A quarter century in front of the cameras. That's what they keep saying, keep reminding me. I adjust my tie, shifting it a little to the left. I can hear the bass of the music thumping its way from the stage to my dressing room.
Time compresses, each decade feeling shorter than the last. Your first 25 years stretch out forever, childhood and endless teenage summers, exam after exam, university for three years, endless possibilities, plenty of time. Then everything begins accelerating, until you hit your forties and realise that the previous decade seemed barely as long as those three precious years of study, and that whatever you happen to be doing is what you’ll probably be doing until the end. Too late to change course.
I’m 50. My last ten years roared by at such a pace I barely feel that I was part of them. Perhaps I rented them out to somebody else. I have few vague memories, anecdotes which feel as if they were told to me second hand. Some people live only to 70, assuming no accidents or illness. 70, then you just stop with a stroke or heart attack.
There are fewer years ahead of me than are behind me.
“A quarter of a century in front of the cameras!” the interviewer says, rubbing it in. 25 years of vast success, preceded by 25 intolerable years struggling to get there. And perhaps another 25-or-so years still to come before my brain hemorrhages, leaving my body behind as a lump of flabby meat.
“Comedy is a lens through which to see life,” I find myself saying, hating myself for it, not believing it. My mouth operates on autopilot.
During the week I'm back on the comedy circuit. Trying to find my old self. The stage lights blind me from seeing the audience. They’re out there: I can hear them, laughing and clapping and gasping. Getting their money’s worth. A cheering audience is only a pitch away from a screaming mob.
I stand on the empty stage - always an empty stage, no props - and talk into the sucking void before me, while curtains hang in my peripheral vision, waiting to draw together and conceal me from view, hiding me away until my next performance.
I’ve never found any of my jokes funny. They’re not even proper jokes: I’m not one of those comedians who makes a living from awful puns and setups.
The audience keeps laughing. Somebody whoops. I can’t remember what I’d said.
Television again. Everyone's a winner.
The contestants stand hopelessly in front of the judges and I want to kill myself. The music blares, lights flash and whirl, my co-presenter makes some kind of inane attempt at banter, playing off my dourness.
Same routine every Saturday night. They may as well record one episode and show it on repeat. Use it as a test to see if anybody would even notice. A social experiment.
Dour, they call me.
They’re all crying now, the winners and the losers, the big guy behind camera B; the winners trying to conceal their glee and failing miserably. It’s the funniest thing I’ve seen all day. I say some words, knowing the mic will pick it up, transmit it to the edit room and send it out on a 30 second just-in-case delay to millions of TV sets around the country. I turn to camera and raise my right eyebrow, just as everybody expects.
The audience erupts. That’s what they came here for.
Later, they tell me we broke a ratings record.
How many comedians can you remember from more than 50 years ago? How about a century? 200 years? Comedians don’t last. Humour doesn’t last. Not like dictators last. Serial killers: nobody forgets a good bit of killing. Scientists do pretty well. Discover the Earth goes round the sun and nobody’s going to fucking forget you.
I make people laugh. Their insides hurt and strain for an evening, then they go home and sleep and tell their colleagues the next day about how funny it was and then he said this but really you had to be there and it’s all in the way he does it, it was funny at the time, honest.
Filling in the gaps. That’s what I do. The gaps between the moments when people do important work. Nobody talks about Einstein finding inspiration in a New York comedy club or how Stalin liked knock-knock jokes. Hitler always liked ones that started with “A rabbi walked into a bar...”
I should write that one down.
I stand naked in my hotel room at night, a flashlight balanced on the dresser and pointed at my face. I can’t see anything save the light, everything else is crushed down to blackness. I could play a recording of an audience cheering and, really, what would be the difference?