You know those wellness drinks that advertise active cultures for gut health, adaptogens, ashwagandha, L-theanine with 25mg of full-spectrum CBD, with added charcoal? I admire them. Not because of how they taste (fine) or what they do (nothing), but because of the ridiculous ingredients on the labels. They’re thrilling, the way a stranger looking you dead in the eye and handing you a multivitamin at a rave is thrilling, and they’re just sitting there at your corner store, right next to the eggs and butter. It’s a little odd, and embarrassing, and — this is important — funny how compelled I am to spend $6.99 to drink a cold brew with added collagen and something called Brain Octane Oil.
It is because of this that one day, in 2019, convinced my body simply had too many oxidants coursing through it, I started sending pictures of my wellness drinks to two friends in a group text, apropos of nothing. “When did the theme of this text group become this,” went one response; “LMAO,” another. On and on this went, drink after plant-powered drink, at various intervals over the next several years. Whenever I saw a can that seemed to out-wellness the previous one (say, a ginger-beet hydration drink with Hawaiian red Alaea sea salt and 80 trace volcanic ocean minerals), I would bump our dormant group chat with a picture of me holding the drink in my hand without explanation.
This is a bit.
A bit is a sort of lie that becomes a kind of truth. It’s not an inside joke, which is something that was funny once, recalled over and over. It’s not quite a running gag, which is something repeated a certain amount of times until it becomes funny, following the rubric of “comedy comes in threes” or “comedy comes in sevens,” if you’re into alt-comedy or weed. A bit is a durational performance. Experimental theater. It is a joke told so many times that, eventually, what you’re laughing at isn’t the actual joke. It’s not the joke that’s funny, but the fact that it is still going, perhaps never-ending. A particularly strong bit can go on so long that it loses the pretense of humor altogether, making the audience lose track of why it was being told in the first place. To cite an example: In a sketch called “I’ll Marry Your Stupid Ass,” from the offbeat ’90s comedy “Mr. Show With Bob and David,” two seemingly heterosexual men angrily threaten to wed each other, then proceed to angrily fall in love and continue a lifelong commitment to their marriage and the bit.
If this sounds confusing, well, that’s part of it. But the longer a bit goes on, the more familiar it becomes, and the more inextricable it becomes from the person doing it. This calls into question the lie-to-truth ratio at the center of the performance. Did my two friends think I was just trying to make them laugh with preposterous wellness drinks, or did I send so many pictures of wellness drinks that they had no choice but to conclude I must have enjoyed them on some level? In effect, this bit created a persona, a version of myself about whom all you really need to know is my fascination with wellness drinks.
In 1993, Robin Dunbar, a British behavioral psychologist, theorized that humans can cognitively maintain an average of about 150 meaningful relationships at once. This seems low, but I think bits can help us manage those numbers. Imagine how many tertiary relationships in the outer reaches of your social network you could maintain if all you had to know about someone was their one thing, their deal. Containing multitudes is severely overindexed in this specific social tier, and that’s something I am trying to be more considerate of as I think about whether a woman I waited on tables with two decades ago is closely tracking the incomprehensible multidimensionality of my personality, as if it were a puzzle she has time to put together. Wouldn’t it be easier for her if I just started posting wellness drinks?
This may seem glib, but consider that if you shrink your personality down to just one thing, people may have a much easier time connecting with you. A bit becomes a quick bonding agent that allows an acquaintance to take an interest in creating a meaningful relationship with you later on, deeper, beyond the veil of the bit. It says something about who you are, or who you aren’t, and forces you to become a study of something weird, funny, slightly apart from yourself. When I think of the untapped power of a bit, and how it can subsume you, even make you wiser, I think of this quote from the novelist Jenny Offill: “But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.”
Play around with adopting a bit in your life. It doesn’t have to be some Andy Kaufman-esque obliteration of context and reality. For example — and this is something I’ve done with great success, so feel free to use it — maybe you start saying “Ahoy!” as your new workplace greeting of choice. Congratulations, that’s your bit. You’re the “Ahoy!” person at your office. Maybe you start slipping in other maritime phrases as you welcome new team members aboard and ask them if they’re ready to set sail or remark on the cut of your co-worker’s jib. Someone may shake your confidence and ask about “your whole maritime thing,” but remain steadfast, keep an even keel and ask them if they knew that an early example of a wellness drink was lemon juice implemented in the 18th century by the British Navy to help stave off scurvy? After all, this is who you are now, kind of.
Jeremy D. Larson is reviews director at Pitchfork.