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Once More With Feeling

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It happens over breakfast. Richie is on his phone, as usual, propped against the table and scrolling with one hand while he holds a mug of coffee with the other. Eddie eats his toast and eggs, staring blankly behind Richie. He’s close to saying something passive-aggressive like, I love our morning chats, but then notices Richie stop scrolling, set his coffee down, and furrow his brow. If he says anything now, all he’ll get in return is an absent, Uh-huh…

Then Richie huffs a laugh, straightens up in his seat, and says, “Hey. Listen to this.” He clears his throat. “The ‘Real’ Richie Tozier: Comedian’s coming out special falls flat.”

Eddie winces. Richie has a habit of reading bad reviews, seeking them out, really, and then pretending like they don’t bother him. It’s all pretty exhausting to witness, so Eddie’s strategy tends to be: react as little as possible.

Richie continues reading. “I was rooting for Richie Tozier. When this comedian, known for his ‘edginess’—read: borderline misogyny and relentless fat jokes—”

Eddie barks a laugh and apologizes when Richie glares at him.

“Dude.”

“I’m sorry, sorry.”

“…came out as gay this past summer and subsequently parted ways with his writing team, I thought I might actually be interested in Richie Tozier now. Unfortunately, his first self-written special, released on Netflix this week, does not demonstrate much growth. His new work is almost indistinguishable from his previous specials. One gets the idea that Tozier is afraid to stray from his old formula, and is trying to appeal to his usual audience. If anything, he’s doubled down on the ‘politically-incorrect’ jokes,” Richie makes air quotes, “as if he thinks his sexuality will shield him from criticism for otherwise punching down. Perhaps most disappointing, Tozier’s comedy still lacks any heart or personality. If this is, at long last, the ‘real’ Richie Tozier, this critic is not interested.”

Richie finishes reading and lets his phone clatter to the table. Then he lifts his eyes to Eddie and throws up his hands, a wordless question.

Eddie pauses for a moment, takes a sip of his coffee. Then he raises his eyebrows and says, “Harsh.” He tries to keep his face and tone as neutral as possible; Richie will already be fixating on this for the rest of the week, and it will only be worse if Eddie feeds into it.

Richie hums and picks his phone back up. “Yeah. Well. Fuck this guy.”

“Yeah, fuck him,” Eddie echoes.

“People have no sense of humor these days.”

And if you didn’t know Richie very well, you might think that was that. He pretends to have thick skin, an almost-inhuman imperceptibility to criticism—and the act is convincing enough that Eddie bought into it for most of their childhood. But it is an act. He’s sensitive, insecure, and copes with that via a sometimes-insufferable over-confident front. Eddie knows this. Richie knows he knows. And yet Richie can’t seem to give up the act.

But he’s not really acting for Eddie, or for any audience. It’s self-delusion: This won’t get to me if I say it doesn’t.

Richie spends the rest of breakfast silent, preoccupied, his mouth pulled into a tight frown. Eddie’s told him before that he really should avoid this kind of thing; he’s an external-validation junkie. It’s one of the topics that most frequently comes up with his therapist. Often he’ll read positive comments aloud to Eddie, with an elated grin, but as soon as he comes across a negative one, his energy falls and he’ll spend days sulking.

Eddie’s sort of amazed he hasn’t figured out how to cope with it yet, after more than a decade as a moderately famous comedian. Not that Eddie is one to preach about healthy coping mechanisms, but at least he’s been doing better post-Derry. Well, post-Derry, take two.

It’s not that all negative feedback gets Richie down. He can brush off the dumb shit and, more recently, the homophobic remarks. He might enjoy that even more than the praise, actually, because it’s someone who’s wrong. Lips curling with cruel pleasure, he’ll tweet a response to anyone bold enough to pick a fight.

Eddie has told him to stop feeding the trolls, but that kind of thing doesn’t wear on Richie, really. He would sleep soundly at night if that was all that ever happened.

Eddie knows that this review is not like that. This one has struck a nerve. And he thinks he knows why.

In a few more minutes, Eddie clears their dishes—“Done with that?” he asks, but Richie doesn’t answer or even look up, so Eddie pulls his bowl out from under him and leaves it in the sink. Then he calls a goodbye from the hall as he slips into his shoes and grabs his keys from the hook.

“Oh, bye,” Richie calls back after a moment—probably just now realizing his bowl of cereal has disappeared.

+

“‘Punching down’…” Richie mutters.

