A PREVIEW OF UNTIL THE LAST DOG DIES
by Robert Guffey on February 14
What follows is an extra-special post Valentine’s Day Gift from ME to YOU… a preview of my latest novel, UNTIL THE LAST DOG DIES….
The Insect Queen of Venus and Other Strangeness
(September 19, 2014)
I took to the stage wearing a simple t-shirt and blue jeans. It was all part of the strategy. It was best to be as average, as invisible as possible before you opened your mouth and let the jokes fly. That way the audience wouldn’t build up any preconceived notions about you until you began your patter. You let your humor speak for you.
The air was so clear it was obscene. Years ago a law had been passed banning smoking in clubs, and I still knew comedians who bitched about it—including me. I can’t explain this. I don’t smoke. I hate smoke. I already obsessed over my health as it was, forever wondering if I was coming down with terminal lung cancer due to the carcinogens in the California air.
Back in the old days, when I was just a little kid (the youngest smartass to brave open mike night armed with an endless supply of fart jokes), I was always trying to convince Lenny, the owner of the club, to put up fans near the bottom of the stage, to at least blow the smoke in the opposite direction, but I was new at the time and he never listened to my suggestions. I suppose I could’ve just quit, but Lenny was one of the few club owners who’d actually pay for my act. So I just had to grin and bear it (literally).
Ah, the irony of it all: As I was spitting out jokes I was sucking in death. I often thought of that Charlie Chaplin quote: “The clown is so close to death that only a knife-edge separates him from it, and sometimes he goes over the border, but always he returns again.” Or as Heather likes to say, “You’re never bored when you’re a masochist.” Perhaps that’s why I missed the smoke.
It was a typical Friday night at the tail end of summer. The place was packed. Most of the audience was drunk, which only worked to my advantage. Even though I’d been doing this for many years I still had to deal with the butterflies in my stomach. Some nights I actually thought I was going to throw up… until I started talking, that is, and then my brain switched to auto-pilot and nothing existed except the laughter. I’ve talked to the guys who have been doing this half their lives, and according to them it never changes. Everyone goes through the nervousness, no matter how experienced or established they are. It never gets any easier. I guess I could’ve figured that out on my own, but when you watch those guys on TV you never think about how much turmoil is brewing right underneath the surface. Comedians are very angry people; most of the time they don’t even know what they’re angry at, and yet none of that subliminal rage leaks through your TV screen, no matter how large or sophisticated the entertainment system.
I began my act like I usually did: with silence. Not a lot, just enough to keep the audience off-balance. I’d been heavily influenced by Andy Kaufman’s stage performances. I liked to make the audience just a bit uncomfortable. At the beginning of my act my nervousness was actually an advantage; I didn’t try to hide it. In fact, I tried to accentuate it: stuttering a bit, dropping in a few “ers” and “uhs” here and there, maintaining an open-eyed stare like a little kid caught in the head lights. For some reason this seemed to help. The audience didn’t like false arrogance and bravado. They were more sympathetic to someone who seemed just a bit nervous, as nervous as they themselves would be in the same situation. The truth is I don’t really know if this is why the act worked. It just did. In the end who can explain such things?
“Uh, hello,” I said, waving slightly as I pondered my next move. Reading the crowd is an essential skill for any comedian. In my experience there’s an inverse ratio between the size of the crowd and their tolerance for my usual free-form, experimental humor. The larger the crowd the more conservative my jokes become. It happens almost naturally. On a hot night like this drunks are in no mood for biting, incisive political satire. They want dumb impressions and one-liners and racist jokes and they damn well better get it. I don’t care what anybody says: standup comedy is the most dangerous avocation on Earth, more so than mountain climbing or defusing Cambodian landmines. One wrong slip of the tongue and you might find yourself hanging from the rafters of the club by a piece of hemp rope.
I waited a beat, then launched into my opening tirade: “Y’know what’s been pissing me off lately? These activist types who stand outside Trader Joe’s or the Post Office with those little petitions in their hands and toss insane questions in your face like, ‘Do you have time for the environment?’ Or: ‘Do you have time to save the whales?’ Could you be more fucking annoying? It’s impossible to answer that question without looking like a total dick. It’s like ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ The question’s purposely designed to guilt trip you. So one day—I swear to God, this really happened—one day I’m leavin’ Trader Joe’s and this acne-ridden teenage boy is standing there with a clipboard in his hand, and he looks at me with a total straight face and says, ‘Do you have time for teen rape?’ Well, without even thinking about it I said… “Are gonna hold her down or am I?’” The audience gasped, not sure whether they should be offended or not; they burst into laughter only a second later. “So I said, ‘Have a nice day!’ and walked away. The kid seemed a tad stunned. Well… that’s what the asshole gets for asking a leading question. Don’t try to manipulate me, you prissy son of a bitch.”
