Rundown Town #5
Lester tapped his feet in darkness backstage. His heart rate was climbing. Almost a full house, last time he checked.
One of the bartenders, the skinny one, emerged from the drapes. “Louis C.K just died,” said the bartender.
Lester could do nothing but absorb this heavy news in solemn silence. He went to say something, to ask what killed one of the greatest stand-up comics of his generation, but the answer was already well known.
“Thanks,” said Lester, awkwardly.
“That’s…four this month.”
“I saw C.K. back in April last year,” said the bartender, matter-of-factly.
Lester was too frazzled to do the math. “Was that before or after?”
Lester shrugged, a resigned shrug he had come to imitate from C.K.
The bartender looked at him, no emotion escaping his face. “Do you think you’ll end up killing yourself?”
Lester shrugged again. Pick any other universe and he’d either laugh or be repulsed. But because he couldn’t laugh anymore—just like every other unlucky son-of-a-bitch on the planet—there was only the slightest repulsion, and Lester didn’t want to waste his energy feigning offence.
“If you do,” said the bartender, “Please don’t do it on stage. I have a date after my shift and don’t want to clean up.”
“I’ll try not to.”
Before the ensuing silence drowned them, the MC for the night called out Lester’s name. He took a long breath and parted the curtains…
The crowd was formidable. More people than Lester thought lived in Rundown Town #5. Maybe some of them had heard C.K. had died and this had built their expectations, their hopes. Lester started with his run-of-the-mill general observations. All of them were dated before the laughter died, as Lester did his best to avoid the elephant in the room. As he went through his jokes, timing them his rehearsed best, Lester recognized that most of his jokes killed, and he could see they wanted to laugh, with every inch of their face…
One shining example: “I’m so good at photography, I make Picasso look like Picasso…”
A line like that back in the day before all this depressing mess would have brought the house down. Now it was just the sound of nothingness. Crickets behind contorted faces. Faces that wanted to explode, roar into life with laughter, but simply could not. There were tears out there in the crowd that night, Lester was sure of it, but this wasn’t the same. At one stage someone tried a fake laugh, but it was so obviously fake that Lester couldn’t help but stare them down until they went quiet for the rest of the evening, even though their only crime was trying to spark something within themselves to bring on the real thing (of which there had been reported incidences).
Either that, or they wanted to see a comedian break down and end it all.
In desperation, Lester decided to go all 21st century millennial to perhaps the one person under 25 in that bar. “I want my new year’s resolution on Facebook to be: NO MORE ATTENTION SEEKING STATUSES”.
Nothing. absolutely nothing.
The next day Lester woke with a heavy hangover. He shoved the rest of his life into his briefcase and headed off in his rundown brown station wagon out of Rundown Town#5 and onto Rundown Town#6.
Rundown Town #6 had a reported chuckler. A Dale Huming. What it was to be able to laugh; to feel the lightness of the universe crackling through your lungs. Lester bet that guy got laid. Either that or he had an exceptional fake, which was even sadder, thought Lester.
Driving along the flat highway, Lester wondered if Dale Huming would show up at his next gig to show off his laugh. Lester had a little gun, that barman wasn’t wrong—If he wanted to end this miserable existence at the close of his gig, he definitely could—the real question was whether he wanted to take Dale Huming down with him, if he were so inclined.
Lester stopped at a gas stop and filled up. The clerk looked at him funny. “Say, do I know you from somewhere?”
“I was on TV once,” Lester mumbled.
The clerk’s eyes narrowed in deeper thought. “What were you on?”
“One of those late night shows.”
The man clearly did not recognise him. “Just the once? What happened?” the man finally asked.
Lester shrugged and paid for his gas.
Lester’s fall from grace before the death of laughter had been as swift as his rise. The late night show he was referring to only had him on as a late replacement because a much-funnier megastar comedian was too off his tits to perform. Lester had done an OK set and received many congrats for it but once that dried up (and it did so very quickly) no one else came calling.
The day the laughter died wasn’t the end of the world. But it was the end of a world. People could survive without laughter, sure, but what kind of survival was that? And if you were a comedian, if your entire validation came from the howling of lips straight from the belly, what would you do in such a cruel and silent world?
Before he went on this last tour, someone had asked h
Louis CK was not the first and he sure wasn’t going to be the last.
