I had fantasized about the moment of my rebellion for days. There hadn’t been a bag over my head since Manila Man had become my escort to the Blogging Chamber and I just knew, eventually, I’d be led down that hallway for the last time. I had imagined myself muttering something under my breath like “It’s payback time,” before exploding into a fit of vengeful violence:
We’re walking away from my cage, a gun to my back, when I stop dead in my tracks and slam my elbow backward into my kidnapper’s gut (he drops the gun). I turn and whale on his doubled-over body before sprinting to the exit and safety.
There’s a gun in my face. I steady my gaze, careful not to telegraph anything, ensuring the person looking down the barrel doesn’t see what’s coming for him before I smack his hand away with my left (he drops the gun) as my right gouges out his eyes. I leave him behind, screaming, bloody hands pressed to his face. I sprint to the exit and to safety.
Resting against the back of my head is that familiar pistol. I chat casually over my shoulder about whatever is on the screen, turn as though intending to explain further and then SNATCH!–I have my enemy’s crotch in a vice-grip. He drops the gun because I yank him into a backflip by the balls. While he’s flipping in the air I kick him in the back, sending his still-flipping body into the brick wall. He groans in pain among shattered bits of wall and what remains of his reproductive organs as I sprint to the exit and safety.
The list goes on. One of my imagined scenarios was going to play out any day now. I just had to wait for the right moment, and pick a better one-liner to deliver when the shit went down.
So there I sat, explaining to my gun-wielding kidnapper what had become a facet of comedy so painfully meta I would never again explore it, and for reasons I still don’t fully understand, I could not wait any longer. No plans, nothing thought-out, no surveying of the surroundings or first moves guaranteed to capture the element of surprise. Nothing at all like that in fact. One second I was describing how telling the same joke for hours at a time made it funnier. The next second:
I was on my feet. The gun fired LOUD. Never heard anything so loud, and after the explosion there was no sound in the tiny room at all. The left side of my torso was warm and wet. Both my hands on the gun. Fingers groped, wrists and elbows angled in attempts at rending the pistol from the other’s grip. We danced, our swaying arms and shuffling feet making no sound I could hear at all. My gaze met his and there was no fear in Manila’s eyes–it was the grim look of a man determined not to lose his life. “It’s… payback time,” I grunted. He head-butted me, forehead-to-nose. My eyes welled up. I staggered. Deafened silence gave way to ringing. My grip must have loosened. He shot me in the face.
I’m back. The bullet wounds are healing. Where was I? I don’t have a lot of time…
“It’s kind of a meta-joke,” I explained for the fourth time. “The graph is a joke about joke funniness over time. You tell a joke. It’s funny. Or not funny. It gets a reaction of some sort.” I pointed at the first trough in the graph. “Then it’s done, and if you repeat the joke it is absolutely 100% guaranteed to be not funny. You might get one retelling that’s not devoid of humor but after that, comedic value dips to zero. Are you with me so far?”
Manila Man scribbled feverishly at the bottom of a yellow legal pad, flipped the sheet over the spine and began again at the top of the next page. He was on page four. I had been attempting to explain this lame-ass frankenstein of a joke for the past twenty minutes. His pen, one of those cheap clear ball-points with no cap, wobbled clumsily as he wrote. It clacked against the trigger-guard of the gun which he somehow held in the same hand.
“Mhm,” he hummed at me, never looking up from his writing. “So first, the joke is funny. Then it’s not funny.”
I gazed at his writing/gun-wielding hand: transfixed, partially in awe of the circus-act going on in the hand and head of the man before me. Primarily though, I watched the gun. It was that very gun which had been held either in my face or against the back of my skull for the better part of the last 24 hours; and maybe I told you this already, but I wanted it. I was going to have it.
“But then it can be funny again?”
“Not for a little while.” I looked away from the gun. “You repeat the joke, over and over again, all along this line here,” I pointed at the bottom of the graph. “Around here, people think you’re an imbecile. ‘Didn’t he just tell that joke?’ they say to themselves.
“Here, they know you’re one.
“Around about here they start to hate you. ‘Why is he doing this to us?’ they will ask themselves and, later, each other. But here:” I pointed to the graph’s upward slope. “Someone hears you start it up again. That same. Old. Joke. The elements of surprise and humor no longer enter the equation. But something magical happens. This guy chuckles anyway. You’ve hardly even begun the joke and someone’s already laughing again. Why?”
The man didn’t answer, he just wrote and wrote, probably transcribing every word and missing it all. His jotting hand slid from one side of the paper to the other, the gun he held with it wavering from side to side. I swayed, keeping out of its aim. It was so close. I could see the red band around the safety switch (off), the grooves along the side of the barrel. I took a preparatory breath, then jerked when he spoke.
“I thought a joke was funny or not funny, how can it change like this?”
“The joke is not funny. The joke is dead. Long dead,” I explained, looking away from his weapon with affected casualness. “At this point it’s not the joke that’s getting laughs. It’s the meta-joke: the fact that you’re still telling this joke… is now the joke.” Manila Man was back to his writing, nodding absently as though he were “getting it.” He wasn’t getting it. Hell, I wasn’t getting it. This stupid ugly graph picture was supposed to be a joke based on the ridiculous notion of trying to explain comedy with a set of rules. Now it had itself become a joke repeated ad nauseum, the very concept it described. It had not yet gotten funnier over time.
