Elle.com’s R. Eric Thomas: Truth is Funnier Than Fiction

Episode 02

“It’s funny ‘cause it’s true!” said Tina Fey on 30 Rock. As in all things, Tina is 100% correct. In our 2nd episode of For the Love of Finding the Truth, Elle.com humor writer R. Eric Thomas and Jen explore humor as a truth-telling device and how we can use comedy to face some of the greatest ideological battles of our time. Eric has a daily column called “Eric Reads the News” where he breaks down the biggest headlines as only a satirist, brunch enthusiast, and Beyoncé Fan Club President can do (and be careful where you read anything Eric writes—he’ll likely inspire uncontrollable snorts, much like you’ll hear from Jen during the episode). Eric’s first stab at observational humor took place at church while he and his brother made hilarious notes about the people there (to which Eric was sure they’d go to hell for). This humor later turned into imaginative scenarios Eric would post on Facebook for his friends (i.e. when he saw a group photo of President Obama, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, Eric declared them “an all-male cast of Sex and the City”), which ultimately got the attention of Elle.com and launched his daily column. Eric’s journey is defined by confronting his own painful and hilarious truths as he’s overcome stereotypes, reckoned his Christianity with being gay, and discovered some surprisingly deep things about himself when he joined a gay softball league—all of which he talks about in his upcoming book Here For It. As Eric says: “The oppressors do not get to define the way I walk through the world and hold my head up. I get to define that.” As Eric would also say—honey, yes.

Episode Transcript

Narrator:  Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people every week on this podcast. Thanks for listening! We hope you enjoy the show.

Jen:   Hey, everybody. Jen Hatmaker here, your host of the For the Love Podcast. Welcome to the show today.

So right now, we are in a series called For the Love of Finding the Truth. Felt timely right now. Felt like just a lot of us are wanting to be more intentional and a little bit more careful and our intake and what we’re hearing, and what we’re believing, and what is truth and how do we find it and all of it.

I will tell you that I love today’s conversation because my next guest finds truth in a lot of ways. He finds it in real life, he finds it in pop culture, and he finds it in humor. And thank God for him because honestly, he just . . . He lights up my Twitter feed and my life in a way that nobody else does.

I have been a fan for some time of R. Eric Thomas. He’s a senior staff writer at Elle.com, which is the home of his daily humor column called Eric Reads the News. I mean, it makes me . . . I’m not joking, I say this without a hint of hyperbole, it makes me LOL. I mean, I just guffaw sometimes. I marvel at the level of his wit and his humor.

He writes about politics, and pop culture, and celebrity shade, plenty of it. And in his own words, he’s always here for anything related to brunch, Broadway or Beyoncé. He really is one of our people.

So you are going to want to go over to his column for sure. You will howl with laughter. He’s just really good at humor and satire. He’s got a really keen eye, so he’s paying attention to what’s going on out there to what is true, and then he offers his own take on it. I’m not the only person who thinks this. There are some pretty heavy hitters who love Eric’s column: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mariah Carey, Maxine Waters, Tituss Burgess, just to name a few. He is really well-known because he’s so good at what he does.

If that wasn’t enough, he’s also an award-winning playwright. He’s really an incredible creative. And so, we’ll talk about this a little bit too, but he’s written a memoir that comes out in February called Here For It, which is . . . It’s just going to be great because it’s a balance of what his sort of observational brand of humor, but also truth telling and this real sincerity about him and you’ll see this over the course of our conversation. He’s just got a real genuine spirit. I just think he is fantastic.

And so, I am happy to introduce you to him if you don’t already know him and his writing, for sure, which we will, of course, have all linked as always.

So I’m pleased to share my conversation with the hilarious and insightful R. Eric Thomas.

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Jen: Okay. I am so delighted to welcome you to the show today, Eric Thomas. Thank you for being here.

Eric: Thank you so much for having me. This is fantastic. I’m excited.

Jen: You’re fantastic, and you’re so funny and you’re so fun. You are.

