Days Remaining to Next Beer: 343
Many my favorite beers have been consumed while trying to write, and of those some of the best have been slowly nursed enough to go flat because I’d gotten so immersed into wrangling words that I nearly forget my pal the pint sitting politely by watching me work.
As folks that know me well know, for years now my Red Violin / albatross has been a tome called The Sunshine Days. Conceived as a novella to write the first fifty thousand words of during an international novel writing exercise / contest called NaNoWriMo, a contest the previous year I’d “won”, meaning I’d written 50k words and beaten my own inhibitions or lethargy in a contest that only pits a person against themselves. The previous year, my first, I’d written the first draft of Huron, an absurdist mystery thriller about the end of the word when people’s baggage catches up with them as various types of suitcases and confronting / opening the cases becomes more than most people can contend with, or will even attempt.
Following is a deleted scene from Sunshine Days. This scene has been rewritten, cut, added back in, and cut again more times than anything else in the book. One of my challenges for myself during this Ides to Ides, a theme that is more than about blogging boisterously about beer, by the way. This stretch is additionally about changing things up and getting things done before all my time is dedicated exclusively to being the best father I possibly can be for my boy. Part of that is getting a full first draft of The Sunshine Days in the can, and I don’t mean the one with the word “shit” on the side. Once it’s done I hope to follow advice and examples of my friends Katrina Archer and Richard Dansky, get a manuscript edited up and submit it to my dream publisher, Penguin Books, or one of their imprints.
Regardless of the book, the scene is inspired from having watched a lot, and I mean a lot of stand up comedy shows, and realizing there were some strange trends in how they were edited together and put out on the air that wanted to ramble on about. Having also been at a taping of a live show recently with my pal Cliff at The Clutch during the Vancouver Comedy Festival and subsequently seen the edited show on TV, including a flash of Cliff and I, the differences between the two experiences helped confirm some of my suspicions about how comedy shows are edited and sound tracked. Granted, I’m not Charlie Brooker, however I do feel some pride about figuring out that I was being manipulated by more than the quality of the comedian’s quips well before seeing Charlie’s breakdown of how reality TV can edit and present content to solicit specific responses, a must see for anyone interested in narrative delivery on TV by the way.
So for anyone curious about how much I like to write, and what about, and what I throw away and why, here’s a delectable tidbit otherwise not suitably fit for public consumption.
Jack elected not to go into the studio, electing to head to his tiny studio apartment that overlooked the cannery row and invariably reeked of fish. After freshening up and selecting a top drawer suit from the bottom drawer of his bureau and a snappy two tone pair of shoes with thick soles and steel toes, Jack let out for the street to have himself a leisurely stroll. He’d been careful to stash the book inside his long black overcoat, using a pocket typically reserved for stashing a flask as he would have during the prohibition. As he walked he considered the idea of returning home to fully zoot up, then decided he had the snap cornered well enough to need not over do it. He strolled onwards with purpose and poise, tipping his fedora to the ladies he passed and anyone else that seemed worth the nod.
Several blocks later Jack stood beneath the start of the awning sheltered carpet that lead into th one club he would plug without being paid to do so on his show, the Dead Comedian’s Club. As he approached the ornate doors huge neck missing demi doormen stepped to either side and opened the door, speaking welcoming words as they did so. Jack tipped the senior one to his right discreetly, folded bill pressed into open sidelong palm, as he passed between them. Jack entered the club’s foyer and caught the eye of a cigarette girl stationed near the garishly illuminated concession counter, gave her a shallow beckoning nod. She approached, noisily chewing gum, her hair cast into golden waves so crisp they could have been cast from bronze. Her legs defined some fortunate fish netting with musculature even a boxer would respect. She knew him, had two packs of his preferred silver tips out for his palm to receive before she’d even reached his shadow cast long from the concession stand lights. He slid bills from his clip and dropped them into a moneybox she popped open at the front of her cigarette tray. She snapped it shut with a nasal thanks and punctuating squeak as she spun on her toe and returned to her post near the art deco concession stand.
Jack transferred the rulebook into his jacket lining before he checked his overcoat. He approached the doors of the club and could hear laughter erupting from inside. He hadn’t thought to check the marquee for who would be performing and decided to simply be surprised. Surely no one he’d not seen before, and even if, would be fine. The club was more a home to him than his own, almost as much as was his office back at the studio. Jack approached the padded doors with their diamond shaped opaque windows as more doormen, these small, strapping and dressed not unlike the kind of bellhops you’d expect to see in an old Greta Garbo number, pillbox hats and maroon vests and wingtip shoes replete with spats.
Jack could remember being a bellhop after fleeing the deep south for California, place of pipe dreams and shooting stars made of fools gold, tin and paper Mache. He could remember being scolded for arriving at work with a shirttail showing or a scuff visible somewhere on his shoes. He recalled as he entered the club space, pausing to tip the senior doorman to the right, being cuffed about the neck or having his ears boxed for being too slow or too surly or too quiet or too loud or whatever perceived infraction his boss had thought of on any given day.
As he stepped into the club space, full tables chattering away, stage empty but for an MC readying to announce the next act, Jack recalled returning to that hotel after getting onto Bob Hope’s U. S. O. roster, finding that boss and calling him out into the alley. Had been quite a scuffle, but in the end, Jack bloodied and dishevelled had exacted his payback for many a bruised body and ego through his time of servitude at that dive. Then, to his surprise, the old man had asked him out for drinks, over which he’d apologized, explained about his wife dying back then, about how since she’d passed on he’d taken to goin’ to her church and trying to repent all his life’s stockpile of personal sins. So he thanked Jack for stopping by to alleviate one more of his outstanding debts, although after haring about the dying wife and the misery that had been that old man’s life when Jack had worked for him, Jack ended up paying to have the man suited, fed and carted home in such a blissful stupor as to probably forget the whole day and be left wondering the day after where that headache and nice new suit did come from.
