This is a horror story. I’m serious. It will thick your blood with cold; it will turn your hair the color of terror. We begin in London, amid the fog and freezing rain…
As some of you know, I spent the better part of August in the UK. I went to Worldcon, I went to Yorkshire on a research trip for a new book, I met David Tennant and Peter Davison (!), saw some old and new friends, learned to take the London Tube system as my legal spouse, to love, honor, and cherish it under construction and in good service, made puns as part of a Worldcon version of the iconic British radio show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, and ate approximately All the Pies. Important to note: my partner in crime during all of this running about was one Heath Miller, actor, director, secretly a Muppet in a human suit.
The other thing we did in London? Comedy. Now, I may not have made it totally clear how much I love stand-up comedy. I love it all the way. If I could I would probably go see comics two or three times a week. Even when it’s terrible, I still love it. I can’t even really explain why. Some loves are just pure. They have no provenance. They just are. Sketch comedy and improv also, but stand-up is tops for me. I spent so many hours watching old-school Comedy Central at 3 am, and only recently have actually gotten to go see live comedy, and OMG it smells awful and the food sucks and the drinks are weak and the walls smell like cigarettes and sometimes the comics are just the most old-timey misogynist jerks and you never know whether it will be any good at all or not and it is THE BEST. I know, it’s weird. But Dave Atell showed up to do a surprise set at the Comedy Cellar and it was my birthday and it was all I could do not to scream like he was The Beatles because EEEEE REMEMBER INSOMNIAC I LOVED THAT SHOW THAT SHOW IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW. He did ten minutes about dogs and cats. It was awesome.
The point is, my comedy appetite approaches the insatiable. When Heath and I first started seeing shows together, I don’t really think he believed me when I said I am a Fan of stand-up as much as I am of SFF. He thought I’d bail the first time someone got up and complained about their wife. But I know that people being awful is just a standard hazard of watching comedians, like SFF has alien words with apostrophes in the middle of them or thinly veiled versions of orcs.
So we went to Edinburgh, where I went to University for awhile, and where my dear and nearly-oldest friend Kaite Welsh lives, and it was Fringetime, so holy crap we saw a lot of comedy. Most of it was great. One was memorably terrible–but half the fun of seeing live theater of any kind is talking about it afterward. It is our general philosophy that you either get your money’s worth from the show being wonderful or from the entertainment of tearing bad art apart afterward and figuring out how you would fix it if you were In Charge of That Thing. So I get value even from execrable theater. I am comfortable with the roulette-wheel of This-Thing-Costs-Way-More-Than-A-Movie-Or-Book-And-It-Might-Really-Suck. It’s COOL.
THE STAGE, SHE IS SET. Buckle up, kids.
Picture Heath and I, at the end of August, exhausted from traveling, both of us having brought a nasty cold home as a Yorkshire souvenir, climbing into the back of a lovely black car we’d arranged to take us to Heathrow. Looking forward to a long, quiet ride. Because one thing I’ve always loved about British drivers of cabs and car services has always been that they don’t try to talk to you the whole time. Sure, they may appear to hate you like the plague, but they won’t tell you about it. Here in Maine, it’s basically a constant barrage of questions and weirdness (my last cab in Portland? The guy drove with the driver’s seat reclined all the way into my lap, complaining the whole time that he was neither high nor drunk right now and really ought to be).
Oh, we were so innocent then.
He seemed like a perfectly nice man. He started talking right away, but he was charming and pleasant. He was from Pakistan. He switched accents flawlessly about four times in two minutes while telling us where he was from and the assumptions people make about him. We were delighted. For a moment, a precious, shining moment suspended in the air like a brief, crystal raindrop, we were delighted.
Then, he put a portable DVD player in my hands. While driving. One already open, on, and cued to his performance at the Comedy Store Gong Night.
It was like looking into the abyss.
He told a couple of jokes. Not stand-up really, just question and answer jokes. The answers were 100% the most racist, sexist, ableist things I’ve ever heard out of a performer’s mouth in real life. When he ran out of those, he just tossed the mic from one hand to the other over and over, and when that ceased to amuse even the most hardcore microphone-tossing fetishist, he just dropped and started DOING PUSH-UPS on the stage. My mind has refused to retain the jokes themselves, having some sense of the traumatic ripple effect of holding those punchlines next to the more important, functioning parts of my brain. If I remembered them, I’d never write anything again. I’d just stare at the screen repeating: “If I had a dog named Syndrome, whenever someone came over to my house and rang the doorbell I could yell Down, Syndrome!” Oh, God. The emptiness. The dark.
