More Like Deadberg
A struggling comic gets paranormal help
“Ladies and gentlemen, the very funny Paul Yancy!” the announcer thundered as the kid stepped onto the beer-varnished stage. He was fat, dark-haired, and starting to sweat. It was 12:35, Tuesday night.
“Thank you, thanks,” he mumbled, taking the mic. From his back pocket he retrieved a black, battered Moleskine, and opened it to a blank page.
“So before I came here tonight, my car got broken into,” he said. Suddenly, words began to appear on the page, as if an invisible hand were scribbling them in black chicken scratch.
Either that, or somebody out there just really hates car windows.
Paul recited the line and got a halfhearted chuckle.
New York City, beware! A maniac has declared war on ‘98 Corollas. And he will not stop until every last one has fallen.
A hearty laugh swept the audience at that one. Paul continued as the words kept appearing, then fading from the page as quickly as the laughter died.
He is the Son of Sam of Safety Glass. Or perhaps the mafia is in cahoots with the autobody shops. “We’re gonna break you a window you can’t replace.”
The crowd was good and boozed up, as the two-drink minimum had clearly been outpaced earlier. Paul did three more bits about cars, hot air balloons, and why New Mexico was called that. When the light came on in the back, he thanked the crowd again.
Not bad. flashed in the notebook. Paul sighed with relief, snapped it shut, and stepped off into the tiny, dusty bar. “Thanks, Mitch,” he muttered.
He wound his way to the front of house where Bob, the manager, was watching the next guy bomb.
“Good set, kid,” she said on his approach. Her eyes stuck to the stage.
“Thanks,” he replied quietly.
He havered for a moment. “Can I-”
“Right, right,” she snapped. She stuck a thick hand in her leather jacket and fished out a wad of bills. She counted out three fives, folded them, and slid them over.
“Roberta, Bob, I mean...can I get a better spot, or something? I’m killing each one you give me,” he bluffed. “And I need more than my current rate. Like, why does Lloyd make the same as me?” he asked. “I’m better. I’ve gotta pay rent, and that car story, it’s true! My window’s busted, I-”
“Shhh!” she spat, and let the stillborn air of a bad set hang between them for a moment.
“Kid, how long have you been at this?” she eventually asked, still watching the stage.
“Six months,” he said.
“Right. You know what that is?” she turned to him. “That’s no-thi-ing. You’re a fetus. A funny fetus, but still. You see him?” She said, addressing the trainwreck on stage.
“Twelve years, he’s been doing this.”
“Yeah. He hasn’t written anything in years. I’ve heard this one a billion times. He keeps hoping he’ll get a break, but even if that happens, what? He’s just gonna start writing gold?”
Paul’s brow furrowed and his shoulders drooped. He felt a strange combination of pity and disdain.
“But you?” she continued. “You write more than anyone. I’ve never seen you repeat a bit. For God’s sake, you can’t even drink yet. Actually, that’s probably why you’re doing alright.”
“You got me,” he laughed nervously.
“I hate to say ‘look, kid’, but look, kid,” he had her full attention now. “You’re young, and you’re alright. You’ll get better. Stop sticking your hand out. Earn your time, earn your rate.”
Paul didn’t know what to say, except for a sheepish “yeright”, and slouched toward the stairs.
Bob sighed. “Paul,” she called.
“Comedy SlamJam. The Improv. Saturday, all day. Grand prize is fifty G’s, second’s thirty. A slot opened up. I’ll put you in.”
Paul nodded on his way out.
His car was parked far away. The window was broken, the radio stolen. When he tried to start it, it stayed dead. Battery, alternator-- whatever it was, it’d be more expensive to fix than the car was worth. Paul sighed, took the registration, pried the plates off, and left the car at the city’s mercy. He caught the last train to Chinatown.
At daybreak, construction noise shattered his sleep. A final eviction warning had been slid under his door. Seven days to pay three months back rent.
Paul shoved himself into a hoodie and left. Feeling particularly fat and broke, he skipped breakfast and went to the park to write.
“Alright, Mitch,” he said, clearing a bench. He opened the notebook and set it on his thigh. “It’s sink or swim now.”
Why are those the only two options. How about tub and float.
“Hilarious,” Paul deadpanned. “I’m serious. I’ve gotta win SlamJam. I can’t even drive back to Wilmington if I lose. We’ve gotta work.”
But you haven’t paid me yet.
“How would I even do that? Come on, man. I’m not funny enough to win on my own. I’m begging you.”
For a comedian, you have a very underdeveloped sense of when somebody is joking.
“It- it’s hard to tell through text!” Paul yelped. Joggers slowed to stare.
Hey man, I wanna help. I’m grateful you found me on that bootleg script table. And yes, this ‘You bring me setups, I give you punchlines’ thing we have is fun. I do not know why my consciousness is confined to my notebook. Yet here I am, for quite possibly all eternity. Point remains, you gotta write your own bits. If I go through the wash in a jeans pocket, you are screwed.
“Okay, that’s fair,” Paul admitted. “How do I start?”
It’s your stupid life, man! Work with it. Come back when you’ve got an hour.
Paul slumped. An hour of material? He couldn’t even fill five minutes without supernatural help from a professional. He got up to buy a notebook unhaunted by a dead Minnesotan comic.
