A short piece of writing

2 Sep

So let me explain this: I just watched Batman Returns on DVD. It got me to reading Wikipedia pages on Batman villains, which reminded me of an old idea for a scene/short story I had a while ago. It was rattling in my head so loud I couldn’t sleep unless I wrote it down. Here it is. My girlfriend doesn’t like it because she says I wrote it “too much like a script.” You decide.

*****

Another Tuesday night, another open mike night at the Gotham City Improv. Usually I’d end up getting there a little late and have to sign up for one of the last spots, but this time I showed up early and got to pick near the top. I signed up for spot number three. Not so early the crowd wasn’t warmed up, but not so late that everybody had already left.

It helped that I had been fired from my job the previous day, the job that usually made me late to the club. The ironic thing was I had always complained that the job was interfering with my comedy career, but I also needed the money to keep paying for open mikes. Five dollars for five minutes. That’s equivalent to the club getting paid sixty dollars an hour. I wish I had been making money that good. It was ridiculous I was still paying for stage time anyway since I had been doing comedy for years. I had even opened for some pretty big names. Not that these club owners could give a shit, though. To them, if you’re not a headliner, you’re just another two-drink minimum.

None of it matters right now, I thought. You need the stage time, and this is the only open mike in the area that gets a real audience, because of the two-for-one cocktails. You’re working on new material. Just get yourself a solid 30 minutes of good jokes, and you’re golden. Go on stage, and then you can get sloshed. It’s not like you have to work tomorrow, anyway. Go on stage, and somebody will notice you, because you’re just that funny, and whisk you away from this shithole city.

The hope I keep hoping every year, even though it never comes true.

At 8:30 the show started. The first two comedians were some kids I had seen around before. They weren’t anything special, but they had good attitudes and they were competent. I actually didn’t pay much attention because I was too busy looking over my own notes. They woke up the crowd and that was all I needed.

“This next guy has done clubs and colleges all over Gotham,” the host says to the audience with a big grin, as if the fact that I have a car to go places automatically makes me a good comic. “Please give it up for Joe Stafford, everybody!”

I start off with my usual jokes making fun of my appearance. That’s the funny thing, no pun intended, about comedy audiences. Everybody who goes to a comedy show thinks they’re a million times funnier than the guy on stage, so they automatically hate you. However, if you show them you hate yourself, too, they like you again. Nobody would get laughs if they went onstage going “So I was thinking about how I’m so emotionally well-adjusted and everybody likes me…What’s up with THAT?”

I figured the opening went well, so it was time to get into my new material. “I just got fired from my job,” I started off. A few claps of empathy came from the audience. “They didn’t like my attitude. They asked me to do five additional shifts a week without any overtime pay. I told them ‘listen, bud, this is Gotham City. If I wanted to get raped, I’d just walk outside after sundown!’”

The guys laughed, the women didn’t. I understood. It was kind of coarse. I had just written it that day because I was angry. Not a joke I’m proud of. I did notice one particular high-pitched chuckle, though.

“I had to fly for a Metropolis for a gig recently,” I continued, getting some boos for mentioning our rival city. “I could never live there. It freaks me out. People there are just too happy!” This got some mild laughs. “They do all these weird things there like… make eye contact… and walk around without two fake wallets in their pocket.” More laughter, no doubt because everybody in the club has been mugged at least once, myself included. “I didn’t feel like I could even eat the food there because I’d just start shitting rainbows and chubby kittens.” A good, solid bit of laughter followed. The new material was working, to my satisfaction.

“Why are they so happy? Because of Superman? Listen, if I was told that I was constantly being watched by some guy who wears his underwear on the outside and can see through walls, I wouldn’t feel happy, I’d feel violated.” More laughs. It’s safe to make fun of Superman because everybody knows that nobody doesn’t like Superman. The high-pitched voice came again, guffawing stronger this time.

“At least he’s better than what we got, the Batman. Superman at least comes pre-packaged with all these neat abilities like flight and heat vision. Batman has to rely on all of these external parts and gadgets, and he keeps having to get new ones! He’s like the IKEA of superheroes: some assembly required!”