So, I’ve talked about you before and I’ve told everybody to sign up for your newsletter, if they have half a brain cell. And so I’ve told my listeners a little bit about who you are. But I want to hear a little bit more about where you came from and what kind of kid you were, because I’m so curious how you grew into such a force of humor. Is this the kind of family you grew up in? Were you surrounded by funny people? Did you ever see this path in front of you?

Eric: I sort of didn’t. It’s funny. There was an episode of your podcast a little while ago where you talked about how you were the oldest of four and all of you think of yourselves as very funny.

Jen: Yes, we do.

Eric: I’m the oldest of three. Growing up, I would try and make jokes and people would just sort of stare at me blankly. So, humor and observation skills in general, I learned it from watching my mother and my younger brother, Steven, primarily. I think, particularly, this skillset that I use for the column, sort of looking at the world: we went to a black Baptist church. When I was growing up, I didn’t know there was other kinds of church. I knew there was white church and black church, and we were in black church. It’s like the small, old conservative, window air-conditioning units. Simple.

Jen: Yeah.

Eric: And I was very, very obedient. I was like an obsessively good child. I was like a narc. I’m very proud of it.

So Steven, my younger brother would, I guess—one, because he’s a middle child and he had to be different and two, because of the way he’s built—he would sit there next to me in church and pick apart what was going on, pick apart the people who were being hypocritical or ridiculous. And I found that . . . well, first of all, I was like, “Well, you’re going to hell.”

Jen: Obvi!

Eric: But as I got older and I started to see some of the problems in our church, and as my mother started to share some of the places where she, as a woman, hadn’t been allowed to have any sort of voice or autonomy, I started to see like, “Oh, there’s ability to critique with humor here.” So I really internalized that.

And as I grew into myself and became more honest with myself about how I am, I leaned back on that same humor. And now, I make money off of it.

Jen: Yay! I love that. I have similar background just learning from other people’s humor and even their observations. I didn’t know until I was older that I was allowed to be a critical thinker. I was a lot like you. I was really square. I mean, really square. By the book. So yeah, it wasn’t until I was older that I even know I could do that—that I could press hard on ideas or on structures or systems and ask questions that nobody else around me was asking. Then when you add humor to it, now you have a career.

So obviously, tons of amazing things have happened in the age of the internet. I mean, you and I both have jobs because of it, so yay.

Eric: Yeah.

Jen: But I would love for you to talk, tell my listeners about the Facebook post that launched you into internet stardom—you said it was for the wrong reasons—and then essentially, how you turned that internet fame into a job at Elle because that’s pretty impressive.

Eric: It’s really ridiculous. People will ask me to come speak at my old high school or to college classes, and I’m always like, “Honey, I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll speak anywhere. I’ll speak at a post office if you want me to, but I don’t have any good advice for you because all of this started in a way that really is magical.”

I wrote three years ago, there was a photo of Barack Obama, Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, formerly president of Mexico, and Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, and they’re just walking down this red carpet and they just looked so good. This is back when Obama was still president and the birds sang and the sun shone.

Jen: They did. The sun came up, yup.

Eric: Right. I just saw it online, and I put it up on Facebook and I wrote this lazy, thirsty post about how good they looked and then compared to, like, Tom Ford presents The Avengers in an all-male cast of Sex in the City. It’s like wild but it was what I used to do just on Facebook for my friends.

Jen: Right.

Eric: It went so viral. Exactly, yeah. You’ve probably have experiences in one of these where you think, “I’m speaking to an audience I already know and then all of a sudden it’s just like, ‘Oh, hi. We can hear you,’” right?

Jen: Totally.

Eric: The site director of Elle.com reached out to me on Facebook Messenger like, “Hey, do you want to do this every day?” I was like, “This is not a job. I’m not sure if you’re aware.” He’s like, “Yeah, we’ll try it out.”

I just started commenting on the news and it really quickly took off. It sort of was the perfect moment for me and the perfect moment for pop culture.

Jen: It’s so great because your job feels like a little bit of a dream job to a lot of people, including myself.

So here’s my question. I think of this about you all the time because I read your stuff every week. Number one, I know this is an amazing opportunity. It’s so funny to be able to write funny things and get paid. I mean, that’s an exceptional place to land. But I’m so curious, and this just might be your deep well of talent and it is okay for you to say if that’s just what it is. “No, I’m just this naturally good.”