“Hm?” Eddie looks over across the couch at him. They’re eating dinner in front of the news, which is what happens if Richie has no input on what to watch. When he’s in a better mood, he’s usually bursting with energy after work, excited to share something he found with Eddie. Tonight, he simply grumbled his assent when Eddie suggested they order Thai and he hasn’t yet complained about CNN, which can only mean he isn’t really watching it.

“The fuck is that implying, anyway?” Richie continues. “Punching down?”

“That review?” Eddie goes for a neutral, mildly surprised tone—as if he couldn’t feel it coming off him in waves before he even crossed the threshold into their apartment.

“Like, it’s not okay to make jokes anymore? You can only joke about straight white men and the patriarchy or whatever? Everyone’s so fucking sensitive now.”

Eddie sighs and weighs how much he wants to engage this. Maybe there is something at the heart of this that Richie needs to work through and then he’ll get back to normal. Or maybe it will only fan the flames. Either way, Eddie’s a little peeved and sort of wants to talk about his own day and his own work—but his boyfriend is unable to spare him a thought. So, he says, “I mean, how many times has Stanley got on your case for Jew jokes?”

Richie has been using this particular formula for years. You know how Jews… fill in the blank with any of Stanley’s particular traits or quirks.

Richie’s quick to defend the set-up: “It’s funny because it’s so specific that it’s obviously not a real stereotype. I’ll be like, you know how Jews love birdwatching? It’s, like, self-parody. Calling out the fact that I’m basing my generalizations on my one and only Jewish friend. I’m the butt of the joke. Besides, it’s not like I’m out here making Hitler jokes.”

Eddie mutters, “Anymore,” and Richie blurts, “All kids make offensive jokes!”

Richie drops it for a while, but he’s still stewing. Eddie tries to tell him about a difficult situation at work, but Richie barely listens, his eyes glazed over. Eventually Eddie just stops, mid-sentence, and leaves the room. Richie doesn’t even notice.

When they’re settling into bed later, Richie says, “You know, I looked this guy up, his other reviews. It seems like he doesn’t like anything. Well, except John Mulaney, but you know, everyone loves Mulaney.”

Eddie feels a second away from screaming into a pillow. Instead, he says, “You know how critics are.”

“Oh, yeah I do. Wish I could get paid to just shit on everything, not actually create anything. It’s real fucking easy to be a naysayer. And, I don’t know, I just get this idea that he didn’t want to like me, you know? He had already made up his mind so he was gonna look for any little thing to nitpick. And the idea that because I’m gay I’m gonna be a certain type of comedian— what the fuck is that about? Like he had these expectations just because I’m gay? And was disappointed when I didn’t live up to it? That’s not very… woke.”

Eddie can’t quite suppress the tired sigh that escapes him as he lays back in bed.

“Sorry,” Richie mutters. “I’ll stop fixating on this now.”

He doesn’t. But he stops talking about it, at least, for a while.

+

After dinner the following night, Richie washes dishes while Eddie sits at the kitchen table on his laptop, trying to manage the latest work snafu. At least he’s hourly and will be getting overtime for sending emails while half-listening to his boyfriend bitch and moan. What’s really starting to drive him up the wall is the fact that Richie knows he’s obsessed with this, that he’s acknowledging it, but he still can’t stop, and still won’t admit that it bothers him. Instead, it’s an endless parade of rationalizations and excuses and one-more-thing’s.

“I know you’re gonna be pissed, but I read the comments on that review,” Richie says. “And some guy said, ‘Rich Tozier thinks being loud is the same thing as being funny.’ I mean, that sounds like the kind of thing you would say to me. That’s the thing about all of this. After all the shit my friends give me, you think I’m gonna cry over one bad review? And lots of people liked it. Netflix is secretive about their viewing figures for some reason, but I have it on good faith that it’s doing well. So much for ‘lacking personality,’ huh?”

“Okay, that’s it.” Eddie slams his palms down on the kitchen table and Richie looks over, wide-eyed. “This review is getting under your skin because you think it’s true. You didn’t take any real risks with your new material because you were afraid, and you hoped that no one would recognize that but someone did, and now you have to confront the little voice in your head that’s been telling you the same thing. What’s worse is, you think this guy might be right, that you don’t really have anything special or interesting to offer, and that you should have just stuck with your shitty writing team.”

Eddie’s breath runs out and he’s aware that he might have said all of that a little too angrily; his face is hot and his heart pounding in his chest. It takes both of them a few seconds to process what’s been said.