Jack never did again return to that old hotel. For al he knew, all these years later, if it hadn’t been turned into a parking lot yet, that old man might still well work there. Somehow, though, Jack rather doubted that last part be true.
Jack followed the aisle lights past the diners area to the far wing of the long and snaking bar, finding himself a perfect seat where he could see the stage almost as if standing in the wings, but set back far enough to avoid ever meeting anyone on stage’s eye line. Jack settled down onto a velvet-padded stool and waved to the bartender with a tilt back of his head. The bartender, an elderly Asian woman wearing a manager’s jacket over a nearly button-free blouse and slacks cut like a mariachi, gave him a knowing look and set to assembling his starter drink, a virgin mix of vegetable juice, tomatoes, ice and a hint of butter. Can take the man out of the south, but can’t take the south out of the man, Jack thought as he watched the woman put the drink together. Thanks to his patronage, they stocked tiny pads of butter in the refrigerators beneath the bar and cubes of raw cane sugar. His tastes were nothing if they weren’t specific.
A hand dropped on Jack’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. Jack assumed there would be a body attached and turned to see who dared, found himself gazing up into the sterling good looks of Flynn, house master MC. Flynn couldn’t be bothered introducing the acts until they hit the headliner portion of the programming, leaving his free to wander the crowd and hobnob as he was prone and quite adored to do. “So jack, going for a run in the sun, I hear tell.”
Jack smirked at Flynn as Flynn settled on a stool next to Jack. “That’s catchy, Flynn. Who wrote it for you, must’ve taken them hours.”
Flynn waved away his escort, a bubbly young thing that likely had no idea about Flynn’s penchant couch audition style showgirl casting calls. “Ha ha, good one Jack, you were always quick like that.”
“You’re talking like I'm already vapour, Flynn. Reel that in a bit and I might mistake you for a nice guy.”
The bartender set Jack’s drink down on an ivory inlaid coaster, “Your drink, Mr. Jack.”
Jack placed a hand of acceptance around the cool exterior of the glass, spot the bendy straw she’d stuck into it for him next to the paper umbrella and nodded to her appreciatively, “Thanks, Mabel. You’re one of the good ones.”
She smiled to him as she turned away, then dart a less friendly look at Flynn. Flynn caught the look and sighed as if fully put out. “Ah, she hates me. So hard to find good help these days.”
“So I’ve been hearing a lot lately,” Jack replied dryly, resisting the urge to slug back the virgin drink.
Flynn looked around the crowd, “Busy night, more than you’d expect on a weeknight, must be the excitement spilling over from last night’s lottery.”
Jack didn’t have an answer for this, so said nothing. Flynn reached into his pocket and pulled out a paperback novel, set it on the bar. “Listen, would you mind signing this before you go? It’s for my niece. She absolutely adores your show.”
“yeah, my demographic seems to keep skewing younger every year. Pretty soon we’ll have letters for sponsors instead of sports cars.” Jack looked at the novel on the bar, saw that it was a recent printing of Stephen King’s The Shining. Jack brought his eyes up from the book to meet Flynn’s hopeful gaze. “She’s seen that skit? That was ages ago!”
Flynn shrugged, “they rerun your show all the time, I suppose to remind folks of when it used to be good.”
“Ouch. Nice comeback. You’ll earn your merit badge yet, big boy. Got a pen?” Flynn found one somewhere inside his jacket and hand it to Jack. Jack flipped open the cover and uncapped the pen. “What’s her name?”
“Hmm?” Flynn mumbled while looking deeply interested in the stagehands working to ready the stage for the next act. “Ah, Penny, with a Y. She loves your show.”
“Sure. Penny. Got it.” Jack scrawled a signature inside the book, “To Penny, Losta Love and Loathing, & Remember to Play, No One likes a Dull Girl! S. J.” Jack recapped the pen, blew on the ink to dry it, then closed the book and tapped Flynn in the arm with it. Flynn took the book without looking and absently made it disappear inside his jacket. Jack pocketed Flynn’s pen. Flynn held his hand out expectantly. Jack chuckled and dropped the pen into Flynn’s palm.
Flynn turned back to Jack and smiled more sincerely than Jack had ever imagined would be possible for Flynn. “Jack, seriously, you’ll be missed. No matter how this works out, I suspect we won’t be seeing you again. Sure, we’ve had our differences, more than a few, but I wish you the very best of luck, for you and for whoever you take with you. From what I hear and the feeling I myself have, you’ll have your work cut out for you up there.”
Jack opened his mouth to respond, could find no way to aptly reply, shut his mouth again.
Flynn extended his hand. Jack took it and they shook gently. “Look at that,” Flynn said as he rose from the stool to return to schmoozing his guests. “I’ve gone and left you speechless. Now that’s a feat! I’ll take that over a standing ovation any day. Take care, Jack, maybe see you again in hell someday.”
“Yeah,” Jack said softly to Flynn’s back as Flynn strode away. “Maybe. We’ll certainly get to find out soon enough.”
On the end of yet another sigh, something Jack sensed he’d done far to much of lately, Jack leaned forward and sucked in a sizeable mouthful of buttery vegetable goodness through the green pinstriped bendy straw. The subordinate MC took the stage and announced the next act, a juggling duo that promised to shock and awe the crowd with whacky flammable antics. For all his years in the business, Jack still couldn’t fathom what would possess a youth to invest the time and energy to become proficient at tossing and catching twirling objects, especially ones on fire or ones that could themselves do massive bodily harm, like chainsaws or bowling balls. Kittens he could almost understand, their big heads and tiny bodies nearly cried to be tosses an caught, just as do any kind of baby, upsy-daisy, there you go, look baby, you were flying! Jack smirked. He’d once had a guest on his show try to juggle a chainsaw and kittens. The resulting mess had infuriated the stagehands, and with few exceptions, jugglers had been unofficially banned from the show every since. Amputees, on the other hand, were still welcome. Reviewing the thought and finding the bad pun in it, Jack winced as if in pain and slugged down another gulp of buttery vegetable goodness.
