A guy got the shit kicked out of him by Mike Tyson on a plane this week. We know this because TMZ acquired and published video evidence of the shit-kicking and the interactions that preceded it. If you had read those two sentences in, say, 2004, when Mike Tyson was still a chaotic force whirling through the culture, you may have assumed that the confrontation was one instigated and authored entirely by Tyson himself. But this is 2022, and that means that Mike Tyson, just like the rest of us, lives at the mercy of cultural forces that are much more powerful than he could ever be. He is just a man, and what is in play here is much larger than that.
It makes perfect sense that this happened on an airplane. I’ve always been fascinated by the way people behave on airplanes, even before they became a performance space for anti-mask guys to harass their fellow passengers and members of the flight crew over the last two years. Way before America’s airplanes emerged as the most likely place to see a sunburned guy go Brandon Mode at altitude, planes were a great place to find out what people are really like. There’s a natural tension inherent to airplanes, created in part by everyone’s desire to just sit there and get the whole awful experience of flying over with as soon as possible, but also through the conflicting and equally powerful desire to scream, “This fucking sucks!” at the top of their lungs. Also they serve alcohol on airplanes, and in airports.
Sometimes this tension erupts into a belligerent “I want to shake your hand!” scenario, but more often than not it is felt through smaller tremors of fleeting pathology. Someone taking up precious overhead bin space with a jacket and umbrella, a seat reclined into your knees, a guy watching a show on his iPad without headphones, a person spilling out into the aisle and rushing four rows ahead as soon as the plane reaches the gate—these are all little outbursts created by people who are upset and don’t know what to do about it.
At some point, perhaps in a misguided attempt to cut the tension that causes these sorts of outbursts or perhaps because the people serving drinks and pretzels on those planes are subject to the same discomfort as everyone else on there, flight crews started Getting Epic. Perhaps you are a lucky person who has never been on a plane where a member of the flight crew turned the in-flight safety instruction presentation into a comedy routine, or performed a Hamilton-inspired musical number upon landing. I can assure you from personal experience that these things have been happening, and continue to happen.
It’s hard to blame flight crews for the proliferation of epic behavior in the skies, because those who carry this process out are just participating in a longstanding tradition. Ever since the day “I can has cheezburger?” elicited its first laugh, humans have sought comfort in epic moments. In 2011, one deployed Condescending Wonka to deal with the bile raised by a cousin’s annoying Facebook post. In 2016, millions of people horrified by the election of Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States sought comfort by saying “Donald Drumpf” as much as possible, or devising elaborate compound insults—”subcromulent fucknuckle”, that sort of thing—for the man. Now, in 2022, those still feeling a twinge of impotent rage at the thought of Trump’s electoral defeat continue to cope by way of “Let’s go Brandon!” chants and, more broadly, the sort of clammy aggro posturing that defines the Brandon Lifestyle. Everyone’s life sucks in one way or another at this moment, and those who don’t want to admit that they are angry about it tend to get epic instead. Could someone fuming over being forced to do awful degrading things they don’t want to do every single day still be able to do some dumb TikTok shit? The answer is very obviously yes, but the assumption behind getting epic is that such a thing would be impossible.
The thing about getting epic is that it’s always a performance, and the stage on which that performance can be made gets bigger every year through the arrival of new technologies and social media platforms. Which brings us back to the guy who got his ass kicked on an airplane by Mike Tyson earlier this week. What I think we are seeing here are the actions of a man who intrinsically understands that airplanes have become a place of social lawlessness, and who cannot pass up an opportunity to perform epic-ness. When I watch this guy preen for his buddy’s phone camera while harassing Mike Tyson, I think about a post I once saw on Instagram, in which a guy posted a photo of a stack of Marvel movie blu-rays, captioned it with, “It’s about to be an epic weekend!” and then tagged the Barstool Sports Instagram account. In both instances I see someone desperately attempting to maintain, or at least perform, a level of behavior so epic that their actual problems (loneliness, a total lack of social skills) will cease to matter.
The problem is that once this performance starts, it is hard to end. Whether this leaves the person doing the performing suddenly unable to make a joke more inventive than “Let’s not and say we did,” or with a closet full of Let’s Go Brandon t-shirts, or with the imprint of Mike Tyson’s fist on his face is mostly a matter of circumstance. It’s an abdication, and so someone else is always going to have to end it, because the epic man by definition can’t do it himself. Such is the cost of living epically.