The courtroom is not a space conducive to comedy. For one thing the ceiling is too high; too much space for jokes to float up and fade. And then there’s the layout, the way the various people—judge, defendant, prosecutor, jury—are isolated in their zones. Laughter is like a virus, more easily spread when people are in proximity to each other, and the only person anywhere near me is Barry, my lawyer.
Not that I’m in the mood to try out any new material, even if
Barry hadn’t hinted that levity is a bad idea when you’re charged with manslaughter by saying, “The only one who gets to be funny in here is the judge and if the judge is funny I’m allowed to laugh,
but you aren’t. You are going to be as serious as ass cancer.”
The viewing area is empty, the judge’s decision to prevent a
“spectacle.” I didn’t object, and neither did Barry, which is odd because he seems to enjoy an audience almost as much as I used to. Because I’m famous, there’s been high demand to see the trial.
Depending on the news outlet this is either the trial of the year or the decade. I am a top story every night. There are at least ten
Web sites dedicated entirely to the trial’s goings on, reporting the tiniest of minutia. There are daily tweets on what the jury orders out for lunch. A large crowd hoping for a glimpse of something interesting gathers in a roped-in designated free speech area out in front of the courthouse every day. On the cable news crawl you will find my name scrolling by at five minute increments. Apparently,
I spark the synapses of the national consciousness.
Crowds used to be my thing, but lately, I sometimes like to imagine myself as the main character in one of those postapocalyptic movies where there is only one person with one loyal dog companion left on Earth and that vision feels pretty damn good,
relative to the present circumstances anyway.
No, two people. I would like there to be two people left on
Earth (with or without the dog), me being one of them.
Barry and I must now enter and leave the courthouse from below ground in a car with dark windows because otherwise the paparazzi would never allow us down the courthouse steps. They would slowly melt me to a puddle under the heat and glare of their camera lights.
As is, when the car leaves the underground garage, they stand in front of the vehicle, blocking its way until they get more than enough pictures. They seem willing to risk their lives for these pictures (of the car, not even of me since the windows are blackened),
one hand braced on the car’s hood while they fire away with their cameras, defying the car to run them over.
I killed a man, that’s not in doubt. We’re not arguing about that.
I said as much to the first cops on the scene when they approached with their guns and their f lashlights drawn, the guns aimed at my torso, the flashlights focused on my hands, because it was in my hands that I still held the gun and they asked, “Did you shoot this guy?” and I said, “Yeah.” And one of the cops said, “Hey, I know you,” and the other cop said, “Me too.”
In the mug shot that you’ve probably seen I look blottoed, crazy,
my hair electrified, my eyes sunken deep into my skull, but it’s important to remember that it was raining and I was wearing a hood and there’s a certain amount of shock associated with being arrested, even when you’ve done nothing wrong.
Plus, I was in love.
The trial is to determine if I had to shoot the man, if it was selfdefense,
if it was justified. It is illegal to shoot someone because you can, or even should, or even if they deserve it. The only way it is legal to shoot someone is if you have a reasonable belief that your life is in danger at the moment you shot the person.
The answer to the question of why I shot the man is a complicated story. However, let me lay out these undisputed facts: The gun belonged to the other man, and the other man was a wellknown thief, an armed robber as had been proven in a court of law twice before. And no, I did not have to shoot him. He was disarmed, the threat neutralized. I shot him six times as an act of kindness, of mercy. No one knows this story, not even Barry,
because he wouldn’t believe it. It seems impossible to make the context clear. I deserve punishment for lots of things, but shooting that man is not one of them.
That night, I was walking around the city, minding my own business, feeling good, feeling really good for the first time in a long time, feeling really really good for the first time since the divorce and then the new thing bombing, my failures. Two of my failures, anyway. I was feeling good because I had gone to the ends of the Earth (another complicated story) and there I’d met her and in her I had been cleansed; all things suddenly seemed possible. I had spent the evening watching her the only way I
could, on television, a match from Monte Carlo, tape delayed as filler. I could’ve been the only one watching for all I knew, but it didn’t matter. It was as though each serve, every groundstroke,
was a message transmitted directly to me. As she destroyed the teenager from Croatia, it was as though she was saying, I miss you.
