Held himself up for ridicule. Had the right size and look for stand-up. Tall, skinny, long mournful po-face, honk of a nose, thin blond hair, those heavy caterpillar brows, always working themselves into a trauma above round shock-stunned eyes.
Hardly had to speak and people would laugh. He’d just stand there in the spotlight, rub his forehead, twitch his mouth, raise an eyebrow and they’d be off. He’d say a line, and they’d roar with it, the laughs looping around him, lashing his face.
Hated that sound. Loathed it like misery. But this laugh track bought him all he could put his name to: Condo in Toronto, a smaller one in LA, job on an American sitcom, beautiful girlfriend, most coveted parties, never did feel fomoed. Never did go without. A thing. Had it all.
He studied the way of it, the science – the precision – and got so good, he could predict the exact sound of a laugh – whether it would be solid like an egg, or ragged at the edges like a dog-gnawed bathmat. Or trailing like worm slime on a sidewalk. He lived the cause, the moment and result of every line.
At home he spent hours listening to recordings of his performances. He collected them, named them, dated them, filed them away. He wanted to find out what caused the laugh – was it the line, the delivery, the tone, the timing, the mood of the audience. What.
After a few years, he stopped listening to the lines, and began to hear only the sound of the laugh itself. The caws, the chuck chucks, the hmhummms, the hacks and the haw haws, the screes and the whoops. The strange nightjugging noise. And he asked that question: why do people laugh. Other animals don’t laugh. Or maybe they do. Maybe chimps do. Maybe hyenas do. Maybe porpoises do.
He sat for hours at his desk, headphones on, analyzing each giggle, shriek and guffaw. At times he could hear a definite rhythm – almost natural like the sea or the wind, depending on the density and the contagion of the laugh.
At other times, when the laugh was not one sound but a mingling of many discordant sounds, he heard nothing but random cacophony. The noise unnerved him – he thought he could hear a message in it. He played some of the laughs backwards. That scared him – the backrushing surge – the way the fadeout crescendoed into hysteria and then suddenly erupted.
He couldn’t pull himself away from it – that noise that turned many human beings into a single beast, that noise that was a substitute for the primal scream. It said: We’re here on this planet and we don’t know why, and our pants keep falling down, and we got spinach in our teeth, we are all knock knees and anxiety and our hair is falling out, and we trip over our ankles as we cartwheel into the grave, and our skin is falling down and it’s a fucking joke all of it and we hate this joke and we hate you for telling us this joke.
And so: We open our mouths. Not to laugh. No.
The better he got at hooking the laughs, the more he hated the noise and the faces behind the noise. He could see the people in the first couple of rows, their faces caught in the half-glow. He could see them gnashing their teeth. They wanted to take a bite out of his arm and chew up his bones. He knew it.
He saw it, he heard it. His hatred and fear of them became so hot it turned his face red and that made them laugh even more. As he spoke his lines, the cold fear sweat rolled off him, he muttered, he lost focus, he pictured a lady in the front row with a fish fork in her forehead, a business type with toothpicks in his eyes.
He began to forget his lines, replacing them with gibberish – or the lines would turn on him and sucker punch him in the face. But his fumbling made no difference. They laughed just as loud as before. He could do no wrong.
One night he trashed all his jokes and stood there for two whole minutes, saying nothing. He scratched his head and they went wild. Thought it was hysterical. He told them what he ate for lunch. They chuckled at the lettuce, convulsed at the pickle. His hatred was grinding him up inside. He knew he had to put an end to it. It was over.
The last night of his career, he walked out onto the stage knowing this was it. He cracked a few old one-liners, they laughed and smashed their hands together. He tried a new line: How do you know when you’re in trouble? When you look in the mirror and your reflection doesn’t bother to show up. Not that funny. Not at all funny. But they loved it. Laughed a convention. And that’s when he tipped. Couldn’t resist.
He started in: a monologue. A harangue. A hectoring of fear and hatred that had built up in him over the past eight years. “I despise all of you,” he began. “You’re all idiots. You’re all losers. You have no idea who you are or what you are, you’re all cheap merch-addicted, candy-crazed zombies. That’s all I have to say. Get out of here and get lost. Go back to your zombie caves…”
He went on like this for twenty minutes. After every line the audience laughed. They roared, they clapped, they whistled. It was yuk yuk haha all the way down. His best performance. The more he berated them, the louder they laughed. They adored it.
When he finally said, “I quit” and stepped down off the stage and made his way to the front door of the club, they all stood up as one and gave him a standing ovation.
They turned and watched him as he pushed his way through the crowd. They cheered, pumped their fists in the air, stamped their feet, called his name.
Finally, he got to the door. They blocked it. He turned to face them. They began to tap him lightly on the shoulder.
Rosalind Goldsmith lives in Toronto. She has written radio plays for CBC Radio Drama and a play for the Blyth Theatre Festival and has also translated and adapted short stories by the Uruguayan writer, Felisberto Hernandez, for CBC Radio. Her short stories have appeared in journals in the the UK, the USA and Canada, including Litro, Into the Void, Orca, The Blue Nib, Fairlight Books, Chiron Review, Stand, and Fiction International.
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