'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Professor Cloudbottle

I found some strange paw prints frozen in the frost on the grass. I'm not allowed mention the wolf in case I frighten people, so I'm definitely not attributing the paw prints to the wolf. The wife's uncle says he knew a man who left strange paw prints everywhere he went. He'd apologise for leaving the prints on a new carpet, but people would question the sincerity of his apology if his tail was wagging at the time.

My cousin Charlie had a friend called Alan, whose father owned a pub. This was the most interesting thing about Alan. It's not that he lived a boring life. He travelled a lot, he once played the part of a monk in a play and he organised a comedy night in his father's pub every Thursday, which would certainly qualify as an interesting thing about Alan, but when he told people about this they always said, "Your father owns a pub?"

Charlie was always in the pub for the comedy night. He loved stand-up comedy, but he hated stand-up comedians. He thought he could do better than them, especially the ones who performed in Alan's father's pub. Their material was terrible, Charlie thought, but they had enough experience of the stand-up circuit to know how to entertain a crowd who were more interested in getting drunk than being entertained. They knew which lines to shout (almost every line) and they knew which lines would be funnier with an F word (again, almost every line). This is why they shouted about going to the effing optician to get an effing eye test so they could get their driving effing licence. Some of them couldn't go to an optician or to a doctor without wetting themselves. "I effing wet myself. I was just thinking, 'Don't effing wet yourself', and I effing wet myself."

One of the comedians who performed in the pub was called Howard P Nothing. He didn't shout, and he didn't use too many F words. He wore a bowler hat, and he had developed a delivery that could get a warm laugh from stone cold lines like 'I spilled soup on my trousers. My girlfriend's parents were there. And her grandmother. They thought I'd wet myself, or worse'.

He got a standing ovation at the end of his act. Charlie refused to stand. He stood to go to the bar, but he thought it was obvious that his stance was in no way related to the ovation. He hated Howard P Nothing more than all of the others because he was equally as bad as them but people thought he was better. One woman said he was a genius.

Alan and Charlie went to a party later that night, and Howard was there too. He was still in his stand-up mode, wearing his bowler hat and telling his bad jokes, and making women laugh. Charlie hated the way he was able to get a sound like that out of a woman. Sounds had often been problematic for Charlie. He'd tried to learn the guitar once and he was never able to get the right sound out of it. Other people could effortlessly produce beautiful music and he could never tell what he was doing wrong. Getting the right sounds out of women proved to be difficult as well. Some men could play them so effortlessly, producing beautiful music. Comedians were always brilliant instrumentalists, and Charlie hated them for this. If another man seduced a beautiful woman with charm, Charlie would take his hat off to him, if he had a hat. He'd buy a hat just to take it off to show his appreciation. But there was something wrong with the way a comedian could seduce a beautiful woman with punch lines like 'I didn't think it was humanly possible, but I effing wet myself again'.

"How can people laugh at that eejit?" Charlie said to Alan. "I've been to funnier funerals."

"So have I, but that's not to say he isn't funny. My grandfather's funeral was hilarious. If it was on TV, they'd have had to put it on after nine o' clock at night."

"He was over-reaching himself when he changed his surname to 'Nothing'."

"Stand-up comedy isn't as easy as it looks."

"If it was as easy as Howard P Nothing makes it look, even people in a coma would be having a go at it. I have all the attributes needed to be a good stand-up comic. I'm not in a coma, and I can tie my own shoe laces without starting a fire."

"There's more to it than that."

"I know there is. I've been studying all the comedians you've booked. There are a few little tricks they use, and a lot of shouting and swearing. And timing. With those guys it's all about timing the F words, but I could do it without any shouting or swearing."

"That woman with the limp didn't laugh at your joke about the greyhound."

"I didn't think she'd be so sensitive about her limp."

"Not everyone would laugh at a joke about a lame, incontinent greyhound anyway."

"It's different when you're on the stage. It's all an act. Howard P Nothing would be an exception. He's just as depressing in real life as he is on the stage. But you've seen yourself -- most of them are just actors."

"If you think you're a good enough actor, I'll give you a slot next week."

"Next week is too soon."

"The week after."

"Okay then."

"I'm looking forward to this."

"So am I."

"I have a feeling that I'm going to be looking forward to it much more than you will."