“You hate it,” Richie says, a dawning horror crossing his face. “I asked for your honest opinion and you told me it was good!”

“You didn’t want my honest opinion!” Eddie protests. “You didn’t run anything past me until it was too late to change, anyway, and that was on purpose, Richie. You just wanted me to say that I liked it. You are so fucking needy.”

For a moment, Richie looks genuinely hurt and that’s rare enough that Eddie’s breath catches in his throat. “Yeah, I want you to like my work, but I don’t want you to lie to me. I thought that should go without saying.”

Eddie deflates, his shoulders drooping. He closes his laptop and stands up, takes a step toward Richie and looks at him imploringly. “Richie, I’m sorry, it’s just, you get so obsessive over this kind of thing and it’s like, we can’t have a normal life until you get over it and then it just starts again the next time you search for yourself on Twitter? You have to learn how to deal with this better.”

Richie lets out a bitter laugh as he dries his hands on the towel. “Well, Eddie, I’m sorry that it’s been so hard on you, but my first major independent creative pursuit debuted to the world two weeks ago, not to mention I publicly came out after being closeted my entire life, so I’m a little raw, and I think I’m entitled to being caught up in this for a minute.”

Eddie doesn’t say anything right away. He feels embarrassed for snapping, but maybe if Richie could be upfront about his feelings for once, it wouldn’t come to this as often. “I’m sorry, I know it’s a big—”

“Save it.” He turns to leave the kitchen. “I’m gonna go obsessively search for myself on Twitter. You know, my favorite past-time.”

“Rich,” Eddie calls after him, but the door to his office swings shut. Eddie’s not sure what he’s trying to prove with the angsty-teenager charade, but it’s ineffective at garnering a lot of sympathy. He sits back down and opens his laptop.

+

Later that night, Eddie goes to bed, but sits on his half, reading for a while. He hears Richie leave his office, make himself a late night snack. The TV murmurs for a few minutes. The TV turns off, and the water runs in the guest bathroom.

Then Richie stands in the doorway to the bedroom, lurking, as if waiting to be invited in. Eddie doesn’t look up until Richie clears his throat. “Okay, you were right. Of course you’re fucking right, you always are. And you know you are, and it’s fucking infuriating, but…” Richie takes a few steps inside until he can sit on the edge of the bed. Eddie closes his book over a finger, marking his place. “You know I’m very self-critical, yeah? I think I’ve kind of been feeding myself this line of bullshit, like, I’m my own harshest critic. At first it was a coping thing, like, everyone doesn’t hate you. Not everyone knows your secret feelings, or notices your insecurities, people aren’t even thinking about you, that kind of thing. But then I really bought into it, I think? Like, with my work. Sure, I think this set is kinda shitty, but that’s just me being hard on myself, right? And sometimes it’s true. A lot of people love subpar comedy in this country. And God bless ‘em, they pay our bills. But sometimes there’s this terrifying glimpse that oh God, other people think it sucks, too. And what if everyone who said they like it was only lying all along, only flattering me, or pitying me? I’m a fraud and a talentless hack, et cetera, et cetera.”

Eddie cracks a little smile at the dramatics, but his heart gives a painful thump. “You live like that?”

Richie smiles, too. “Yeah, it’s hell.” He turns to flop back against the bed, settling in to rest his head against Eddie’s chest. “I think I’ve gone through the five stages of grief about this review. I’m at acceptance now.”

Eddie ruffles his hair. “You can accept that not everyone will love you?”

“Never. But I can accept that maybe this special was a swing and a miss. I can do better.” He rubs his hands over his eyes. “God, I wanna tweet at this guy so bad, but I know I can’t until it’s to give him comp tickets to my new and improved show.”

“The real, real Richie Tozier,” Eddie muses, winding his arms around him.

Richie chuckles. “Disregard the last attempt.”

+

For the next month, Richie works harder than he ever has. He stays up late, wakes up early, paces the apartment with his phone in one hand, then transcribes the hours of voice memos. He buys index cards and post-it notes and uses them, leaving color-coded piles on the floor and lists on the walls. He gives a transcript to Eddie and to his agent and to a few comedian friends early on, and he uses their feedback. He digs deeper. He writes stuff so personal and raw that he’s not sure he can say it out loud on stage (or even in front of his friends, in front of Eddie) without sweating and shaking. It’s scary, it’s exhilarating.

