"You're kidding, right? You're setting me up for a bit."
"No," I replied. "I was abducted by aliens."
"Like UFOs, E.T.s, that kind of thing?" he asked me.
"Now you're getting it. It's true. It's not a bit, at least… not yet." I saw that he was finally ready to listen. I told him my story, the most interesting road trip I had ever been on.
You see, I am a stand-up comedian. I'm not famous. Not yet, anyway. Oh I've been on TV but if you weren't looking for me you'd probably never have noticed. I am, however, a working comedian. I travel all over the country performing at comedy clubs. And in between those gigs I perform at bars, hotel conference rooms, office Christmas shindigs, grannys' birthday parties and to be honest, just about anywhere where someone got the bright idea to scrape up a few hundred bucks to bring in some live entertainment. Now don't get me wrong. I love what I do. I believe that stand-up comedy is an art form and most of the time audiences are appreciative no matter where you find them. Sometimes though people are just plain annoying and other times they are outright mean. The story I am about to tell you happened after one of those other times.
I was doing some one-nighters in rural Nebraska. Not that there's much that's not, rural that is. This however was rural with a capital redneck. It was about 1:00 in the morning and I was driving back to my motel from the latest gig. It was incredibly dark. The sky was cloudy so there was no light from the moon or the stars. There were no streetlights or any other cars on the road. The only illumination came from the lone headlight of my VW rabbit. I drove along as it picked out half of the road and the gravel of the shoulder.
Then it was gone. The car was dead without even the dashboard lights to see by. Startled by the sudden darkness, I went to slam on the brakes when I thought better of such a drastic move in pitch-black darkness. I knew where the road had been in front of me just an instant before. I intended to coast up to an easy stop on the side of the road… so naturally I slid into the ditch. At least the car is safely out of the way, I thought, as I got out and headed back to the bar I had just performed at.
Across a barren cornfield I could just make out the lights of "Joe's C'Mon Inn". I started thinking about the people who would probably still be there to help me out. I turned around and headed for the motel. I didn't really care to hear any more "real jokes" that I could "use in my little skit". The weather was mild and the motel was only about three-quarters of a mile up the road. I didn't expect to catch a ride until I saw my own shadow appear in front of me stretching down the asphalt. I turned around expecting to see the headlights of an approaching vehicle. I was surprised to see that they were my headlights. Both of them now, blinking on and off and then they were gone again. Almost immediately a new pair of lights coming over the hill relit the night. I was about to stick out my thumb when I realized that these new lights were about 20 feet above the pavement. Oddly, I felt calm. As the craft approached it's beams converged on me. Time seemed to move at a different pace. It was similar to the feeling you have when you're the 19th guy scheduled to go on at a 20 person open mic.
Seconds, or maybe minutes, later three small men were standing around me. Taking my hands they led me into their ship. As we strolled quietly down curving corridors I was still incredibly calm. Looking back it seems strange to have felt so calm and yet at the time it seemed as if everything was perfectly normal. It was as though all rules of right and wrong were turned upside down. Kind of like the 2000 elections. Inside there were many more of them. They looked just like everyone says, you know, like the cover of that book Communion. In one room about 20 of them sat in front a wall containing at least 50 television-like monitors. Each set was tuned to replays of old stand-up comedy show. Evening at the Improv, Comic Strip Live, Caroline's… so many in fact that it made the wall appear to be made of solid brick. The aliens watching neither smiled nor laughed. They watched quietly as they ran their hands over metallic panels in front of them.
In another room the TV's were tuned to classics: Laurel and Hardy, Mack Sennet, The Marx Brothers and early Letterman. Again, a small group of aliens watched the monitors and manipulated their panels. But like any good take home joke it was the third room that sent shivers down my spine. It was a comedy club. Not just any comedy club mind you, it was the perfect comedy club. Mainly because all of the 300 seats were full. But beyond that everything else was just right too. Every seat had a clear view of the stage which was spacious, carpeted and just the right height. Artificial smoke drifted through the air mixing with the new age jazz piped in from invisible speakers. Alien waitresses moved silently through the room dispensing bluish green drinks to everyone. The walls were covered with headshots from anyone you'd ever heard of, all signed and thanking the Betas for a great time. As I scanned the rows of comedians' photos I finally came upon the largest one of all. Mine. It was blown up to about 4 feet by 5 feet and under it were the most ominous words I could have imagined... "Appearing tonight." I spun back around to my 3 escorts hoping for answers. Their lipless mouths motionless, they communicated to me silently. Everything would be fine. I was in no danger. I was supposed to go on stage in front of this room full of aliens and do my show.
Before I could even ask about how much the gig paid, the lights dimmed and an alien appeared on stage. He was dressed in white running shoes, jeans, a grey T-shirt and a black sports coat with the sleeves precisely rolled to just below the elbows. As the only one not dressed in the bluish coveralls, which I took for their uniform, he seemed rather out of place. Yet, had it not been for the large skull with it's huge, black, pupilless eyes and the 3 fingered hand, which expertly plucked the microphone from the stand, he would have seemed right at home. The microphone was obviously a courtesy to me as his words, or his thoughts to be more precise, were conveyed directly to the audience through some other means.
He quickly ran through the rules: keep all table talk to a minimum, turn off all cell phones, pagers and subspace communicators, drink up, and remember to tip the waitstaff. At this last announcement, each patron removed a small round, golden object from their coveralls and placed it on the table in front of them. I was still in a state of confusion, my jaw hanging open about 6 inches, when I realized he was doing my intro. Compelled more by routine then desire, I walked on to the stage. My M.C. shook my hand, his long, pale fingers easily encircling mine and then... he smiled. It was the only time I had seen one of them show any expression. His face pulled back into a huge, well intentioned, closed mouth smirk. It lasted all of a second and half and ended as sharply as it had begun. It was well rehearsed and, like everything else here, it was perfect.