After the jugglers came a pair of ventriloquists, then an impersonator who had apparently been primed beforehand of his presence in the crowd and avoided making any impersonations of Jack thankfully. Then came the prop comedian, flinging his sight gags out of a giant toy box with a speed and verisimilitude Jack almost envied. After that came dancers, then a diva set to break up the flow and get people in the mood for heavy drinking, then Flynn took the stage to introduce the night’s first headliner. Jack didn’t recognize his own name until Flynn repeated it, and then found himself blinking into the unfaltering glare of a spotlight. Mabel shoved another vegetable juice into Jack’s hand and pushed him towards the stage. Jack sighed heavily yet again and rose to answer the unforeseen call.
Mounting the stairs at the side of the stage and ascending into the full view of the room, Jack heard applause falteringly ripple through the crowd, like sparks settling to nibble on dry leaves, and an inferno of sound inevitably followed, calmed to a dull roar only after Flynn had waved and yelled enough to win back the crowd’s collective consideration.
A stagehand delivered a wooden stool near the mike stand and Jack sat his vegetable juice down on it. He shoot Flynn’s hand for the second time that evening, leaning in to whisper, “You’re in for it when I'm done up here.”
Flynn’s smile didn’t falter one iota. “Nonsense, you owe this to yourself, one last hurrah before you become a changed man up in the sun. Knock ‘em dead, Jack.” And then Flynn was gone and Jack stood alone on the bare stage but for a stool, a drink, a mike stand and a mike. He coughed once to clear his throat as he reached fro the mike, wondering what to start with and feeling very much like a lad in school just discovering during his third period literature class the real reason all of the people had been staring at him, he’d apparently been ni a rush that morning and clean forgotten to put on any britches.
“Well, hi there.” Jack unwound the mike cord from around the stand and stepped to the stool to take a slug from his drink, stalling for time as best he could. As the drink hit his tongue he recognized a familiar burning taste. “Whew, Mabel, you outdid yourself, put in a little extra there didn’t ya?” Scattered chuckles and applause rippled through the crowd. “Yeah, let’s give one up for the house tonight, and for the best damned staff in the district!” The crowd hoped, hollered and clapped to echo Jack’s expressed appreciation for the venue staff. As the ruckus he’d inspired died down, Jack knew he’d sufficiently stalled long enough. A routine was forming in his minds eye, and while he had no idea where it would spin off to, he felt ready to begin and confidant, should all else fail, that he could always coast through on crowd abuse and genitalia jokes alone.
Jack stepped towards the front of the stage, head hung down a bit, eying the crowd beneath his brow. “So, I’ll wager when you decided to pop in here tonight, sat down at your seat and ordered your two drink minimum right up front, that you had no idea I’d be crashing the party.” He looked up and grinned wide as a pie just eaten. “Sure, there’s no cover tonight, so no risk for ol’ Flynn having to refund anything, right?” Scattered laughs replied.
Jack began to pace, his way of scanning the crowd, picking targets should he need them, measuring the mood of the room, adjusting his tactics to better squeeze and please the crowd. “Sure, no refunds, but hey, this was an impromptu change in programming, right? I didn’t exactly plan to be up here either. So with that in mind, be gentle.” He struck a meek pose for a moment, “it’s like my very first time.” He smiled and blinked bashfully. More laughs, little more than chuckles. Jack hated playing blue rooms, lacked class, but at the same time loved them, as a good dick joke in the pocket is worth six in the bush, so to speak. He would ramp it up all in good time. Still testing, still feeling, groping up the audience with his eyes as a teenager might his first willing compatriot with clumsy yet earnest fingers.
“Sure, I'm think to myself, why should I worry, I'm surrounded by friends here, I can feel the love radiating in here so hot and heavy I worry I might be playing to a menopausal support group.” More chuckles. Most of them probably missed the joke, duly noted. “So much love,” Jack continued as he paced like a lion considering options in a herd from the sidelines, “I fear I should maybe have had this suit Scotch Guarded before coming up here. Nobody wants to face a potential firing squad without a stain resistant suit, you know? And some of you definitely look like distance shooters.” Jack pointed offhandedly over the heads of some of the more manly men in the crowd, ending with a point directly at a top heavy lady on the far side of the stage he’d mentally marked previously, then jerking his hand back as if afraid. “Oh, going to have to watch out for that one!”
Quick breath to recover for effect and dive right into a routine. “So, any of you follow the news? Been hearing a lot of noise about those whacky apes that make all that noise over in admissions? Yep, the very ones that have went and gone on strike. I don’t myself have a stance one way or the other about the strike except for one thing, before the strike they were paid to make noise all day, now they’re basically doing it for free. Sounds like a win-win for the corporate types, am I right?” Jack paused a beat, and decided from the level of response from the crowd that he could foresee dick jokes and ridiculing audience members in his near future. He elected to switch gears and fall back on some golden oldies material, dusting it off in his head to see if it’d still play. “Anyway, that’s kid stuff. You all came here to see some cutting edge comedy, and while I certainly mean only the slightest disrespect to those that proceeded me tonight, about damn time you actually did.” Cheers followed.
Jack might have felt bad about the cheap shot at the amateur opening acts, if he’d actually cared to. Better they get thick skin now, early on, and let there injured egos keep their inner anger fanned well to personal driving inferno, or they’ll never even make it into the mud leagues of comedy, end up hawking foot long tongue sandwiches from some fast food franchise chain.
“So I'm downtown last week looking for a good coffee place, something with actual coffee flavoured coffee, as Dennis Leary always calls it, when I spot another one of those chain places, what’s it called again, and don’t act like you don’t know. I’ll bet every one of you out there has at one time or another procured or inherited some piece of swag flotsam and jetsam from that place, with their cutesy little mermaid logo and their deceptively Battlestar Galactica namesake. Y’know, let me hear it.” The chain’s name rang out from a good half the throats in the place.