Then I talked about my family, what it was like growing up with an Irish father and a Chinese mother. (“Every time my mother breastfed me I was hungry again an hour later.”) My father was the perfect subject for humor. He was a complete paradox. Though he was a card-carrying racist, he married a Chinese woman. (“He ordered her through an ad in the back of Soldier of Fortune magazine. They had a special deal that day. Buy a chink and get a life-long subscription.”) Growing up with my father wasn’t easy. He was disappointed that his only son seemed genetically incapable of hitting homeruns and holding forth on the grand significance of football. He figured I must’ve been, in his words, “some kinda pillow-biter.” (“Did you hear what Pat Robertson said the other day? He said God caused the hurricanes in Florida to punish Disney World for sponsoring a Gay Pride Day. Imagine that—homosexuals attract hurricanes! I think I’ve figured out how to end the drought in Ethiopia. Just ship all the gays over there! Fuck, when the military figures out they can use gays to control the weather they’ll roll out a fuckin’ red carpet for ‘em.”) Despite our many differences, however, I haven’t been able to escape his influence. I admit that I’ve inherited a tinge of my father’s racism. (“But I’m trying to make up for it. I’m writing a screenplay about the Ku Klux Klan. It’s called Boyz in the Hood. You think that title’s been taken?”)
As the laughter grew I stared out into the audience. The room was so dark and hazy it was difficult to see anyone. You couldn’t really know what they were thinking until you heard the laughter—or didn’t. This has happened too, of course, but I don’t like to talk about it. None of us do. When you hear silence, the trick is to simply keep going….
“Hey, I just heard on the news that a guy got caught performing necrophilia in a funeral home here in California. It turns out they can’t charge this guy with anything because necrophilia isn’t illegal in California. Now, wait a minute, hold on here. You’re telling me that if you smoke a friggin’ doobie you can get thrown into the slammer for up to ten years but if you stick your dick in a dead guy you get to walk scott free? Of course, if you get caught smokin’ a joint while having sex with a corpse, then they can charge you with something. Huh? Is something slightly off-kilter here or what?”
I then launched into a routine I had developed while forced to hear a slew of amateur L.A. poets yammering their pretentious stuff and nonsense over the course of a thousand and one open mike nights at clubs and coffee shops all around Southern California. I called the routine “My Girlfriend’s a Coke Whore.” As with most of my material, it was mostly autobiographical. (Thank Yahweh/Ba’al/Osiris/etc., I was no longer with the delightful female who had inspired the bit.) The routine consisted of me reciting a “poem” with a straight face while my fellow comedian, Danny Oswald, sat at a piano behind me belting out responses to my existential agony in the form of song. Despite being the whitest white guy in this dimension or any other, Danny could do a pretty damn good Louis Armstrong impersonation, which is why I asked him to help me out in the first place. Here’s how the routine went:
Me (my hands shaking slightly as I read from a crumpled piece of paper, my golden and immortal poem): “My girlfriend is a coke whore. The other day I found a condom in her cunt. It was not mine.”
Danny (while singing in his throaty, bluesy voice and allowing his nimble fingers to dance gracefully across the ivories): “You gotta give everybody a chance.”
Me: “I don’t love coke… but I love her. I hate loving her because when I see her blowing another man, it breaks my heart.”
Danny: “You can do anything if only you believe.”
Me: “When I see her the next day I ask, ‘How could you do this to me?’ She looks at me and then gets on her knees and I remember what a beautiful person she is.”
Danny: “The love between a man and woman is so pure.”
Me: “But she only does this so I let her into my apartment, and then she steals from me. She stole my cell phone, she stole my toaster.”
Danny: “White toast golden brown on both sides, not anymore.”
Me: “And later I asked why she did that, and she kissed me, and I was weak, and I made love to her. The moment I came she said, ‘You fuckin’ faggot!’ and I put my pants on, and I left her apartment.”
Danny: “The fire in a woman can make a man go crazy.”
Me: “But the very next day, the very next day, I catch her getting fucked from behind while she’s sucking some other guy’s balls. And when she saw me she spit the balls out of her mouth and said, ‘You fuckin’ faggot!’”
Danny: “Oh shit, I can’t help you with that.”
Me: “For weeks after that I could not talk to her and could not maintain an erection. I bought pills off television and through mail order from Mexico, but those balls in her mouth, those balls in her mouth.”