Lately I’ve gotten a lot of questions from readers about my situation, which I’d like to take the time to answer here.
Caroline from Ann Arbor, MI writes: Hey John, You keep saying “Day X of my captivity.” If you’re locked away without a view of the outside world, how do you know what day it is?
Thanks for writing, Caroline. When you never see sunlight, you don’t lose track of time completely, you just end up inventing your own method of tracking it. For instance, I have no idea what day of the week it actually is, however I do feel (though I can not be 100% certain) that I know how many days I have been here. Each day I stay awake until my eyelids are having trouble staying open. I sleep, and when I awaken I call it “tomorrow.” I get up immediately, resisting the urge to snooze on the cot, and in this way I keep my sleep schedule regulated and hopefully unchanged. So while I may not know for certain if the people outside are calling this moment “morning,” or even if the sun is shining, I do have my own “mornings,” “afternoons,” and “evenings” corresponding to certain daily rituals, such as doing an hour’s worth of push-ups and sit-ups, or being taken to the Blogging Chamber to sit at this very keyboard and answer imaginary mother fuckers from Ann Arbor who DONT EVEN EXIST, BECAUSE NO ONE CAN WRITE TO ME, BECAUSE ALL I HAVE IS A WORDPRESS ACCOUNT, AN ANIMATED GORILLA CONVINCED I NEED THE ASKJEEVES TOOLBAR, AND TWELVE READERS WHO JUST KEEP READING MY BLOG INSTEAD OF CALLING. THE. POLICE. What the hell is wrong with you people?! Have they built a perfect android replica of me to take my place? I can’t be even five miles from my house.You are checking all the wrong underground prisons.
Manila Man came back the very next day. I was sitting on the toilet doing my business when he slid into view on the other side of the bars, hands behind his back, a most satisfied look upon his face. I sat there with my pants around my ankles glaring at him.
My displeasure in seeing him wasn’t merely due to the Gun To Your Head Humor Writing course he had taught the previous day. That didn’t do anything to improve trust in our relationship mind you, but you see, I’m the kind of guy who upon entering a bathroom sits down in a stall (the handicapped one of course, those things are the penthouse suite of any public restroom) and then waits for everyone else to leave.
I can not crap with someone else in the room. I especially can’t crap with someone making full-on eye contact with me on the commode. It had taken me three days in this hole to determine the time when no one walks by for five minutes so I could empty my bowels in peace. Now here was Mister Hard-Copy, smiling like it was his birthday, ruining everything.
After five or six interminable seconds staring at one another I asked, “Can we reschedule this? I’m a little busy.” He withdrew his hand from behind his back and Well how about that, if it wasn’t my old friend his gun! “You’re pointing a gun at a dude sitting on a toilet behind bars,” I said attempting to shame him into leaving me alone to finish. Of course, it didn’t work.
“Stand up, Blogger,” he said, twitching the gun upward. “Nice and easy.”
I stood, pulling up my jeans in the process and wondering what sudden moves he thought I might be preparing with my pants at my feet. Manila Man opened my cell door while I fastened them. I flushed, because even after twelve days I have not yet lost my humanity, then he directed me out and down the hall with more pistol motions and muzzle-jabs in the lower back. When I was finally seated in the Blogging Chamber, the gun rested casually at the base of my skull.
“It seems putting a gun to your head has inspired you,” he said behind me, having no idea what he was talking about. “Yesterday was some of your best work.”
“Don’t you read what I write in here? That part about how life-threatening demands to be funny are the exact opposite of–”
“Draw me that comedy graph you mentioned,” he interrupted.
There was no use talking to this guy. I sighed and opened the Start menu, finding one of the only apps still available to me on the Compaq: Microsoft Paint.
Creating the image shouldn’t have taken long, but having a gun to your head makes thinking difficult. Luckily, dude in the suit didn’t seem to mind; he and his firearm waited patiently behind me. Sadly, I was only minutes into my drawing when he broke the silence with smalltalk. “I came up with a good idea the other day,” he said. I said nothing, but my lack of interest didn’t phase him. “I want to start a band.”
Oh my god. Of course you do. I contemplated going for the gun right then and there. Worst case scenario: I get out of this “conversation” before it goes any further.
“Me and some buddies of mine really like My Morning Jacket. Do you know them? They’re incredible live. Anyway, instead of My Morning Jacket we’re gonna be My Magnum Dong. We’re gonna be a Morning Jacket cover band, except take all their songs and make them about dicks.”
I have to write this down, I thought. I had never been truly speechless until this moment. But my life depended upon finishing the graph picture first, so I kept at it, filing the conversation away in my mental list of things to blog about.
The next 10 minutes were spent listening to a list of dong-songs and finishing this masterpiece:
He slammed every finger against the Prnt Scrn button as soon as the picture appeared. I took a breather and just watched him go at it for a while. Once I had printed the beginning of this post (a blank page, just the graph), he was out the door.