“Yeah, that’s the one. Some kid made a bunch of stickers with a junkie version of that logo, changed the name to consumer whore, and then got sued for it, back up in the sun. Tell me, for one, what about a kid’s stickers is so threatening to some massive corporation? Are they mad they didn’t think of it first? Because I seriously doubt the truth of the parody is what hurt their feelings. One, because corporate leaders have no feelings, and two, because the only way to threaten them is to affect their bottom line, i.e., their revenue, a word that sounds like getting something new up to speed but really means making something slower, fatter and more evil by the day.” Jack paused his rant and his pacing to let the foundation of his joke settle into the minds of his audience. He felt very Louis Black on this particular rant. “So back to my point, for one, how is it that this chain of coffee shops that seems to keep popping up all over under the sun like some bad case of genital herpes is now apparently infecting our neck of the woods? Did someone here invent it? If so, I hope they get reincarnated as a coffee bean just to suffer the agony that any coffee bean shipped into that place’s coffers certainly must go through, because I can tell you this without flinching but for the memory of my experience that day just last week,” Jack paused to look to one wing of the audience to make his aside, “Can you tell I'm still recovering?” He resumed pacing, “Anyway, I'm sure after experiencing what they attempt to call coffee, I can assure you that that is where bad beans apparently go to be punished, roasted into something horrible, evil and…” Jack paused for effect.
“Well, considering the banking District, probably utterly appropriate for that neighbourhood I just happened to be strolling through. Those cats have no souls, none, zero. Any bankers here tonight? If so, and you’re offended, good. If you think I'm trying to offend someone else, you’re wrong.” Jack smirked, feeling a little Bill Hicks energy in that last twist, always a good affront to an apparently complacent audience. “Any coffee beans here? If so, resist the temptation to submit yourself to their will. Come over to my place instead, I have a Jacuzzi there that you’re just going to love!”
Jack paused to let laughter dye down. “You ever watch television, flip around and catch odd stuff like fish mating or some obese man trying to eat an entire car? Yeah, I’ll do that, sit around slacking off flipping through thousands of channels. I call it looking for aspiration, but really I'm just hoping to find something more conducive to either touching myself, quite appropriately I might add for the benefit of you sick minds out there, conducive to consensual self-massage, well, consensual if you have multiple personalities, which of course we don’t. Conducive to that or to taking a nap. Which yes, probably means I'm getting old, if I'm finding myself looking forward to taking my pants off. I mean a nap. Sans pants.”
Jack paced, “So I'm finding that lately I'm too lazy to skip or surf, whatever the hip slogan is for changing channels with you kids today. The sheer fear of the inevitable disappointment that follows the invariable discovery that the next channel is even worse than the last one compels me like pea soup to stick to whatever channel the cathode ray nipple turns on to.” Jack scanned the crowd to see if he’d lost them yet, could make out some nods, good.
“So I just stick to that one channel and then never touch the remote again, or at least not until I’ve practically memorized every unabashedly gratuitous self-promotional plug the channel has, can see their corner logo in my sleep and can hear the dialogue content as white noise even when I'm no longer anywhere near the television. You guys do that?” Time to reconnect, personalize, Jack thought and pointed to a man in the crowd beginning to fade.
“Looks at this guy, he’s one of those cats watches his apartment building’s security camera channel, you know, the one that show’s who’s trying to get into your building?” Scattered laughter and he knew he now had that man’s attention. “Yep, look at him, you can totally tell. He’s go that shifty look about him, well that, you’ll notice that he is sitting alone. Hey, only need one hand to work a remote, but that’s an obvious truth for every man in here, is it not?” Loud barks of raucous laughter answered back.
Jack leaned forward over the end of the stage to address the flushed man, “What’s the story there, friend? You giving your inflatable partner some space?” Standing erect, Jack theatrically made an aside to the general audience, “Notice I said partner, not lover. I'm being politically correct and emotionally sensitive, just like my rectal wart of a social sensitivity instructor told me too. No kidding, he’s a wart. What do you do that is that bad in your past life to spend time here teaching sensitivity classes as a big, hairy wart? Not give baby seals a half hour break before their swimming class? Give candy to strangers? Wear white after Hanukah? What?”
Jack popped the mike back into the clamp at the top of the stand and began to walk with the stand, planting it here and there to visually anchor his delivery. “So I’ve been watching this comedy channel all the time for weeks now and I’ve begun to see some trends emerge from the ether of the experience.” Jack paused for a beat, let the audience settle.
“For example, I’ve noticed that if you really pay attention to clips of the audiences rather than the comedians on stage, you’ll see that those clips are actually disconnected. Sure, the voice over and laugh tracks have been mixed into a continuous experience, marvel ye upon the miracles of editing!” Jack threw up his arms and barked the last bit as if a Southern Bible thumping fire and brimstone revival preacher.
Slipping back into the character of himself, comedian and social commentator, Jack continued, “Ok, make this exercise easy on yourself and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean, and hopefully find it every bit as deliciously creepy as I do!” Jack mimed holding a remote control and pressing a big button at the top with anxious precision, “Locate the mute button, which on some of these newer remotes can be more difficult than locating the man in the boat on a bountiful and buxom lass,” Jack waited a beat for that observation to sink in and understanding reactions to peter down. “Yeah, tough to find, and may require some real dexterity!” Jack nursed the gag, flicking his finger around increasingly frantically culminating in slapping himself in the face and looking overly surprised, then frustrated, then leaning in with brows scrunched as if staring intently into a chasm as might be presented to an obstetrician. As the audience reacted, Jack mused to himself, now in a new character he’d managed to establish, looking as if in the process to peeling off a rubber glove and delivering a prognosis, “Hmm, yes, I can see the problem, it IS very difficult to locate. I’m afraid surgery will be out only answer, however I promise you’ll be rewarded with the biggest sea captains money can buy!” Finger in the air, Jack grinned his trademark teeth cleaning smile and the audience showered him with love, no, not the sticky kind.