How sometimes you are able to write that funny every single day, because you churn it out. And for people who haven’t read your work yet—and they will after this podcast, obviously—but it takes a little bit of heavy lifting. You’ve got to dig deep. Funny is not easy.

Eric: No. No.

Jen: It’s not easy. Comedy is hard, and timing is hard, and language is hard. I don’t even know how you’re going to answer this question, but do you get writer’s block and do you struggle on days that are just not funny?

Eric: If I can get one joke, if I can conceive of just one funny thing to say about it, then I can play a game of association with myself. And if you look back at some of my columns—I think I can say this—some of them are not really about what they’re about. I just talk about whatever I want to talk about.

Jen: That’s true.

Eric: So that’s my little trick, but I think that’s the basis of comedy. Comedy is about relating things to each other in ways that are surprising.

I’m not saving the world, but I do feel like, Well, you are employed to find humor in even the darkest things. So a lot of times, I just ask myself, What story am I telling?

You know, child separations, I will never be able to find anything funny to write about them and I don’t think I should. So I’ve written about those in a serious way. But when I have to write about the Trump administration, what I do more often than I’d like, I have to ask myself, Well, what is the narrative that I want to be a part of, and how do I frame the story in a way that is both true to my beliefs but also true to my calling?

The oppressors do not get to define the way I walk through the world and hold my head up. I get to define that. And the way I define it is by searching for hope and searching for humor.

Jen: And you do it. You sort of lend your voice and your hope to your readers, which is a real relief and I mean that sincerely. There are so many days I’m looking around like, Am I taking crazy pills? Does everybody else know that everything is burning down? Is it just me? So being able to go to somebody’s writing like yours, which tackles a lot of that head on, but you do it with, honestly, the humor it deserves. I mean, somebody deserves to make jokes about this because it’s so crazy. So I find a lot of relief in it like, Okay, we’re still here. We still know how to be funny. We still know how to connect with each other. Nobody can steal that away from us. And you do that really well.

I do wonder, it seems like a lot of funny people are grumpy right now because they feel like maybe they can’t make jokes like they once did like jokes about anyone or anything or the things that are now off-limits that didn’t use to be off-limits. It’s such a tricky needle to thread.

As someone who’s a master at satire like you are, I’m curious what you think about this, because I like to be funny too and I’ve stepped wrong. I’ve stepped wrong and realized, Oh, I can’t be funny in that way, or, This isn’t funny, or, This doesn’t read funny.

So I’m just curious if you think there’s a point when humor and satire go too far. What’s your line there? What are your rules on satirical writing?

Eric: You know, you watch old Love Lucy episodes, you listen to “Who’s on First?” and it still works because humor is set up and punchline, and the punchline is usually a surprise. Satire has been around Jonathan Swift and probably before that, I don’t really know. So you can put the form in any place you want in any context.

So the question I always ask when people talk about like, “Why can’t I say this?” or, “Why can’t I use this accent in my act?” or whatever, it’s like what context are you working in? People say, “Oh, people are so much more sensitive now,” but that’s not the case. The people are able to have their concerns heard now in ways that they haven’t been heard before.

I’ll tell you a quick little story.

Jen: Okay.

Eric: I remember, gosh, I think I was in sixth grade and I was hanging out after school with a bunch of friends. I went to a school that was predominantly white. We were just telling jokes outside of the playground after school and one of my friends said to me—well, she said to the group—and she’s like, “Oh, I’ve got a joke.” And then she turned to me [and said], “It’s a racial joke. Do you mind?”

I was like, “Uh, I guess not,” because, you know, I didn’t really understand how to manifest my power at that point.

Jen: Right.

Eric: So she told the joke, and I still remember it word for word, which is so fascinating. It was basically a joke about the way black people talk. And then people laughed and we moved on, and I never said anything.

I just saw her at the 20th [high school] reunion, actually. I still didn’t say anything, but I’ll never forget it.

The difference between that person then and this person now is that I know now that I have the right to say, “If you know that you have to apologize to me in advance for saying this joke, then you know it’s not right, and I know it’s not right. And I don’t have to be the one to police you.” And people want to be policed.

