Errors of Comedy - Chapter 5
William Randall sat in his dressing room at Rumblethorpe working men's club, reflecting on what he had seen of the Northern Quarter. It was certainly different to the South. For a start, things had names rather than numbers. Rumblethorpe wasn't much of a name for a district, but it had to be better than 'Sector 319' or something similar. The weather was different as well. The drizzle that had begun to fall as soon as he had left the monorail station was continuing. In the south, it rained as if it meant it and then stopped. Here, it rained as if it couldn't decide what sort of weather it wanted to be and had accidentally left the tap running whilst it tried to decide. William had asked the manager of the club if it ever stopped raining. 'Only when it snows,' was the cheerful answer.
This cheerfulness seemed to be another unique feature of the North. In the South, everybody had well-paid jobs, nice houses and convenient golf courses. Despite this, they all seemed permanently miserable. In the North, everybody had dangerous jobs, got paid very little, which didn't matter because there was nothing to spend the money on anyway, and not even the conveniences were convenient, yet everybody was relentlessly cheerful. William couldn't work it out.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out his notebook. The act that he had written whilst travelling by monorail was still there, unchanged. He had now memorised it and it still made no sense to him. Normally his act would go through an intensive series of rewrites until he felt happy with it. This was different. For a start it didn't feel as if he had written it. He certainly remembered putting the words on the page but where they had come from was unclear. He had never seen or heard anything like it before, and he had sat through a lot of comedy on his way to the top. He thought back to when he was a student. He had once attended a lecture entitled 'Comedy - A Historical Perspective'. He hadn't paid much attention to it at the time but a single phrase filtered through to him:
The comedic vilification of female members of the family has not always been the social taboo that it is today.
Presumably that meant that jokes about mothers-in-law were once popular. William considered the possibility that he was drawing on some form of racial memory. Perhaps comedy was a genetic thing. He could even be descended from some of the great comedians of the past. He couldn't remember any great comedians of the past, certainly not the recent past, but there must have been some at some point. He looked back at his notebook. He was a little concerned by the nature of some of the material. Parts of it were explicit to say the least. If Mayor Burdon ever found out that this sort of material was being performed he'd probably lock him up and throw away the key. William was about to throw away his notebook when he thought about the situation more rationally. What was the probability of the Mayor, or anybody else for that matter, knowing what was going on in the Northern Quarter. It wasn't as if anybody was looking for him anyway. William Randall was dead. When the manager asked his name, William had panicked briefly. The best he could come up with on the spur of the moment was 'Billy Hilarious'. Oh well, that was his name from now on. It had to be. It was on all the posters.
Back in the Southern Quarter, Derek Daniels sat on his mother's knee, gurgling. His mother sat next to an old schoolfriend, Caroline Bach, who tickled Derek and gurgled back at him. Her husband sat at the table with his daughter, Lisa.
'How old is Lisa now?' asked Deborah.
'She's six next Wednesday,' replied Caroline.
'Is she really?' And it only seems like yesterday that you were pregnant.'
The subtleties of this conversation were lost on David Daniels. He was at a wedding.
'Do you, Derek, take Lisa to be your lawful wedded wife?' asked the priest.
'Why don't you make a cup of tea, dear?' interrupted Deborah.
'I do,' said David, before returning to the sofa. He looked around to try and work out what he had just admitted to doing.
'You do that,' said Deborah, bailing him out, 'you'd like a cup of tea wouldn't you, Caroline.'
'Yes please,' replied Caroline, trying to make sense of the conversation between David and Deborah. She gave up.
'What about Martin and Lisa?' asked Deborah.
'Please, Debs,' said Caroline's husband, Martin.
'Yes please, Mrs Daniels,' said Lisa, after being prompted a few times by her father.
David glanced at Deborah with an 'oops, sorry' look before going into the kitchen to make the tea. Deborah wondered if David would stay in the real world long enough to produce five cups of tea. Probably not, she decided. If he wasn't back in ten minutes she'd have to go looking for him. Where did he get to? She had hoped that he'd spend a bit more time at home when Derek was born, but it wasn't to be. Perhaps he took Derek with him. Derek did have half of David's genes after all. If he had managed to inherit David's alternate reality, who knows where the two of them would get to.