Snapping back into his comedian character, Jack returned to his primary thread, “Okay, but once you do find that mute, make good use of it and mute the stand up program of your choice. And how do you know you’ve done it right? Hmmm? Well, do you hear anything coming from the TV? Either you’ve done it right, or you’ve just been struck deaf. Although the coincidence of hitting a button for your TV and going deaf in the same second is completely unlikely to happen, you may want to leave this arduous task of TV muting to a trained professional, preferably one that can hear.” Jack smirked, scattered chuckles. All the joke was worth at best, Jack mused before continuing.
“Okay, you guys have probably figured out by now that this whole muting thing is overly much a preoccupation of mine.” Jack wagged his finger at them accusingly, other hand on his hip. “No getting anything past you guys! What I get for being up here on a night when people aren’t attending with their own monogrammed drool cups, ha ha!” Jack let the somewhat backhanded compliment settle in, then sprang on, resuming his pace back and forth across the stage. “Yep, I tend to mute the sound on comedy shows anyway because I really hate discovering someone out there can spin a better yarn or tell a better donut filling joke than I can.” Jack swept his head back as if struck by tragedy and pressed the back of his hand to his temple. “Ah, comedy is such a cruel and humiliating mistress! Sigh!”
I mean, you guys understand, you’re a sophisticated crowd, right? Must be to be paying Flynn’s prices, ha ha!” Jack cupped a hand next to his mouth and called out towards the back of the room, “I’m only teasing, Flynn, I haven’t had to take more than two mortgages to cover my tab here, and that might speak more about me than your prices, right? Ha!”
“No, honestly, comedy has so many archetypes, like Olympic events every one, and a comedian certainly likes to learn from his peers, but deep down inside hopes that no one can turn a superior twist or gag off something topical, some typical topic that crosses every comedy stage. Comedians hope the worst for their peers in a professional sense because to a comedian nothing is funnier than seeing someone try to go for gold and land on their face. There are simply only so many baby, women driver, religion, planes, travel, politics, divorce, drunken antics, racial differences, sexual innuendos, and life lesson anecdotes you can hear before they all start to blend together into the same old whiny, perpetually redundant stew varied only by delivery style or mannerism or occasionally, somewhat refreshingly, angle.” Jack paced a bit, dragging the stand with him, base bouncing a bit across the stage floor. “But when a comedian sees someone vault the comedy pummel horse and land a perfect 10, well, just makes you want to cry. Maybe because you’re laughing with the audience, maybe because inside you feel like you’d just never have the whit or insight to challenge what you’ve just seen. Or maybe because you mistakenly put on the wrong pants and now they are riding up, making you a candidate to sing falsetto.” Jack tapped his chin with his index finger thoughtfully. “So yes, comedy is competitive, in a way, and also a sort of psycho therapy for individuals to exhibitionistic to reserve themselves to discrete offices with any doctor types.” Jack followed this with an aside so quiet as to almost be under his breath, Well, for the therapy part, anyway, exercise is something else entirely…”
Jack found a spot and stuck it, resuming his chief topic, “So I'm looking at those cuts to the crowd, and I realize that they don’t match. You know the pattern? Comedian tells a joke, cut to crowd reactions, back to comedian for follow up or for the next joke. I started to notice that the clothes and mannerisms and of the comedian were current and contemporary, however the audience shots were like a casting call for extras for some mid-Eighties John Hughes movie.” Jack sang a quick medley of hard to forget songs from the soundtracks of Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, culminating with a quick reprisal of the chorus to Weird Science, while waving the crowd along until they joined in. “Hey, you guys are good! You should go on the road with that! Flynn’ll be holding auditions after the show, just make sure not to wear anything susceptible to staining around his couch, ha ha!” Jack composed his expression to look as benignly innocent as possible and made a shy wave towards the back of the place.
“Anyway, so I started to wonder. Why is young Molly Ringwald flashing gums in the crowd there? And is that Flock of Seagulls? Heck, I know that made me want to run away!” Jack paused a second to allow the crowd to settle. “And so I began to ponder this, like, why would the editors of a comedy program need to show the audience at all? I mean, sure, there is a comedy factor there, I know I laugh at some of the people they show, always archetypical types too, like the woman ready to rip off her shirt as if the holy spirit of comedy is coursing through her veins while her distraught husband or thankful blind date looks on, wide eyed in either case, really. How about the woman with the winged hair, looking like some bowling alley diva version of Farah Fawcett? Or the bevy of drunken, sweaty men bellowing laughter as if they’ve been enlightened by some truth with a punch line just bestowed upon them by some whimsical whit?”
Pause to let the audience catch up to him. “And a personal favourite, when the editors elect to show someone clearly not enjoying the show. That cat always kills me. I don’t know if because that is probably the cat I would most likely empathize with, or because that is the guy, were I on stage, I’d most likely go after. Everyone always says a good comedian knows how to deal with hecklers. I always respond a great comedian knows how to focus in, make a surgical strike, to get that one person that isn’t connecting, or refusing to connect, or is simply in a coma, to join the party. And a fantastic comedian manages to pull off such a selective attack with enough prowess as to entertain the rest of the crowd, make the stoic cat bust a gut, and manage not to have that guy you’ve been picking on waiting for you outside after the show to kick your head in.”
“You guys recognize what I’m talking about?” The crowd let forth with the Snap, Crackle, & Pop of agreement. Jack leaned in as if recruiting them all for his own personal conspiracy. “Do you want to hear my theory as to why the programs cut in these shots of yahoos laughing and chortling and merrymaking and swilling drinks and showing allegiance to haircuts some twenty years out of date?”
Audience members poured forth expressions of their genuine or at least indulgent curiosity.
Jack nodded, as if feeling honoured to be able to share his perceptions with such an astute and elite audience. Well, this likely has occurred to many of you before, as you may know, I tend to get to things in my own sweet time.” Jack paused for a beat. “I realized that those cut in shots of audience cats have a couple of functions.” Jack paused again, building a little tension through audience anticipation of illumination.
