Film & TV

Jesse Eisenberg on His Lifelong Aversion to Youth Culture

Film & TV

Jesse Eisenberg on His Lifelong Aversion to Youth Culture


Youth Culture Killed My Youth

When I was 6 years old and miserable in school, I told my mother that I wished I were an old man. She said that when I got older I’d long for my youth so I should try to enjoy it while it lasts. Her advice sounded logical at the time, but the older I got, the older I wished I was. I’m 28 years old now and I still long for my 80s. I assume that once I slip a disk or need dentures I’ll feel differently but as long as I can walk on my own two feet and chew with my own 28 teeth, I’d prefer to be older.

There’s something that feels sacrilegious about admitting this, as though I’m disrespecting nature’s plan, but I never liked being young and I never liked the things young people are supposed to like. In fact, every time I’ve come into contact with youth culture, it has backfired.

My mother, who wasn’t exactly sure how to rear a boy, raised me exclusively on musical theater. We listened to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita on a loop and, if she was feeling particularly adventurous, Starlight Express. When I was in sixth grade and struggling to make friends (no one else thought Patti LuPone’s fierce manipulation of sexual mores was cool), my sister mercifully bought me a tape of Green Day’s Dookie to give me some middle school street cred. But I couldn’t understand any of the lyrics and I didn’t know why the main character had to scream so much. I tried to talk about Green Day in school but I didn’t know how to reference it appropriately: Crazy how the main guy from Green Day wants to have sex so much, huh? or Lotta cool new cursing on the Green Day tape, am I right? I’m into that now.

My aversion to youth culture didn’t begin or end with Green Day. It actually started years earlier, in second grade, when I would fake an illness to stay home from school and watch The Price Is Right. I watched a lot of TV but preferred Bob Barker to Zack Morris. I always thought Bob Barker and I could be friends; we both liked game shows and supported controlling the pet population. Zack Morris was constantly getting into trouble and probably had a house full of pregnant cats. If I was stuck watching Saved By The Bell, I preferred Miss Bliss to Kelly Kapowski. My celebrity crushes were always Oedipal and unrelatable: Mary Steenburgen when I was 10 and, now that I’m older, the remaining Redgrave sister.

My attempts to talk to younger women didn’t turn out well either. When I was 14, I was in A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden and, in an attempt to do a normal teenage thing, I invited three other boys from the cast to the Times Square Hooters. I thought we could get some wings, watch the game, and gawk at the sexy waitresses. But I was a vegetarian and the other three boys were experiencing gender identity issues, so instead of wings, game watching, and lewd comments about the waitress, we got veggie burgers, asked them to change the channel, and commiserated with the waitress about how difficult it is to break into New York theater.

Even my obsession with the NBA has somehow been old. My favorite player was Robert Parish, the guy who was called “The Chief” and who was 41 but looked 60. There were three better players in the Celtics’ starting lineup but I always preferred Parish to the more agile Bird or the thrilling McHale. While watching a game with other kids, I would make convoluted arguments to defend my love of Parish: “I know he doesn’t get every rebound or score a lot of points, but you guys are underestimating the value of heart. Sure, Wilkins can excite the crowd with a cheap dunk, and that’s fine, but Parish is the glue that holds the whole thing together!”

I also loved playing basketball, but when the other kids bought Reebok Pumps, which had a little basketball-shaped button to inflate the shoe, I opted for the Payless knockoffs called Puntz, which I think is Yiddish for “stingy” and which didn’t actually inflate the shoe when you pressed the button. Why pay $100 for shoes? I’d ask the other kids on the court. Mine are perfectly good and I have money left over for Farina and Sanka after the game. This explanation netted me zero new friends.

Today, I feel even more alienated from youth culture but I’m lucky to be surrounded by other people my age who also feel this way. I’m lucky to share my life with a woman who grew up without a television and considers Joan Baez a pop star. I’m lucky to be friends with a guy who’s younger than me but refuses Tylenol in favor of ancient Chinese medicine.

For me, the main difference between being a kid and being an adult is that I can finally embrace my love of old things. When you’re a kid in the suburbs, youth culture is narrow and mandatory. Now I can like anything I want without worrying that I’ll lose my seat at the lunch table.

I dread the day, and I’m sure it will come, when I’ll long for my youth. I dread the day when my fear of mortality prompts me to trade in my Buick for a convertible. I dread the day when I’ll feel so estranged from my own sexuality that I head back in to Hooters to gawk. But for now, I’ve found a nice middle ground: my back still works, I can still hear, and my teeth are my own. So I bike up to Cafe Carlyle to watch Neil Sedaka perform, and then head out afterward to eat solid foods for dinner. But, of course, I’m in bed by 11.


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