Michael Ehart has been writing for over 30 years. His first national publication was at age 14. Since then he has been published over 300 times, in newspapers, magazines, and e-zines. He is married to one of the most beautiful women in the world, and would offer "pistols for two, coffee for one" to anyone who disagrees, but pesky laws get in the way, and so offers instead to naysayers a referral to a good optometrist.
The language of comedy is anything but funny. In fact, it is quite grim. Think about it. You tell gags. They end with a punch line. If you do well, you killed them. If you stink, you died. And in a fine piece of unilateral escalation, if you really stink, you bombed. A really good joke slays them. A great one knocks them in the aisles.
There's more, but I think you have the idea. Besides, I am by nature a sunny kind of guy. All this talk of violence and mayhem in regards to the gentle art of comedy gives me heartburn. Even more so, since tonight I had experienced the Mother of All Bombs. A real carpet-bombing. A genuine scorched earth, leave no blade of grass standing kind of bomb.
If comedy is an interactive art, and it is, then tonight's audience and I had conspired to produce an evening of extreme discomfort. They didn't literally sit on their hands, but I think that was only because they were busy using them to cover their ears. The long silences between each gag and the next, which optimally would have been filled with laughter, were instead punctuated by the creak of people shifting in their chairs, the whisper of shuffling feet, and occasional coughs, politely muffled.
However difficult the evening was for them, it was multiplied by 6000 for me, that being the number of paid customers the New Quebec Civic Theatre seats. The only mercy was that the lights prevented me from seeing the fishlike stares and the open mouths of that many people not laughing their heads off. See, there's another one of those violent images: people laughing so hard that their noggins decapitate, tumble off their shoulders, and roll down the rake of the house, coming to rest in an untidy heap at the front of the stage.
This was my 123rd time playing the New Quebec, the 90th or so in this building. The first three buildings had lasted a few centuries each, but this one was built of the same null-entropy material as my little ship. Millenia from now, when Sobel Prime had gone nova, and blown the planet to dust, the New Quebec Civic Theatre would still be there, tumbling through space, indestructible, plastered with "coming soon" posters. Though perhaps this time I had flamed out so badly that they would just shut it down for good, seal up the doors, and let it stand as a mute testimony to just how badly a show can go. I hoped not, though. It was my only remaining gig.
There was once a golden age, in the days before interstellar travel, before electronic media. Before performances could be recorded, between the days of street-corner traveling shows and television. A comic could refine his act over the course of years, playing from one house to another, a different town each week, until he had a set that was bulletproof. Because he never performed to more than a few hundred folks each night, he would never run out of a fresh audience. And it is axiomatic in comedy that a new joke is just one that your current audience hasn't heard.
Then, for a while, comedy became a team sport. Because the insatiable maw of radio, then television and then televirt used up routines like a thirsty drunk uses shot glasses. Since broadcast audiences numbered in the millions, then billions, a new joke didn't stay new for very long. The actual performer became a sort of point man, with a whole crew of writers scrambling before the next 'cast to provide good, fresh-seeming material.
What saved comedy as a solo art form was the invention of interstellar drives, and the resulting Diaspora. Suddenly, civilizations were isolated again. Instead of nanoseconds, entertainment crossed the void in weeks, sometimes even months.
It was a wonderful life, working the great cruise ships. Once again, a good comic could work his entire career with only the material he had written himself. A couple of weeks playing the ship's lounges, then a few days booked into whatever venues were available on each planet, then on to the next. Every audience was a new one.
This lasted for centuries, maybe even would have lasted forever, except that some propeller head decided that there might be a better way, and invented a zero spatial-point platform that linked two places, no matter how far apart, next to each other in time/space. Instead of weeks apart, planets were now right next door. As fast as the new technology could spread via the cruise ships, it replaced them. Soon, instead of thousands, there were only a few hundred, then dozens, and then finally just one. Its last stop was here, on the only inhabited planet in Sobel Prime. Its last lounge act was me.