Rundown Town #6
He made it to Rundown Town #6 as the sun was setting. After checking into his motel, he decided to stretch his legs and take a walk around town. Most shops were closed up, the shutters graffitied with the words ‘Hahahaha’ scrawled everywhere. This place was dead long before the laughter died. But as Lester turned a corner into the town square, he was arrested with the sight of a large old tent revival, beaming with the warmest amber light. It was filled with people and—LAUGHTER!—Bloody, hysterical goddamn laughter. The effects of a joke Lester just had to get in on! He was soon in full flight, running across the street to the crowd facing inward and laughing their heads off. The crowd all wore different rhythms of clothing, like mismatching clowns trying to look funny in the hopes they’d be funny.
But the closer he got, the more cautious he grew—they just kept laughing, unnaturally so, and Lester’s hoped were crushed. They were trying to laugh. More fakers.
Somewhere in the middle of this eerie bunch came the high-pitched screaming of a little girl. The others clowns all stopped their laughing. “I did it!! I think I did it!?” shouted the girl.
One of the laugh conductors on the raised platform at the centre of the tent called her over. The girl emerged and was hoisted up on stage by many hands. The laugh conductor gave her a microphone. Everyone went quiet and Lester watched on as all those eyes gleaned with manic anticipation.
The laugh conductor, wearing a large top hat, pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and read out a joke to the girl: “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
The crowd shrugged their shoulders. The girl, looking out into the crowd for support, imitated the same shrug.
“To get to the other side!” said the conductor, his hands outstretched in a ‘how-about-it’ motion.
The girl froze, the humor working up through her belly, frothing up to her mouth. But her face was straining, like she was choking on something. The crowd drew silent. The girl glanced out in desperation, the moment overwhelming her. Eventually she started shriek-laughing, clearly a fake, and the crowd dropped their heads in silent disappointment. The girl was practically pushed off stage. The conductor then pulled the microphone up to his mouth. “Looks like we’re going to take a short break here, folks. Hopefully we’ll get a breakthrough when we return.”
As the crowd began to talk amongst themselves, Lester decided to see if he could drum up some support for his show. He went up to a couple of guys a bit younger than him talking amongst themselves, but he found himself waiting awkwardly outside their circle for too long before he decided to try someone else. Walking along he then found an old timer, one of the few not dressed in funky attire, arms folded, staring at the empty stage.
Lester saddled up next to him and also crossed his arms. “Does this kind of thing happen often?” he asked.
“Almost every night.”
“Well, I give the girl a bit of credit, at least she didn’t bawl her eyes out like I would’ve done.”
The old timer nodded, “People just frustrated, is all.”
“The joke wasn’t that great either,” said Lester, “maybe if they heard some better jokes…”
“There’s a comedy show tonight at Wesslers.” the old timer suggested.
Lester went to say that sounds promising but the old timer continued, “If they don’t get a laugh there, I don’t know what they’ll do.”
Lester grew uneasy. “Many people coming to this show?”
The old timer looked at him with zero expression. “Most people here.”
Lester gulped. “What about that chuckler, Dale Huming? He coming too?”
The old timer tightened up at the name. “He’s not here anymore, left to chase fame in Hollywood. Left us all out to dry. Lotta folks angry ’bout that. Then again, lotta folks just plain angry…”
Lester remembered the girl being practically pushed off stage.
He was going to need a drink.
Lester burst into the bar where he would be doing his gig—and potentially his final few seconds of life—and was promptly greeted by Joe the bartender and Marla the sheriff.
“You going to kill yourself?” asked Marla.
“People keep asking me that. We may have lost the ability to laugh, but dammit we can still have manners!” Lester couldn’t believe he just asked someone to mind their manners. What twisted world had this become?
“I’m just saying, you need to alert the proper authorities if you’re going to pull a stunt like that. Last time it happened…”
“You’re saying this shit has happened before? Is that why you’re here?”
Marla nodded. “Don’t worry, I’ll back you up if anything happens. But I sure hope you’re funnier than the last one.”
“What happened to the last one?”
“Probably best not to know.”
Lester threw his hands up. “Oh, but you were so forthcoming before!” He then sighed. “Sorry. I’ll do my best.”
“Not sure why you even try,” said Marla, “if that’s the road most of you end up taking these days.”
Lester’s chest rose in faux defiance, before he shrivelled back to his beaten state. “I don’t have anything else. It’s all I know. And things will turn around—we’ll change back, maybe, hopefully.”
Marla put her hands up in surrender. “Ah, forget I said anything; didn’t mean anything by it. I’m just annoyed I’m working tonight.”
