The First Rule of Comedy by Adam Slavny

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When people ask Miri Zestler why she became a stand-up comedian, she tells them about Gill.

She met Gill one evening at the tail end of her Physics and Philosophy degree when he performed at the Oxford Student Union. She watched him bewail and thunder onstage, fascinated by this man who had travelled the length of the country to shout at a room full of drunk undergraduates. He had an honesty that made the sermonising of her peers seem pompous by comparison. She was used to conversations full of snipping and cutting, but when Gill made people laugh, they seemed to grow, to unfurl.

She caught up with him later at the bar. After hasty introductions amid much pulling and jostling and spilling of beer, they arranged a date. A brief and hard-hitting pub crawl then back to Gill’s hotel room where he played her endless clips of comedy greats, tracing a line from Lenny Bruce to Stewart Lee, ebullient in his haze of beer and weed. The sex afterwards was quick and decisive, and stood in such contrast to her only other sexual experience, an awkward, ponderous encounter just before university, that she decided to embrace it as new and exciting.

He was intense and misanthropic; she was full of young revelatory energy. They complimented each other, she felt. They would hate-watch daytime TV together, commentating and cracking jokes. Once, when he admitted a fondness for it, she replied, “Aha, you have hidden shallows!” and he rewarded her with a rare, end-of-the-rainbow laugh.

That inspired her to try stand-up herself, though when she first mentioned the idea, he was reluctant. Perhaps he saw her as an overreaching fan, desperate to participate, as if she could slip into this new life like putting on a gown for dinner at high table. “I know you straight-A lot are told you can do anything,” he said, “and that may be true if we’re talking about law or journalism or something, but comedy doesn’t work like that. You can’t study your way into it.”

She wanted to prove her dedication, that she harboured ambitions rather than daydreams. Only one thing for it: she plunged into the open mic circuit, inexperienced, gauche, dying onstage again and again but always coming back, an avatar trying to beat the first level of a video game. She delivered her first set to a wall of silence, her second to a row of polite but disappointed smiles, her third to some generous chuckling.

Gill came to see her tenth gig: one to nine she was a wannabe, by double figures she had his attention. She’d written a few reliable gags by then and her body language didn’t broadcast her nerves quite so loudly. When her set was over, he was waiting for her with an impish smile, some new resolution on his face.

“You have potential,” he said. “At the moment you’re kinda playing notes rather than music, but you have potential.”

#

Four years after graduation, Miri had a regular stint at the Hyena Club in Hoxton. The cramped little venue magnified everything. A chuckle became a guffaw, but then silence intensified. Chairs crammed together, doors obscured, bouncer AWOL, the Hyena Club was a back-alley fuck-you to health and safety that Miri grew to love and hate.

She had the late slot on Friday nights, frequented by the open-collared rabble who descended from the City, ready to screw themselves down into drunkenness. She would step onto the stage and peer into the brilliant lights, a blend of familiar smells in the air: flat beer, male armpits, the memory of cigarette smoke clinging like trauma.

Miri breathed it in.

“I haven’t been well lately,” she said one Friday, her chummy tone defusing the tension that rose like heat from the audience. “I, er, I was diagnosed with white privilege.” A ripple of laughter, a chug of momentum, not bad for an opening line. “I thought I was immune cos I’m Jewish, but it turns out…” A second ripple buffeted the first. Joke works better unfinished, Miri decided. Let it fall off the edge of the sentence.

“And I thought I was getting better, but then it led to a complication.” Pause. “White fragility.” Her overblown sincerity buoyed the ripples into a wave. “And the worst thing is, it feels like no one understands.” The wave broke and laughter flooded the stage.

Her set continued in its usual rhythm. The English queueing bit felt more perfunctory every day, but a self-deprecating joke about Jewish insularity rocked the room so much she forgot her unease at having wrote it. The same reaction, too, for a routine about crowds: “There are two types of people in a crowd, people who think you’re in their way”–Miri mimed a swaggering shoulder barge–“and people who think they’re in your way”–Miri mimed a coy, over-courteous standoff. Patrons rocked back on chairs; knowing eye-contact short-circuited through the room.

One man was still laughing when she signed off, his silhouetted head bobbing up and down. If only she could split that laugh open and sift through it, slip it under a microscope, ensnare it with algebra. She left the stage in an ecstasy of analysis.

Gill was sitting at the bar, scratching labels off beer bottles. Miri gave him a kiss that could have sucked him right into her.

“Nice set,” he acknowledged. “The white guilt material kills in Hoxton.”

The club’s owner, Noel, appeared from the mangy shadows behind the bar. He had the bleak face of an actor treading water, topped by a black felt trilby that seemed to sweat. He laughed and added, “I’m surprised you haven’t brought a research assistant with you.”

By Noel’s expression she knew Gill had told him his favourite titbit about her, that she’d written a thesis on the philosophy of humour at Oxford. “‘The philosophy of humour’ is an oxymoron,” Gill will have said with a flourish. He will have described how she is wont to expound on Kant and Kierkegaard and the Incongruity Theory, as if it’s all an embarrassing story about how she once pissed in the corner of a bus.