Not as many laughs. Doing Batman material in Gotham is risky because some people hate him and some people like him. I personally don’t care, I just thought the image of him as a piece of Swedish furniture was funny. I guess not everyone agreed, except for the high-pitched guy. He dug it.

“Superman just needs himself and only himself, but I’m hearing that Batman apparently hangs out with Bruce Wayne, the billionaire! We have a superhero that has to bum off other guys for cash! He’s the only superhero that has something in common with my 35-year-old step-brother!”

The audience liked that bit better, but that guy with the high voice loved it. He was letting out this strong, raspy cackle, so loud other people in the audience were turning to see who it was coming from. I couldn’t see because the stage lights were in my eyes. I could tell he was somewhere near the back of the room. I wanted to acknowledge him and riff on him for a few minutes, but the host was giving me the wrap-it-up light, so I ignored him and finished my set.

I walked back to my table and settled in with what I planned to be the first of many beers that night. “The next comic coming up is a first-timer here at the Gotham Improv,” the host said with the same stupid grin. I know, though, those words mean that he was cringing inside. “Shawn Russell, everybody!”

This guy looked like he was barely out of high school, and he was already slightly twitching as he awkwardly took the microphone off the stand. This was going to be bad. So bad I was going to love it.

“So Gotham has a lot of crime,” he started, deciding to open with the least imaginative or original statement possible. “It’s getting to the point where I have to steal my allowance from my mother! I’m like… give me your purse… bitch!”

He paused, as if the word “bitch” was supposed to be the punch line of the joke, or save the joke when the original punch line flopped. Nobody laughed, but I let out a snort of glee. It’s not a hostility thing; I just know I was in the same position ten years ago, and I know he’s going to have to bomb a million more times like I did.

Amid the silence, though, came a piercing “Boo!” It was the same high-pitched guy who loved my Batman jokes.

Twitching even more, the young would-be comic proceeded. “My girlfriend is really bad at making up her mind. She’s trying to find a job but she can’t decide if she wants to be a registered nurse or a professional bitch!

He paused again. I actually let out a laugh because this kid was so thoroughly convinced that the word “bitch” was some magic comedy word! Abra-ka-bitch-a, this joke is funny!

“Boo! Try harder!” came that high-pitched rasp again.

The newbie, now quite nervous, pointed a trembling hand out to somebody sitting close to the stage.

“So… so where are you from?”

I snorted again. This guy thinks crowd work is going to save his set? Apparently I wasn’t the only one thinking that particular thought.

“You haven’t gotten one laugh yet and you think you can work the crowd?” the mysterious audience member roared from the back of the room. “You’re pathetic!”

No longer content to just watch a bad comic fail, the man with the high voice finally stepped out into the middle of the room, where the house lights, though dim, made him visible.

Every person in that room froze as he approached the stage, fraught with both realization and panic.

“What do you think you’re doing up there?” he scolded, a hand grasping at slicked-back, green hair. “You have no stage presence! No poise! No voice!”

He stepped onto the stage, the kid staring, mouth agape, not knowing what to do as the man reached out his thin, pale hand and seized the microphone.

“Sorry, folks, I guess I can only take amateur hour for thirty minutes,” he quipped, his hand confidently grasping the microphone, the free one fingering the lapel of his purple coat. He turned towards the dumbstruck beginner with a stern look. “Listen, kid, you can’t just get on stage and tell water cooler stories. You need to be snappy, make the audience like you. Watch this.”

The man leaned towards the same audience member the beginner had tried to interact with before he was interrupted. She was a young blonde girl, her eyes as wide as saucers with fear.

“You, young lady, wow, I haven’t seen a person shake so hard since I visited that epilepsy ward at the hospital!” The man looked out at the rest of the audience with a sickeningly wide smile, his lips so grotesquely stiff it seemed that the smile was carved into his flesh. “I hope nobody ever lets you hold their babies… unless they’re British, they seem to be okay with that.”

Again, the man stiffened his blood-red lips into a smile, leering at his silent, scared-shitless audience. He then turned back to the young boy.

