a serious joke: chapter 2

“A rabbi, a priest, and a Lutheran minister walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, “What is this, some kind of joke?”

– traditional bar joke

Jokes aren’t funny. Good jokes, specifically. A joke isn’t funny…it’s just so appallingly true that the only possible reaction is laughter. Instinctive. No different than the searing pain you’d feel when you touch a hot burner on the stove. A necessary, self-preserving reaction. It’s those two masks–the frowny, crying one–and the laughing, cheerful one. No in-between there. It suggests– and this I’ve found to be true–that if you don’t laugh, you cry. That the difference between hysterical laughing and crying–lamenting–is thin as a nun’s cunt hair. So gossamer thin that it’s almost the same thing. That, Jim Spleen, is comedy. And, Jim Spleen thought to himself as he sat alone, draped in a green sheet sitting at the very edge of the motel bed, is why you are not a comedian. Not a good one anyway. Your jokes aren’t true. They lie. You wear the frowny mask while telling cheerful jokes…or the cheerful mask while telling frowny jokes. Spleen thought about it for a minute; no matter. The point is, he thought, that the mask and the joke are too far apart; that the cheerful joke shows no hint of the frowny, tragic mask. Always puerile. Always blue, and mostly blue for blue’s sake…working blue is easy. A clean act is hard work. An honest act is even harder. You tell blue, dishonest jokes…laughing mask jokes. Dad always said to work smart, not hard…Spleen ruminated on that for a bit. Anyway…someone, Spleen couldn’t begin to name who, once said that in order to be funny one has to first think sad. And that’s at the heart of it. Spleen thought sad all the time…except on stage…except while writing material. And there was the dishonesty, the lie. There was the mask, and the distance between masks. Far from gossamer. But even still, what you wouldn’t give for a decent shot at the big time. Good jokes aren’t necessary, after all. Plenty of lousy comics make it, with untrue jokes, the kind that don’t cause a hand on the burner reaction. In other words, unnecessary. Sitting alone in the Breezeway, Spleen couldn’t care less about truth and untruth and hand on the burner reactions. Sitting alone with the bedbugs and mites, it wasn’t a question of masks and the distance between masks that plagued him; it was a question of money, and success. A question of the american way. Comedy was only a tool, a hammer or a sickle, a wrench or a plow–a thing to get to that place where you finally climb out of the pot, free of the other crabs. Henry Ford did it. Why can’t I?

What a gig. What a motel. At that moment, Jim Spleen had the strong physical urge to break his agent’s face…to call her up, reach through the phone and throttle her delicate neck until the life drained from her face and her eyes went vacant. But on the other hand, it’s not all her fault. You can only work with the tools you’re given. The rest is luck. Spleen hoped fervently, so fervently it verged on praying, that the talent scout in the crowd tonight might see something in him…something that doesn’t exist, but no matter…just something. A mirage. An aurora borealis. A break. Dear god, a break. The truth and integrity of his jokes aside, he worked hard. Hard, but not smart, perhaps. Perhaps his dad was right. Maybe that nameless figure who waxed poetic on the relationship between sadness and funniness was right on…and maybe that would be the path to working smart.

Still. The tools. Spleen didn’t feel honesty or integrity or truth anywhere in his very compact toolbox. Just a hammer. A puerile, dishonest hammer. In any case, more comics make it with a hammer than integrity anyway. Getting up and wearing the scratchy green blanket like an impotent superhero’s cape, Jim Spleen began to pace in tight circles, slowly, mouthing the words to his routine, eyes closed tight. 7 minutes. That’s all he had. 7 minutes to arouse some sort of reaction in the scout in the crowd. No hand on the burner reaction, that’s for sure; but a cynical, phony showbiz reaction will do just fine. The words were simple, easy to remember…not much to them…not much or nothing at all to reveal the sadness behind them. Just make ‘em laugh jokes. Guy walks into a bar jokes. Take my wife, please jokes. Plagiarized jokes. Plenty of them. Anything to climb out of the pot of crabs jokes. Comedians…just crabs in a pot. You all want out. You all pinch and writhe in the hysteria to get out. Anything to get out…a good swipe artist has a better chance than an actual artist. A stolen joke is currency. It’s worth good money. A hundred dollar bill to a single. Benjamin beats Washington no matter what. Come to think of it, Jim Spleen reconsidered, there’s nothing at all to that old adage about thinking sad to be funny, and dad was right. Work smart, not hard. Work smart and give the people whatever they want…including swiped and derivative jokes. “I gotta get out of here,” the words came tumbling out of his mouth as his tight circles came to an abrupt halt. Almost surprised, as if he hadn’t even said it. It was someone else. Spleen picked up the phone and dialed his agent.