I think the surprise in jokes that go too far is not, “I’m telling you a good joke and some people are just too sensitive.” The surprise is, “Can you believe that I’m using my privilege in this way and we are all here safe in our privilege, laughing in this way?”

Jen: That’s good.

Eric: So that implicates the audience sometimes.

Jen: That’s right.

Eric: I certainly have laughed at things which the humor was more based in my feeling of privilege over a certain group than it was based on actual genuine humor before. I think we’re all guilty of that. It’s not a better laugh. Punching up is always going to be funnier. People may disagree.

People may like to punch down. Okay, then own it. Say, “You know what? I want to punch down. I want to make fun of some people.”

Jen: Yeah.

Eric: And you know, go about your life.

Jen: Yeah. Those are great guardrails and absolutely correct. It really is true, it’s not a better laugh. Punching up is funnier. It’s the right way to approach and you do that really well. You do it with precision. You hit the right note when you do it where it’s the exact balance of this is funny but it’s also true and that’s terrible.

Jen:  So right now, we are all starting to see some different faces, we’re hearing some different voices across our screens. I’m curious about your opinion here. What or who do you think we should be talking about more across media—news, TV, movies, internet, all of it? What do you think—or who do you think maybe, even—needs more of our attention right now? Who should we be listening to?

Eric: I have had my eyes and ears opened up by people who are talking a lot about ableism and our concept of what a body should do and what a body should look like and, particularly, people who are very funny about it.

So shows like Shrill, Lindy West’s new show, and the writings of Roxane Gay have really helped to expand what I understand about what I assume to be “normal.”

I think there’s always places we can continue to learn about the ways that we make life uncomfortable for other people through our assumptions and through the things that we think everyone should be able to do.

I think when we talk about bodily ability and bodily autonomy, ultimately, as with anything else, it frees us all because if we are saying, “Hey, the world shouldn’t be built just for one type of body. Clothes and airplane seats shouldn’t be made to only accommodate a certain spectrum of people.” Then all of a sudden, we, our own bodies are freer to be whatever they are.

There’s a really great Netflix series that just came out called Special, made by a gay man who has cerebral palsy. It’s about a character who has cerebral palsy, and he’s trying to navigate the world as a gay white man. So seeing some parts of a journey that I totally identify with as a gay man myself and some parts of a journey that I don’t necessarily identify with because I don’t have cerebral palsy, but I do have a body and I do understand what it’s like to sometimes feel at home in that body and sometimes feel like that body is at war with me or with the world. That was particularly healing and eye-opening for me.

So I’m very, very interested in people who are owning their bodies and talking about the ways that we can own our bodies and make the world safe for everybody.

Jen: That’s good. That’s great. That’s on my horizon as well.

So you’re not just a humor writer, you’re also playwright, which is fun to watch too. That’s this beautiful muscle that you also flex.

So as someone whose fluent in both worlds, do you think that there is more truth in fiction or nonfiction? And I wonder if you put things into fiction spaces that are too had to write about and then attach those ideas directly to Eric, the Humor Writer. Do find that this content, this material, these ideas, I’m going to push them over here where they fit a little more tidy? I wonder how you divide out your material.

Eric: That’s really, really interesting. I am writing all the time, and so I don’t have a whole lot of time to consciously divvy things up. And I actually feel like I speak the truth more in nonfiction than I do in fiction. I speak of it first in non-fiction.

Jen: Sure, of course.

Eric: The kind of things that I’m discussing therapy or whatever like what’s going on in my home life or whatever, that’s not going in the column, but it’s also not really going into plays. But my questions about the world, my questions about “Why bother? Why bother continuing to be alive?” Those are embedded in the column first.

I think with plays, I try to . . . I actually really enjoy escaping a little bit in plays. And I have questions that are in the same vein but have a lower threshold for truth like what it is to be a person.

So playwriting allows me to work with characters who are, I hope, a little less self-actualized than I am. Not to say that I’m self-actualized anyway. My therapist will listen to this and be like, “Girl, no. You aren’t.”

