17 February 2011


I AM WATCHING DUST DANCE in the red and blue lights when the velvet-suited emcee puts his hand on my left shoulder. He must be speaking to me because his mouth is moving. Despite his voice being a whisper, his face is moving violently; chin bobbing up and down above his tie, neck muscles volcanically tightened. He walks with loud steps onto the black vinyl stage, asking the audience whether they are ready. He announces my name in the exact same rising melody every single night, like a word repeated so often it’s just a sound now. I stand in the shadow of the wings just a little while longer. I feel my stomach getting cold. It’s not nerves. It’s just empty, hollow. I step out onto the stage. The firecracker sound of their clapping hurts my ears. I already wish they would stop. As I reach center stage, I feel the muscles on my face tighten to a smile. I chuckle into the microphone, and joke that I’m not close to being that funny. They are already entertained.

He says something I don’t understand. I hear myself ask what? Good show he says. Good show. You did good tonight. Funny as hell. I consider the phrase for a second. Funny as hell. I say thank you and I smile with two rows of teeth. He says if we keep this up Hollywood’s gonna get interested. He doesn’t pronounce the t’s in interested. I say great. Then I smile for the second time. Two rows. I think it looks sincere. The door closes.

The woman’s screaming laughter sounds like she’s in pain. The spotlights heat the stage, but there is a draft that makes the hairs on my neck stand at attention. I bring the microphone’s cold grille to my lips and alter my voice for the punch line. The faces in the audience laugh. That screaming laughter pierces through again, shrill against my ears. I feel my body move manically in the next bit, an old one about being uncomfortable around other people. I think of quitting halfway through the joke so I won’t hear the screaming again. I finish the joke and go on with the set.

The interviewer is young. His shirt is ironed in the places a shirt’s rewarding to iron. We are in a hotel room I couldn’t sleep in, minimally decorated, shades of off-white the dominant color palette. I am looking at paintings that are undoubtedly hanging in all of the hotel’s 279 rooms. He asks where I get the inspiration for my jokes from. I hum and move my eyes to the upper right corner of my sight, as if the real words were there. Then I show him my teeth and move my eyes to meet his. I hear myself respond by lying that I feel life itself is inspiring and that I enjoy the challenge of making an audience laugh. I am wearing a charming expression on my face. He asks what I think is my best joke. I smile and lie that there are too many. His last question is whether Hollywood is the next step for me. I hear myself say that I’ve always been interested in the movies.

By now, the faces laugh even before the words leave my mouth. They already know they are going to, so some of them start early. I listen to my words coming back to me through the amplification of the vast theatre. I listen to my voice, encompassing everything in the room, except when it is drowned out by their laughter. I wish they would stop laughing at every single thing I say. I set up the next one. The punch is going to be a reference to an earlier joke about myself. That will be entertaining.

I have done this one so often my mind wanders and I am 16 again and I’m going into a club that has Open Mic Tonight! in white chalk on its front door. My hands sweat and tremble when the mic is handed to me. I remember feeling my blood getting warm when I was on a stage, making other people laugh. I snap back and I am 28 and it’s time to end this joke. I remember to pause, for effect, just in time. I deliver the line. The audience answers with a stampede of applause and laughter, growing louder and louder. I raise my arms so I’ll appear to be savoring it. Two rows of teeth. In the front row, an old man has a coughing fit. He is having a great time.

The director is talking to me about the film and the part he wants me to play; a comedian. We are having lunch on 53rd Street. My cream cheese bagel sits limply on the china. You can improvise whatever you want, he says, without clearing his mouth completely. Tuna on rye, mayo. He hears me lie that I am looking forward to working together, and I pace my joke’s momentum to meet his swallowing, so he won’t choke on his sandwich. Or just a bit. I’m killing him, he says, I always kill him. He says he wonders how I don’t kill myself. I reply with two rows and a chuckle.