“Gee, kid, tough crowd. Maybe that’s the problem.” He gave him an encouraging pat on the back. “Well, look, kid, don’t take this the wrong way, I’m just trying to help you. Listen to my advice: Have good posture, project your voice…” He leaned in close and put his arm around the boy, his other hand pointing in the boy’s face. “And always have one goal in mind…”

“Knock ‘em dead.”

With those words, a plume of olive-colored mist sprayed out from inside his jacket sleeve and clung to the boy’s face. At first he maintained his dumbstruck stare, but it turned into sputtering and gagging, which gave way to fits of loud laughter. Loud, sickening laughter. He crumpled onto the floor as he let out spastic, heaving, gasping guffaws. The women in the crowd began to scream as everyone realized this kid, who before couldn’t get a laugh if his life depended on it, was now laughing himself to death.

Everyone ran for the doors, myself among them. “Oh, no use running,” he calmly announced into the microphone. “My boys have this place locked up from the outside. I always wanted a captive audience.” He paused, listening to the shrieking and clamoring and banging against the doors.  “Oh come on,” he replied, “ Sure it was a hacky joke but it wasn’t that bad.

I realized at that point that even if the crowd did get the door open, so many would not fit through that small a door all at once. I wouldn’t make it past them before I would be next. My eyes raced around the room frantically.

I’m going to die tonight, I thought. I’m going to die tonight with barely any TV credits to my name. That was the only thought hurriedly looping through my mind. I saw that the pale specter was focused mostly on the crowd at the front door, so I did the first thing that came to mind: I swung around behind the bar and went into the bathroom.

I ran into the handicapped stall, locked the door, squatted down against the wall, and prayed to God he didn’t see me. I am going to die tonight in this shitty club, I thought, as I heard the cacophony of tortured noises from outside: screams, pleas for life, the whooshing noise that I assumed was more gas, and then the awful chorus of painful, unnatural laughter. Laughter that sounded like choking.

I had done jokes on stage before about how I thought religion was all bullshit, but right then I started going through every prayer I could think of. I just wanted to be left alone. I cowardly thought that I could stay alive if he just killed everyone else in that room and then got bored. I hoped for that.

Then, as if my thought had become reality, the sounds all stopped. No more screaming, no more stampeding, it was all gone. Had he really gotten bored and left? It made no difference; I was dead either way if he was still here. I tip-toed my way to the bathroom door and cracked it open. With no response, I poked my head out. The stage was bare. I finally opened the door all the way and walked out to find the faces. Oh God, the faces. All dead, but smiling. Smiles like the man had on his face: stiff, unnatural, like engraved holes. Eyes dead but mouths smiling. This is what comedians see in Hell, I realized. Faces all smiling but not laughing, taunting you with their silence. I survived just because I had been just calm enough to hide instead of trying to run. My God.

Then I felt his hand on my shoulder. It felt skeletal. I felt skeletal. He pulled me around so I was face-to-face with cackling death. “I was looking for you!”

I would have cried, but I think even the tears were too afraid to leave my eyes. I just proceeded straight to begging.

“Please. Please don’t kill me. Please, God…”

“I should be saying the same to you!”

I stared him right back in his demonically piercing eyes. “What?” was all I could muster.

He gave me a raucous slap on the back. “You were the one who slayed me! You were hilarious! I haven’t seen such brilliant joke-writing in a long time. I just loved the way you dug into old Bat-brains. I might have to steal a few of those lines myself next time I see him!”

He nudged me in the chest with his bony hand.

“You deserve to be on TV, pal. Here’s my card. Give me a call. I could put you in touch with a few promoters!”

He handed me his card. It was a playing card from a Bicycle deck. I almost managed some attempt at a response, but as soon as he gave it to me he turned off and stormed out of the club, slamming the door behind him.

The slam echoed throughout the club, which was now completely quiet.

Everyone around me was dead, but the Joker thought I was hilarious and said I should be on TV.

It was the worst thing to happen to me in my life, but it was the best thing that happened to me that day.

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