Queensland, Australia, 4th April 2001.
It was a Wednesday night. Isaiah was on the door. Six foot-four, a hundred and twenty-five kilograms of Fijian muscle. Friendliest guy you could meet. I once saw him pick up a grown man and throw him over a fence. We presented our driver’s licences for inspection.
“Okay boys, have a good night, hey?”
We thanked him and walked in to twenty conversations of varying volume, the clinking of glass, laughter, cackling. A rugby match from South Africa was on the big screen. Poker machines tinkled and beeped from the next room; LaShawn went off to try his luck. A clack and then a cheer from the pool table. It took a moment to acclimatise to the smothering stench of beer. Ice-cold from the tap; emanating from a hundred half-drunk glasses like light from cathedral candles; decades of spilt lager festering in the patterned crimson carpet. Rory looked over at the stage: painted all black and just big enough to squeeze on a four-piece cover band. Tonight it was empty but for a microphone stand.
“How you feeling?” I asked.
He looked around the room, nodding. He smiled. “I’m ready.”
We went to the bar and ordered, collected our drinks and then found a little round table in the corner. We each savoured the first satisfying draught from our schooners. On the wall was a framed cricket bat, signed by the players of the 1995 state team. INXS played on the jukebox.
The Bilby Hotel may not have been a five-star establishment, but it was our local pub and we liked it.
A few beers in, and Rory and I had discussed our way to a cinematic phenomenon: we would rather watch Platoon than Dog Day Afternoon, The Big Lebowski than Platoon, and Dog Day Afternoon than The Big Lebowski. It was the rock, scissors, paper of film. Roadhouse Blues came on the jukebox and I started nodding along. Sweat beaded on my forehead. Rory raised his eyebrows and motioned toward the pokies room. I turned to see LaShawn and some big drunk fellow facing off. The drunk guy was beetroot red and yelling down at LaShawn; LaShawn was staring back up at him, unflinching, grinning.
“They gonna fight or be best friends?” said Rory.
I watched for a moment. LaShawn’s left fist clenched at his side.
“Fight,” I said.
“Best friends,” said Rory.
We watched. The big guy poked a finger into LaShawn’s shoulder. LaShawn moved his left foot back.
“Here we go,” I said.
LaShawn said something. The big guy stood straight up, his eyes wide. I leaned forward. The two of them glared at each other, and then the big guy started laughing; LaShawn slapped him on the shoulder, and the big guy sat back down at his poker machine, still laughing. LaShawn headed for the bar.
“Unbelievable,” I said.
“Told you,” said Rory.
LaShawn joined us at the table with three fresh beers and dealt them out.
“Not a bad crowd in,” he said.
Rory nodded. “Should be fun.”
LaShawn recognised a guy he used to work with and went over to say hi. The two of them played darts. I set down my empty glass.
“You’re going hard on the beers tonight,” said Rory.
I did a quick tally of empty glasses on the table and noticed I was two and a half drinks ahead of him. I shrugged.
“Everything all right?”
“Yeah man,” I said. “Life is good. Looking forward to the set.”
I was surprised to feel tears welling. I managed to stifle them, taking a deep breath and glancing around the room. When I turned back to Rory, he was staring at me. It was a rare look, one of total attention. Usually, it seemed like Rory’s mind was half-elsewhere—not in a stupid way, but in a creative or visionary sort of way. That was my take on it, anyhow. It was not a bad thing; it just meant when he was fully in the moment it could seem intense.
“I’m good,” I assured him. “Really.”
There was some push and shove by the pool table and swearing loud enough to draw attention. An older guy, maybe forty, was angry at two young fellows, and threatened to knock them out. A second later he was lifted off his feet by Isaiah, who escorted him out the side door.
At eight-thirty the entertainment began. It was stand-up comedy night. They had this guy from Brisbane, Wes Ganley, who was going to do a half-hour set. I had seen him once there before; he was pretty good. They always got a local comic to open with a ten-minute set. Tonight it was Rory, making his stand-up debut.
I had already heard Rory’s routine. He practiced it on me and LaShawn. It was a good routine. Aside from one sex joke related to a current news story involving a British celebrity, the act was clean. Some snappy one-liners, a great story about his crazy uncle, and a bit about weddings that had me in hysterics—I was confident Rory’s act would slay. LaShawn sat down next to me. He was looking forward to the act as much as I was.
The owner, Lesley, got up on stage and, after plugging some upcoming pub events, introduced Rory. To a mild round of applause, Rory bounded on stage and grabbed the microphone.
“How’s everyone doing tonight?”
He received a half-hearted response.
“Great, good stuff. Yeah, I’m not feeling so good myself, actually. Yeah, see I just ate dinner—went to an Italian restaurant. You guys like Italian?”
I did not remember this bit from rehearsal. Maybe he tweaked his act.
“Yeah, I ordered the Fettuccine Alfredo. The waiter brings out this giant plate of pasta. You know what I’m talking about. I was expecting a dinner plate, but instead I get a hubcap full of fettuccine.”
This got a few chuckles.
“Yeah, a hubcap from a truck.”
He really leaned into that line. No chuckles this time.
“I’m like, ‘Hey buddy, I ordered the pasta for one, not the, you know, not a… not a bloody feast for a king!’ Yeah. I’m not training for an Olympic marathon.”
I heard a poker machine paying out in the next room. Rory looked around the crowd; he gulped audibly into the microphone. I prayed to God he would get on with his wedding jokes.
“You guys ever go shopping?” he said.
Somebody groaned. Rory looked at the floor, struggling to keep the smile on his face.
“Yeah, shopping is tough,” he said, rubbing his eye. “Like, I hate waiting in line for the checkout.”
This joke was also unfamiliar to me.
“Yeah, that express checkout lane—in some supermarkets it’s twelve items or less, and in some it’s ten items or less. One time I was in a store with an eight items or less lane. It’s like, choose a number already.”
“Just to be safe, I only buy three items at a time now.”
He made a funny face to emphasise the punchline.
“This is f**king terrible,” said a guy near me.
Some of the crowd wandered back to the bar to watch the rugby.
“What about, um… what about petrol stations,” continued Rory.
I looked around and saw confusion and contempt on faces. Some people began quiet conversations.
“You ever put in an exact dollar amount of petrol—like exactly forty dollars’ worth?”
“And then you go in to pay, and you’re really proud of getting the exact amount, and you want someone to notice, but they never do, right?”
He was tanking.
“I think they should have like a bell or something go off if you get the exact dollar amount,” he said, with faltering voice. “Then everyone… everyone would know.”
“Get off!” shouted a guy across the room.
This got the most laughs so far. Rory glanced up at me and winked, then went back to staring at the floor.
That son of a gun. None of these jokes were from his real act. He was bombing on purpose.
A week earlier, after Rory had practiced his jokes on me and LaShawn, I said how the funniest thing ever would be for a comedian to get up on stage and deliberately suck. And he couldn’t look like he was enjoying it, or that he meant to do it—he would have to look like he was genuinely failing and enduring his greatest embarrassment. He would be the only one in on the joke, and the audience would be cringing the whole time. Well, here Rory was doing it. I couldn’t believe it. When I realised, I had to put my hand over my mouth to muffle the laughter. And it was not just laughter at something funny, but laughter out of real happiness. I had almost forgotten what that felt like. Joke after excruciating joke, Rory continued for the most awkward six minutes I had ever seen, before being booed off stage.
My stomach ached from holding in the laughter.
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