I am delivering new material to the faces. It is a success. The sign outside says I have Sold Out. I hear myself say the words I have written. The chairs are shaking with the bodies’ laughter. Then I see one face in the crowd, a girl’s, that does not laugh. She is looking at me, her thin lips a straight line, the bright stage light reflected in her eyes. She is pretty, but she has a great seat and she is looking at me and she is not laughing. I avoid her eyes and tighten my facial muscles. Two rows of teeth, two rows. I let out a laugh into the grille and start setting up the next one. I feel my heart beat faster than usual as I do the build-up for it. The build-up is short, the punch line is physical, the room roars. She does not laugh.

It is three o’clock in the morning. I am standing in front of a mirror in my white-tiled bathroom. The mirror’s edges are freckled brown and grey; the way time eats at glass. I move my hand to touch my face, pulling the skin like a rubber mask. I pull my lips tightly into a smile and try to breathe. I pull harder. My eyes become wet. Tonight was the best ever, Frank said. Best ever. It is four o’clock in the morning and I am still standing in front of a mirror in my bathroom. I am looking at a face that is staring back at me. I cannot tell which is the reflection.

She is there every show. Every show, she is there, not laughing. She makes it hard to chuckle into the microphone. She makes it hard to tighten my face and show teeth. She makes me think about what I am doing and why. Why I am saying these things that she is hearing. I keep going. The faces stare at me smiling with their eyes and laughing frantically at each punch line. They will not stop. They are always bigger than me. They will... I can’t hear myself over their laughter... Not stop. Then the microphone falls from my hands and lands on the floor with a loud thud that echoes and rings through the theatre.

I pick it up again and I look at the ocean of faces surrounding me. I notice the theatre’s seating area is shaped like a tidal wave at breaking point. I put the microphone to my mouth and I do not speak. I am totally quiet and, for a moment, so is everyone in the whole theatre. The mouths that are normally laughing are all closed. Their thunderous roar has been replaced by a breathy calm. The soft electric hum of the Fresnel spots is familiar and reassuring.

After what could have only been a few seconds of silence, one man in the back of the audience makes a remark. I do not respond. I breathe into the microphone. My breath is loud, traveling across the room, filling it.

I tell them I do not want to do this anymore. I speak into the microphone’s cold steel grille and the amplified speakers spread my words through the enormous quiet room. The speakers are saying that they are suffering. That they have trouble sleeping at night because they know that the next day will feel just as suffocating and empty and detached as the day before. That they have been taking pills and combinations of pills for years now and that all of them either have side effects that are even worse, or don’t help at all. The sound waves float through the audience as each of the six different hundred-watt speakers tells them, each in a slightly different color of sound, that they tried to kill themselves last night.

The girl who didn’t laugh is looking at the man who is filling the room with the sound of his voice. She is crying without sound. I tell her how it was, how it felt, why it went wrong. I tell her, and the whole room listens to how come it went wrong and I am still here. How my microwave dinner must’ve been bad and made me throw up the contents of the bottle back out of my system and into my carpet, together with odd bits of macaroni and cheese. I tell her that a nauseatingly bad dinner saved my miserable life, and suddenly I hear soft, scattered laughs. I repeat it, and the laughs spread, slowly, uncomfortably. Before I fully realize it, I am chuckling into the microphone again and using the whole thing as a build-up. I hear myself improvise hyperbolically elaborate suicides and describe a fantastic monograph-length suicide note, to an audience’s storm of laughter. My body is mimicking that of a man trying to end his life in several different ways at the same time, all failing because of each other. I go on and on and on until the small red light flashes it’s time. Time to put an end to it. They have had a great show.

I am in my dressing room when a knock is at the door. It’s Frank, telling me it was terrific, your new stuff is terrific, absolutely fucking terrific. I show him my teeth and he hears me say I want to be alone for a while. He says great and closes the door. I am looking at a mirror when there is another knock. The face in the mirror says come in. A pretty girl whose tears have dried steps into my dressing room. I look at her through the mirror. She sits down next to me and takes my head in her hands. I am there. I feel it. I want to speak, but I have nothing to say. She says:

“You’re not funny at all. Not one bit.”

Tears start forming on two pairs of eyes. She holds me. I feel it. I have something to say.

“Thank you.”

by Julio Pijnappel


No comments: