Those are all wonderful things for me and my ongoing longevity. And those are all people making an effort to do something. And do I think that writing a book is the same as getting my appendix taken out? No. But also, yes.

Because I spent years learning how to do this, and hopefully it makes somebody happy. It’s not going to save anybody’s life, but it is a way of showing up in the world, in a world that asks us—and it has always asked us—to not show up, to just be widgets, to just be cogs, and then to disappear.

And one of the goals of this book is to call back things that have been lost, the world that we used to live in, people that have passed on, the ways that we used to feel, and to put them into writing so that they don’t go away. And this book will go out of print one day, and that’s fine. But for now, we have it.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Headshot of Lauren Puckett-Pope

Culture Writer

Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture writer at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE. 





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