Jack put up a hand as if delivering a sociology lecture to a class of hung over pre-med scholars in a Caribbean college facility. “On one hand, people are reluctant to laugh alone, or at least, that is a typically held Sociological stance; people need some kind of peer support for laughter, like an alcoholics anonymous sponsor or something, someone to help guide the viewer, let them know the protocol of the occasion, let them know what is ok to do.” Jack paused his pacing and flatly addressed the audience. “Same logic went into adding all those horrible laugh tracks to all the old comedy programs like sitcoms and political speeches. Hearing laughter inspired laughter, and laughter inspires feeling good. Take away the canned laughter, and you are often left with a bad program that on its own merit holds no intrinsic comic potential what so ever, except the kind of humour some people find in morgues or medical footage of plastic surgery or photos of automobile accidents. Took years before people became desensitized to the canned laughter to tune it out, to cease being manipulated like a dog salivating upon hearing a dinner bell.”
“Before canned laughter, in the time of live entertainment, audiences were in the studio, often laughing at things they could see but the cameras could not. And even that was in and of itself manipulative to the viewing audience, as viewers at home couldn’t see the teleprompters or cats holding up instructional cards telling the in-studio audience what to do.” Jack paused and leaned to the audience, looking like he’s about to share some humble secret of the trade. “I’ll come clean, though. Truthfully, we use those methods on my show too. Only difference is that on my show, the people holding up the cards never know beforehand what is going to be written on them, and I made sure that instead of “LAUGH” or “CLAP” or “COMMIT HARI-KARI” I use the cards to ask the audience for potential guest distractions, like “FART!” or “QUACK” or “DRINK!”, “DRINK NOW”, “NOW DRINK AGAIN FOR GOOD MEASURE!” Y’know, party game stuff like that, fun for the whole damn family.”
Jack paused while a tide of laughter rolled in. He took the pause to cast peeps about the audience, marking marks to his mind’s register, preparing the draft should need arise for supplemental assault. Bovine lass with a head piled high with overindulged ringworm locks, frail man nearly occluded by his drunken co-workers, young girl probably best left entrusted with nothing edged or pronged. Jack made mental notes before launching into a litany likely to draw his audience into a dose. Made sure he had a ladder handy to dig himself out of a hole.
The laughter receded three times as quickly as it had flooded and Jack launched a fresh offensive. “Eventually, the definition of what constituted a studio audience became very liberal indeed. Sure, shows still claimed to be taped or filmed before a studio audience, some ominous voice would announce ‘Filmed before a live studio audience’ during the opening credits or moments of the episode. Call me selfish, but secretly I sometimes hope James Earl Jones will have a massive coronary just so that I can get him to record a similar disclaimer for my show. I mean, who wouldn’t want Darth Vader proclaiming ‘This program has been recorded before a dead studio audience’?” Jack heard chuckles and drew a breath; let the small beat ride for a moment before resuming to pretend to actually have a point to make.
“That’s the thing, though. That ominous announcement never specifically names the sitcom or states that the supposed live audience and the program en progress actually ever exist in the same time and space. Look at the wording. Sure, the program may have indeed been recorded in front of an audience. A camera crew is an audience, aren’t they? A bunch of bored schmucks trying to get in out of the theme park sun are an audience, aren’t they? Like all those people in paid advertisement programs, you think those people were jonesing for the latest in plastic fruit juicer innovations or hands free sweater darners? I think not! Those studios typically sit on the same lots as theme parks, and serve to shelter people too hot or bothered to stand in line for proper rides, like some kind of hump-less roller coasters for the frail of heart or thick of middle section. Sitcoms are no different, folks. Studio systems and network television churn those bad boys out like kids into the pool after a boxcar of burritos. For every one half hour of innovative comedy, you could bank on a week’s worth of asinine filler for the spaces between commercials. And you could turn on those shows, hear an ominous voice tell you that the program was filmed or recorded before a live studio audience, and somehow that reassured you, the viewer, that you could safely bond with the unseen people reacting to the idiocy on screen. You could empathise and subsequently you’d buy everything the advertisers tried to ply you with between acts, because surely that live studio audience was buying moose spit deodorant too, right? Moose spit, you’re soaking in it, the quicker picker upper, don’t panic, don’t think, just buy, because subconsciously, you must be one wit the tribe with whom you laugh, the ones you clap and slap your thighs with, the ones that you can hear braying open mouthed like a Hee-Haw casting call.”
Jack paced. Jack leered. Jack could feel the bitterness of bile kissing the back of his throat, a palatable disgust threatening to escape him as words, as sound, as thunder as he worked himself into a frenzy, no longer even seeing the fat woman or the frail man or the willing target for Neanderthal affections. Jack could feel his volume pumping, his blood pressure jumping, and from the flush spreading through his body outwards from his chest he knew he had hit a vibe worth preaching to the masses, though opiate would likely never be. Especially when opiate of masses had become his object of scrutiny, least an aspect of same.
“Ever been manipulated? Convinced to do something you didn’t of your own free will decide to do?”
Jack stopped and stared at the rafters as if listening to a reply from the rafters. He nodded and resume. “Yes. True. OK, the idea of free thought, of deciding for yourself, that is at core the very meat ad marrow of a multitude of schools of philosophies, right? You feel suddenly motivated to do something, like paint the kitchen or build and arc in the back yard, was that you deciding or some kind of divine motivation or simply an impulse coughed up from your subconscious after it’d absorbed too much television, too much advertising, too much communal empathising? Is it an act of empathy, or apathy, or maybe an act or defiance? Hopefully, but I digress!”
Jack coughed, a calculated measure. He could nearly hear the audience breath but could barely see them any more. Not see them, but he could feel them, the animal of their conjoined attentions, a mob by firelight if mishandled or underestimated or overly neglected or overtly threatened.
