A number of years ago I was ready to board an airplane. I had done my share of traveling, and I anticipated the gate clerk’s questions. I set my bag on the scale and announced: “I packed my bags myself. No one unknown to me has given me anything to take on board the flight.”
The clerk paused then said, “I have to ask you anyway. Did you pack your bags yourself?”
Of course, it was all I could do to keep from answering, “No.”
Recently, when the federal government revamped airport security they realized that the questions they’d been asking for years were not really going to root out terrorists. The obvious reason? A person who actually intends to blow up an airplane is not going to tell you so just because you ask. Liars lie.
This brings me to a flaw in our legal system that has recently come to my attention. The people who designed the system were probably the same ones who set up airport security. They forgot that liars lie. When someone takes the stand, they test his veracity by asking, “Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” You and I both know that a liar will answer “I do.”
I’ve been watching the drama of George Santos and wondering why his brand of dishonesty is so entertaining and funny. Santos seems to have done some shady things, and is clearly dishonest to his core, naturally, unthinkingly dishonest. He is a bit like an AI chatbot or Woody Allen’s “Zelig,” taking on the characteristics of whoever he speaks to. He is like an improvisational comedian, taking a premise and running with it. “Yes, and…” is how improv comics refer to it. “Did you go to this college?” asks the first speaker, and the improviser replies, “Yes, and I was on the volleyball team, and I injured my knees, and they still bother me, like last year when I ran the Boston Marathon.”
Santos is probably too young to remember Jon Lovitz’s Tommy Flanagan, the pathological liar. Anyone who did remember drew comparisons immediately.
So of course Lovitz had to play Santos. After the comedian took on the role on The Tonight Show, Santos took to Twitter to criticize the performance. No one, apparently, thought to advise him not to pick a fight with someone whose actual profession is to come up with quick witted comebacks. “Thanks the review and advice!” Lovitz tweeted. “You’re right! I do need to step my game up! My pathological liar character can’t hold a candle to you!”
So I’ve been reflecting on why Lovtiz’s pathological liar was such a successful character to begin with and why the late night comedians are having so much fun with this particular fabulist. What I think makes Lovitz and Santos funny is not that they are liars, but that they are bad liars.
George Santos is like the kid with crumbs all over his face who says he has no idea what happened to the cookies.
Some of the criminals that I wrote about in Wilde Nights & Robber Barons produced the same sort of mirth when they were finally caught and brought to trial for fraud. When the man calling himself Etienne de Buies was asked why he had so many aliases (Steffan Bujas, Joseph Bujos, Stephan Buies, Baron Lucas, Etienne Bontze, Bnoyne, Bnys, Berg, Jean de Vreaux and Rosovsky) he claimed that it was a question of poor handwriting and politeness. When he signed in at hotels, his writing was so illegible that clerks often got it wrong, and he was too polite to correct them. This was not a lie meant to persuade anyone. It is a lie that winks at you. It says, “We both know this is not true, but I’m hoping you find me sufficiently charming that you’ll play along.” The lie asks you to join the conspiracy, to join in the fun.
And it is fun, isn’t it, to play pretend? Why should we all have to maintain these consistent identities? Why should we have to be the same person from one conversation to the next?
In my 2015 novel, Identity Theft, the character Candi meets a woman in a mental hospital who has the delusion that she is John the Baptist. This causes Candi to reflect on identity.
Most people have a sense of self that comes from inside and they project it out into the world, at least that is how Candi had always conceived of it. John had gone looking for herself out in the world. She read the Bible and discovered John the Baptist and said, “There I am. That is me.” It was like shopping for a self off the rack. Did she feel a sense of relief that she’d been reunited with her long-lost identity? Was it like Peter Pan looking for his lost shadow? How did it work? Of course, John was in no position to answer these questions.
…If they were willing to give her a social security number under that name John the Baptist and people called her John and lined up for Baptisms at a river– if they gave her a Ms. John Baptist driver’s license and everything else was exactly the same– she wouldn’t be here. Would she? If we agreed to let her be who she called herself then she would be John the Baptist. So maybe we have the problem.
A social identity is not just what you project into the world, it is an agreement between you and the world. You have a history and you can change, but only so much. You cannot declare yourself a Baron, because otherwise how would we know who to treat with deference? We can’t treat everyone like someone of importance, what would the world be like?
Eventually the novelty of George Santos’ mendacity will wear off, and hopefully he’ll leave the stage like an SNL cast member whose bit got stale. In the meantime, enjoy.