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Laughingstock – Chapter 2

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September 2005

It was a lovely September Saturday in Raleigh, sunny and warm, but with just a hint of autumn in the breezes that wafted through the Plantation Pointe neighborhood. Duckie had his bedroom window open, even though the air conditioning was cranked up. He liked the scent of the pine straw in the sun. The houses in the neighborhood were large and tended towards Greek Revival architectural styles: a row of Taras, set well back from the street, with tasteful security fences around the perimeter. Every house had a crew of Mexican gardeners who spread fresh pine straw every month. It was really the only thing Duckie liked about the neighborhood.

Duckie saw Chuck come around the corner, pushing his ten-speed. He looked sweaty and tired. Duckie knew that he had biked nearly six miles from his house in Quail Hills, closer to the center of the city. Quail Hills was a nice neighborhood, but not nearly as fancy as Plantation Pointe. They were both well in the boundaries of the Brookmill School District. Duckie had met Chuck on the first day of middle school, three years ago.

Chuck paused in front of the walkway and leaned back on the bike seat. He was tall, with blond hair that just about touched the back of his neck. Duckie figured that Chuck could be a jock if he applied himself – except that his friend hated sports even more than Duckie did. Duckie was short, dark-haired and built like a fire plug, and had definitely attracted bad attention from the Millbrook jock contingent with his nonstop smartassery.

A coil of nervous excitement unspooled in Duckie’s belly as he watched Chuck lean his bike against one of the portico columns. He’d spent a long time thinking about bringing up his idea with Chuck, and he was worried that Chuck would just laugh in his face. The thought that he might say yes was just as scary. But Duckie had seen something on TV last night that had convinced him to go ahead and take the plunge.

First, he had to get Chuck past his mom. Mrs. Dunne was old-school Scarlett O’Hara Southern gentry – or at least acted like it. She interrogated anyone who came to visit with polite yet probing questions.

Duckie heard the muted bong-bong of the doorbell, and crept down the hallway, poking his head around the corner so he could see down the staircase to the front door. His mother opened the door, resplendent in her massively hair-sprayed blond ’do and a tasteful pantsuit.

“Charles!” she said as she opened the door. “I thought you were the caterer. You haven’t seen a catering van in the neighborhood, have you?”

“No, ma’am. Sorry.”

“Oh, fiddlesticks!” said Mrs. Dunne. “Oh well. How are you enjoying high school, Charles?”

“It’s okay, I guess. It’s a big adjustment from middle school, that’s for sure.”

“I’m glad you like it. Brookmill is one of the top high schools in the state. It’s a magnet school, you know. People from all over the county go to great lengths to get their children enrolled there. We’re very fortunate to live within the district. Wilbert seems to be having some difficulty adjusting. I can’t understand why.”

Duckie moved to the top of the stairs and made an impatient “hurry up” gesture. Chuck saw him and shrugged.

Duckie ducked back behind the corner and hollered, “Cripes, Mom, would you just send him up already? And stop talking about me like I’m some sort of retard!”

“Wilbert, you are being quite rude!” exclaimed Mrs. Dunne. “You should come down here and greet your guest!”

“Just send him up already!” Duckie said. He retreated to his bedroom and slammed the door. He waited a few moments and stuck his head out the door to see Chuck coming down the hall. “C’mon, c’mon,” Duckie hissed, gesturing for Chuck to hurry. “Before Momzilla decides to follow you!”

Chuck sprinted the last fifteen feet and slid through the doorway. Duckie slammed the door behind him and locked it. Duckie’s bedroom was a total mess, with clothes and books piled on the king-size bed and all over the Scandinavian furniture. A large entertainment center dominated the far end of the room.

“Jeez, what’s all the fuss, Gus?” asked Chuck. “Your mom seemed pretty worked up about some caterer or something.”

“Ah, the ’rents are throwing some sort of garden party tomorrow,” said Duckie. “The caterers fucked something up and Mom is in a tizzy.”

“What about your dad?” asked Chuck. Duckie’s dad was a surgeon, and had a number of business enterprises, including several apartment buildings and car washes.