“Free choice may be a fallacy, but manipulation is a universal truth. Everyone manipulates, everyone also sometimes concedes. A baby cries to get a breast, a mother may concede for quiet. There is more to this thought. The mother may be rewarded for her concession with a pleasant tingling in her woman parts from the suckling infant. I would hope so, yes? For the child, the end beget the means, and in a passive-aggressive way, so it was for the mother as well. In the end, of that example, who is manipulating who? Advertisers manipulate the audience to buy, buy, buy! Advertisers survive by being paid from the revenue resulting from products being bought. Initially, people might be fooled. Eventually, I’d like to think, there is a balance. Advertisers are the screaming baby. People offer up their wallets like dried leather teats. If there is no payback for the effort, people stop proffering their teats. Right?”
Jack waits, hears a few mumbled agreements, then hooks his punch line.
“Or do they? Think about it. People have been given garbage for their investments year after year after year and still keep shelling out for more. This is what maks me laugh.” Jack laughs t demonstrate, long and shrilly, fully appreciating how uncomfortable this act likely made the collective audience. “Now bear with me folks, there is a joke coming here soon. See, the joke is us, the audience at home, the consumer, because we expect pleasure for our investment, we expect to be rewarded for affiliating with whatever tribe we sense is being depicted in our entertainment. The joke is that we do this, we empower all the more year after year the very people who do nothing but keep using their budding teeth and handing us diapers full of green hell. We are the masochistic mothers, the lonely entities looking to some entity with roughly the integrity of a drunken midget for love, understanding, cultural affinity and social inclusion. We are supposed to be the inspiration, the motivation, the leaders, the ones that shape all things to come. We, ourselves. And instead we look into the unblinking eyes of artificial construct for guidance, for support, for love.”
Jack bellowed at the audience, “THERE IS NO LOVE IN THE IDIOT BOX. WHY? WHY? BECAUSE THERE IS NO SOUL IN THE IDIOT BOX!” Jack huffed and appeared to catch his breath. “The show may have been recorded in front of trapped rats, but the soundtrack is an illusion, a pre-recorded ideal that does not serve to do anything more than leave you believing in echoes, shadows, by-gone ideals and last decade utterances. The laugh tracks are nothing more than manipulative shams, there to make you feel loved, feel like you belong, lead you in a dance predetermined without your input, like all those government down social revolutions or polar dichotomy political systems, like having six competing burger joints to choose from when all you want is corn, like arguing colors of weasels when all you see are penguins.”
Jack paused again. Let his words settle in. He could sense the cumulative audience beast regarding him, nearly ready to love him and see him as a leader while also considering how he’d look strung up and set on fire as an effigy to warn of others that might hope to cast aside some curtain and reveal yet another pathetic old man tugging cables and stamping pedals, subsequently raining on the general mob’s collective denial parade.
Jack held a beat, knowing he’d have to drop a joke soon, or he’d lose his grip on the leash momentarily muzzling the beast. “But surely no one here is the kind of person that would laugh just because others are, right? Here, let’s test it, I’ll tell a joke, you only laugh if you actually think it’s funny.”
Jack sucked back air as if readying himself to leap from a skyscraper into a teacup. “So this drunk guy is sitting behind a bus driver and sees this trick the bus driver is doing to the women that get onto the bus this one rainy day last fall. As each woman gets on the bus; bus driver would ask ‘Tickle your ass with a feather?’ When each startled woman asks ‘What?’ the bus driver repeats himself innocently enough, except instead of repeating just what had been suggested, bus driver, he says ‘Looks like nasty weather?’ to which each woman then looks relieved and say, ‘Well, why yes it does.’”
Jack paces and turns this way and that to play out the roles of the drunk, driver and female rides each in turn. The audience seems to be following along so intently a pin might be heard to drop. A fifty-pound pin, at least, considering the number of mouth breathers that were in the room, but this narrative does so digress.
”Now the drunk, he’s been taking this in stop after stop, woman after woman, and he’s getting all excited about it, and starts talking to the driver, offering praise and acclamation. Driver, now he doesn’t want to get caught, and certainly doesn’t want to have to deal with this loud drink fella, so he just tries to shush the drunk, tells him to quiet down or the driver would make the drunk get off the bus. Now that quiets the drunk down a bit, and they drive on a while, but then the bus pulls over to pick up a woman and just as the bus is stopping the drunk hisses up into the driver’s ear, ‘Let me do it this time!’ The bus driver groans but knows he’s going to have to accommodate the drunk or he’d go and make a scene. So as the driver leans to open the door so the woman can climb on up in, he says to the drunk, ‘Fine. You watch me this time so you ca get it right.’ And the drunk says eagerly, ‘Okay! Okay!’ as you know happy drunks are prone to do. You want another round? Okay! Okay! You want a cab? Okay! Okay! You want a pony and bag of ping-pong balls? Okay! Okay!” jack sneered f or a second, then continued with the joke. “So the drunk watches the bus driver like a hawk spying dinner in the weeds, woman steps up to the top step and warmly as you please, the driver asks, ‘Tickle your ass with a feather?’ And of course the startled woman says, ‘Excuse me?’ Bus driver tries not to glance back to see if the drunk is paying attention, doesn’t really have to, can feel the drunks warm vermouth breath curling up the back of his neck. Bus driver, he just smiles at the pretty young woman and says warm as you please, ‘Particularly nasty weather?’ And the woman relaxes, nods and says, ‘Why yes it does.’ She even pats the driver’s arm as she walks past and proceeds down the aisle to find herself a seat.”