He was gone for maybe half an hour while I wrote, then in an instant he was bursting in, gun raised and between my widening eyes.
“Explain it,” he said.
There. It has taken me 3 days to write this. I think.
Much has happened and I’m beginning to no longer feel like myself. Tomorrow (day 13, i believe): the graph explained, but briefly. Much has happened, and I want to finish my story.
I finally saw someone other than the Runner Twins and Big Security Guard yesterday. It was Manila Man. And it was not a pleasant experience. I was sitting on the cot, feeling particularly frustrated by my situation, when a man in a suit sauntered up to the cage. I stood and spread my arms:
“Hey! Manila Man!” I erupted in faux excitement. “What’s up you shit eater?!” In hindsight, I can see how this got things off on the wrong foot. I really shouldn’t call the guy “Manila Man” to his face, I’m sure he has a name.
The suited man looked stunned, his lips parted as though he had been about to speak before my enthusiastic greeting robbed him of his big gloating entrance. He stared at me through the bars instead. Just as I was preparing my next witticism (I think I was gonna say “How’s your mom?”) he jerked open the cell door. Thin Manila Folder Man’s hands went to his jacket as he rushed in. His face, eyes staring up at me from behind a furrowed brow, had darkened. I thought I saw a pistol appear in one hand but the other hand was already behind my neck and gripping tightly, shoving me out of the cage door and into the hallway. My initial thought, He didn’t put a bag over my head!, faded quickly once the gun muzzle pressed under my chin.
I was in the Blogging Chamber quicker than I could realize what was going on. Manila’s grip on my neck mashed me into this seat, facing this abacus, and then a gun was against the back of my head. It rested there casually, without force, and somehow that lack of physical pressure drove home the ease with which a tunnel could be carved through my skull. I didn’t move. On the screen Microsoft Windows logos flew toward us in a dazzling six-color array.
“You haven’t been doing your job, John,” he mocked. “I told you to write something funny for us.”
“No you didn’t.”
The gun slid an inch higher against the back of my head. “Do not toy with me, blogger.”
“No, really, you didn’t. You said something like ‘You work for us now or you’re through,’ and then you stormed out of the room. I have no idea what this is about! I mean, if this is–”
“Enough. Of your games.”
Everyone thinks they know what a gun being cocked sounds like. Most of us think it sounds like the hollywood sound effect: a cool, crunchy, metal-on-metal collection of slides and clicks. Some have heard the sound in person, cocked a gun themselves, and they know it as a much less impressive, more practical sound: a hammer clicking into place or a new cartridge entering the chamber. Yet even those familiar with the gun rarely take time to inspect the sound it makes. But when you’re sitting in silence, and you hear the sound of a gun cocking behind your head, you discover that you’ve never actually heard that sound before in your life. It is the sound of time–an infinity of it you had unwittingly expected your future to be filled by–vanishing into a vacuum. The sound of rocks and pebbles tumbling down a cliff whose edge you’re stretching over. That sound when you shut up upon realizing a silence is spreading over the entire room because something amazing, or terrible, has happened.
Manila Man cocked that gun behind my head. “Write something funny.”
I wiggled the mouse and WordPress appeared, already running. That sound of the gun cocking behind me? It sounded like being seconds away from death. That is the sound of shit getting real. And shit getting real…
Is the antithesis.
I was utterly stumped. Seriously, what do you say or do with that? A gun was propping up the back of my head and I had moments to come up with something that made the murderous freak behind me laugh. Here is, unedited, what I typed:
Ummm is it ok to talk to you while i do this or do i have to type? OK typing with a gun to my head what is funny? What is funny?
Dude, what is funny? OK, falling back on the rules of comedy. Rule #1 – everything is funnier with monkeys. Monkey eating breakfast cereal. Monkey on Wall Street. Monkey Jesus and twelve other monkeys walking around in the desert preaching to monkeys.
OK that’s not translating well. I mean, I laughed at the monkey gospel a little but the gunman didn’t
Rule #2 – the worst joke is funny if repeated long enough. Shit thats not going to work I don’t have the time to tell the same bad joke for three months
Rule #3 – all jokes follow the same funniness graph when repeated over time:
At this point I knew I was going to die. I literally could not be funny to save my own life. My next step, assuming he continued to spare my life, was about to be a raw brain dump of all the things that had occurred to me in the last week of being locked up–a list that would have begun “Girls are really good at not talking about it when they’re on their periods.” But I realized Manila Man had lowered his gun. He was leaning over my shoulder, staring at the screen in astonishment.
I think he muttered “my god” under his breath, then he reached over me and began frantically pressing the “Prnt Scrn” button. A few bewildered seconds later and I figured out he was trying to get a printout of the page. I hit Ctrl+P and the printer in the back corner began its work. Manila waited at the printer eagerly, yanked the paper off the tray when it was finished, and gazed at it wide-eyed. He was still reading it, talking to himself, when he strode from the room.
“You could just look at it on the website, man,” I called after him. Why not be green, right? But he was already gone again. I peered outside and Big Security Guard Guy was standing there, so I came back in and now I’m done typing.