Not sure where to begin, I started with the usual, "How is everyone?"
As one, their minds told me they were, "Fine."
I was filled with an overwhelming sensation that they were in fact fine. Fine in every sense of the word. They were so healthy, and good-natured and kind to one another that I almost cried. All of this was conveyed in that one word, "Fine".
"Whoa, you guys have to back off a little on this E.S.P. thing," I laughed. "I think you've got it turned up to eleven?" No response. Well that's okay, a lot of people didn't see that movie. Undaunted, I launched into my material. I told them about the place I had just worked, using the old, "make fun of the neighboring town philosophy". Nothing. I talked about driving, zero. Flying, dating, politics, zilch. Well, so far it was going about as well as this evening's earlier one-nighter minus the hick in the back yelling, "Fuck you" every 2 minutes. But hey, I'd finally gotten that group to come around, I was sure I could get this one. Pulling a page from the hack's handbook, I stocked 'em for a good 5 minutes. Jack Nicholson saying "Here's Johnny", this is your brain on drugs, Chicken McNuggets, Bill Clinton and the coup de grace, "I've fallen and I can't get up!" Nothing! Not a goddamned grin. True, I had felt a slight telepathic concern from the audience that I truly could not get up. But that waned as I got up.
Okay, time for the frontal assault, I thought. "You sir," I pointed. "What's your name and what do you do for a living?" I had gone through this routine with about 6 of them before concluding that they were all probably named Beta 5 and were all probably drone workers. I don't care how quick you are, there's only so much you can do with that. I was running out of ammunition fast. I told a take home joke to give me a minute to collect my thoughts, and as I delivered the punch line, "...we're the Aristocrats!" I decided on my next course of action. I went to the bathroom. Of course I didn't literally go to the bathroom. I dug out all my toilet material from my open mic days. I really hated this stuff and I was scared to do it (after all, you never know who's in the audience) but it was all I had and it led right into a strong series of dick jokes. Dick jokes, the last bastion of hope, the common denominator. They would have to work or I was done.
I was done. A fine series of double entendres and innuendoes about the male reproductive organ complete with tags, callbacks, sound effects and a great little song parody, I might add, resulted in nothing. I was stunned.
"Folks, don't you get it? What, did I embarrass you?"
"No," came their collective response. They just didn't get it. Turns out they reproduce through mitosis or some damn thing. The only dick in the room was mine and me for not knowing my audience.
I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but... I collapsed to my knees and wept. I had delivered one of the best performances of my career. If I had performed this well anywhere else I would have been carried off on people's shoulders and offered sexual favors. As I sat on stage crying, I told them through my tears, "I'm sorry. I don't have anything else, I don't know what to do for you people to make you laugh."
The laughter started small. Scattered titters throughout the room. Some tried to cover their mouths. It was as if they were scared of what was coming out of them so they tried to hold it back. It was too late. It was infectious now. The snickers became chuckles, which grew to chortles, which developed into guffaws and finally, belly laughs. Loud, resonant, hearty belly laughs echoed through the room. Laughing and clapping with tears rolling down their cheeks, they stood and presented me with my first standing O. (Unless you count the time in Kentucky when I went through that woman's purse on stage.) Not sure what to do, I stood, thanked them, bowed and exited. My 3 escorts took me from the club and ushered me to the green room. As I nibbled at the deli tray, I asked them what had happened, the applause still ringing in the other room.
"You made us laugh," the middle one said as he dabbed a cocktail napkin at the corners of his huge eyes. "For the first time in centuries we have known laughter."
You see they are studying us. But not for the reasons the conspiracy theorists think. They used to be like us but they've gotten too sterile. They have everything and want for nothing. They have lost a large part of themselves and so they are interested in us and in our emotions. They understood our sadness. It comes from loss. We are sad when we lose something: a job, a girlfriend, etc. They also understood our anger. They see our anger as a form of sadness because it also comes from loss. Loss of dignity, honor or a parking space causes our anger. What they didn't understand was humor. What made us smile or laugh? They were viewing TV comedy and abducting comedians to try and understand humor. When I had broken down they finally realized what comedy was. It too was the loss of something. All the other losses that cause sadness or anger can also cause laughter. It was so simple that they had not seen it before. Laughter is a defense mechanism we humans use to keep from crying or punching someone.
As I listened I thought to myself, "NO DUH". Then I remembered the E.S.P. thing and I tried to cover my thought, but he only smiled.
"We are indebted to you for showing us how to laugh again," he said.
"Well, it was my pleasure I guess," I answered. "So, what does this gig pay?'
"You don't quit, do you?" he laughed.
"No, really. I mean it."
"You kill me. Listen, the other comics had their memories erased before we let them go, but as a token of our appreciation we're going to let you keep your memories because..." he was laughing so much he couldn't get it out, "because ... because no one will ever believe you anyway, HAHAHA!" I thought he would bruise his leg, he was slapping it so hard.
The next thing I knew I was standing back on the road watching their craft as it wobbled drunkenly away, laughter still penetrating the hull. Beside me was my VW, now removed from the ditch. I got in and turned the key. The car started immediately. I flipped on the headlights, both now working, and drove off.
"That's it," I told my friend. "So, do you believe me?"
He was silent for a long time as he absent-mindedly fingered the glass in front of him. "Yeah," he finally answered. "Listen, uh..."
"What is it?" I asked.
"Who books that?"
I punched him.