Lester said it was OK, and then he and Marla the Sheriff and Joe the bartender stood in awkward silence, absorbing the perplexities of this absurd new world.
“Do you have a gun?” asked Joe the bartender.
“Uh, I have one back at the motel,” said Lester. “Should I go and get it?”
“No, that’s fine,” said Marla, “I’ve got mine. It should hold off anyone who tries anything funny…speaking of, how about a teaser? Got any jokes?”
Lester was caught off guard. He scratched his balding head. “Uh, OK… You know with those bumper stickers how they say ‘baby on board’, and people put them there so other drivers will be more considerate, well what if instead you put ‘baby on board driving stick’? You’d get the highway all to yourself then. A real wide berth…”
He then waited for the space where laughter used to inhabit and subsequently invigorate and validate his existence.
Marla was emotionless when she responded. “That was hilarious. You’re going to be fine.”
She then walked away after telling Lester she’d be back for the show. Lester knew it was just his insecure imagination playing tricks on him but he swore he heard her radio in, “We’re going to need back up.”
There was a full house come show time; the whole place packed in—yet dead quiet—in what Lester could only describe as the most nerve-wracking silence of his stuttering career. From the corner of his eye, he spotted Marla, now sporting a Kevlar vest.
And then Lester looked at the front row and found, to his horror, sitting with his top hat (which was a bit of a dick move for the person behind him) the laugh conductor, an expectant face that spoke to Lester, I really hope this is good otherwise we’ll have to get the pitchforks out.
Sweat dripped down his forehead, where was the air-conditioning in this place? Lester chided.
And then he began. First it was a stutter on general observations: the differences between women and men, a meditation on why men leave the toilet seat up—general shit that would have killed if the people still had that indefinable quality of light burning from darkness, laughing in its face like a fish humoring an army of hooks.
Their faces contorted, yearning and squirming to feel what their mind knew was hilarious. The logic was there, but their bodies kept coming up frustratingly short.
Lester hit them with a punch line so well timed it was like a haymaker on a blind person—and then came a laugh! He couldn’t believe it! Everyone in the room turned and Lester shut up as the sound echoed freely as a fleeting moment of lightness. The culprit was a young man who had immediately stopped in the heavy silence, and as they all came to the same depressing conclusion: that his laugh was as fake as they came, the laugh conductor clicked his fingers and the people around the young man all stood and lifted him to his feet before dragging him away. Sheriff Marla chased them out but she was clearly outnumbered and once Marla had exited the bar, Lester felt himself the most alone creature in the universe.
The laugh conductor then signalled for Lester to continue.
“Uh…um, OK…” Lester mumbled, the mike shaking.
…Punch line. Nothing.
…Punch line. Naught.
…Punch line. Gunfire.
There was gunfire outside, three distinct shots, and everyone except the laugh conductor flinched. The laugh conductor simply rolled his hand at Lester, urging him to continue.
But what was Lester supposed to do? He’d thrown everything he had at this mob; every trick, every ridiculous thought that had popped into his head over a lifetime of teasing, insecurity, racism, sexism, ableism, communism, dirty, poor, stupid, sex.
Comedy was his life and laughter was the fuel, and now the tank was bone dry and the laugh conductor and the rest of the crowd rose to their feet when Lester had done nothing but stand there like an idiot wanting to piss himself.
The laugh conductor, wearing his top hat with pride, announced to the crowd, just before another spat of gunfire broke out, “My fellow citizens, we must commend the brave efforts of this poor, balding man. He has tried to make the joy leap from our mouths, and maybe it is not entirely his fault we were unable to do so—I really thought that bit on comparing the toilet seat with our current politicians was really quite poignant—and I’m sure most would agree with me…”
Many in the crowd nodded, to which Lester couldn’t help but feel flattered.
“But having said that, none of us were able to breakthrough, so we’ll need to cut out your tongue to ensure you don’t waste anyone else’s time.”
Many in the crowd nodded again, to which Lester couldn’t help but involuntarily drop his jaw in shock.
The laugh conductor pointed at Lester, “That pose is perfect, thank you for being such a good sport about it.” The crowd then started to climb the stage, and despite knowing now was the time to run, Lester was stuck frozen to his stage, everything in him seized up in fear.
Just as the first hand grabbed his arm, the side door to the club burst open and out appeared Marla, guns up, her face covered in what Lester could only assume was blood.