Jen: Speaking of that, I find one of the hardest places to mind truth is in yourself, in myself. That’s doing that interior work is I’m not naturally super self-aware. That’s just not my bin. I’m very outwardly focused. I’m always content focused and material focused. I’m thinking about the people around me, but it’s work for me. It’s labor to turn that mirror inside and figure out what’s their dig through the rubble.

So you have a memoir coming up because you’ve been hard at work at this. I’m guessing that you’re writing this in your memoir, Here For It, which is going to . . . When is it coming out?

Eric: It’s coming out February 11th of 2020.

Jen: Yeah, perfect.

I’m curious. Can you talk about it a little bit and what we’re going to be able to expect from it as readers? And then even a little closer in, what has it been like to re-examine your life as an adult, and did you uncover any truth about yourself over the course of the writing process that maybe you weren’t expecting or maybe you weren’t expecting to tell?

Eric: Yeah.

Jen: I wonder how that process worked for you and what you discovered.

Eric: Well, it’s interesting. I got started on this path just telling stories live in front of audiences like through standup storytelling shows. And I host The Moth Live three times a month in DC and in Philadelphia. The Moth is a storytelling show, a podcast also.

And so, I had been thinking for years about how to contextualize who I was and how to put it into the frame of rising action, like, somebody wants something, they either get it or they don’t, and it climaxes somewhere.

So after my column blew up, my agent reached out to me and she’s like, “What have you got? What do you have inside of you?”

And I said, “I think I have, you know, these stories that I can turn into essays that are all about the question of ‘Why bother to continue to hope? To live in a world that is resistant to you?’”

Jen: Yup.

Eric: The only choice that I have as a black queer person in America is to say I am a part of marginalized groups but I am not on the margin. I am moving myself to the center of my own story.

Jen: Oh, that’s good. I like that.

Eric: Yeah. So one thing that was a challenge, I think a really healthy challenge for me, was looking at those moments and deciding, “Yeah, I will tell the truth about this moment,” but I would use this as an opportunity to reframe this narrative for myself and make it funny.

Jen: That’s good.

Eric: Not every story deserves that. But just like when I was talking about writing about the news, I can say everything is bad and everything hurts, and that is true.

So it was such a beautiful and difficult experience to look back at my life and to say like, “I’m the hero of my journey.”

Jen: Yeah.

Eric: So some anonymous person with an agenda is not writing my story right now. I’m writing my story right now. So it was really powerful.

And one of the things that was interesting, my editor, when we’re going through edits, she would always mark places. She was like, “This is very funny, but just tell the truth instead of wrapping it in jokes.”

Jen: Yeah.

Eric: As I go about to describe it to people, one of the things that is an interesting challenge is being honest about the fact that it is a book that is humorous essays, but without tap dancing and setting up confetti cannons.

Jen: Totally.

Eric: I don’t know. Do you ever have . . . You’re very good at framing things comedically but also telling the truth. Do you ever feel like people only want the funny from you?

Jen: Yeah, totally. Sometimes finding that sweet spot is a challenge, and it’s helpful with the sharp eye of either an editor or a trusted reader to be like, “This is a song and dance you’re giving us in order to either avoid what’s really truthful in here, or opposite. Or, “Save us your big feelings, like, we come to you for the funny.”

I’m hard to categorize. I guess what that means is I make nobody happy. The people that want me to just be funny all the time are like, “Gosh, why is she talking about the kids at the border again?” You know?

Eric: Mm-hmm.

Jen: And then the people who come to me for that activist leadership is like, “Why is she such a jokester?” Kind of in a similar way that you’re talking about right now.
I finally just had to plant my feet in my own life and say, “I am who I am, and I’m in charge of that. I am driving my own ship, and I don’t have to make other people comfortable in order to exist. That’s okay. I can push against some of the labels that people want to put on me, and if they don’t fit at it, they don’t.”

But I think that just is also a part of getting a little bit older.

I’ve just found that the longer . . . Just year after year, I felt a little bit more in charge of my own story, kind of like you are too. The way that you’re saying, “I wonder . . . ”

I know this is personal, but you are such just a quintessential, intersectional person. You are black. You are gay. As you mentioned, you’re a Christian man with a husband who’s a white reverend. I mean, that’s just a lot. Welcome to America. That’s just a whole situation right there.