"I have a feeling that as I spend time working on my act I'll start to look forward to it more and more."

"I'm looking forward to it more now than I was before you said that."

Alan smiled every time he pictured Charlie getting up on the stage. The more Charlie worked on his act, the more he dreaded it. He thought his act was hilarious, but when he imagined himself performing it in front of the audience at the pub, it just didn't sound right.

He tried to stand back and look at the situation objectively. Almost every comedian got this crowd to laugh by shouting and swearing and going for the lowest common denominator. Whereas he, with no experience, would shun all that, appealing to their intellect rather than to whatever it is that makes them laugh at a joke about a flatulent bride.

He started to panic, and he considered going for the lowest common denominator, but his parents would be there. He regretted telling them about it. They'd laugh at comedians who shouted and swore, but not if that comedian was their son. Only his mother was allowed tell stories about how he wet himself.

When Charlie was ordering a round of drinks in the pub one evening he met a woman at the bar. Her name was Karen. Alan was serving at the bar, and he told her about Charlie's gig as a stand-up comic.

When she heard the words 'stand-up comic' she smiled and her whole body language changed, as if she'd just been switched on. Charlie didn't even know there was a switch to turn women on. All along he'd been trying to play an electric guitar and he never knew you had to turn it on first.

He spoke to her for half an hour. He didn't feel a need to be funny when he was talking to her because most of the stand-up comics who performed in the pub were miserable as soon as the gig ended. She said she'd definitely go to his gig, and this added to the pressure. He'd only just found the switch to turn her on. There was a big red button in the middle of her forehead to turn her off, and he didn't think he'd be able to stop his hand reaching out and pressing it.

The pressure was too much for him. He told Alan that he couldn't go through with the gig. "It's just too soon," he said. "Admittedly, it's more difficult than I thought. I don't know if I'll ever have the nerve to go up there on my own."

"You wouldn't have to start on your own. There's a guy called Billy who lives in an apartment over the post office. He's a performance artist, and he's always asking me to give him a slot. I've been a bit reluctant because it's performance art, even though he insists he's made people of every nationality laugh. That doesn't sound very likely to me, but I'd like to give him a chance. He performs under the name 'Professor Cloudbottle'. I'll ask him if he'd be willing to put together something with you."

Billy was very keen on the idea of working with Charlie, but he wouldn't plan it in advance. "It's important that your side of the act should be improvised," he said to Charlie.

"The idea of this was to make it easier for me to go on the stage," Charlie said. "Improvising the act only makes it more difficult."

"Don't worry about it. I'll hold your hand through the whole thing. Not physically. I mean I'll guide you through it. I suppose it would be even more frightening if I actually held your hand."


"You don't have to worry about that. And you don't have to worry about coming up with anything yourself. All you have to do is react to my performance, and it's important that your reactions are real. It should be as new to you as it is to the audience. They'll love it. I've performed this act thousands of times all over the world, and it always goes down well."

"But is it funny?"

"I once gave a woman a hernia because she laughed so much. 'Performance art' isn't the best description of what I do. 'Comedy' would be more appropriate. It's a performance, and there's an element of art, but I only seek to entertain people."

"Okay. As long as I don't have to do anything, I'm up for it."

"The only thing you'll have to do is to introduce me at the start. You'll go on the stage first and say what a privilege it is to be here to introduce the great Professor Cloudbottle."

"Right. I think I can manage that much."

Charlie spent the next few days practising his introductory speech. The only contact he had with Billy before the performance was when they met in the kitchen behind the pub half an hour before they were due to go on-stage. Charlie went through the introduction he'd prepared and Billy said, "It'll knock 'em dead. You can't die in front of a dead audience. I need to go and get ready. I should be like the bride on my wedding day, and you're the groom. You can't see me in my dress. I won't actually be wearing a dress. Don't let the thought of me in a dress trouble you."

"It's the thought that I'm a groom to your bride that's troubling me."

"You'll be fine."

Billy left to get ready. Charlie had a drink to steady his nerves, and he'd only just finished it when Alan told him that Billy was ready. Charlie got up on the stage and he went to the microphone. He got a big round of applause. Most of the people there knew him. He got the impression that they were applauding because one of their own was about to make an idiot of himself purely for their entertainment.

