In November I posted a poem called The Ballad of the Observational Stand-Up Comedian on here. Former Empty Page guest star Imogen Clarke PHD critiqued it with the zinger: “Good, but like much of your work it has the air of well executed Stewart Lee fanfic.” Some might see that as constructive criticism, not me; I saw it as a challenge. What would a piece of well executed Stewart Lee fan-fiction actually look like? Well, this short story is sort of the answer. I have also made a YouTube video with a spoken word version of the story, some sub-The Fall music and some freaky visuals for those who find reading a bit of a chore. Conveniently the music and the story are split between the left and right channels (a homage to / rip-off of The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift”) so by changing the balance – or taking a earphone out – you can hear either the music or the story.
Now, none of what follows is true but I think it tells you everything you need to know about comedy in the 21st century.
The Men Whose Heads Expanded
The comedian left the stage to his customary rapturous applause, but as he took the concrete steps down into the bowels of London’s O2, his mind felt as crowded as the sold-out arena. He could not concentrate on the praise of family and fans. He barely spoke to his management as they manhandled him. He couldn’t concentrate on a single thing being said to him, everyone who spoke to him seemed to blend in with the babble in his head. He looked at himself in the mirror. His head, his head seemed somehow larger.
When it was time to leave and take the car back to his home he stopped. He gazed over the river. Something on the other side of the Thames seemed to be calling him. He motioned to the driver.
“Tonight… tonight, I’ll find my own way home.” he said.
A bus took the comedian to Bethnal Green tube station. He knew he still needed to travel further north, north by north west. He set off up Cambridge Heath Road. Something was drawing him into the north of London. He felt connected to the city, it seemed to be sentient, its every soul was speaking in unison. Yet, from this multitude of voices, amongst this verbal chaos, he could make out a single repeated phrase. A small chorus repeating the same words, but he couldn’t make out what the words were. They were still faint. They were still far away.
He realised he was following the sound. He remembered the time he had lost his phone and called it repeatedly, how he had traced the dimly heard ring through the house, finally finding the errant iPhone under the sofa. He wasn’t sure if he actually remembered this or if it was just a story he had told. Perhaps, the story had been based on something that had happened. Perhaps, the story was based on an understanding of shared experience. The comedian felt as if now he was being overwhelmed by those shared stories. He felt like a radio tuned into every station that had ever been. He carried on further north. The voices seemed to increase in volume with every step. He took a left. Stoke Newington Church Street. The words were surfacing.
Finally, he arrived at a church. A church at the end of Church Street. The repeated phrase was now filling his head, drowning out the other voices. Over and over again. Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. He walked down the path to the church doors. He twisted the door handle. He opened the door. He entered the church. People filled the pews towards the front of the nave. Their heads were bowed, they were slowly chanting the words that had been filling his head. A red curtain obscured the apse where the altar presumably was. A man stood in front of the curtain, he had a greying quiff and wore an ill-fitting black suit. He looked like a lot of people; he looked like a lot of people who had let themselves go. No one seemed to acknowledge the comedian’s presence in the church but the chanting petered out and an expectant silence he had not experienced in years fell across the room.
“I know you” said the comedian to the man on the apse.
“Yeah, yeah I suppose you do.” The man said in a voice that betrayed the faintest hints of a Birmingham accent. “You’ve been hearing voices haven’t you, the voices, you’ve heard them right? Hundreds of voices, hundreds of voices in your head.”
“I suppose you put them there, you put them there to prove how clever you are.” The comedian replied.
“No, we only put the chant you heard tonight into your head.” Said the man. “We were using it to bring you here. No, the voices, the voices you put there yourself. You see you, like all comedians, are telepathic; all comedians are attuned to the experiences of others, we are like radios, we can tune into the telekinetic subconscious of the nation. But you, you are more powerful than you realise, your brain is being flooded. The receiver is broken, you are unable to tune in, you are unable to tune out, you are taking in every idea, every emotion on the planet. Your head is expanding; you cannot contain all these thoughts, your mind is drowning in a subconscious sea.”
“What do you propose I do about this?” said the comedian.
The man drew back the curtain that had shrouded the altar. The altar had a white tarpaulin fitted round it, atop the altar sat a single instrument. The man picked it up; it appeared to be a primitive hand drill made from wood and rusty iron.
“We need to relieve the pressure, we must stop your head expanding; you must be trepanned.”
Almost subconsciously the comedian noticed the people sitting in the pews all had scars on their heads. Slightly below their hairlines, they all had large circular scars, the kind of scars one would imagine a drill might leave once it had penetrated a human skull.
“We’ve all had it done” the man said, “we have all let the thoughts of the masses out. We had to, so we could hear our own thoughts, so we could hear our own voices, so we could have our own voices.” He paused for a moment noticing the look of terrified realisation that had crossed the comedian’s face. “It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt much.”
The people in the pews began to rise. They turned to face the comedian.
“No” said the comedian “you will not be boring a hole into my head. I will not be lobotomised tonight, not ever. I am not like you. I do not need to cut myself off from the words of the masses. Indeed, I must hear all they have to say, for I am their mirror, I stand on a stage and tell them what they already knew, but with words they had never considered. I will not speak a private language; I must be the voice of the voiceless, I must speak for the silent majority.”
The man placed the drill back on the altar. He shrugged and then spoke:
“Well, alright but your head, your head will continue to expand. It will fill with thought and you will distort, you will become a grotesque parody of humanity, a warped and remote reflection of a person.”
The comedian turned the door handle and opened. He looked at the man, he paused and, stood in the doorway with the sun rising behind him, said:
“Well, on my head be it.”
The man laughed. The people in the pews laughed.
“A fine punch line to leave on” said the man.
“A good comedian always needs an out” replied the comedian; he took a bow, he walked out the door, he closed it behind him and without looking back strode into the dewy London dawn.