“Can’t afford a research assistant with what you pay,” she told Noel.

He made a tssss noise that sounded to Miri like the hiss of air coming out of tyres.

“So, notes?” she asked.

“The stuff about crowds is meh,” Gill said. “It’s like toilet humour but less edgy.”

Miri was about to take a stand for observational comedy when a prickling in her gut told her to change the subject. She noticed Gill’s phone spinning like a slot reel in his hand and said, “You seem troubled. I mean more then your default level of brooding. What’s happened?”

The phone stopped spinning. “Banned from Twitter,” he said.

“For the trans joke?”

He studied her face for hints of disapproval, for licence to dredge up that argument, to dust it off and try it on like an old jacket.

“Bullshit if you ask me,” Noel offered, fearless as a ringside punter.

Miri fixed Gill with a defiant look, fuelled by her post-gig high. “You never should have told that joke.”

He shot back: “Lenny Bruce was arrested on stage. Did he censor himself? No. You think Bill Hicks would have been a genius if he sanitised his set just to appear on Letterman? Comedy is about pushing boundaries, Miri.”

“Uh-huh. In what direction?”

Oooo,” Noel crooned.

Gill gesticulated, as if to a tangible truth sitting atop the bar. “You start thinking that way, trying to make everything perfectly balanced and right on, trying to impose some bean-counting view on what you can say….” He continued in the same vein. Noel nodded obligingly; Miri remained stone-faced. The rant soon lost steam and faded into outraged silence.

Miri pulled out her notebook to jot down some thoughts on her set. Gill eyed her keenly, brow furrowed with unspent energy. “More data to take back to the lab?” he asked.

She gave a neutral nod.

“No one told you the first rule of comedy?”

“Er, that humour is incongruity?”

“No. That if you analyse the joke, you kill it.”

#

            The TV studio was a place of contrasts. Behind the cameras were dark, cluttered spaces where the audience chattered, where apparatus and tangles of wire were stored. The staging area, on the other hand, had a sense of disinfected brightness, constructed with bold, blocky colours, the chairs for presenter and guests laid out in pleasing symmetry.

Miri was guided to her seat by runners who looked rather plain next to her exuberant television makeup. The presenter introduced himself briefly and made a comment about the stand-up circuit and the difficulty of emerging from the cesspool. Miri tried to summon something intelligent, or vaguely interesting, but instead marvelled at the sight of a famous face viewed from so many new angles.

Her invitation to appear on the show had come through only last night, a replacement of a replacement of a replacement. No matter. It was her first TV appearance and an (almost) primetime gig at that, one of those comedy panel shows where guests quip and satirise their way through the week’s events.

Her notebook was nestled in her lap. In it the material she’d spent hours prepping in front of the mirror, writing and rewriting as her audience frowned discerningly back at her. As she waited for filming to begin, she inwardly listed all the people who had appeared on the show and progressed to stadium tours, declining to think of the much greater number of has-beens and who-were-they-agains who fell back down into the ruckus of the stand-up circuit.

Another guest sat next to her, gave her a clipped smile. She recognised him from his DVD cover. He drummed the counter in front of him, which shook and rattled, making the set suddenly seem fragile, hollow.

Miri quaked slightly.

The cameras started rolling before she was ready, before she could emerge from the funk of her thoughts and become the inimitable Miri Zestler. A clip from the news was shown on a big screen and the guests were invited to comment. All the other comedians piled in and the first salvos flew. It was familiar stuff: satire about blundering politicians and venal corporate types. Miri had material on this, having marinated for weeks in broadsheet op-eds and tabloid gossip. So why wasn’t she saying anything? And why was she now grinning dumbly, gripped by a sudden fear of appearing po-faced or un-game?

The second salvos flew. Two male comedians locked horns in an argument about a conservative politician’s latest sex scandal. One eviscerated the politician, the other accused the first of being a liberal metropolitan elite. The audience wailed and clapped. As the exchange went on, Miri started to feel more like a civilian caught in a warzone, cowering, ducking the shots.

She’d left it too long. Her first joke came with too much pressure, a line about the politician’s etiolated looks. It suddenly seemed a cheap shot–how did it get through her quality control? The joke didn’t so much bomb as fizzle out, which was the worst possible outcome. She could have worked with failure, established a mock contretemps with the audience. Mediocrity just killed the mood.

Amid her inner panic, fragments of her university thesis returned to her: The Incongruity Theory states that humour is the violation of expectations and patterns, the juxtaposition of two incongruous elements. Looking around at all the grinning machismo in the room, she certainly felt incongruous, so why wasn’t she funny?

Ha ha, she thought bitterly.

Slowly, she withdrew from the repartee, from the dynamic of the group that spirited on without her. The other comedians filled the gap she left like water rushing into a ditch.

