The comedian watched the world burn, and he knew it was his time to shine.
In the old world, the comedian had been a comedian, but then was a comedian no longer. Just a man who knew funny jokes that other people told. Now, those people were gone, recordings melted under atomic dust, transcripts burnt to the ashes of ashes of ashes. All that remained was him, and he knew them all.
The inflections and timing of Bill Cosby’s To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With.
The satire and bite of George Carlin’s Class Clown.
The vulgarity and raucousness of Richard Pryor’s Live on the Sunset Strip.
The comedian was their only surviving record.
“We’re nothing more than dust covers for books,” Granger had told Montag. The comedian had read that somewhere, in a book, and where it did not stick with him like so many dozens of old comedy vinyl and cassette tapes, it registered now. Montag was to carry the Book of Ecclesiastes inside his dust cover of flesh and muscle and blood into the new world. The comedian was to do the same. The world was going to need laughs. He found his new job noble.
It had not always been noble. In fact, he had been an outcast, and untrusted by his community.
Since he was a boy, he had bathed in the spotlight of attention. As the youngest of five siblings, it was his natural born roll; the jester, the actor, the look at me! It morphed, over time, from simple attention, eyes on him, to reaction. A smile, a small applause, maybe a scruff on the head or a pat on the back, and then, finally, the strongest drug of all attention seekers, laughter. To make one person laugh was a high, to make a group of people laugh was power.
And so he became a career comedian.
We, as individuals, tend to stick with what works for us. We find our niche. The comedian’s niche, his greatest attributes, were slapstick and imitation. His biggest laughs came from a stage fall over a couch, or an accidental knee to the crotch. Pain was funny, especially when it wasn’t yours. But he had always thought it easy, too easy, even by his standards. Besides which, he didn’t find slapstick funny in the slightest. Being in love with entertainment was not just simply entertaining others, but entertaining oneself as well.
So there was imitation. He was shockingling good at parroting a voice, any voice, he heard. Not just tone, but cadence and inflection and pace. The reactions were spectacular; there was the laughter, of course, but there was something else, something more. His audience was awed by another’s voice coming from his own mouth. It didn’t fit, it didn’t seem right, and that increased its comedy. He imitated his friends, his family, his neighbors, his enemies, and his heroes.
Therein began his problems. There is a fine line between imitation and plagiarism.
When the comedian was a child and stood before his parents and mocked, perfectly, Bill Cosby’s bit on the professional football player who was trained, encouraged, and pushed by his father, but thanked his mother upon winning the Super Bowl. His tone was perfect, frenetic rate impeccable, for thirty seconds be became Cosby on stage. His parents applauded his performance, hooted and whistled, laughed and laughed, and his hunger for attention grew. When he gave the same bit, also perfectly mocked in pace and tone, it was not so positively received. It was a deep enough cut that not all the audience recognized it’s origin, But his fellow comedians knew it, and knew it well.
“What was that, man? You didn’t write that! You can’t do that shit!” they warned him.
He swore he didn’t mean to lift it. Maybe it it was hidden, deep in his subconscious, and uncovered like an artifact in a moment of channel surfing through ESPN. Maybe he had heard a friend talk about it, once, long ago. Or maybe, just maybe, he and Bill Cosby just worked on the same wavelengths.
Except more questionable incidents followed. He and his comedian compatriots would riff, after long nights of multiple shows, at a local diner over coffee and greasy food made to soak up the evening’s alcohol. Many times these informal formal meetings would be the birthplaces of new jokes, new stories, and new bits that could be big bits, the bits, that took them over the edge from amateur to headliner. The diner was not just companionship for lonely, misunderstood souls, it was an idea factory, it was sacred.
The comedian would sit, and listen, and laugh. He would, from time to time, throw in his own two cents, a perspective, an idea, as he did indeed have them, but for the most part, he was the quiet one. He was the observer. His writing, too, was much the same way; he could sit and write and create his own material, but it never had the kick, the reaction, he needed and desired. What’s more, it was hard.
It was so much easier to just lift.
“Dude, that was my bit.” The first confrontation came after a Wednesday night of back to back shows. It was simple enough, the concept, of internet dating, texting, and paralleling it with the classic game Oregon Trail. It was creative, fun, and designed to make the target audience of Gen X’ers laugh. The punchline ended with the speaker “dying of dysentery”, or not getting laid.
“You were going to use that?” the comedian would retort, surprised. It was genuine surprise, or at least seemed to be; even he wasn’t quite sure at this point. He would apologize, profusely, but the damage was done, and the bit was now his. Over time it would morph and change and become his own, but the idea and the punchline, the specifics and the heart, were as hot as a fifty dollar television.
The trend continued, sporadically, and the comedian was slowly pushed from the circle. He could make his own material, and he did so fairly well, but his habit was just enough to be recognized, to be marked, and to be shunned. He was no longer invited to the sacred hour of food and camaraderie. Some of his contemporaries, even some of his idols, older and wiser comedians who had seen this behavior too many times before, refused to perform in front of him. When he entered rooms, he was greeted loudly and gladly enough, but all previous conversation would be hushed, or put on hold altogether.
He became a pariah. He lost friends. Soon enough, he lost stage time.
Then the end came.