“Ah, Dad couldn’t give the first third of a fuck about this garden party,”said Duckie. “Other than the fact that Mom won’t shut up about it, that is. He’s got some sort of big-whoop business deal in the works. It’s making him act like a bigger asshole than usual. Fortunately, he’s at the office today. The only drawback is that it leaves only me to listen to Mom bitching about the caterers.”

“Oh, intercourse the caterers!” said Chuck. “What about that thing with Mickey on Letterman last night? You saw it, right?”

“Of course I saw it,” said Duckie. “The whole thing was staged. It’s obvious.”

“I don’t know,” said Chuck. “Letterman looked pretty pissed.”

“Of course he looked pissed,” countered Duckie. “He was playing along. If he’d just brushed it off, it wouldn’t have had the same impact.”

“Too bad we can’t watch it again and say for sure,” said Chuck. He unshouldered the backpack he’d been carrying.

“Who says we can’t?”asked Duckie.

“Not me!” said Chuck. He pulled a videocassette from his backpack and waved it triumphantly.

“Dude, what the hell is that?” asked Duckie.

“A VCR tape,” said Chuck uncertainly. “What? I taped Letterman last night so we could re-watch Mickey.”

“Man, the Stone Age just called. They want their technology back!”

“Then how the hell are we supposed to watch it?”

“With that!” said Duckie, indicating a box on top of the TV.

“Shit, when did you get a TiVo?”

“Birthday present.”

“Fuckin’ cool, man,” said Chuck. “You always get the best gifts.”

“It’s a sorry substitute for real parenting,” said Duckie. He snatched a pair of remotes from his desk, fired up the TV and the TiVo, and was soon fast-forwarding through the previous night’s episode of Late Show with David Letterman. “Here we go,” he said, and pressed play.

The show’s logo appeared, accompanied by a blast of music from Paul Shaffer and his band. The camera cut to Letterman, grinning as always, sitting at his desk.

“Our next guest is a long-time friend of the show,” said Letterman. “You know him as Alvin on the TV show Star Monkey Empire, and for his always original stand-up comedy. Please welcome … Mickey Gross!”

The band struck up a brass-heavy version of the Star Monkey Empire theme song, and Mickey came sauntering onto the set. He looked rough. His sandy hair was mussed up and he had a three-day growth of beard. He was wearing a tattered NYU sweatshirt with a dark stain on the left shoulder – it could’ve been barbecue sauce or dried blood. His jeans were faded and blown out at the knees, and he was wearing two different sneakers. He threw his lanky frame into the chair next to Letterman, and belched.

“Good to see you, too, Mickey,” said Letterman.

“Jesus, he looks like shit!” commented Duckie.

“I know,” said Chuck. “Like he’s drunk or something.”

“I thought he didn’t drink,” said Duckie. “Isn’t he into one of those woo-woo cults that don’t allow booze or drugs?”

“I dunno, he might be faking it…”


On the screen, Letterman looked nonplussed. “So, Mickey, you got some bad news recently: Star Monkey Empire will not be back for another season. The Wolff Network has decided to cancel it, despite consistently solid ratings.”

“Praise be to God!” intoned Mickey. “Best news of my life hearing that show got canceled. What a load of garbage. Mindless drivel for mindless morons.”

“Whoa!” said Letterman. “You’re worse than the critic for the Post!” This brought a rim-shot from the drummer.

“No, seriously,” said Mickey. “Dave, this show is the most … just a sec…” He fished in the pocket of his jeans and dug out a squashed pack of Winstons. He pulled a bent smoke from the pack, straightened it, and lit it. “Got an ashtray?” he asked.

“Uh, no,” said Letterman, stone faced. “This is a non-smoking facility. Has been for about twenty years. So, no ashtray.”

“No worries,” said Mickey. “I’ll make do.” He reached over and plucked Letterman’s coffee cup from his desk and ashed into it.

“Holy shit!” said Duckie. “I still can’t believe it!”

“I dunno,” said Chuck. “It could all be staged. Worked it out ahead of the show.”

“No way! Look at Letterman – he’s pissed!”

On screen, Mickey took another puff and blew a plume over Letterman’s head. Letterman just glared.