We handed the player back, pale and shaking from our brush with utter nihilism. We thought it was over. I remember us then, so young. So gentle-hearted.
He worked us over with a few “What do you call a deer with no eyes?” numbers, which we just answered wearily (No idear) and prayed for death. I can’t even watch a television show in which the characters embarrass themselves. I hide my face like it’s a slasher movie, not a sitcom. So my heart was already trying to hide behind my liver like a kid watching the Daleks from behind a damn couch.
But then it happened. He asked us how broad-minded we were. Now, normally, when asked that question, I expect something good and wholesome to follow. Something that speaks to the world becoming more open and honest. Coming out. A confession of being aroused by Victorian rocking horses. A nice threeway. Hell, even “Would you mind carrying this package of drugs back to America with you?” would be better, warmer, fuzzier, than what was actually about to fall out of this guy’s mouth. So I made a non-committal sound. A “yes, I am broad-minded but mostly I am please-stop-you’re-hurting-me-minded so unless this is going to turn into something else please stop” kind of whimper. But Heath is wiser than I. He knew it was code. Code for: how offensive can I be right now? How shit can I make the shit I’m about to say?
Heath said: We are not. Broad-minded. At all.
It didn’t matter. The ritual to raise the Old Gods was already in progress. There was nothing we could do to stop it.
The driver started talking about how you can’t make good jokes anymore. Everyone’s so sensitive. Like, he can’t even tell that Down, Syndrome! joke anymore. (Heath broke through our rictus of politeness at that point and said: that’s because it’s a terrible joke. I couldn’t manage more than a sustained, high-pitched whine like my dogs make when there’s thunder outside. Good for him. I was trained too well to be polite to strangers. I could feel my manners trying to claw their way out of my eyes and flee screaming, but I clung to them. They were all I had.) But really, it should be ok for him to make jokes like that because he can take the mickey out of himself as well. At which point streamed forth a river of blisteringly racist anti-Pakistani “jokes” (The mildest one, and thus the only one my benevolent brain has allowed me to retain is: When I tell people I’m from Lahore, they think my mother’s a French prostitute!) that made him giggle like a schoolkid while I slid down in my seat, trying to vanish into the leather, whispering to the lock: Please, God, make me a bird, so I can fly far, far, far away.
At this point, it was clear he was just practicing his “act” on us. And it wouldn’t end because we had no Gong to bang. We literally couldn’t leave. We were a captive audience–actually captives, in a four-door prison hurtling down the highway, driven by a warden barely paying attention to the road because he had to keep looking in the rearview to see our reaction to his star turn. He kept saying: you gotta have a hobby. It’s not easy, is it, being on stage. Writing material. It’s not easy!
Thing is, this driver was in a car with a writer and an actor. Both of whom have directed theater, both of whom have written comedy, both of whom are semi-professional dissectors of performance. Both of whom find being on stage and writing material pretty damn enjoyable most of the time. It is not our hobby. It is our job. So we rallied. We made the decision individually and began almost in unison. We thought: we can make him better. We can teach him. We have the technology. Mostly, we can make him stop talking if we talk louder.
We started giving him notes. Hey, you know, you’re pretty good at accents, that bit in the beginning was great, when you were telling us about expectations. You know, you could really make something of that, play with an audience so they don’t know what your real accent is, so they’re forced to examine their own preconceptions. And that really works better with story-based comedy rather than one-liner jokes, which is not really what stand-up is all about anymore. Try telling a story, something personal, something real, and shifting your voice so that your voice becomes part of the story. It could really work for you.
You see? We tried. Tried to engage, to help, to share what we knew. To steer him without pissing off the guy who held our lives in his hands, careening between cars and not wearing a seatbelt. When we die fifty years from now, grandchildren gathered around us, clocks stopped in the hall, the light softly fading on the mantle, both of us will whisper with our last, rattling breath: we tried.
And it seemed to unlock something deep in his soul. Something too big to keep inside.
“Oh!” exclaimed he. “You mean like…” And out it came. An “Asian” “accent” right out of the Breakfast At Tiffany’s school of subtle humor and sensitivity. And he did tell a story. In that voice. Nay, not a story. A folktale from the ancient mists. We’ll call it How Chinese People Got Their Slanty Eyes. (My brain was shrieking at this point: SAFEWORD NOPE NOPE SAFEWORD FUCK I NEED AN ADULT WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME I’M A GOOD PERSON). Do you want to know how? You don’t, you really don’t. No one does. Seriously, even circuit comics in the Catskills in the 40s would have thought this was a little much. It’s because they eat too much “flied lice” and it made them constipated, at which point, as a people, the Chinese nation strained so hard to take one massive, colossal shit that their eyes went slanty forever there is no God or goodness love is dead and the sun is as sackcloth. It was like being stuck in a car with a Dementor. Then he switched to a “funny” “black” voice and I felt as thought I’d never be cheerful again.