“Diane…” he began, for some reason out of breath. “…I just wanted to tell you what a good job you’re doing…”

“Jim,” the voice on the other end began, groggy and with a hint of irritation. “…It’s 5AM.”

“I woke you.” Jim glanced at the clock on the nightstand. “Sorry, I hadn’t noticed the time.” He slipped out of his impotent green cape and sat down on the bed. “I’ve just been, y’know, a little wired right? You know. The scout. I—“

“Jim,” Diane interrupted, “I told you, DO NOT think about it. Put it out of your head. Just focus on your routine. Just like any other gig. It’ll mess you up if you sit and think about it.” A long silence…Spleen’s heavy breathing coming in loud and clear.

“Yeah yeah. Right. I know. It’s not even that, it’s…something else. You know…like a feeling. I got a feeling about this one.” Jim paused, eyes open wide, four sides white. He looked straight ahead at nothing, holding the phone up to his head, as if he’d seen a ghost. Speaking with the conviction of a person undergoing some kind of spiritual awakening, he went on, supposedly finish his thought. “I just got a feeling. Like…just now. I know what I need to do. I’ve done enough, Diane. I’ve worked hard. I’m getting mine.” He went silent again. Eyes still fixed straight ahead, on nothing.

“That’s good. Just stay loose though. Go in and do what you do. You’ll be fine.”

“Diane?” Spleen said, prolonging the lifespan of the call to an unwelcoming audience…

“What?” she asked, following another pregnant pause.

“I like what you’ve done with your hair…” Jim’s eyes began to dim. “It looks nice.” He felt a chill run down his spine. His faux spiritual awakening coming to a head with reality. And there was something else. Not a vision of crabs pinching and writhing in a pot. Just something else. “I feel like something is going to happen,” he added, after what felt like minutes of petrified silence. Unsure if Diane was still on the other end…very suddenly unsure he still didn’t want to wring her neck or break her face. Even unsure if he still liked what she’d done with her hair.

“…thank you, Jim…” she finally said, confirming her presence. Spleen remained silent, feeling a tingling in his bones; not sure himself what he even meant by saying what he’d just said. He only knew it wasn’t actually about his agent’s new hairdo.

“No problem,” he said. Vacantly.

“Okay. I’ll be in touch,” Diane replied, officially yanking the plug from the life support of their conversation.

Spleen coolly placed the receiver back in the cradle, not saying another word. For now, he was all out of words. The thought of fighting and scraping for the very little that he had was a barbarian at the gates of his mind now. The thought of just barely surviving on untrue, hack jokes had receded into the cobwebs. In its place, a darker thought had surfaced. Darker because he couldn’t identify it. The face of it. If the thought had been the prime suspect in a murder case, or someone the police had called on him to identify in a lineup for knocking over a liquor store or some such thing, he felt confident that he wouldn’t be able to pick it out…or to accurately describe it to a police sketch artist. It lacked definition…it lacked a face, or even a body. It had simply sprung out of the bushes, assaulted him in a chill down the spine, and retreated into shadows. Spleen sat alone with the bedbugs, in the Breezeway, ten hours to showtime. And the chill down his spine came and went, intermittently, and the tingling in his extremities and bones becoming stronger and more persistent. The thought of this thing he felt was going to happen—the mysterious, faceless suspect in a nonexistent crime—fled from the scene, into shadows. And he hadn’t seen the face.