“So, anyway, Dave,” said Mickey. “That monkey show was sucking my soul dry. There’s no vision, no creation. It’s all just hack writing and tired formulas. Just like all network television.”

“Really,” said Letterman dryly.

“Look, I don’t want to talk about that damn show,” Mickey continued. “I’d like to talk about what’s next for me artistically.”

“Please do,” said Letterman. “Thinking of taking up macramé?”

“No,” said Mickey. “I want to bring back a comedic art form, one that has been dead for decades.”

“I wish you’d bring some comedy to this appearance,” said Letterman. “Because there hasn’t been much so far.”

“Yeah, whatever,” said Mickey, and he launched another plume of smoke over Letterman’s head. “What I’m talking about is bringing back the comedy duo. There were Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Nichols and May, Cheech and Chong…”

“Beavis and Butthead,” said Letterman.

“That was just another dumbass TV show,” snarled Mickey. “I’m talking about bringing back an underappreciated form of comedic expression, one with unlimited creative potential!”

“So you’re saying that you’ve found a partner,” said Letterman.

“You’re fucking A,” said Mickey. The last part was bleeped, but it was pretty clear by how his mouth moved.

Letterman cut his eyes offstage, and then turned back to Mickey. “So, is this someone we’ve heard of, your new partner?” he asked.

“No, no, absolutely not,” said Mickey. “My new partner is absolutely new, but he’s a damn comedy genius! I met him on Houston Street, where he was busking and directing traffic. We hit it off right away. We started talking, putting some material together, and tonight is his public debut. His name’s Ernie Willis, and I think you’re really going to love him.”

Letterman looked skeptical. “Oooo-kay,” he said. “Well, let’s go ahead and get this over with. Without any further ado, ladies and gentlemen … Ernie Willis!”

The camera panned over to the multi-colored curtain from where the guests usually appeared. It remained motionless. The seconds dragged out.

Finally, Letterman started to say, “Well, I guess…”

He was interrupted by a loud crash and a gasp from the audience. The camera panned jerkily over to the bandstand, where a man staggered out, knocking over a high-hat stand. He wore a black knit cap, oversized aviator sunglasses, and a stained cloth overcoat that looked so foul you could almost smell it through the television. He had a huge salt-and-pepper beard that covered his face. The small amount of skin that was visible was gray.

“Ah, here he is now,” said Mickey.

The man extricated himself from the drum equipment and looked around in confusion.

“Mister, um, Ernie,” said Letterman. “Over here, please.” He waved his hand at the open stage area between the bandstand and the desk. “Over here. Right in the middle.”

Ernie seemed to grasp this, nodded, and took a few staggering steps towards the indicated area. Then he stopped abruptly and stiffened. His hands went to his belly and his shoulders started hitching. He made a few retching sounds and abruptly spun away from the camera. The camera operator quickly turned the camera back to the desk. Still audible was a yarking sound, followed by a wet splash. The audience reaction was immediate: horrified “oohhs” and some sarcastic applause. Immediately, Paul Shaffer launched the band into a version of Aerosmith’s “Sick as a Dog.”

The camera stayed on a shot of the desk. Letterman gestured wildly off-camera. Mickey Gross was doubled over with laughter. The camera zoomed in on Letterman, who said, “Looks like Mr Ernie had dinner in the CBS commissary! That’s all the time we have for tonight, folks. Clean up on aisle three!” The screen went to the closing credits and Duckie stopped the TiVo.

“Man, he’s done for,” said Chuck. “I think we’ve seen Mickey’s last appearance on Letterman. Or any other TV show, for that matter.”

“We’ll see,” said Duckie. Actually he didn’t care that much about the show – he was about to make his pitch to Chuck. He felt his heart racing. “Actually,” he said, “I was thinking more about what Mickey said about the lost art form.”

“Whaddaya mean?”

“That thing he said about comedy duos,” said Duckie. “There used to be tons of them. Now there’s hardly any.”

“Then what is your point?” asked Chuck. “Besides the one on the top of your head?”

“I think Mickey was right about comedy duos. I think that maybe they’re due for a comeback.”