I’ll see you soon.
It was raining, but following her match I couldn’t be contained by the walls of my apartment, so I gave in to the urge to grab my coat and walk, just walk wherever, rolling everything around in my head, her smile, the sensation of our first kiss, savoring this change in fortune. We were temporarily apart due to circumstances, but I
was confident that those circumstances would change. Not confident,
certain. Those were moments of certainty for me. I kept the hood on my jacket pulled up, protection against the rain. I must’ve looked a little dumb, walking in the rain, laughing, almost giggling to myself when I thought of her.
I turned a corner and smirked because just at that moment I was thinking about how my life had turned a corner and there I was,
literally turning a corner, and there was something funny in that, not ironic funny, coincidence funny, but there was the man with the gun saying, “Give me your wallet. No funny business.”
Barry sits, staring placidly at the empty bench, his hands folded on top of a blank legal pad. An expensive pen rests to one side. There are no other papers or materials either on or beneath or beside the table. I used to have my own notepad and pen, but
Barry took them away from me earlier in the trial because the courtroom sketch artist noticed that I had the tendency to draw obscene doodles and this little tidbit wound up anonymously sourced in the news, which was not good, which was described on several of the websites as a “setback.”
The judge is often called away for urgent business in her chambers,
which means the rest of us—me, Barry, the prosecutor, the jury, the sketch artist—are left behind, waiting. If the waiting is expected to go on too long, the jury gets to go elsewhere, but
I am usually expected to stay. Sometimes I imagine the judge makes us wait because she can, which isn’t fair. The headlines say it themselves: Funny Man on Trial for His Life, the kind of thing that deserves a judge’s full attention. Well, not exactly my life, since manslaughter is not punishable by death, but enough imprisonment to last the rest of my days is close enough to “life,”
in my book.
During these periods of judicial absence, Barry is serene, contemplative without being glassy or glazed, a well-dressed Buddha.
Occasionally, he leans toward me as though to speak, his eyes canted up and to the right at the jury, but nine times out of ten he says nothing, or at best, a “how ya doing?”
The prosecutor, on the other hand, is busy riff ling through accordion files, f lagging things with Post-its, scribbling notes onto his own pad. His tie is almost always askew and there is a stack of poster-sized exhibits resting behind him, some gruesome pictures of the “victim” at the scene and later on the coroner’s table. A team of three assistants sits at an auxiliary table pouring through their own files, occasionally bringing a sheet of paper to the prosecutor’s attention for him to look at brief ly before either shaking his head and sending them away, or grabbing it and stuffing it into one of his own files. They are like bees working in the hive.
During the prosecution’s case, which has just ended, this dichotomy between the prosecution’s busy hive and Barry’s
Buddha disposition began to bother me. The prosecutor would display one of the oversized pictures showing the “victim” on a metal table under the glare of the coroner’s lights, the small purplish blotch between his eyes where the only bullet that mattered entered, and march back to his table to grab a piece of paper to wave at the witness and ask things like, “Isn’t it true that . . .?”
And the answer from the witness always sounded very bad, very damaging to my case, a “major setback,” if you will. All the while
Barry maintained his look, calm yet alert, centered, speaking only occasionally to object to the way a question was phrased, after which the prosecutor would simply reword to the same effect and there came the damaging information anyway. It was as though a hand was raised to block a blow to the head, only to invite one to the gut. I’ll admit, it was maddening, borderline infuriating even,
and finally at the end of one of the days of the trial as Barry and
I rode in the back of the car with the darkened windows, being buffeted by the paparazzi trying to shoot us through the front windshield, I exploded. There was a time where I would’ve gladly subjected myself to the judge and jury’s harshest punishment, but
I was ready to live and it seemed like Barry was helping them kill me. The car rocked gently as it eased through the mass of reporters,
the driver tooting his horn with every inch.