“Run!” she screamed, before firing at the people almost upon Lester. Everyone backed away and Lester came to life and did as he was told; he threw the mike at the laugh conductor, knocking off his top hat, then swung the mike stand awkwardly at his attackers before leaping off the side of the stage and hauling his chafing ass as fast as he could towards the front exit.
Marla’s gunshots rang loud in the distance behind him as Lester felt the wave of audience members-turned murderous townsfolk scrambling over the chairs and tables to get to him.
Seeing the main entrance blocked off by the bouncer, Lester panicked and went for the fire door, glass bottles hurtling past him and smashing against the wall he’d diverted to.
Busting out into the humid night and gasping for air, Lester had no choice but to keep running down the dark and empty main street, his footfalls soon joined by the footfalls of his scorned audience. As he panted away, the acid of poor body management burning his lungs, he spotted a young kid riding a bicycle parallel to him, cruising along without a care in the world. It was at this stage Lester glanced back at the gang of twenty gaining on him.
He wasn’t going to make it to the motel by foot. And then it would be bye bye tongue and bye bye Lester. So he pushed the kid off the bike and started riding for his life in what must’ve been more than a decade since the last time he’d graced a bicycle.
Once he hit the motel he flung himself off the bike and scrambled to his room. He dragged his bag out of the motel and was almost at the door of his car before he turned to find the senile motel manager pointing a shotgun at his chest.
“You tryna skip out on your bill?”
Lester dropped his bag. “What? No. I already paid upfront!”
Lester then glanced off to the crowd, some of them dressed like clowns out of a childhood nightmare. They had turned the corner and lined their sights on Lester. He had thirty seconds at best. He then looked back at the manager who had advanced further, the shotgun so close Lester could reach out and finger the barrel. The senile manager’s eyes narrowed. “You been stealing my towels again, Welsey?”
Seeing the man wasn’t in his right state, Lester took all the cash from his wallet, his last hundred, and threw it at the man.
“Keep the change!” he screamed and tumbled into his car, before realising he’d left his bag. He looked back at the advancing clowns, some waddling with their plank shoes and their assorted pitchforks and knew it was now or never. He put the pedal to the metal and swung the wagon out of the carpark, a clown’s tomahawk slicing through the air and striking his bonnet, as he bounced onto the street and burned rubber out of Rundown Town #6.
He had no cash. No extra clothes. And when he realised this was rock bottom, Lester pulled to the side of the road and cried his weak heart out.
Rundown Town #7
Here it was.
The Last show.
Lester sat in his car, cradling his little gun while making constant dives into his bottle of Jack. He didn’t have enough on his card for a motel and there would have maybe been just enough for one dinner if he hadn’t bought that bottle of Jack. He studied the gun, all its dangerous implications, and wondered if there was a bank in town that required an alleviation of its assets…
He kept sipping till the bottle was empty.
He tried to think back to where it all went wrong, well before the day the laughter had died. Had he made a lifelong mistake pursuing the laugh? A laugh that egged him on into making fart jokes in grade school—even with the threat of summer detention.
He’d found Peggy while making people laugh. So that was worth it. Then again, he’d also lost her chasing those laughs for measly bucks and a dream that didn’t transpire.
Lester wondered what his response was going to be when the barman inevitably asked him if he was going to kill himself on stage.
Fun times for the last time.
$100 for the gig before the tank was well and truly empty.
The barman did his duty of care by asking Lester the customary question and Lester smiled and said, “Sure thing, buddy!”
The barman had thought about objecting, but then shrugged, appreciating Lester’s honesty. It may have helped that he figured he’d be able to save the $100, minus the cleaning costs, of course.
Lester walked on stage with the mike in hand and gun tucked behind his waist. He gazed out and scanned the faces. The crowd was quiet, evenly dispersed, smoking to their hearts content. Some were smiling, so that was nice. There was no MC so he had to introduce himself.
“Uh, hi… I’m Lester Brooks and I’m originally from California and I guess I’m going to say some jokes tonight and I guess some of you are going to laugh and decide that life is worth living again.”
The number of smiles grew. But Lester wasn’t buoyed. “Having said that, I don’t care. I don’t care anymore. I have a gun. And if I can’t make you laugh, well then one us is going tonight…”
Their smiles stretched even further. Those sick fuckers.
“So how about this world we’re living in now? Can’t even get a laugh even when gas prices are hilarious, people look stupider than ever with their cosmetic appendages and our president built a wall that collapsed because it was made by America’s finest.”