Just as in Montag’s dystopian society, the bombs fell, the cities burned, and the earth was set back to zero. Montag was the charge of being the Book of Ecclesiastes, but the comedian was so much more. He was the books of Cosby and Carlin, of Hedberg and Oswalt. He proselytized Hicks and lamented Wright. The world, broken and dead, needed to heal. The world needed laughter.
Whether it be fate, destiny, or just dumb fucking luck, the now ex-comedian’s banishment is what saved his life. The cities burned, their coffee shops, wine bars, and comedy basements reduced to ash. Those he knew, those who pushed him from their circle, burned with it. He knew their bits, and their voices became his. He stood on the outskirts of town, in the parking lot of a laundromat where he had performed for a drunk, a whore, and possibly a leper, and watched the blast, orange and red and white, billow up into the sky like the head of a great, liquid fire cobra. The air warbled with heat. After an hour he could smell the aftermath; thousands of thousands tons of ash and cinder, created in an instant, of brick and bone and flesh and wood, heavy and sulfurous.
He stood, and he watched, fists clenched, jaw resolute. His life had been building to this very moment. His time, he knew, had come. He was now the embodiment of comedy.
He traveled the lands, by foot until he was exhausted, by car until it ran out of fuel, by bike until a chain snapped. He avoided the cities, as they were nothing but twisted metal, poisonous fallout, and roving gangs of post-apocalyptic murderous marauders. Whether the idea of mutated cannibals was the natural next step in human de-evolution, or a self-fulfilling prophesy created by Hollywood, there was a role to be filled, and life imitated art.
He found survivors, huddled in suburban basements and camping in the forests that still stood. They were always wary, always careful, always suspicious, as well they should be. This new world was dangerous and frightening. He performed for them, stood atop soap boxes or small, grassy knolls and sermonized like a pastor, the routines he had known and internalized since he was a child. As always his inflections were spotless, timing impeccable, and delivery perfect. His new audiences, hungry for laughter and a break from hell, drank his words like iced water on a hot day. There were no murmurs or accusations or shunning. They laughed, they praised, they accepted, and he reveled in it.
Initially he traveled alone, from town to town, camp to camp. He survived off of the donations of others, only after he had performed for them, and made them laugh. They appreciated the laughter, the lightness it brought to their hearts, if just for a moment, and gave gladly. He may have been shunned from the diners of old, with their formica tables and air thick with cigarette smoke, burnt coffee and greasy early morning breakfasts, but he found a new place in which to break his bread. These dinners would take place in the kitchens of abandoned homes, the fallen trees of old glens, tables of desert stone, around rusty stoves or open fires, and always, always, only after he had performed.
They would talk, they would laugh, he would listen, and, yes, he would lift.
It was his God given responsibility.
After a while he no longer traveled alone, but was followed. Stragglers looking for answers and hope attached themselves to him, and others attached themselves to them, and so on. He was the center of a new idea, a philosophy, gathering mass and gravity and meaning. One day his group was a dozen, and then seemingly overnight it was a small, self-sustaining community of a hundred. And it continued to grow, day after day, week after week.
He began not only performing at night for his food, but several times a day. Men who, in a former life, were electricians and sound techs rigged amplifiers of car batteries, tin cans, copper wires, and large cones, so that his audience, his people, his disciples could hear his voice. Soon a caravan was developed, a cacophony of repurposed RVs and tour buses. His own RV, a beast of black and purple, had a collapsible stage mounted to the side, and the four corners mounted with amplifiers weighing hundreds of pounds each.
Once or twice, a heckler was stoned to death.
He would perform, dressed in his rags of old sports coats and blue jeans, for hundreds. Children gathered around his legs and stared raptly at him (he had special shows, just for them, pulling from the Books of Gaffigan, Regan, and when presented with a watermelon, Gallagher), and women fawned over his humor and lack of cancerous facial swelling. He had several wives.
Word of mouth spread of him and his performances, but as word of mouth is rarely perfect, arguments arose on the specifics of bits and punchlines. These arguments turned to infighting, which turned to division, which turned to the birth of new sects, each with it’s own flavor of fanaticism. Groups of Carlinists could not completely agree on all the seven original words unspoken on television; some words seemed no longer that inappropriate, and in the years that followed the bomb, new words and languages had been developed that could singe the air more than a well rounded fuck. Sometimes this would develop into small battles, but mostly just angry relatives and controversial elopements.
By the end of his life, which was long and prosperous (alcohol, cocaine, and pills were things that he had always been very cautious not to imitate), the comedian had a vast empire of followers. There were, of curse, warring offshoots and bastardizations of his words (which he found wonderfully and comically ironic – he even wrote a bit about it), but he was the source, the original wellspring in this post-apocalyptic world. At some point even the cannibals and marauders had begun to speak his name with reverence and let him pass through their realms of twisted steel untouched.
He had found his place, spoken his word, and his word was good.
The ghosts of his friends and icons lingered still, but not in his heart, only on his tongue. He felt no shame in his imitations and lifting. He felt, in fact, that he was memorializing them, in his own way. If not for him, they, and their words, would have burnt in atomic flame long ago. He simply took them, repurposed them, sometimes made them his own, and all for a truly good cause; humanity. It had been a long, long road, but he knew, as he sat upon his RV, lazed in his foldable blue beach chair, and observed the throngs of people beneath him wandering, communing, trading, talking, the bits of pieces of giggles, chortles, and guffaws floating in the air, alive and thriving, that he had had the last fucking laugh.