When the applause died down he said, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. And, ah, Kevin." Ninety-nine percent of the audience laughed at that. One percent told him to eff off. "It's a great privilege to be here this evening to introduce a man who has quite literally performed in many different countries." He paused, but no one laughed. "He's had academic papers published in the most respected scientific journals. He's lectured at some of the world's most prestigious universities, and his dog once ate a candle." Thankfully this pause was filled with mild laughter to acknowledge that a joke was intended. "We're very lucky to have him here this evening, so please give a warm welcome to Professor Cloudbottle."

Billy appeared on the stage. The audience were surprised when they saw the white face paint and the unitard. Charlie was shocked. This was one occasion when he wanted to shout and swear on the stage. He'd have said something along the lines of this: "He isn't a performance artist at all. He's an effing mime."

Billy's performance was one long pause and none of it was filled with laughter. Instead of trying to get out of an invisible cage, he was trying to get into the invisible cage that Charlie was stuck in. Charlie was glad that Billy was locked out, but this was the one redeeming feature of the act. The audience looked confused. Only Kevin was smiling, and Charlie knew that he was just preparing years worth of insults. Charlie couldn't see Karen at all. She had probably slipped away to avoid the embarrassment of eye contact.

Billy seemed to sense that things weren't going well. His efforts to get into the cage became increasingly half-hearted, and finally he stopped. He stood in the centre of the stage and looked down. He shuffled his feet, scratched the back of his head and said, "I just wet myself."

Everyone laughed, even Kevin. Billy drew the laugh out as far as it would go by pretending to cry. Charlie started inching towards the side of the stage and the audience laughed at that too. Billy looked over at him and nearly collapsed in fake shock. "You weren't trapped at all!" he said.

"I was just... I thought you knew."

"But now you're free! Give me a hug." Billy spread his arms.

"No thanks," Charlie said.

"Why not?"

"Because you just said you wet yourself."

"The only part of me I want to pass on to you is my joy."

Billy moved towards Charlie. Charlie made a move to run past him, but Billy blocked his path. The audience found this hilarious. It seemed as if he really was trapped this time, but he had an idea. If he could have mimed a light bulb coming on over his head he'd have done it, but instead he just mimed closing a door and locking it. Billy tried the imaginary handle, but he couldn't open the door. "Don't worry," he said. "I'll get you out. I'll break the door down."

Billy went to the other end of the stage. He turned around and ran towards Charlie, with his head down. Charlie crouched and put his hands up to protect himself, but Billy hit his head off the imaginary door before he hit Charlie. He staggered backwards and fell. His legs went up in the air and then came to rest on the stage. He lay there, completely motionless, apart from the occasional twitch of his leg. The audience were laughing, but they'd stop laughing soon, and they'd expect Charlie to do something else. He left the stage, and they found this hilarious because it looked as if he was fleeing from the scene.

Billy got to his feet and so did the audience. He dragged Charlie back on the stage so they could both bow and take the applause.

Charlie never thought he'd be shaking the hand of a mime and saying thanks for rescuing him from making a fool of himself in front of friends and family. Billy had made the audience laugh without resorting to shouting or swearing, and yes, one of the few things he said was about wetting himself, but he managed to retain his dignity, despite wearing a unitard at the time.

Charlie met Karen at the bar later that night. "You were brilliant," she said. "I was afraid you'd be just another one of those morons who tell jokes about gay horses, but that was so much better than stand-up comedy."

"There's an element of performance art to it as well."

"I never expected you to be such a good actor. The look on your face when the mime appeared was priceless."

"Yeah. I've been practising that a lot."

"It showed."

She was obviously still switched to 'on', and Charlie couldn't help smiling. There was still a good chance he'd say the wrong thing and press the 'off' button, and he'd end up unplugging her completely in his attempts to switch her back on, but he might just be okay if he let his actions do the talking, like a good mime artist. Actually, he wouldn't fare much better with actions, but if he could say and do as little as possible he'd be fine.

The moose's head over the fireplace spends most of the night watching the Winter Olympics. I think it makes him feel at home. We've had some snow here as well. It didn't stick to the ground this time. This hasn't stopped the neighbours going skiing in the fields, but the type of skiing they enjoy is really just sticking to the ground. It reduces the risk of crashing into a tree. It increases the risk of being caught by the wolf, but there's no chance of that happening. Because there is no wolf.