“We’re getting killed! You’re killing me!” I said, my hands trembling in my lap, one eye on Barry, one on the stubbly back of the driver’s head. “Even I’m going to think I’m guilty by the time this is over! Why don’t you do anything? Look at all the stuff they have! The reports, the pictures, the diagrams, the re-creation animation!” I felt my face f lush and I pounded my hand against the armrest as I shouted.
Barry maintained the infuriatingly calm look and placed one hand gently on my leg as the other reached for the switch that raised the divider between us and the driver. As the barrier swooshed into place, he started to speak.
“I am doing great, better than great, actually. You, on the other hand, are going to cock things up with your fidgeting and wincing every time they ask something and even a slightly unfavorable answer comes out. Half the time you look like someone’s got electrodes on your nads. It’s not pretty and it’s not helpful.”
“Not helpful! You’re doing nothing! No-thing! Did you see those pictures he has? Gah! This guy is slaughtering you and you do nothing! I just want you to do something!”
I shook my fists like a frustrated baby. It was a worse moment among bad ones. Barry sighed and grabbed my arms and pulled them down and gripped me by the hands. The look on Barry’s face remained unchanged, unbothered, placid, but the grip was extremely strong. I could feel my knuckles shift underneath my skin.
“You are under a misapprehension,” Barry said, maintaining his grip. “You, like our prosecutor friend, believe that a trial is an exercise in logic, that Sherlock Holmes is on the scene, deducting and inducting until we arrive at a common understanding of who is guilty and why. You believe that a trial is like solving a puzzle of what happened that night in that alley, and why, each piece locking into place until the picture is clear for all to see. Yes?”
I nodded. These things had seemed self-evident to me, the page that all of us—judge, prosecution, jury—were on. This was the given, the thing to be understood and accepted and while—
because of the plausibility issues—I could never tell the full story,
I had been hoping that Barry would come up with a reasonable facsimile that would prove convincing to the jury. Barry loosened his grip a little and began rubbing the top of his thumb over the back of one of my hands. It felt good, actually.
“This strategy would suggest that we need to be contesting each and every inch of forensic evidence, and from there move on to destroying the credibility of their witnesses, the ones who said they heard a scuff le starting and then a scuff le ending and then maybe some pleading from an unidentified voice that is probably not the defendant, since the defendant’s voice is rather recognizable, and only then a gunshot. Check that, multiple gunshots, suggesting that you may just have executed this poor wretch of a man forced to steal from people with enough money for a hundred lifetimes to feed a drug habit that has already twice landed him in jail.
“If this trial is an exercise in logic,” he continued, “we should want to muddy the picture of that puzzle so the jury can’t tell if they’re looking at a picture of Mount Rushmore, or a basket full of golden retriever puppies, or an autumn scene in New England,
I nodded again, relaxing slowly. My hands puddled inside of
Barry’s grip. His skin was downy soft. We held onto each other like husband and wife at the wedding altar. Barry continued.
“You believe that trials are won and lost on the basis of who presents the most compelling arguments in the most cohesive and logical fashion, but as history and experience have shown, this is nonsense, a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature and decision making. Here’s an analogy. I assume you’ve voted before.
Do we happen to elect the person who is most qualified, who is best prepared for the challenges of the office? Do we sort through the criteria for being a good president, weigh the pros and cons,
and then select the right person for the right time? No, we do not,
because human beings are irrational creatures. We are subject to swings of emotion. We are governed by illogic. You, above all,
should recognize this by now, considering your life.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but no sound came out.