Danny: “Life has its sweetness but its bitterness too.”
Me: A couple of days later she showed up at my apartment with her new boyfriend. She asked to borrow money, then said, ‘Sorry about that faggot thing.’ ‘Which one?’ I said. ‘All three of them,’ she said. I gave her a fifty dollar bill, and she spit her gum out in it, and put it in her bra.
Danny: “What the fuck… what the fuck… you got me there…I’m stumped….”
Me: “A few weeks later she called and wanted me to bail her out of jail. I told her I would as long as she agreed to get treatment. On the way back home in the car she asked me for gum.”
Danny: “Ugh… god damn it… not the gum thing again… what’s with that gum thing….”
Me: “She started treatment, and the effects were immediately apparent. During my visits to her I noticed shaking, chills, and irritability. I told her she looked beautiful, and she asked me to stay with her forever.”
Danny: “Forever’s a long time… talk to your lawyer….”
Me: “But when she was giving me a blowjob I could barely keep my erection because her technique had deteriorated. And I just couldn’t be… with someone… who didn’t understand me.”
Danny: “Blue…blue… blue… balls….”
Me: “I realized that cocaine opened up a part of her psyche that made her a mouth-fuck genius, so I went out and scored her sixty dollars’ worth.”
Danny: “On the corner of 8th and Junipero talk to a guy named Ronnie…he’s black….”
Me: “But instead of sucking my cock she escaped the treatment center and ended up blowing a bum for what turned out to be a bag of baking soda.”
Danny: “Baking soda’s fantastic ‘cause it keeps everything fresh….”
Me: “That’s when I realized that I just can’t be with her anymore. No matter how much I love her, it can never work out between us. Nor can I ever be rid of the pain of my love.”
Danny: “Can you please now explain that gum thing to me….”
The laughter swelled. We did a solid ten-minute set, leaving the audience primed for Karen Griffin, an angry black lesbian who told a lot of jokes about… well, angry black lesbians. What else? I prayed Karen came back in one piece. Danny and I strolled back to the bar where one of the comedians who’d gone on before us, Heather Wheeler, was drinking a beer. Danny and Heather Wheeler were, like me, disgusted with the current state of standup comedy. Most of the time we’d end up right here at the bar, eating peanuts, getting drunk, and grumbling about how flaccid and vacuous most comedians were—the successful ones, at any rate. Many nights we fantasized about ramming a stake through Dane Cook’s thieving heart and planting his head on a barber pole. I’d even worked out a five-minute routine around exactly that premise.
Of course, all the mainstream comedians claimed we were just bitter, and maybe that was true. I’d been in and out of standup for years. If a major network had offered me a part in a lame sitcom at that time would I have had the balls to turn it down? I don’t know, I’d like to think so. When you haven’t eaten anything but Saltine crackers and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup for a month you’re less inclined to be self-righteous. On the other hand I knew a lot of friends of mine—talented young comedians—who had been plucked out of obscurity from the alternative night clubs, plopped down in the middle of a major network who immediately cast them in another mindless sitcom that tanked in two weeks and ruined their reputations, leaving them floating in some mist-filled limbo where they were no longer “alternative” or “mainstream.” They’d sold their souls for a pile of fairy gold that turned to dust within seconds of grasping hold of it. I didn’t want to end up that way.
Which is why I mainly stuck to the alternative L.A. clubs like Largo, the Cyclops, and Prospero’s. I couldn’t stand the mainstream nightspots like the Improv or The Comedy Store, where all the comedians were either cute Jewish guys or beach-blond jocks who apparently found great philosophical relevance in the poor quality of airplane food or the unreliability of parking meters, nothing even in the general vicinity of obscene or cutting edge or controversial. Hell, I don’t really blame them. Life’s much simpler in the mainstream. I mean, hey, don’t get me started on that time the black Muslim began heckling me from the front row. I took off my glasses and told him to come up on stage and tell me what he thought about me to my face. Ninety-nine percent of the time hecklers are just cowards who will slump down in their seats when challenged. On this particular occasion, however, I just happened to tap into that rare one percent of the population. Danny tells me my jokes were even funnier with a broken nose and lips the size of Encino. If so I’ll do without the extra laughs, thank you.
Danny’s a weird guy, a real shut-in. The only time he ever leaves his room is to go to the clubs. He lives in a small apartment with his dad, who’s a retired mechanic. I don’t know how he got the brain he did, but of all the comedians I know he’s the one most deserving of success. He’s kind of like a cross between Jackie Mason and Andy Kaufman, both wise and insane at the same time. He’s the gentlest soul you’ll ever meet, though it’s difficult to talk to him because he’s constantly in character. He has a hard time relating to people off-stage. That’s a common occupational hazard, I think.