The smiles died down, and Lester shrugged. “Ah, forget that. I got a question, maybe it’s a joke—the only one I’m going to say tonight—What died first? The inability to take a joke or the ability to laugh at one?”
The crowd did not want to be lectured. They just wanted to laugh, and for the first time, Lester knew in his heart what he’d been fighting against his whole life. He couldn’t do it, wasn’t good enough. And if he couldn’t help them, why not help himself?
“Ok. Ok,” he mumbled, recognizing their dissent. “Let’s wind back the clock then. Do you remember how hard it was to not laugh when you were told not to? Do you remember how you’d cover your mouth and rock backwards and forth—or you’d be biting your knuckles, trying to hold it all in? I remember. I remember the first time I laughed so hard I almost wet myself. It was sometime in middle school and my geography teacher, Mr Roswell, waltzed into class one afternoon a very happy man. Now, usually, he was a notorious hardass and we were a nasty bunch of kids, so seeing him smiling really caught us off guard. But then Jimmy Donahue, one of my classmates, real dumbass that he was, decided he was going to change Mr Roswell’s mood with a compass needle that he’d taped to a ruler…”
Being quite drunk, Lester then got a little side tracked, building up the stupidity of poor Jimmy Donahue, whilst laying some guesswork for his future prospects: “I mean I know stupid, but this kid really had no brain on him—probably still doesn’t—I think I saw him handing out flyers for a restaurant the other day—”
Someone groaned and Lester pointed profusely at them. “I’m sorry you never amounted to anything more than a sidewalk impediment, now shut the fuck up and let me finish!”
There were gasps at this stage, but Lester didn’t care. Lester was 12 years old again, soon to be acne riddled, skipping school to smoke, and about to find Mr Roswell in a very compromising position, thanks to little Jimmy Donahue, the class idiot.
“So anyways, when Mr Roswell walks past, Jimmy reaches out with his contraption and makes a surgical incision in Mr Roswell’s pants, leaving a small hole in his bottoms. Now half the class had seen this and though we all hated Jimmy Donahue, we appreciated the kid’s handiwork from time to time and this was to be one of those times…
“So Mr Roswell gets to the front of the class and turns to see us in some kind of conspiracy—half of us with our faces red and our mouths covered, trying real hard not to burst out in laughter. So he asks, ‘Is something funny?’ and everyone shakes their head, everyone except for little Jimmy Donahue, who nods away with this shit-eating smirk.
“‘Mr. Donahue, do you have something to say?’
“Jimmy says nothing and just keeps smiling, so Mr Roswell then starts eyeballing the rest of us trying not to burst out—my teeth are clenched so hard and my eyes are beginning to water—while he makes his way over to Jimmy. Mr Roswell kneels down beside Jimmy to put the fear of god into him and that’s when the hole in his pants splits wider… we all hear the tear and this time Mr Roswell notices and this time we laugh—the whole room erupts and we let it all out…”
The crowd had returned with their expectant smiles.
There was more, that wasn’t even the funniest part, not that Lester was able to explain this. The funniest part was when Lester got a good look at Jimmy’s handiwork before Mr Roswell covered it up and noticed that Mr Roswell’s underwear was the hottest kind of pink. When Lester shouted out this little fact, the rest of the class descended into madness and Mr Roswell sprinted out the door…
But as the rest of this story played out in Lester’s head, his words and his lungs struggled to follow suit as, unbeknownst to him, he too had been holding it in all this time, and by the time he realised what was about to happen, his body began to heave and ho as he erupted into a fit of laughter he hadn’t experienced in many years, even since before the global pandemic.
Lester was now bent over, his arms folded in to stop the pain in his sides as he howled away, breaking all eighteen months of silence in one manic moment.
The audience were not smiling anymore. This was not what they came to see. Here was a man with the potential to break them free from their dim, dull chains, and yet there he was, almost as if despite them, bursting with life’s most elusive elixir. How fucking dare he!
Lester was lost in this gleeful memory; there was no bar, no stage, no failed life—only the feeling that despite it all, the universe was still worth its weight in weird comedy gold. And because he cared not for anything other than the feeling of pure joy when he caught Mr Roswell’s look of absolute fear before bolting out that classroom door, Lester did not see the first bottle thrown and nor did he care when the inevitable second bottle felled him to his knees and the boos tried to drown his laughter.
And even when the third bottle came and cut open his balding head, Lester still kept laughing, for the world he had lost was found again.