#

After the filming she hung around for a while, went to the pub with some of the other guests, made conversation, tried to salvage the evening with some last-ditch networking. But she felt her embarrassment was written all over her face, plain as a cue card. One and a half G&Ts into an evening that was only just gearing up, she made her excuses and left.

As she sat on the train on her way to Gill’s place, she imagined she was trapped under a kind of massless weight, lacking any contours or substance. She remembered enough of her physics to know such a weight was impossible, but the thought did not budge from her mind. She texted Gill before arriving–disaster, couldn’t join in the shouting match–so she didn’t have to see his first reaction. Give him time to prepare himself, to prepare the response she needed from him tonight.

He opened the door, took her into his arms. She buried her face in him. He smelt of unwashed fabric, long-set stains. His flat hadn’t changed in the smallest detail since the last time she was there, like a carefully preserved crime scene. She recognised the crumpled geometry of a jacket lying on the floor; it must have been there for weeks.

Gill did all the right things, though. He made her tea, hounded his sullen-looking flatmate away to give them some privacy, waited for her to talk first. She related what had happened, omitting to mention the crushing feeling she experienced on the way to his place.

She could sense him crackling beneath the surface, fidgeting, restless. Eventually she said, “Go on then, say what you need to say.”

He let out a breath, half-laughing. “These panel shows are ruining comedy,” he said. “You’re well rid of them in my opinion.”

The thought could have comforted her, perhaps, if it had been softened and shaped to break her fall. Instead it emerged more like an attack. “They are sucking the originality out of comedy. A constant parade of cookie-cutter comedians, all completely interchangeable, who think they’ve worked out some formula for comedy. Setup, punchline, laughter. Predictable. Utterly predictable. They’re all hacks, Miri. The stage is the only place where anything original happens nowadays.”

There was that massless weight again. She closed her eyes. Memories of her life since leaving university flashed through her mind. The years of couch-surfing and free-riding. The banter that seemed to matter. The late-night sparring with Gill. The grind of the circuit. The hangovers. The empty, sleepy afternoons. Gill’s voice, fervent, irrefutable, bouncing off the walls of his tiny London flat.

#

            “You ever hear of these chocolate-covered ants? They’re the future, apparently, we’ll all be eating insects soon. My friend offered me one of these things and I refused to eat it. ‘It’s perfectly edible,’ he said, ‘it’s just a psychological barrier.’ Here’s the thing: a psychological barrier is still a barrier.”

A brief chuckle near the front, catalysed by the expression of incredulity that she held in place as unnervingly as a gymnast. “Why would I climb over a barrier to get to my food?” Does this work? She paused, pricked by doubt. The laughter ringing throughout the Hyena Club was not enough to save her. From what? From her own half-baked material? Or from the hyenas, lurking in the dark?

Overthought, formulaic crap. Gill had directed that vitriol at the panel-show guests, at a comedic archetype that in his mind grew ever staler and more fatuous. They’d had a blazing argument earlier, just before her Friday set began, sparked when Miri received an unexpected call: an invitation for another TV appearance on a late-night game show.

“We enjoyed your recent performance,” a producer had said. No doubt a pro forma extended to all invitees, but amazing how that nicety had reshuffled her memory of her TV debut like a deck of cards. Suddenly she recalled lines that weren’t half bad–how had she forgotten those?

Her mind was wandering. She called it back to the room, back to the airless confines of the Hyena Club. She felt the argument with Gill loosen a little, his voice slipping back. She threw herself into the rest of her material with brio, each joke following in the slipstream of the last. By the time she signed off with, “I’m Miri Zestler, thankyouverymuch!” the hammer of applause rattled the wobbly tables and half-full glasses.

Gill was sitting on his usual barstool. She saw him and Noel exchange glances, Gill’s lips curl into a smile. They watched her approach, waiting. She found herself walking past them, opening the door into the alley behind the Chinese restaurant. She strode out into the smell of smoke and old food, the pavement slung with spit and cigarette butts, the grumble of traffic in the distance, the strangely liberating embrace of the city’s other poisons.

No visit to Gill tonight, she decided, no deepening the mysteries of his elusive art. Tonight she would perform her own deconstruction using all the tools at her disposal, notebook and all. She didn’t want to hear him expatiate on the joke, that vaulted, mythical thing. Because after all this time following him in search of it, she was beginning to feel that the joke was on her.

And the first rule of comedy is, if you analyse the joke, you kill it.

glasses

Adam Slavny

Adam Slavny is an Associate Professor at the University of Warwick and his first academic book is forthcoming with Oxford University Press. His first stories are published or forthcoming in Litbreak, The Welkin, Aggregate, Silver Blade, Whigmaleeries and Wives’ Tales, and Utopia Science Fiction.

Story Links:

London Burning, Litbreak Magazine

https://litbreak.com/london-burning/

The Mother of All Possibilities, Silver Blade Magazine

https://www.silverblade.net/2020/10/the-mother-of-all-possibilities/

Image by Pierre Rosa from Pixabay

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