I feel like London was with us in that car. Sitting between us with a beer and a microphone yelling: YOU LIKE COMEDY, DO YOU? I HEARD YOU LIKE A BIT OF COMEDY. BIT OF NICE COMEDY ALL UP IN YOUR EARS? YEAH, COME ON, YOU LOVE IT. COULDN’T LET YOU GO WITHOUT A BIT MORE, COULD I? WHY, YOU WERE JUST SAYING YOU WISHED YOU COULD STAY A LITTLE LONGER AND SEE A FEW MORE SHOWS IN MY WEST END, WEREN’T YOU? YEAH, YOU WERE. WANTED YOUR GIGGLES, DID YOU? WELL, HERE YOU GO. DON’T SAY I NEVER DID ANYTHING FOR YOU. A WHOLE HALF HOUR SHOW, JUST FOR YOU. YEAH, I KNOW WHAT YOU LIKE. GET IT ALL OVER YOU, ALL OVER YOUR FACE. STOP COMPLAINING. COMEDY’S THE BEST. YOU SAID SO. YOU SAID YOU COULD SEE IT EVERY NIGHT. I HEARD YOU. I LOVE YOU AND I WANT YOU TO BE HAPPY. STOP PLUGGING YOUR EARS. WHY ARE YOU CLAWING AT THE WINDOW? COMEDY, YEAH, LAUGH IT UP, YOU COLONIAL FUCKING PEASANT PILLOCKS, LAUGH!
And I was. Clawing the window. Tapping the glass. Crumpled against the arm rest, my back turned toward the driver to protect my precious internal organs from shrapnel. I envied the birds outside, trying to land on pigeon-proof spikes. What is freedom? What is life? What is silence?
We kept trying. We were valiant. We would not give up on him. No, no, that’s still racist, we insisted. Like really, really racist. Tell a story. About you. About your life. Something personal. And for a moment, just a moment, a little butterfly of a moment flitting through the summer grass, he seemed to stop and think. And said: “You mean like…my father came to this country in 1963 with only five quid in his pocket.” Yes! “That’s the great thing about Britain, you can come with nothing and you can really make something of yourself.” Yes! “And now my Dad still has five quid in his pocket–it’s the same five quid!” No! Well, I mean, it’s the least racist thing you’ve said, only implies that Pakistanis are cheap, so I guess that’s progress? It’s not good but it’s better…
And with manic glee, he looked back at me and said: “Listening to my wife is like agreeing to the Terms of Service on a website. I have no idea what it means but I always click ok!”
ARE YOU A ROBOT? A ROBOT PROGRAMMED WITH NOTHING BUT JOKES WRITTEN BY HATEFUL TIM, THE HAPPY BIGOT, WHO LIVES UNDER A ROCK IN BRIXTON AND DEMANDS TRIBUTE FROM ALL WHO PASS HIM BY? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? WHY ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME? I AM A WOMAN, WHY DO YOU THINK THAT ONE WOULD REALLY ZING ME? AM I ON SOME KIND OF PRANK SHOW? IS IT THE CASH CAB? IT’S THE CASH CAB ISN’T IT? THERE’S A SECRET CAMERA IN THE DASHBOARD AND NOW I’LL WIN A HUNDRED POUNDS BECAUSE I DIDN’T CRY. PLEASE SAY THEY HAVE CASH CAB OVER HERE. OR CANDID CAMERA. THE WORLD WILL MAKE SENSE AGAIN. NO, BAD ROBOT! STOP TALKING. STOP. STOP WORDS. WORDS OVER.
Heath opened his mouth to cry uncle. To surrender and beg for terms. Just stop. Whatever it takes. Just stop the violence. But we were pulling into Heathrow and it didn’t seem worth it. Nothing seemed worth it. All hope had fled the universe. We stumbled out of the car and held up our arms in the rain like it was pure Shawshank up in that car park and we’d crawled through a river of shit to come out clean. He tried to overcharge us– 20 for the ride, 10 for the show, I guess–but we had strength enough left to refuse. We watched him drive away, our ears still ringing. Did that just happen? Is that a real thing that happened in the real world? How can we ever be whole again?
So we did what we could to heal. We went to the airport bar. And alcohol said: I am a merciful god. There, there. Tell me what the bad man did. And then tell the Internet, and Lo, you shall be cleansed.
And it is done.