Duckie took a deep breath. It was now or never. “Well, um, I was thinking that, y’know, maybe you and me could, like, think about doing comedy. Real comedy. You know, together.” It felt weird saying it out loud. It was almost as if he had told Chuck that he was queer for him or something.

Chuck just stared at him, his eyes watchful, roaming across Duckie’s face.

The tension drew out. Finally, Duckie said, “Well? Say something! If you’re gonna laugh in my face then go ahead and laugh in my face, okay?”

Another moment passed before Chuck said. “Let me show you something.” He rooted around in his backpack, pulled out a spiral-bound notebook and handed it to Duckie. “No one else knows about this.”

Duckie flipped it open. Page after page was covered in Chuck’s chicken-scratch handwriting. They were jokes. Some short, some long – many bearing a remarkable similarity to bits by Woody Allen, George Carlin … and Mickey Gross.

“Wow,” said Duckie. “How long have you, y’know, been working on this?”

“’Bout a year,” said Chuck. “I started, like, last Thanksgiving. My folks were really fighting a lot, so I spent most of the break in my room. Writing jokes.”

“Three by five cards,” said Duckie.


“I use three by five cards. I read somewhere that a lot of comedians do that when they’re working up material.” Duckie handed Chuck the notebook and plopped down on the bed. “Jesus!” he said. “I was so damn nervous about bringing this up with you. I was afraid that you’d, y’know, just laugh.”

“Yeahhhh,” said Chuck. “I’d been thinking the same thing, to tell you the truth. Ever since I started working on the notebook. I’d thought about maybe trying to perform or something, but whenever I tried to figure out, like how or where – well, I just kinda shut down.”

“I know,” said Duckie. “Just the thought of getting up on stage – alone – and trying to make people laugh. It kinda makes me want to piss my pants. Metaphorically speaking.”

“But if we didn’t have to get up on stage alone,” said Chuck, nodding vigorously. “If we did it, y’know, together, that wouldn’t be so bad.”

“So you up for it?” asked Duckie, his heart thumping. “You wanna try doing comedy together. For reals?”

Chuck was nodding even harder now. “Yeah!” he said. “Hell yeah! We could totally do it! Man, Mickey was right. The comedy duo is due for a comeback, and we’re the ones to do it. Dig it: The comedy stylings of Chuckie and Duckie!”

“Yeah,” said Duckie. “How about ‘Duckie and Chuckie’? It’s got a better ring to it.”

“But ‘Chuckie and Duckie’ is alphabetical,” said Chuck. “Besides, I thought of it first.”

“Bullshit. We’ll flip for it.”

They flipped. Chuck won.

“Okay, so ‘Chuckie and Duckie’ it is,” said Chuck.

“Best two out of three?” asked Duckie.

“Fuck, no. I won. You’re not gonna be a douche about this name thing, are you?”

“Naw, it’s cool,” said Duckie. “It’s kind of a rush, man. I’ve been thinking about this a long time. We’re gonna fuckin’ do this!”

“Hell, yes!” said Chuck. “High five, partner!” They slapped skin.

“Okay, first things first,” said Duckie. “We’re gonna need material. Pretty much all of the stuff I wrote was for one person, y’know? How about you?”

“Pretty much the same,” admitted Chuck.

“No worries. We’re a couple of funny guys – I’m sure we’ll be able to come up with some good material. Now the next question. Where are we gonna perform?”

“There’s always Night Yuks,” said Chuck. Night Yuks was a top-tier comedy club, and got most of the A-listers touring the East Coast. “I’ll bet we can get on their open mic night or something.”

“Good,” said Duckie. “That’ll give us something to shoot for. We’ll need to work out some material before we go for Night Yuks. Get some stage time.”

“Where?” asked Chuck.

“I bet we can find a coffee shop or something that has an open mic,” said Duckie. “We’ll figure something out. First we need material, though. You got any blank pages in that notebook?”

Chuck laughed. “Plenty!” He riffled through the pages, showing that most of them were untouched.

“Let’s get busy then!” said Duckie. “Fuckin’-A right,” said Chuck. “Watch out, world, here comes the amazing new comedy team of Chuckie and Duckie!”

Chapter 3