by Ian Woollen
Agreed: the comedian’s act must go on. Despite his twin brother’s plane crash. Despite the mysterious figure in the Bears hoodie, following him from town to town. Guzzle energy drinks to stay awake. As if that will keep the bro alive. Eat chile peppers and vitamin C to combat colds. Mom’s advice. Study the label of the vitamin bottle: Do Not Eat Freshness Packet. Devise a set-up joke about eating the Freshness Packet. Something his cousins might do. The comedian’s act inspired by free-for-all Sunday dinners with the East Chicago relatives. Lot of discussion about constipation, their chief ailment. Lot of mileage from the term ‘Polish extraction’. The old debate about props. His great aunt suggests an unlit cigarette with a lipstick stain. If this is Tuesday, it must be Galesburg. Do some research over breakfast. Always lead with a riff about the local territory. The burg thing. Carl Sandburg. The tip of the sand-berg. Holy cow. Apparently, one does not joke about Carl Sandburg around here. Near the emergency exit, the Bears hoodie guy sips his coffee. Six inches of snow coming after midnight. Next stop is Muncie, Indiana. Ball State University. Home of the Cardinals. A quick google search: the cardinal is the Indiana state bird. Middle finger itching for a state bird joke. Buy a Ball State University jersey to don during the set. Way back when, as kids, the comedian and his bro wore football jerseys non-stop. Sleeping, waking, balling. Sometimes it is important to resist the obvious. Review Muncie’s once-hallowed status as Middletown, USA. How’s that been working for you Hoosier folks?
Brother in a coma after crashing their Cessna. His loyal roadie. Often flew to gigs together. A teary visit to intensive care, before driving downstate to Carbondale. The show must go on. Everyone says the bro would want it. Their parents, the priest, and Lonnie, his booking agent. In the car, replay old Second City cassettes, a birthday present from seen-it-all Lonnie. This all suddenly feels too frigging crazy. A flurry of texts to Mom about canceling the next town and coming home. Lonnie intervenes. Lonnie also happens to be an East Chicago uncle by marriage and threatens to drop the kid from the roster if he cancels his tour on such short notice. Lonnie is founder and president of Da Region Entertainment, LLC. To expedite the grieving process, Lonnie orders new headshots. Force a smile, cigarette dangling. “Gotta be tough, kid. Use it as material.” “Material? My twin brother dying. And you want me to use it as material?” the comedian spouts. “Yep, the twin thing. You do it well. The story of tricking each other’s girlfriends. The clever bit where you convince the audience that you’re actually the other one up there. It’s brilliant. That’s why I gave you a contract.” “Not because you’re married to my mother’s little sister?” “Actually, that works against you,” Lonnie says. “And somewhere in the small print I missed: will provide laughter in the face of death.” “Always read the small print,” Lonnie advises.
Midwestern college towns. Twinkling holiday lights. The waitresses are angels. Drop some big tips. Grateful for the tenuous conspiracy of human goodness that keeps everything afloat. Crusty snow and a waning moon. Motel rooms by the interstate exit, to get an early start on the next day’s drive. Clubs in basements and attic spaces. Run out of chile peppers and vitamins. Starting to feel plugged up. Perhaps eating the Freshness Packet might help. “More coffee, honey?” a waitress asks. “Yes, and I’d like a bowl of cereal, please.” “Hot or cold?” “Got any of that Fiber One stuff? Or, better to call it, Fiber TWO.” “Ha-ha, what you’re a comedian?” she smiles. “In fact, yes,” he admits. “You don’t look like one.” “How do you mean?” “You seem kinda sad, honey.” If this is Wednesday it must be Terre Haute. Speaking of sad. Floodplain submerged and frozen. A shivering jog around the campus. Twenty push-ups onstage. The crowd counting along. Do twenty more and collapse. Do the ‘lie-down’ comedy bit. Holy sycamore. Apparently, one does not joke about Eugene V. Debs around here. Know-it-all college kids heckling the undercard. “Forget to take your funny pill tonight?” a drunk jock yells. “I was afraid it would stifle my gag reflex.” “Boo! Hiss!” the sorority cabal at the front table jeers. “Pop quiz. Define