Through all this, he still has a few talk show engagements about his special. Contractually, he can’t cancel them, but they’re painful to get through. His open disdain slips through when he’s on Colbert’s show, but he manages to play it off as a joke. (“So, you’ve got a great new special out.” “Yeah, it’s alright.” “What, you don’t want us to watch it?” “Eh.” He shrugs. “Do whatever you want.” The audience laughs. “No, like, for me, I wrote and recorded this thing months ago. I’m just over it. But, you know, you should watch it, I guess.” “Watch it, I guess. What a glowing recommendation.” “I’m just working on new shit, I’m more excited about that, now.”) Clips of his unenthused interviews get passed around social media more than they would have if he had been a perfect subject.

A month later, Richie arranges a small show in New York. Working title is Once More With Feeling. He invites his friends, puts the rest of the tickets on sale. Well, all but one. Then he tracks down the phone number of the comedy critic, one Jonathan Rabine. Sitting down in his home office, he puts his feet up on the desk—if he sits in a casual position maybe this will feel like less of a big deal—and dials the number.

He gets an answer right away: “This is Jonathan.”

Richie immediately drops the casual position, feet falling back to the floor and sitting up straight in his chair. “Hi, hi. This is, uh, Richie Tozier. The… comedian?” He realizes his intonation made it sound a lot like a question and he kicks himself. Off to a great start.

“Oh. Hi.”

“Yeah, uh. So.” He takes a deep breath and decides to get it all out there at once, without thinking anymore. “This is weird, but I read this review of yours about my Netflix special like a month ago and it was… harsh, but fair, you know? I think you were basically right. I sorta phoned it in. Stuck to what was safe, familiar. But I don’t wanna do that. So much has changed about my life recently and it feels wrong for my comedy to still be the same, like, passable, mediocre bullshit. So, anyway, I spent the past month just writing and writing and pushing, and I have a new show, and I’d like you to come see it. I know you’re not, like, a fan, to say the least, and that you probably haven’t thought about me since you panned me on Twitter, and I realize that this sounds weird like I’ve been obsessing over one bad review for a month and I kind of have, to be fair, but it was more just a reflection of how I already felt, deep down, and it motivated me to work harder. And I guess this comes down to… I know you’re gonna be honest. I hope everyone who’s already read it and heard it has been honest, too, but I know you will be. And I think I respect your opinion. So, uh, it’s gonna be next Saturday in New York. If you’re able to come, I’d really like to have you there.”

In the following beat of silence, Richie pinches his eyes shut. Tries to prevent himself from agonizing over every word he’s said. Not quite yet; there will be plenty of time for that later.

Then Jonathan says, “Oh, wow. Um. Yeah, I’d love to. Let me just…” There’s a sound of rustling, maybe a chair creaking. “Yeah, Saturday. The twelfth? I can do that. Just send me the details, okay?”

Richie sinks down in his chair in relief. “Yeah, of course. Will do. That’s great.”

“I’m looking forward to meeting you, Richie.”

“Likewise. I should dedicate this show to you, or something.” Weird, that was weird, he thinks, wincing.

But Jonathan just laughs. “I feel bad. I have to look back at what I said… But, just so you know, I wanted to like you. So, I think it was… disappointment, more than anything.”

“You’re really playing into my debilitating need for approval from authority figures, you know? The ‘I’m not mad, I’m disappointed’ card. My kryptonite.”

Jonathan laughingly rejects the idea that he’s any kind of authority—“any rube with internet access can review comedy”—and then says he wouldn’t have expected Richie to take criticism so seriously.

“Well, you know, it’s the kids who say they don’t care about the bullies who then go home and cry themselves to sleep about it.”

“Oh god,” Jonathan says, “I hope I didn’t make you cry.”

“No…” Richie says in a wobbly voice, sniffling a bit for good measure.

The two talk for another twenty minutes. Things get a bit more serious for a while; Jonathan expresses how glad he is that Richie came out, and sympathizes that it can’t be easy. Richie opens up a bit about his lingering fears. (“I’m still, like, oh god, am I really gay? Who do I think I am? Now I’ve committed to this, publicly, and I can never take it back. And my boyfriend will be like, Richie, it’s three a.m., shut the fuck up.”)

Then they say their goodbyes, briefly discuss getting drinks after Richie’s show, say actual goodbyes, and hang up. Richie feels lighter; the frantic, something-to-prove energy has faded, leaving behind clear, focused motivation. So, he gets back to work.