All week long, he worked. He tried every subject, every angle. Useless. His childhood was happy, he abused no substances, and the world seemed mostly fine. At least he couldn’t talk to girls. A few times he tried Mitch, but no response.
Friday night, Paul recited his new stuff in the mirror, timing himself. Twenty-eight minutes. Nowhere close. He hung his head and packed his one bag.
Construction woke him up again. Paul buttoned his single billowy dress shirt like he was going to his own funeral. He stuck his notebook in it and hopped a train uptown. Paul left Mitch back at the apartment. He didn’t need to see this.
Paul had always wanted to be a featured act. He was on a list. An off-duty bodybuilder handed him a lanyard and waved him through. He just couldn’t enjoy it. He asked directions to the bathroom, where he puked up schmear. He then sat, silently, in the greenroom where everyone else was riffing.
There were nearly forty other comics, most of whom he’d heard of, including Adam Behringer. Adam was a club fixture, and had written for a few primetime roasts. Everyone knew SNL was fishing for him. He also looked like a young, more-Jewish Paul Newman.
A stage tech with a headset and ponytail manned the door, calling somebody every five minutes. Everyone got a tight five for the first round. The judges then decided if they advanced to the next and final round.
Paul was summoned early. He checked himself in the mirror-- he looked terrible. Ponytail cursed at him and Paul scrambled out.
“Thank you, thank you...” Paul mumbled as he gripped the mic. The house was packed.
His mouth went dry. He’d forgotten everything he’d written since Tuesday.
“So...my car was just broken into...”
He limped through his last set with Mitch. He didn’t bomb, exactly, but he certainly didn’t kill. He was over, he knew it. When the back light came on, he raised his hand.
“Thanks everybody! I’m Paul and I’m a hack. Hedberg writes my shit. G’night!”
He floated off into the wings towards the exit. Pure confessional relief. “I really tried,” he thought. “I’m proud of that, I guess.”
“Yancy,” called a gruff voice. It belonged to a different stage tech with a sweeter ponytail.
“Greenroom. You’re going through,” he said, tapping his headset.
Paul was stunned. He made his way back to the oily couch, feeling like a sleepwalker.
“Paul, right?” Adam Behringer asked as Paul took a beer from the minifridge. “That’s funny dude, ‘Hedberg writes your act’.”
“Thanks, man. Rivers too, when I’m not keeping her busy.”
Adam threw his head back and laughed. Paul offered him the beer and took out another. The two clinked and swilled.
“So, you going to SNL?” Paul loudly asked, then winced.
“Nah. Everybody’s dream is SNL, but honestly it’s not for me. LA’s better than New York now, anyway.”
Round 2. The competition thinned to just Paul, Adam, and six others. Three were called and came back before Paul heard his name.
Stepping to the mic, he remembered the new moleskine. He couldn’t read his own handwriting. Something about being broke? He hadn’t said anything for thirty seconds. The judges stared in confusion.
“I’m sorry. Terrible anxiety,” he said. “I’ll only use it to draw you on the subway,” he joked, waving the notebook before putting it away. A slight laugh.
“I like the subway. It humbles people. Unites us. You know I saw Jake Gyllenhaal on the subway once? I thought only ugly people took it. And acrobats with boomboxes.” That worked. He’d never written this down, or even thought of it before. He walked around a bit, starting to own the stage.
“That’s what’s great about New York, the sheer diversity of people wearing the exact same expression. At any point you could hit a supermodel, a death camp survivor, and the inventor of Dippin’ Dots. And they’re all always vaguely pissed off!” The laughter swelled between each line.
“I’m from Delaware. We got nobody. I’m the only person you’ve ever seen from that garbage state, and I could be lying.”
He was locked in, feeling the crowd’s energy and able to play their anticipations as if he were a conductor weaving notes and rests. He did a solid ten minutes more before the backlight came up.
“One last thing,” he panted as he replaced the mic in the stand. “You don’t know who your real friends are. They might be older, or even dead. They might think you’re a loser. That’s good.”
The crowd sat on its inhale.
“Because real friends will help you, especially when they don’t.” He blinked.
“Wait, that’s insane. Nevermind! I’m Paul Yancy, goodnight!” He waved and turned his back on the roar. He returned to the green room, glowing. He’d killed.
Everyone was brought out after the last girl finished. The decision wasn’t surprising: Behringer got a standing O for his set. He’d get fifty grand and some choice TV credits. The runner-up was Paul.
Backstage, Paul and Adam basked in their respective murders. A few executive-types came up bearing congratulations, introductions, and checks. Adam stuck his winnings under his arm and Juuled while Paul tore open the envelope.
“I’m sorry, sir? Wasn’t the runner-up prize thirty? This is for twenty.”
“Taxes,” the suit said plainly as he turned away. “Best of luck, gentlemen!”
I like LA because it’s always warm. You forget what cold’s like. You are not humbled by nature. And when you go back to somewhere cold, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah! I traded up!’
“Solid,” Paul replied to the open notebook as he typed jokes. He’d used the money to pay his old landlord, then moved out to Hollywood to room with Adam. He bought a laptop, used car, and a gym membership with the rest. “Wait, do you even feel temperature anymore?”
Sorta. Everything’s like an infinite, warm, melty-glow thing. It’s nice.
“Can’t wait,” Paul said. He had a spot at 10 tonight. Rent was due soon.
© 2021 Judson Rogers