I had plenty of time to plan, on that last tour. The few remaining inhabited planets without platforms were very far apart. There was time to save enough to buy a lifeboat from the Vagabond, that final cruise ship, and outfit it to my liking.
It only took a few weeks to make the business arrangements, perhaps the first ever in perpetuity contract between a performer and an agent. Then a gala night at the (then literally) New Quebec Civic Theatre, followed by lift off in my little ship. A couple of hours getting to near-light speed, an overnight trip to 35 light years out, turn around, and back again. Total elapsed time for me: 3 days. Total elapsed time between gigs: 73 years.
Out and back. Three days off, one night of work. A new, now hereditary agent every other trip or so. Seventy plus years was plenty for a generation to have forgotten my material. After a while, I became an institution, then a cultural cornerstone. Geezers took their grandchildren to see the act that had entertained them as children. And those children, in turn geezerfied by the 73-year turn-around between shows, brought their grandchildren. 123 times out, 123 times back, 123 one-night stands. The longest running one night act in show business history.
However, audiences change, as any performer can tell you. Over a span of 8000 plus years, they can change a lot. The last few crowds had been quieter than usual, which didn't disturb me all that much at first. There had been up and down cycles before. And some nights were just plain bad, like the night my performance was interrupted by half the audience rising up and beating the pee out of the other half. Some sort of cultural disagreement. Good luck collecting the gate on a night like that! However, this time was a complete loss. Not one laugh. Not even an embarrassed chuckle. Just silence.
I sat in my dressing room after, covered in the flop sweat that you can only achieve by hanging yourself out to dry for 90 minutes in front of a dead house of 6000 people. I undid my tie, and flung it at my bag. My dripping shirt clung to my back. It made a nasty sucking sound as I peeled it away. Perfect soundtrack for my mood.
It was over then. Every run comes to an end, even the best ones. And this one had been epic. After tonight, I would never work in this town again. Hell, I felt lucky that they hadn't risen up with torches and pitchforks. What would I do? The only thing I knew how to do was comedy. For all my skill in long-range planning, I had never looked past the day when I could no longer work.
A light tap at my door interrupted my litany of gloom.
"It's open," I said, not really caring who it was. The only person I knew was my agent, the 95th in a line that stretched back millennia. Couldn't have been much of a high status job, 15% of one client who worked only one night every lifetime or so. She had met me this morning at the spaceport, the only arrival there in that decade. No need to hold up a sign.
It was she. I couldn't remember if partial nudity was taboo this time, so I made a half-hearted grab at my shirt, then gave it up when she didn't react to my naked, sweaty torso. I could tell by her hesitancy that she was nervous about talking to me. I would be too. Firing an act has to be almost as tough as being the act that is fired.
She fidgeted for a few moments, saying nothing, fingering the old-fashioned data-sphere that had held my contract for the last couple of thousand years. Finally, I could stand the silence no longer.
"Let's get this over with." I grunted. "T'were done, were best done quickly."
She blinked twice, accessing the 'cast feed. "Ah yes, Shakespeare, William. English playwright. A near contemporary of yours, I see."
I was too depressed to correct her. I guess from her point of view, he was.
I must talk to you about your performance," she began.
"Yah, I thought so. Go ahead, I'm ready."
"It was very different than I expected, than anyone expected. From the recordings, we thought, well a recording no matter how good, never really captures the true essence of something, don't you think? And the changes, so small between your last time here and this, but noticeable, still."
I nodded, unable to speak, knowing what was coming.
"There is much to be said for tradition, of course. For the very longest time, we have preserved this place only because you were returning, and we did not wish for you to be uncomfortable in new surroundings. However, it has been decided that this is no longer the optimal course for us to take. This theatre must be closed. We will recycle the stasis panels, and use them for a new construction, one that better fills the needs of our society."
This was brutal. Not only was my performance so bad that I was being fired, I had stunk up the place so badly that there was no choice but to bulldoze the theatre. Another first, in a long line of firsts.
"Therefore, we must speak of your... contract, yes?"