I wonder if you could talk about how long it took you to come to terms not just with identifying with all those words but embracing them—like absolutely, wholehearted proud, and what that was like for you, and how did you ultimately do that to where you said, “I’m the hero of my own story”?

Eric: Yeah. No, it’s like my entire life is taken off to this morning and probably for years to come. I honestly thought when I was in my early 30s—or late 20s or early 30s—I thought I had done it. I was like I’m out. I’m out to my family, in the world. I’m independent, and I make my own money. I listen to Destiny’s Child. I’m good. I’m a survivor.

When I met David, my husband, I had been casually looking for a church to go for a really long time because that was a place in my life that I still felt a lot of need. And a lot of churches are not LGBTQ affirming, and I didn’t want to sit in a pew on a Sunday and be told I was going to hell one more minute. I’m going to pass on that one.

Jen: Yup, same.

Eric: So we met and I was like, I didn’t know how to like . . . I was attracted to him and I was like, “I don’t know how to flirt with pastor,” or like, “I was thinking I want to go to your church.” Yeah, I have no idea. So stupidly, I was like, “Yeah, I’m really interested in going to your church,” and so immediately, he stepped the boundaries. He put me into the congregant category.

Jen: Oh, right.

Eric: So he gave me his business card, and I was like, “What am I supposed to do with this?” Nothing came of it.

Months later, I was doing this storytelling show about my search for God and my search for a boyfriend because you just got to put out in the universe and you have to do what you want.

Jen: Sure.

Eric: He came to see it.

Jen: Oh, he did?

Eric: I was like, “Oh, this is nice.” And I was so taken by that gesture. And we exchanged numbers and we hung out and we had a really great conversation where neither one of us knew if it was a date or just like a business meeting, which is my favorite kind of romantic encounter.

So after we started dating, my relationship with church changed. He’s the pastor of an LGBTQ-affirming church, but then all of a sudden, I was at my husband’s job. So the search for the place where I can find, and this is worldwide, the search for the place where I can be fully myself as a Christian, fully myself as a black person and as a queer person, as a married person and all the other different identities, continues.

I think the question is, do the places that we are seeking where we are 100% at home, do they exist or do we have to make them ourselves? And if we make them ourselves, does the work of making it a place that we need to find, does that work sort of negate the wholeness of it? If I have to throw my own party, am I throwing my own party?

Jen: That’s a good question.

Eric: I have felt more at peace with the world and with myself as every year goes by. I’m sure when I’m 50 I’ll be like, “I don’t care. I’m going to wear a caftan everywhere and go to brunch every day.” That’s what I really want, anyway.

Jen: Like at some point, we’re like, “I honestly don’t care.”

Eric: Yeah.

Jen:  This a fun thing you’ve talked about before. You say that you’re not athletic, but you joined the gay softball league, so this is very delightful. I want to know about that experience and how it has been for you? Because I have a vision of it in my head, and I hope it’s not altered at all by how you tell the story. Has that been fun for you?

Eric: Oh, my gosh. Well, I’ll tell you. You know, I also had a vision of it. Philadelphia has this gay softball league and it’s, like, corporately homosexual. You can only have two straight people on the team. If you have any more . . .

Jen: Seriously?

Eric: Yeah. They’re putting people on a list. They’re like, “No, only two straights.”

Jen: Okay, right. “That’s a straight quota, we’ve met it.”

Eric: Right, and I was like, “This sounds fabulous.”

Jen: Sure, exactly.

Eric: But I was also, at this point, and this was probably close to eight or nine years ago, I was at this point where I was like, “Okay, I don’t want to continue to pretend the idea of masculinity, whatever it is, doesn’t exist,” and the questions I have around whether I’m masculine or not don’t affect me.

I’ve always been somebody who strangers on the street will yell gay slurs at me. These people must have excellent gaydar. One time I was walking home from the gym in sweatpants and a ratty old T-shirt, and this guy pulled up beside me at a stop sign and screams at me. And I was like, “Sir, this is extremely . . . You should win a prize for guessing that I’m gay. This is impressive.”