'Have you seen Teresa Quinn recently?' asked Caroline, in an 'I'm about to start gossiping' sort of way.
'I certainly have,' replied Deborah, in a 'so am I' sort of way.
Derek wasn't paying much attention to his mother and her friend. The two funnily dressed men standing in the corner of the room were far more interesting.
'I think he can see us,' said the Irish ghost.
'I should hope he can,' said the English ghost, 'it's going to be very difficult to explain things to him if he can't.'
There was a knock at the door.
'Two minutes, Mr Hilarious,' said a voice.
William, or Billy as he seemed to have become, stepped out of the room and walked toward the audience. He could hear a strange noise that he couldn't quite place. A young woman ran past him in tears. He stood in surprise and watched her go. The noise got louder. A man with a guitar elbowed him out of the way, walked into a dressing room and slammed the door. The noise got louder. Another man broke two drumsticks in half and threw them to the floor before walking out of the club. The noise got louder. Billy concentrated for a moment and finally worked out what the noise was. It was a sound he hadn't heard for a long time. It was the sound of an audience booing. He took a deep breath. The manager came up to him and took his arm.
'You'll have to go on, Mr Hilarious. I'll have a car waiting.'
'Just like old times,' said Billy unsteadily and walked out onto the stage.
The audience went quiet in a 'this had better be good because if it isn't we're going to let you know about it and it's probably going to hurt' sort of way. He picked up the microphone. A squeal of feedback filled the room. He looked over to the small table where the even smaller sound-man was hunched over a spaghetti-like mass of wiring.
'Get your hand out your trousers and get the bloody microphone working,' said Billy in a passable imitation of a northern accent. A few people in audience sniggered, quietly.
'Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,' he began, 'my name's Billy Hilarious. Now then, take my mother-in-law... please!' he continued. The audience laughed uncertainly. This was different.
'No, seriously, ladies and gentlemen, my mother-in-law, right. I'm not saying she's fat...'
The act that Billy had written lasted about half-an-hour. The act that he performed lasted for nearly an hour. Ten minutes into the act the audience were on his side. When he reached the end they were calling out for more, so he gave them more. He didn't know how he had done it but he just kept talking. After he had insulted every member of his own imaginary family, it had seemed only natural to insult the audience. This turned out to be very popular and when he finally left the stage it was to a standing ovation. The manager grabbed him as he came off.
'I don't believe it,' he said, 'I've never seen anything like it.'
The noise continued in the background.
'You know, Mr Hilarious,' said the manager, 'I honestly believe those people out there would do anything you tell them to.'
Billy looked thoughtful. If he was to take revenge on the South for forcing him into exile, a loyal band of followers might come in useful. He needed a hook. Something that the people were already emotionally involved with. Something that they cared about with a passion. Something that they would, if necessary, die for.
'What do people do in their spare time here?' he asked the manager.
'They come to the club,' said the manager, as if nothing else could possibly be worth doing, which in the Northern Quarter could well be true.
'What about when they're not at the club?'
'They go to work,' he said after a while, and then seemed to have an inspiration, 'and at the weekend they go to the football.'
'Football?' said Billy in surprise, 'I thought that the Burdon Stadium was the only one in the city.'
'Not your daft Southern football,' the manager laughed, 'proper football. With a round ball. That you kick.' Billy looked blank. 'Tell you what, I'll take you to see United play on Saturday.'
'I didn't know there was more than one sort of football,' said Billy.
'There is only one sort of football,' said the manager firmly, 'and you don't need shoulder pads to play it.'
Back at the Presidential Theatre, Geoff Andrews had managed to find an act to fill the late-night slot. A gentleman in a dinner jacket was standing on stage making noises that sounded vaguely like singing in the direction of the audience. The audience, composed of the typically culture-starved inhabitants of the Southern Quarter, was sitting in rapture. What should have been a lilting melody seemed to have developed a lilt deficiency but this went unnoticed by all but two of the enthralled spectators. It was very difficult being a ghost in a city that had less life than you did, unless you included the inhabitants of the sewer system. They had culture but it wasn't the sort that the ghosts were looking for.
'At least it didn't cost much to get in,' said the Irish ghost.
'Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,' said
the English ghost.