Jack let’s a beat slide past. He’s shifted to folklore cadence now, Andy Griffith syrupy warmth. “Now the drunk, he’s practically beside himself. He taps the driver urgently on the shoulder while trying his best to seem conspiratal lest someone catch on to their little ruse. The driver winces and groans to himself but knows he’s going to have to let this drunk have a hand at it or that drunk’d never leave the poor driver alone. Why couldn’t this drunk just sleep it off like a good drunk the driver wondered? Is there caffeine in vermouth? So the drunk is hissing in the driver’s ear, ‘Can I do it next time, I paid attention, I know the words-“
Jack shifted into his best Bruce Campbell impersonation, “Yeah, I got your words! Klatuu, Veratuu, Nik- cough! Cough! Cough!” Jack cleared his throat, “Sorry, that’s a totally different joke. Anyway, so the Driver says under his breath, ‘You sure you got it? You make ‘em made, I'm not going to save your drunk ass!’” Jack breathes as a beat slides by. “Oh yeah, the drunk says, sittin’ back and crossing his heart like some kind of boy scout or Catholic Priest.” Mentioning priests got a couple snorts from the crowd. Jack inwardly rolled his eyes; priest jokes were just too easy anymore with all the scandals and lawsuits. And those guys had hells all their own, none had ever crossed his stage in sixty years not once. Thankfully. Jack felt he’d only lower his standards so far for the sake of ratings. Some topics were indeed truly beneath even him. “Oh yeah, I'm all ready! Drunk says, a little too loudly, the bus driver shushes him and hisses back, ‘Okay, there’s another one up ahead there on the corner. You better get it right..’ and then the driver wheels that big ol’ bus up to the curb next to the best looking woman the bus driver had ever laid eyes upon in all his days of driving public transportation. He leaned open the door and she stepped in showing legs that ran all the way up and the bus driver about choked on his gum. Behind him, that drunk was repeating the lines over and over in his head and scarcely looked up to see the woman’s stunning beauty until she’d taken the top step and the words were tumblin’ out of his flopsy mouth.”
Jack emulated the drunk saying his well-rehearsed line, “Tickle your ass with a feather!” The Jack made a shocked expression, “As the drunk said the words he looked upon that woman’s beauty and realized he’d never seen twins so beautiful before.” Jack paused to let the drunk joke settle in for a moment, pointing two fingers at his eyes ad ten holding them up for effect.
“The woman looks horrified! ‘WHAT!” she says with a voice so shrill it could peel siding off a station wagon.
Jack stumbles back as if falling into the drunken man’s character completely. He lurches forward, as if rising out of a public transit seat appears to lean, presumably catching himself and keeping from bowling over by griping the shoulder of the invisible bus driver seated before him.
Jack looked forward intently at the invisible woman, ten at the other invisible woman, then declared warmly, wetly and loudly to the two of them, “LOOKS LIKE RAIN, DON’T IT?”
The audience burst into laughter, proving one point while Jack smiled as if they’d proven another.
After a quick bow and curtsy, Jack re-entered the fray on the ebbing waves of the audience’s applause and laughter.
“See? I knew anyone brave enough to attend one of Flynn’s shows would be brave enough to make up their own minds about whether or not to laugh at some fool joke!” Jack clasped his hands into a fist and pumped the air above his head as if having just won a heavy weight title. Jack caught Flynn’s even gaze from where Flynn now stood leaning against the bar and grinned all the wider for effect. He crowd loved it and redoubled their efforts. Flynn appeared to have just orally juiced a lime.
As the laughter died down Jack resumed his original rant “So back to the comedy shows I was on about before. After seeing a bunch. I realized that those cuts to the crowd are intended to guide me, effectively to manipulate me, and upon realizing that, I watched the segments more closely and realized that at some point, much like canned laughter, the cut scenes were not necessarily even from the same venue as the comedian being recorded, let alone from the same occasion. Like the laugh track becomes the voice of the dead through syndication and reruns, so too do the faces of audience members from some venue in the 80’s when spliced into comedian’s appearances this decade, in some cases I’ve seen, some of those audience clips are over thirty years old.” Jack look inquisitively at the audience.
And I will leave you tonight with this question: Who, even in all of the hells, wears hippy clothing and fly away Flock of Seagulls hair cuts to a comedy show anymore? Can you tell me? Did I miss a memo somewhere?”
Jack paused for a beat while the audience laughed along to his established cadence. ”Thank you, you’ve been an adequate audience, and thank you for your almighty loathing!”
Jack dropped the mike to the floor where it clopped and sent up a wail of feedback. He turned on his heel and left the stage, walking down the side steps, past tables of ecstatically clapping people, keeping his eyes on the few feet of floor before him, matching gazer with no one until he’d exited the auditorium and stepped into the lobby, fetched his coat and drawn up short at the curb with the intent of hailing a cab. His plans were subverted by the appearance of six similarly clad youths, each smaller than Jack, a couple somewhat burly and a couple definitely female and the remainder wholly and altogether averaging a cool mean somewhere in between.
And so the Burlap Ninjas elected to strike.
This is where the book begins now.
I’ve basically Can 13 in the Honey Wagon’d about sixty-odd pages preceding this scene, and that’s been a healthy thing, both because I’ve worked through the relationships and backgrounds of the characters to be able to take them forward on an adventure, and I’m sparing the prospective audience from a load of meandering exposition preceding the story I actually want to tell.
I did waffle back and forth on the actual stage show, though. Do I show the reader early on what sort of comedian the protagonist is, or tried to be, before pursuing this new line of work as a middle manager sort in a Chinese sort of reincarnation hell? Or do we let the reader decide for themselves the sort of comedian he is based on his actions and reactions throughout the book. I elected for the latter, because really, once you understand that he took the job after utterly bombing on stage, the details as to how he bombed become at best funny through occasional sidelong references while seem most effective when left to the reader’s imagination, since comedy is subjective person to person.
I’ve excessively worried that choosing not to show how the protagonist handles a stand up set might seem like a cop out. Perhaps, since despite years and years of exposure to every sort of stand up style and practitioner I could find, I’ve never found the balls to do it myself. I plan to begin addressing that fear this year by joining the Theater Sports classes on Granville Islands, seems like a great place to start since I can’t move to Chicago or Toronto and join Second City or Asss cats / Upright Citizen’s Brigade. I don’t know if I’m funny, odds are I’m not, we’ll see. Putting a character on stage and showing that he’s more clever and comical than I actually am or can be is setting that character up to fail through limitations of my own that character doesn’t share. Not that he’s meant to be Steve Martin or Rich Hall, Garrison Keeler or Stewart McLean; just better than me, not handicapped by my own weird sense of mirth.