So I was like, “If I join a sports league, I will be more masculine.” And so of course, gay slow pitch softball because it’s so masculine.

Jen: Sure. Very.

Eric: Right? So I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how to play the game. I had to Google “What is softball?”

Jen: Sure.

Eric: I get on the team, and these guys are so serious about softball.

Jen: Oh, totally.

Eric: I thought it was going to be [like] a lot of gay sports leagues out there, [where they’re] really just an  excuse to drink and wear crop tops.

Jen: Right.

Eric: I thought that’s what I was getting. I was not.

Jen: No, no.

Eric: Nobody was making A League of Their Own jokes at all.

So I had no skill. They put me out in far right field. I was like the second right fielder.

Jen: Sad.

Eric: I was just doing small dance moves out there and picking daisies, as one would expect.

I was like, “Wait a minute, am I too gay for the gay softball league?” I just want to do cartwheels.

Jen: Right.

Eric: And all of a sudden, all of the weight I put into like, “This is gay, oh that’s gay. This is camp. That’s camp,” all of the ways that I was making it feel both as a protective arm for myself and also as a weapon against myself, all of that broke open.

It’s just a skill that I was trying to get my body to learn how to do and eventually, I did not learn how to do it. I quit the team and started cheerleading on the sides, which is much better skill for my body.

But I realized masculinity was just a drag I was trying to put on, and this is not me. I am who I am, as the song says, you know.

Jen: Oh, my gosh. I love that story.

Well, let me ask you this, you mentioned this earlier, it is not positively the most optimistic time in the world, but I love how you are saying that you have hope. That is inspiring to me and encouraging to me.

So in this series that you’re on, we’re talking about truth. I wonder what you think the relationship between truth and hope is. How do we negotiate truth in what we’re seeing every day, which is sometimes outright disastrous, eventually, with the idea of hope? How do we appropriately process truth while still dreaming and working towards something better? Because I sometimes feel like there’s a real compulsion to choose. Either it is 100% like “hair on fire, everything is burning, like there’s nothing good happening in the world, it’ll never happen again.” Or it’s almost like a Pollyanna, “I don’t have to care about this, tralala, nothing to see here.”

How do you think we split the middle there in a way that engages truth but protects our hope?

Eric: I think anyone who tells you that everything is bad is not telling you the truth.

Jen: Right.

Eric: Because if everything is bad, and you are bad, and our world is bad, then one, what are we living for?

Jen: Yeah, why bother?

Eric: What are we fighting for?

Jen: Right.

Eric: Why bother?

There’s sometimes in the Bible when God looked down at world and He’s like, “Oh, let me find one redeeming thing,” and He’s like, “Oh, got it. All right, fine. Moving on.”

It is always this mix of the darkness and the light, and I think that allows us to be more aware how much darkness is. But there are people who’ve always been aware of darkness in other times and continued . . . People who survived the holocaust and then went on after they were freed from those places [and] were able to live full lives and have children. It’s a revolutionary act because it says that you believe that tomorrow might be at least okay if not better than today.

Jen: Good, yeah.

Eric: I think I’m trying to do better. I’m trying to make tomorrow better than today.

Jen: I love that answer. I could not agree more. I think we are powerful creators and we’re not just reporters of what we see but we’re also creators of what could be and I believe that. I believe that words are powerful. Obviously, you too. You’ve built a life around it.

Eric: Yup.

Jen: That words are powerful and they can be healing and they can be funny, which is also healing in its own way, and we can create a world that is still beautiful, and lovely, and kind-hearted, and generous. I would have thrown in the towel a long time ago if I didn’t believe that too.

I don’t know about you but for me, real life is often useful. There’s the new cycle, which is one thing, and then I can close my laptop down and then just look around at my life, the people that I live with, and live by, and live for and I’m like, Wait a minute, it’s not all bad. I mean, look around. There’s people that we love and friends that love us. So I also find this really important balance between being plugged in to the news cycle on the outrage machine and absolutely unplugged.

