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Laughingstock – Chapter 3

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July 2014

The pilot announced that the flight was beginning its descent into Portland. Duckie lifted the shade, but beyond the wing there was nothing but clouds. He assessed the wing: It seemed to be holding up okay. He slid the window shade back down.

He thought back to that feverish fall of 2005. After he and Chuck had decided to give it a go, it had become an obsession. They spent all of their free time in either’s bedroom, pitching ideas, refining ideas, discarding ideas, and writing down the good ones.

They sometimes argued about what to write about. “We need to just talk about real stuff,” Chuck had said one day when they were spitballing ideas in his bedroom. “Things people can relate to. Something with a message.”

“A message?” asked Duckie. “Like what? You going to spread the good news about Jesus or something?”

“I don’t know,” shrugged Chuck. “I just think we can do more than just make people laugh.”

“Why?” asked Duckie. “That’s the whole damn point. People don’t go to a comedy show for politics or philosophy or any sort of fuckin’ message. They just want to laugh!”

“Yeah, I guess so…”

“Look, let’s get good at making people laugh, then we can start talking about messages and stuff,” said Duckie. “That’s what I want to do. I want to make them laugh so hard they crap their pants!”

“Eww!” exclaimed Chuck. “You can’t be serious!”

“I dunno, I dunno,” said Duckie. “I’m just talkin’ shit.”

“Yeah, literally.”

“Or maybe like that Monty Python sketch about the funniest joke in the world,” said Duckie.

“I don’t know that one,” said Chuck.

“Damn, you’re lame!” said Duckie. “That’s, like, one of their best sketches, in my humble opinion. I’ve got it on DVD. You have to see it. The gag is that this guy writes a joke so fuckin’ funny that anyone who hears it laughs themselves to death.”

“Damn, that’s even worse! What the hell’s up with you, Duckie? I just want to share something with the audience, but you want to make them shit themselves and die!”

“Okay, okay, slack, slack,” said Duckie. “We’ll keep it simple. No pants-crapping, no deaths, and definitely no messages. Agreed?”


They worked up a set and rehearsed tirelessly for the Wednesday night open mic at Night Yuks. Without telling their parents, they had gotten a ride downtown from a buddy who had his learner’s permit. They were almost stopped at the door – they hadn’t considered that they needed to be twenty-one to get into the club. Fortunately, the doorman was very stoned, and flirting with a woman in a tube top and microskirt, so they were able to slip in unnoticed.

They managed to make the show list, which was something of a long shot. And they were on next to last, which meant they were very tired by the time they took the stage.

Their routine had gone well, but had elicited very little reaction from the audience, just as tired by then as Duckie and Chuck. Then Duckie had gone off script with a line about how they were molested as children. By some minor miracle, they had been able to win back the audience with some inspired improvisation.

As they made their way towards the exit, the woman they had seen chatting with the doorman appeared.

“That was some act,” she said. “My name’s Stacy. I run this joint.”

“Yeah, well, it didn’t really pan out like we’d planned,” said Chuck, shooting an angry look at Duckie.

“That line about being sexually abused was pretty edgy,” said Stacy. “You pushed it over the line, but brought it back quick enough to keep from getting in trouble. That’s good. You two play well off of each other. I hope I’ll see you back here again.”

“Really?” said Duckie and Chuck in unison.

Stacy laughed. “Sure thing. We’re always looking for new talent, and if you guys keep working at it, I think you can do well.”

“Yeah, we’ll definitely come back,” said Duckie.

“Just do me one favor before you do,” said Stacy. “Get yourselves some IDs, okay? I’ve gotta liquor license to maintain.”

Duckie had found a head shop near the NCSU campus that was able to provide them with realistic fake IDs for $150 a pop. Duckie’s ID had the name “George Pryor”; Chuck’s was “Richard Carlin.” They used them to get onstage at Night Yuks regularly. They became pets of Stacy, the club’s manager. This engendered some resentment from the other comics, but Chuckie and Duckie didn’t care – they were getting stage time at the city’s premiere comedy club.

Over the next several weeks, they were able to hone their act. It was still pretty rough, but they could tell that it was getting better. They were even getting more laughs from the jaded open-mic audience, which consisted mostly of other aspiring comics. They felt that things were going well, and that it was time to start plotting their next big move. It dawned on them that they might actually be able to make a go of the comedy business.

It wasn’t meant to be.

One day shortly after Christmas break ended, Duckie came home to find a “For Sale” sign on the front lawn and a moving truck in the driveway. It turned out that his dad’s bigshot business deal had been a spectacular bust. Not only had he bankrupted the Dunne family finances, but had also incurred substantial legal liabilities. The family was going to move to stay with some of his dad’s relatives in Pennsylvania, in a miserable little town called Fester.

Chuckie and Duckie arranged a farewell performance at the Night Yuks open mic. They did a last-minute rehearsal in Chuck’s bedroom before heading out.

“Man, we’re gonna slay ‘em tonight,” said Chuck after they had run through the set twice. “Gonna go out there and bring the house down.” Duckie could hear a hitch in his friend’s voice.