"Yah." I was starting to feel sorry for her. Nothing in her life could have prepared her for this. "Look, you'll get no trouble from me, kid. I've been doing this for a long time. I know how it goes. You want to give me my release, well, go ahead. That arrangement was made so long ago, I doubt any court would enforce it anyway. As far as a union beef is concerned, so far as I know, I am all there is left of the union, IGVA local number 1. President, treasurer and sole voting member."
She looked thoroughly confused. "Eegfah?"
"Interstellar Guild of Variety Artists. A professional organization.... never mind. Go ahead, kid."
"Here it is," she began, scrolling the contract out across my dressing table. My make-up brushes and powder jar were faintly visible through the projection. "As you know, it was originally set for this venue, in perpetuity, for one performance, as sole performer, every 73.127 years, based on the old solar standard calendar."
I grunted acknowledgement, and reached over to my bag for the flask that I had carried for most of my career. It was reputed to have once belonged to the great Bob Saget, a comedy legend from nearly 200 years before my time, and still bore his initials etched into the silver, next to his legendary crest of a snorting male bovine: B. S.
Sometimes, there is nothing to do but to take a drink. This was clearly one of those times. The old, old bourbon went down smooth. It was certainly the oldest, and most likely, the only bourbon left in the universe.
"We find ourselves in an awkward position. We have wished for some time to make a change in this facility. The only thing that prevents us is your contract. There has been much debate in recent years on how to handle this. Many traditionalists felt that it was important for us to allow you to continue here. Others, less constrained by the strictures of the past, felt that it was time to move on. However, your performance tonight has made it abundantly clear and even the most hidebound now agree. This venue has come to the end of its useful life."
"Yah, yah. I get it. It's old, I'm old. My act is old. Where do you want me to sign? Let's get this over with, shall we? I have a date with the rest of the last bottle of bourbon I will ever drink."
She seemed taken aback. "My, I never imagined that you would be so easy to work with." She indicated several points on the projection for me to thumbprint. "Please print here, and here, and also, you may want to look at the extra day at the university here. We were fairly certain that you would agree to the larger hall, especially with it being named after you, and 20,000 people per show means that we will only need two shows per turn-around to handle the academic demand, though competition will still be fierce, as I am sure you can imagine..." she trailed off, clearly confused by my expression.
"What in the system are you talking about? Extra nights? A bigger hall? Are you nuts? I just did the worst 90 minutes of my career out there, the longest 90 minutes of my life. And nobody laughed!"
Now she was totally at a loss. "Why...why...why," she stammered. "Why, of course nobody laughed! Why ever would they do that? Your performance was brilliant. I have never seen, never even imagined such a perfect rendition of the ancient art. Of course, I could not. Who else but you, the originator, could have performed it so well? Six thousand of the greatest scholars and critics of our time, here for the once in a lifetime appearance, all of them stunned by the technique, the power, the dignity and gravitas of the ritual. Why, they will be arguing about it for decades. Entire careers will be made and broken comparing this performance to performances of the past. Re-enactors will drill and drill and drill, trying to capture the fine nuances of each turn, each pause, each word. I don't understand. Explain to me, after tonight, why would anyone laugh?"
I sat there, stunned, for long moments. There was a buzzing in my ears. I needed a drink even more than before. My head hurt, my feet hurt, and for the first time in my career as a professional smart-aleck, I had absolutely nothing to say.
Slowly, carefully, I pressed my thumb into the projection in the places she had indicated. Two nights per turn-around, plus university lecture, for around 15 times the compensation plus bonus. I had been extended.
So here I go, into the next phase of my career. The universe's oldest and last stand-up comedian, working the same one night-stand that I have worked for 8,976 years, and counting. The longest run in show business history. No longer an evening's entertainment, or a good bet for a safe first date. Not even a quick jolt of nostalgia, served up with a few laughs.
Nope. I am now a bona fide subject of serious scholarship, something to put generations of college freshman to sleep, generating volume after dusty volume of impenetrable footnoted scholarly tomes. I have gone entirely past boring an audience. Now I edify them.
Hey, it's a living.
copyright © 2005, Michael Ehart