Friday, April 07, 2006


Why he doesn't write comedy anymore

Fatboy's in a smart restaurant, black tie, tux, smoking a cigar, perusing the menu. His dinner date, a huge winged insect in a ball gown and pearls, sips a cocktail through a plastic straw. A waiter waits.

It was cold. The whole room was cold and everything he touched increased it. He poured himself a drink. The glass was cold. The blood in his fingers froze as he clasped it. He really shouldn't. He knew the warmth of alcohol was artificial, a dead heat. But he knocked it back regardless and poured himself another. He needed the inflamation.

How much would it take? How many glasses? If he could drink twenty lifetimes in one day and produce enough heat to finish this would he be happy? Would he. He'd die happy, a funny laughing, happy drunk.

Maurice called it his inner ear. Jonny stretched his and tried to listen but there was nothing laughing in there; just a vacant hum, an inactive drone like the buzz of a dead radio channel, empty space waiting for the pop of time.

Time runs in grooves. Little furrows with smooth, steeply sloping banks that you can't climb. And it makes a faint popping sound on the hour as it runs out on you, like a soap bubble bursting in your ear.

He had a dream that one day he'd have time, time to do all the things he'd never had time to do before. But he woke up to the realisation that what he really meant by "having time" was "owning time", controlling it, having time to increase time and bend, expand or shrink it to his own ends.

"Imagine, Fatboy, if time was dust. You could spend a whole year in a room just letting it collect and on New Year's eve you could gather up all that dust into a great pyramid and snort it up like cocaine through a rolled up bank note or a tube of typing paper. It'd be like experiencing the whole of that year in one blinding, thirty second rush, a gargantuan high, three hundred sixty five days in a shot glass. Or you could batch it up into one minute doses - five hundred twenty-five thousand and six hundred hits, enough for twenty lifetimes, twenty lives out of one year of heat, and the real thing too - nothing artificial there, that's the real thing. Dust heat."

If time was dust you could have it all, all the time in the world. You could live forever. You'd be the king of time.

The terror: it dragged him back to the lines at the top of his screen. He felt all the coldness of the room, the streets, the world, concentrate in the pit of his stomach like a small, hard, freezing, fist-sized ball of dread. He imagined flakes of ice forming over his eyes. What if it wasn't time he lacked? What if the lack of heat wasn't the real problem? What if he had all the time in the world and the most efficient heating system in the universe and he sat in his room for eternity and nothing happened? No more sketches or skits. No more jokes. No more ironic elbow nudges. What if his screen remained for all time bereft of strange but amusingly contextualised and cunningly placed lexical choices?

Tens of millions of sheets of yellowing, rotting, horribly disintegrating typing paper fluttered and flounced behind his eyes in a hellish breeze, each one horribly blank. He heard the sound of hollow laughter.

Once terror gets its hooks into a writer working to a deadline he might as well shoot himself. He becomes possessed by a total disbelief in his ability, skill, talent, call it what you will. He can tell himself he's a professional and that there's no such thing as writers' block but he'll never be convinced. He refills his glass: he has to. There are no choices anymore. He must generate the heat any way he can before the cold takes over completely, before the ice expands. Janitors and bailiffs have broken into writers' apartments to collect unpaid rent only to find blocks of solid ice slumped over broken and frosted-over keyboards.

That's what terror does. That's the way he gets you. He creeps up the back of your throat and into your mouth, finds his way under your tongue where the soft membrane is and snatches it up with his talons, bites into it and paralyses you. You have to drown him, it's the only way, or freeze to death and never write again. So you drink. That's when the guilt kicks in.

Maurice never drank. In twenty years not a mouthful passed his lips while he was working.

"You can't write good stuff you can't stay sober," he told his son. He spoke like that: omitting conjunctions. You could never quite pin down the true sense of what he was saying; the resultant ambiguities were the source of his humour.

Jonny took a large swallow from the bottle. "I can't write good stuff (and) I can't stay sober," he thought.

But he had to write something, anything, anything to obliterate that white obscenity, to cover that loathsome nakedness. With his eyes crunched shut he moved his fingers across the keys. Soon he was pressing then punching mindlessly, shivering with cold, fear and guilt, lack of time and onrush of alcoholic meltdown.

"Take my father - please!"

What did he know? He was dead; an old, dead, cornball one-liner reshuffler. The world was different now. Comedy was different, Jonny Hilltown was different. Everything was different now. His chest was bursting, huge breaths increasing body heat. He was writing. He didn't know what he was writing or what the words meant or if they meant anything at all or even if they were in fact actual words or just bunches of random characters and he really didn't give a damn. His head was full of the clatter of the keys, faster and faster, echoing, fading and increasing, letters tripping and tumbling onto the screen laughing and squealing and chattering like kids out of school. Qwerty and the Black and White Miracle Show.

There was a cigarette unlit between his lips; indentations of teeth on the filter. He went to the window. Through the glass he could see nothing at first but the dark. Then, briefly, as it passed beneath a street light, a figure: a girl late night walking. His eyes tried to follow her but once she passed through the light she became just a shadow, elongating and flattening out, expanding and contracting in the glare of a passing headlight like a reflection in a deviant mirror. In seconds she was gone and Hilltown wondered what her name was. Why was she out at this hour on such a cold night? Was she cheating on her husband? Was she a prostitute? And did he imagine it or had she looked up for a split second? Had she smiled at him?

Late night people have defects. They're all up to no good. That's what he wanted to write about: faults, imperfections; and he wanted to tell stories in shadow, in fairground mirror reflection, all the fear washed out, the ugliness and the deformity of sin draped in ridiculous washes of colour.

He read aloud the few lines at the top of the screen: "Fatboy's in a smart restaurant..." The characters danced on the page as he slurred the passage over and over again.

Tommy "Fatboy" Devine, the comeback kid. No other comic in the business was more terrified of new material and yet his insistence on "total originality" from his writers was pathological. For a comedian, telling a new joke or performing a virgin routine is like sky diving: he never knows if the parachute is going to open. Fatboy, now, well he didn't simply want to dive out of a plane; he wanted to leap from the moon, on television, in a "totally original" one man show after five years in the weeds.

Jonny Hilltown opened a clean screen and sat there for a while just staring at it. Nothing happened. The bottle on his desk was as empty as the screen and he wished he hadn't started drinking. Maybe he should get some more. A few glasses and a packet of Pro Plus, he could work through to midday. He could call the local cab-stand and get them to send a car over to the 24/7 in Kilburn. But he didn't. He was already falling asleep, picking up the phone in a dream, saying hello to a sleepy voice on the other end. Then the phone disappeared and he fell deeper. His room became a smart restaurant and he was Fatboy Devine in black tie, tux. The waiter waited. The insect finished her cocktail.

"OK," he said, "I'll have the gaspacho, leaks vinaigrette with shrimp, marinated zucchini, the orange mousse, a bottle of Cotes du Rhone '68..." her wings buzzed and her pearls rattled "...and you'd better bring me a plateful of shit for my fly."

Don...this is a powerful piece of writing, spare, poetic, gut-grabbing.
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