He got goofed on a lot as kid. Hell, which one of us didn’t? Danny claimed it was because of his last name. As a result he became obsessed with the JFK assassination. He’s fashioned a lot of jokes around it, more than you can possibly imagine. The one I remember the most is a little two-liner that goes: “Did you know that Oliver Stone is making a sequel to JFK? It’s called KFC, about the assassination of Col. Sanders.” He says it with such a straight face you almost believe it might be true.
“You killed again,” Heather said as we slid into the seats on either side of her.
I shrugged. I rapped my knuckles on the bar to get the bartender’s attention, then held up one finger. I don’t know why, but a beer tasted best right after a performance. “I think I sucked. I always think that.”
“Cut the bullshit,” Heather said. “You know you were good. You think they were laughing out of politeness?”
“I could’ve been better.”
“You could always be better,” Heather said, tossing a peanut in the air and catching it on the tip of her tongue. She had a talented tongue. It was her best feature, in fact. “You could always be worse too,” she added. “You could be dead.” Heather was thirty-two, three years older than me. She wasn’t an attractive woman, she was just kind of average. She had mousy brown hair, hardly wore make-up and had a scrawny, underfed body. Nevertheless she had a way of shaping the space around her as if it belonged only to her, a way of moving across the room that announced to everybody in no uncertain terms: “I know exactly who I am, I don’t care what you think about me, and get the hell out of my way.” She had Attitude, with a capital A, and that more than made up for her plainness. Her looks grew on you after awhile. She had a beautiful smile, wide and bright and enticing. I think she’d had sex with about twelve different comedians on the L.A. nightclub circuit (none of them Danny or me) and in every case the relationship ended with her dumping him, not the other way around. I often wondered what it would be like to be her boyfriend, but I was also afraid of being eaten alive. One night when I’d had one too many drinks I made an awkward, fumbling pass at her that ended with Heather physically removing my hand from her left breast while suggesting various alternative placements for it like the garbage disposal or the inside of the microwave oven. It was kind of embarrassing. The night ended with me slinking out of her apartment while she visited the toilet. The next morning I called to apologize, but she quickly changed the subject. Neither of us had mentioned the incident since then.
“What if I am dead?” I said. “What if we’re all dead and this is Heaven?”
“Gee, wouldn’t that be Hell?” Heather said. She tossed another peanut into the air. This time it bounced off the side of her mouth and landed somewhere on the floor. “Shit!” she said and peered angrily at the floor, as if intent on retrieving the peanut and strangling it for its impudence.
“The Peanut That Got Away,” Danny said into his beer. “Starring Hardy Kruger and Alec McCowen. Rank Pictures, Great Britain, 1957.”
Another obscure reference. Sometimes I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.
I spun around on my stool and watched Karen Griffin performing for a few moments. She was telling a joke about political correctness: “You know, I’ve come to the conclusion that us queers should just get back in the fuckin’ closet. The world seemed less weird that way, don’t you agree?” The audience laughed and clapped. She was really winning them over. “I mean, have you ever heard of this children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies? It’s about two lesbians who raise a kid. I’m totally against that, man. I mean, shit, dykes can’t raise kids. After all, it says so in the Old Testament. Genesis I:I: ‘Dykes can’t raise kids.’ It’s right there on page one! Just the other day I saw a sequel called Heather Has TWELVE Mommies. Now, this is getting way out of hand. It was a pop-up book! I opened it up and these turkey basters flew out and almost hit me in the head. Shit, nearly knocked me out cold, man.”
She had the audience in stitches. “She’s getting more laughs than I did,” I said to no one in particular.
“Of course,” Heather said. “The audience is afraid she’s going to kill them if they don’t laugh.”
Griffin did look scary. She insisted on wearing this skin-tight black body suit on stage, and her kinky hair was spiked out in all possible directions; the top of her head looked like the jumping jacks I used to play with as a kid. Even more scary were her eyes. She suffered from some weird condition that enabled her to bulge her eyes out of her head until they appeared to be as big as cue balls; this was both nauseating and funny at the same time. Her skin was as black as the depths of the Cayman Trench and her body impossibly lithe, as if she spent the majority of her time swimming deep underwater. She looked like the offspring of a mutant aquatic spider from another planet that had attacked and raped a human being on some lonesome road late one night out in the middle of nowhere. I would never say this to her face, of course.
Heather might. I don’t think they were too fond of each other. I never knew why.
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