“Shit, man…” Duckie started, then his words got tangled up in his throat. He knew then that he was going to cry, but he didn’t care. It was more important to say what he felt rather than trying to act like some two-bit tough guy. “Shit, man,” he began again. “I’m really, really gonna miss you, man. I just can’t say…” The tears were coming now, but it didn’t matter. “This so totally sucks. Man, you’ve been my best friend since Ms. Prendergast’s sixth-grade homeroom. We were gonna take over the comedy scene, but more than that … more than that, I just don’t know what I’m gonna do without you around. Shit.”

He looked up and could see that Chuck was trying hard to keep from breaking down. His lower lip was trembling and as Duckie watched, a tear slipped out of the corner of Chuck’s eye and slid down his cheek. “We’re still gonna take over the comedy world, hombre,” said Chuck thickly. “Ain’t nothin’ gonna stop that.”

“Yeah, man!” said Duckie. “We can still collaborate, man. We’re fucking gonna make it work, with cassette tapes, with MP3s. with the fuckin’ Pony Express if we have to! Goddammit! My stupid old man, and his dumbshit greedy business bullshit!”

“Yeah, we can do it!” said Chuck. “We can keep going long-distance.”

“I gotta tell you this, Chuck,” said Duckie. “You’re my brother, man, the brother my numbskull folks never gave me. Probably for the best in the end – one less fucked up Dunne in the world, y’know? But we’re still a team, man. We’re gonna kick ass in comedy together! We can do it, man! You know it! Because we got the balls and the brains, and we’re fuckin’ tough…”

He burst into tears, and so did Chuck. Chuck sat there on the bed sobbing and watching Duckie standing across the room doing the same. He stood up, walked stiffly over to him, and wrapped his arms around him. Duckie received the hug awkwardly, but after a second he softened and wrapped his arms around Chuck’s back. They stood that way for a long time, not saying anything.

A light tapping came at the bedroom door. “Hey, guys,” came Mr. Marshall’s voice. “You about ready to head out?”

Chuck cleared his throat a few times. “Yeah, Dad,” he managed, not quite keeping the wobble from his voice. “We’re just wrapping up some rehearsal stuff. Meet you down in the garage in a sec, okay?”

They did a killer set, and even some of the more assholey comics came by to congratulate then and say goodbye to Duckie. Stacy gave them both Night Yuks sweatshirts to commemorate the occasion.

The move to Fester had been rough on Duckie. He’d always thought Raleigh was a shithole, but that was nothing compared to the uncivilized backwater of Fester, Pennsylvania. Duckie had trouble fitting into his new school, and frequently got into fights.

His long-distance collaboration with Chuck had worked at first. They’d worked on bits and swapped MP3 files online. Duckie was able to make it down to Raleigh twice over that first summer, and another time the following Christmas. Then things started to dry up.

One of the reasons was that Chuck’s craft was progressing much more rapidly than Duckie’s. Chuck had become a regular at Night Yuks, while Duckie had to settle for the monthly “Comedy Nite” at a bar in Weaverville, twenty miles from Fester. Duckie could tell that his friend was developing much more quickly than he was. He tried not to be resentful, but only partially succeeded. By the time they were high school seniors, their career as a duo was essentially dead.

Their friendship was also strained. Their phone calls and visits became more infrequent, and dried up entirely when Chuck went to University of Colorado to study psychology. Duckie was eager to just get the hell out of Fester, but his grades precluded his admission to anywhere fancy. He opted to study business at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The town was no metropolis, but it wasn’t nearly as small and backward as Fester.

Indiana had the added advantage of being close to Pittsburgh, which allowed Duckie more opportunities to work on his comedy. He did this with enthusiasm, feeling that he had to make up for the lost time spent in Fester. While his comedy improved immensely, his grades suffered. After another year of more partying than studying, Duckie decided to pack it in at IUP. Predictably, his parents howled bloody murder, but since they weren’t paying for tuition, Duckie felt that they didn’t have any vote on the matter. He didn’t see any point in racking up more student debts for a degree he didn’t care about.

He bid farewell to Indiana, Pennsylvania and relocated to Baltimore. It wasn’t exactly a garden spot, but rents were cheap, there were a lot more opportunities to perform along the I-95 corridor between Philadelphia and D.C. and crummy grunt work allowed him to cover his shoestring living expenses.

Duckie hadn’t heard from Chuck until earlier this year, when the news of Mickey’s cancer diagnosis had broken. Chuck had called Duckie, and they had fretted over the idea that their comedy idol might not be long for this world. They didn’t have to fret long; less than two weeks later, Mickey was dead.

Chuck had called Duckie to share the news, and suggested that they get together to celebrate the life of Mickey Gross. He said he knew of a cool venue in rural Oregon where they could kick back and let loose. Duckie had agreed eagerly. His gigs had been sparse and his current job – working a brake press [no idea what this job is] at an aboveground pool company – was horrible. Duckie felt he needed to get out of town for a while and consider his options.

When he got down to it, his only misgiving was the long flight to Portland. Fortunately, that was almost over now. The pilot came on the PA to announce that they were mere minutes away from touching down in Portland, and that people on the left side of the plane would get a good view of Mount Hood.

Duckie raised the window blind and was greeted by a breathtaking view of a grand, snow-covered mountain sliding by at eye level. The cloud cover had cleared, and the afternoon sun cast a golden glow on the peak . Duckie’s breath caught in his throat, and he suddenly felt much better than he had in weeks. He was going to get together with his oldest friend and celebrate the life of their hero. With a smile, he put his seat back in its original upright position and got ready for landing.

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