“A trial is not a logic puzzle. A trial is not Tetris. A trial is a story. A trial has characters and conflict and action and symbolism and theme and a climax, and all those other things. Now, I bet you can picture the climax we’re hoping for. I know I can. In fact, I
visualize it daily. It is part of my morning ablutions, all of us turned toward the jury, quiet enough in the courtroom to hear a pin drop,
breaths held in anticipation as the foreperson unfolds the slip of paper and reads from it, despite already knowing what’s printed there, and says, ‘Not guilty, Your Honor.’ Would you agree that this is the climactic moment we’re hoping for?”
I nodded. I hadn’t dared visualize it before, but as he spoke it appeared before me and I had the urge to run toward it.
“Good. So we’re on the same page there. Now, to bring about this climax, something very important has to happen and that is that regardless of whether or not you committed the act in the way the prosecution alleges, when we get to that moment, we need that jury to want you to be innocent. Let me say that again in a slightly different way. It doesn’t matter if you are or are not innocent on the facts of the case. It is not what happened that matters, it is why it happened. They must be rooting for you to be innocent. In rooting for you to be innocent they will realize that they have the power to make it so and after we hear that verdict you’ll be shaking my hand and hugging me and pounding me on the back as tears roll down your cheeks. But . . .”
“Yes, there is a but. I didn’t want to have to share this with you, but at this point, we have no real choice. As part of our trial preparation we have been focus grouping you.”
“Yes, we gathered the unemployed, the elderly, the unemployed,
the unclever, the unemployed, in short, the sorts of people who were likely to—and indeed did—wind up in a jury of your peers,
and we asked them about you, what they know, what they think,
and it was not pretty.”
“No. The words most commonly associated with you among our target potential jury demographic were untalented, successful,
and bad husband and father.”
Barry said the words matter-of-factly, a declaration as straightforward as name, rank, and serial number.
“Successful is good, though, right?”
“Not when coupled with untalented, no. The perception is that your success is unearned, either a f luke or a function of a decaying society, an early sign of the end-times-type thing. If the world were a better place we never would have heard of you. You are a symptom of a collective societal weakness for the gimmicky and trivial. The overwhelming feeling among these people is that you should just go away. To these people, you’re not likable enough to pity, not interesting enough to hate. Either of these could be compelling reasons for a jury to find you not guilty. Right now,
you are simply what is happening and they’re eager to move on to whatever is next while still recognizing the need for closure with regards to your particular tale. They feel that you are holding them hostage. They wish for resolution, but don’t particularly care what it is. ‘Just get it over with,’ they say. ‘Whatever,’ they say. Needless to say, this narrative is toxic to our chances. They want you gone because they can’t bring themselves to look away.
Barry released my hands and sat back in the seat and turned his eyes forward. The driver had wormed free of the paparazzi and we were speeding down an avenue, the lights going green for us as though by Barry’s command, the soft shocks of the town car absorbing all bumps. I stared at Barry, still gape-mouthed, my mind swirling, disordered like a snow globe shaken and dropped, and finally asked, “So which am I going to be? Hero or villain?”
“That’s what we’re going to find out.”
On the small, nightclub stage, the funny man says funny things to the small audience arranged around the small tables before him. As the laughter fades between these funny things,
the funny man hears ice shift in cocktail glasses and throats being quietly cleared. Toward the end, someone lets loose a big, wet cough that sounds tubercular and a drunk man orders his next round loud enough to drown out a punchline. All in all, though,
a damn good night.
This is maybe the five or six hundredth time the funny man has tried his hand at this and “damn good” is a signif icant improvement over his initial attempts. The number of people he has performed for has varied from none to slightly more than none, to seven (including three bachelor party revelers who were unconscious, greening upchuck crusted to their shirtfronts), all the way up to 125 when he was scheduled on a night when there was a rumor that a “comedy legend” would be doing a rare club appearance to work on new material. The legend never appeared because it was the funny man who started the rumor, maybe the cleverest thing he had done in his life up to that point.