funny. In seven words or less,” the comedian counters. “Well, it’s not the crap you’re doing,” says the redhead. “Philosophy major?” the comedian asks. “Funny is your socks.” The comedian is not wearing socks. Part of the act. “I was a philosopher once too. Until I started thinking twice about it.” In fact, his twin was the philosophy student. The serious one and he looked it. After the brothers started trying to appear different. Shaved head and a monster nose ring. The comedian was the sports marketing major. Ponytail and a three-day beard. From the start, the duo worked a straight man/funny man vibe with the folks. Easy to get whatever they wanted. Mini-bikes. BB guns. Snowmobile. Flying lessons. Survived the injuries and crack-ups by ‘cracking up’. Lot of mileage from his contagious snicker. Until the Cessna crash. Due to a radar malfunction in a lake-effect squall just north of Evanston. Both would have been onboard, except for the comedian’s dentist appointment. Biannual cleaning. His teeth are important. Force a smile for another fan selfie. Retreat to the dressing room. A brief escape from the Bears hoodie stalker. Floss and gargle. Next show starts at ten-thirty. Not too late to phone the hospital again. Neither Mom nor Dad can speak. They pass the phone to Uncle Lonnie who whispers that a priest has just administered last rites. “Kid, I hear you’re not sleeping,” Lonnie says. “Somebody is following me. In the back, every night. Oversize Bears hoodie. It’s him.” “Can’t be. We’re all right here,” Lonnie says. “So what, I’m going nuts?” the comedian pleads. “You will, if you don’t get some sleep.” “A little understanding, okay?” “Look, I get it. Without your other half, you’re bereft, a fish out of water. You’re not the silly one anymore,” Lonnie says. “I never see the Bears guy’s face. He sits hunched with the hood pulled down low. Just like him. Always drinking coffee.” “Did you hear what I just said?” Lonnie asks. “Unfortunately, yes.” “By the way, how do you know it’s a guy that you’re hallucinating?” “If I was hallucinating a woman, her tits would be bigger.” “That’s the spirit, kid,” Lonnie croaks.
The angelic waitresses play along. Yeah, dude comes here all the time. Yeah, always wearing that hood thing. Yeah, warns us about performers trying to pick us up. One short blessed night in the arms of a coat-check girl who thinks the lipstick stain on the unlit cigarette is hilarious. She rubs his feet, shoulders, neck. Sleep for two hours. Make like a baby and head out. If this is Thursday, it must be Evansville. After a brief detour. Follow the signs on the highway for Lincoln’s Boyhood Home. Speaking of grief-stricken. Did you hear the one about the toddler yanking his mother’s apron strings until the exasperated mother yells, “Honestly, Abe!” Apparently, one does not joke about Nancy Hanks around here. The standard set veers off into descriptions of ice-fishing and other Boy’s Life adventures: riding mini-bikes at the Indiana Dunes and shoplifting comic books from Walgreen’s. Wipe out in the deep sand. Rehash the old debate about who was oldest and who was youngest and who lay where in the womb. His sobs mitigated by the contagious snicker. Which hooks the audience sideways. They turn on him like the runt of the litter. An archetypal stand-off ensues. Speaking in tongues. “Kid, what happened down there the other night?” Lonnie barks into the phone. “Sorry, I got off script,” the comedian apologizes, and swerves to avoid a deer in the road. “Not to worry. They loved it! The owner called and booked you again for next month.” “Say that again?” “He especially enjoyed your thing about laughing in the face of death,” Lonnie chuckles. “I don’t remember anything about the set. Blanked it all out.” “Well, dammit, find a video! The face-of-death thing is your new bread-and-butter!”
And so it is. The figure in the black Bears hoodie slowly looks up. The ultimate deadpan. Eyes glazed and cold. Unshaven cheeks. Hands move out of his pouch pockets. Extend an index finger and sweep it around the room, pointing emphatically at every member of the audience. Force a wicked smile. The room quiet, except for the occasional clink of a beer bottle. Waitresses moving among the tables. They know what’s coming. The hour-glass prop and the scythe. Their laughter is therapeutic. Reviewers call it “death-defying”.