Jen: Okay, we’re wrapping this up. These are just three quick questions, off the top of your head, we’re asking everybody in the Truth Series. So here’s the first one, who’s a truth teller that you admire? It could be anyone, from history or modern day, whatever.

Eric: Umm I love everything that Toni Morrison says. I think that she has a great perspective on America and on race. Literally anything, anywhere she writes I’m like, “Yup, that’s truest thing that’s ever been said.”

Jen: You’re right. You’re right. She’s a great truth teller. That’s a good answer.

How about this: who’s one of the most insightful thinkers right now? Someone who speaks and you make sure that you are listening?

Eric: I really love the way that Shonda Rhimes thinks, and maybe it’s because . . . She’s a television writer and producer, so maybe one wouldn’t put her in the same company as other sort of super hard thinkers. But I find that her perspective on herself and life. It opens me up completely and then she understands the language that we speak right now, which is a language of both pop culture and narrative, and I really glam on to that. She’s got me. She’s got me wrapped around the finger.

Jen: She’s a force. I would absolutely put her in the category of insightful thinkers. Her thoughts and wisdom on leadership and business development and chasing on a dream is some of the greatest I’ve read. I put her words all around my office, and I found them so helpful and intuitive. She’s a great leader.

Here’s the last one. We actually ask everybody every series this question, and it can be whatever you want it to be. Your answer is however you want it to feel. What is saving your life right now?

EricParks and Recreation.

Jen: Oh my God, my favorite.

Eric: Yeah. It never gets old.

Jen: Yeah, it doesn’t.

Eric: The optimism of the character of Leslie Knope is miraculous. It’s such a funny series. It’s so goodhearted. It makes me happy when I can’t find happiness. I love it.

Jen: I think I’m probably on my third round through, and I don’t ever get tired of it. Every time it’s fun, every time it’s funny. It’s greatest cast of characters. That’s great.

Eric: Mm-hmm.

Jen: Okay, I think you are really great, Eric. I do. And I am so happy that your writing has found such huge acclaim that people are getting to experience you on such a wider platform and you just have so much ahead to. It’s exciting. You’re writing books. You’re writing more plays. There’s just no end of it.

So I’m just over in your corner cheering you on. I mean, I really am. It’s funny because every time your newsletter lands in my inbox, I’m sitting at my laptop, I’m working or whatever that even means for somebody who works at home. You know. You know. And I’m like, “Okay, I don’t have time right now. I’m going to keep it on my inbox. I’m going to come back to it later when I have some time.”

And inevitably, 20 minutes later, I’ve just read through every single word of it, all the articles. It’s so funny and it’s so fun to get and it’s nice to have a bright spot in the day.

Can you just tell my listeners really quickly about where they can find you and all of the stuff that you do?

Eric: Sure. Yeah, you can find me on Twitter @oureric, and you can find me on the front page of Elle.com every day.

Jen: Perfect. Hey, thank you for coming on the show. I am so happy that you did and am such a happy reader of yours. I’m just a delighted fan and so I was so thrilled when you said you’d come on. Thanks for your time.

Eric: Thank you. Thank you so much. This is such a fulfilling conversation, and I really appreciate your work. Thank you.

Jen: Well, I have always said that I have plans to use my podcast to make friends out of people I want to be friends with. I don’t care. I’m not ashamed. That’s my goal and my prerogative. And Eric was one of them, so I don’t even care. I wanted to meet him and know him, and I’m so happy he came on the show.

I’m definitely going to link to all of his columns and his writings and you guys, you’re going to howl, set aside a little bit of time to read his very hyperbolic style of writing that is so funny and so over the top. He’s got a real gift for comedy. Then we’ll link to his book when it comes out in February, so lucky us.

Hey, thanks for listening. You’re going to want to come back for the rest of this series, which has just got some really great leaders for us talking us through how to be just reliable consumers of media and culture right now and news. I think this matters, and I think this is the savvy we want to create and definitely pass on. So come back next, you guys. More to come.

Thanks for listening. Thanks for subscribing. On behalf of our team, Amanda, and Laura, and everyone else that puts this podcast into your ears every week, we so appreciate your faithful, loyal selves for listening week in and week out.

Okay, guys, have a great one.

Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!

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