Six years the funny man has been coming to this club, from the moment he was old enough for his parents to trust him to drive alone into the city, fueled by an indestructible belief that he was indeed funny and that someday people would pay to hear him say and do funny things. The funny man doesn’t know where this belief, or the seemingly inexhaustible fuel that accompanied his desire to have others agree with this self-assessment, came from. This belief remained unshaken despite the number of times someone, unsolicited, had shouted up to him on the stage, “Fuck you, you’re not fucking funny.” (Forty-nine.) The funny man had been told to “eat shit,” to “die,” to “eat shit and die,” and to “eat shit and die horribly,” which actually made him laugh. Shielded by the stage lights blocking the funny man’s view, patrons had yelled at the funny man to fuck himself, to fuck his mother and to fuck himself with his mother’s dick, and yet at every opportunity he climbed on to the stage, hopeful each time that it would go, if not “damn good,” at least “pretty good.” If you want to call that a sickness, that’s your business.
The club is the only venue that matters, the place where all of the famous funny men (and women, though there aren’t that many women) have been spawned. They come to the club as embryos and the stage is where they gestate and careers are either birthed or aborted. The club is small and ugly and certainly not the kind of place that should be seen in daylight under any circumstances,
but it is and always has been the place. The hopeful funny people come to bomb until the day they no longer bomb and then they are said to have “passed,” at which time you are allowed to perform on a Friday or Saturday night and you earn twenty dollars for the privilege.
But this night, for the funny man, no bombing, only applause,
or mostly applause among the usual indifference. One of the things the funny man has come to realize during his times on stage is that the people in the club who are not shitfaced into oblivion want to laugh. They are almost desperate to laugh, having paid their fifteen-dollar cover charge and drunken their required minimum of drinks. They are like cans of soda shaken up, ready to explode and all it takes is to open them. It is the funny man’s job to unearth the funny things they already hold in their brains, they just don’t know it yet. And yet, so many of the prospective funny people bomb, or tank, or f lop, because the wannabe funny people are equally desperate to get them to laugh and the mutual desperation meets like two magnets tuned to the same poles, pushing each other farther and farther apart until there is only silence, or even worse, a comic who turns on the audience, seeking laughs in that guy’s mole, or her oversized breasts, blaming them for his (it is always a he) own shortcomings, the most significant of which is that he just isn’t funny.
Upon finishing, the funny man thanks the audience for having him and tells them that they’re really too, too kind. As is custom,
he introduces the next performer and steps from the stage lights into darkness and wipes the sweat from his brow and this moment always reminds the funny man of the moment after orgasm where just instants before you were thinking that this is the best thing ever and then all of the sudden it’s all, “what’s the big deal?” and then two minutes later you feel kind of dirty about the whole thing.
Near the bar, a man loudly claps two fat hands together, whistles with his fingers at his lips, and then claps again, repeating the sequence long after the rest of the room is silent. The man is round and dumpy like those toys that can’t be knocked down. He gestures the funny man backstage. The funny man follows. The man’s neck is thick and wrinkled like a Shar-pei.
The clapping man claps the funny man on the back. Regular people are not allowed backstage, so the funny man knows this man is irregular. He is part of the industry. “That was killer,”
the man says. “You killed. That slayed me. Funny, funny shit.
I’m dying here.” The clapping man leans on a chair and breathes heavily as he hands the funny man a card. “You’ve cracked the code. You just need a ‘thing’ now. That’s the clincher. A thing.
The arrow through the head, the inf lated surgical glove, watermelons and sledgehammers, crazy hair, screeching, turtlenecks,
obesity, something. Call me when you get one,” he says. “I’ll take you places.”
The funny man looks down at the card as he massages the back of his own neck. The other hopeful funny men lounging around the broken-down couches sucking on beers and smoking themselves into early graves look at him with deep and intractable loathing. Talent Agent the card says, with a number below.
“Where?” he asks, looking up, but the man has already left. On the way home he rolls this word around his head: Talent. “I have talent,” he thinks. “Talent talent talent.”