Read time: 12 mins

Punching Lines

by Josiah Mbote
20 July 2023

I don’t smoke cigars. Everyone thinks I do, but I don’t. I just let them dangle between my lips and fancy the thought of lighting them up. I prefer using a lighter, not a matchstick. A lighter is more fanciful. In my imagination, that is. My imagination doesn’t stop there: emitting thick rings of smoke from the monstrous cigar clasped between my lips, I am in a black leather jacket and leather gloves, on a superbike – Harley Davidson (although a Kawasaki Ninja appeals at times) – in a totally gangster fashion. No, not the leader of the gangster mob, just a quiet but respected (feared) senior gangster. The one that newbies point to and utter amongst themselves, ‘Don’t mess with that one; even the boss fears him.’ I imagine a whole lot more, but that is the most consistent picture. Whenever I imagine, my chin goes up. My lips curl more firmly around my cigar. Sometimes I’m even tempted to bite it. When my chin drops, I come back to reality, and I face myself. A failed stand-up comedian.

Now I’m thinking. Not imagining. Thinking. Thinking is more real, and sad. I’m thinking about me. About stand-up comedy. About my failure as a stand-up comedian. I hear lots of talk about failure. Lots of platitudes. I revise them in my thoughts. If you are afraid of failure, you don’t deserve to be successful. One who fears failure limits his activities. Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly. I think to myself, Who came up with these things? I scoff. Boring. I think failure is funny. Even more so when you’ve failed as a stand-up comedian. I chuckle.

I come to the comedy club every day. Except for some weekends when I stay home with my cat and my ex-girlfriend. She’s my ex-girlfriend, but she still lives in my home. Everyone thinks we’re still dating, but we’re not. Yes, we have sex but not always. Only when she’s sad. And she gets sad a lot. Yes, I still take her shopping. Yes, we go to events together. But we’re not dating. When we used to date, we held hands. We don’t hold hands anymore, so we’re not dating. Oh yeah, she’s pregnant. With my child, I think.

I was thinking about coming to the comedy club. That’s what happens. My mind, it’s like a maze, a labyrinth of sorts. My thoughts swerve and veer in different lanes. Sometimes I try to focus on a thought, but I find that the more I do, the more the prospect of another  thought seems enticing. And I just let it in.

Okay, I was thinking about coming to the comedy club. You go to church; your friend goes to the mosque; your Indian neighbour goes to the temple; I go to the comedy club. It’s a haven for me. No, it’s a haven for my imagination. I hold it in high esteem. I don’t think it reciprocates the feeling. Because sometimes I get the feeling that it doesn’t. Years I’ve come to this place, and I can count the number of times people laughed at my jokes. One time, after everybody left, I knelt on the stage. I prayed (by laughing) while facing the empty audience. I knew my jokes were funny; all I needed was a reaction from the audience. That is what I prayed for. Laughter.

I know my jokes are funny. I say them to myself in my mind, and I laugh. But to be fair, whenever I say these jokes in my mind, I don’t use my voice. I use the voice of Dave Chappelle.

Normally, I get booed offstage. It has become kind of a game between me and my audience. One time, I agreed this with my audience. Not verbally, no; as a matter of routine. We agreed whenever I said a joke and they found it funny, they should boo. You know, make things different and spicy. They always hold their end of the deal. But sometimes they take it too far. Sometimes they boo even before I tell my joke.

I return my thoughts to failure. Failure is funny. I repeat my thought. I think about the hundreds of clips on YouTube showing failure compilations. Some have laugh tracks. Tragic failure. Like one showing a skater running into a bus after being distracted by a woman. I think to myself, The skater is probably seriously injured if not dead. But people laugh at that. The clip has millions of views. The comment section is streaming with laughing emojis. Failure is funny. I think of the popular sitcoms, like The Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men or The Office. Some of the funniest punchlines in these sitcoms carry the connotation of failure. I think to myself, When I die, people will look back on my career and say, ‘He came to the comedy club for years, and the only time people laughed was when he fell off the stage.’  They will laugh. My career is one big failure. One big comedy. I smile at the thought.

One time, I came to the comedy club with a white board and a black marker. I set the white board on stage. I looked at my audience, whose chins were up and eyes focused with anticipation. I laughed inwards too with anticipation. I took the marker and drew a thick line on the white board. I slipped the marker into my shirt pocket (I wear shirts, not t-shirts). I balled my fingers into a fist and punched hard into the board. Right at the centre of the line I had drawn. I turned and looked at the audience. They stared back at me. I was patient. Perhaps a late reaction, I told my mind. Nothing, not even a late reaction. I cleared my throat and stammered naughtily, ‘A…a…punchline.’ One of them clicked. The rest followed with a rain of boos. I tried to overpower them by shouting, ‘Come on…that was funny.’ Now I’m thinking to myself, They’ll remember that when I die. They will find it funny. They will laugh.

My thoughts get profound at times. Profoundly weird. Like now I’m thinking, At the end of it all, does it matter if I made people laugh? And I wonder to myself if other comedians think the same way. I hear lots of talk about legacies. And they have this range of platitudes. You’d think legacies matter to the dead. I think of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. I say to myself, Legacies stop people from getting to self-actualization. They get stuck at esteem. They need validation even after they’re dead. I think to myself, I only need validation when I’m alive. I’m stuck at esteem too, but only because people won’t laugh at my jokes.

Just as my thoughts are about to go deeper, they hit a rock. A rock of memory. I remember something. My ex-girlfriend once said to me, ‘I think you’re depressed.’ I remember this particularly because it wasn’t only my ex-girlfriend who said that. Lots of people say it. After they say it, I think, I’m not depressed, else, why am I laughing? And I say that to them. They tell me, each in a different way, something like this: ‘Sometimes people laugh to hide that they’re depressed.’ And I get cornered. I can’t bury my face in my hands; they’ll call me stressed and infer depression. I can’t stare blankly into space; they’ll call that overthinking and infer depression. I can’t be sad; they’ll infer depression from that too. Now I can’t laugh; they’re inferring depression. It’s tough when you have a failed career. But not for me; I think it’s funny. Not the fact that they infer depression from anything; I think the whole concept of depression is funny. Particularly the idea that it’s a prequel to suicide.

I once had an uncle who used to talk a lot. He never ran out of anything to talk about or anyone to talk to. He would talk all manner of things, wise and unwise, funny and unfunny, mature and immature. Because he talked, he had lots who were friends and lots who were enemies. I asked him a time,

‘Why you talk so much?’

‘I gotta talk, else, I’ll think about me.’

I found no fault in that because I also thought about me. A day came, and he began talking less. Another day passed, and he was talking no more. Only phrases that were critical to communicate. He began drinking; almost like drinking became a substitute for talking. He drank himself to death.

That was the only case I knew of depression. Genuine depression. Maybe genuine depression exists, but I can’t shake off this feeling that people want depression. Or they want to be seen as depressed. Depression is a strong attention magnet. Everyone is all over you, rubbing your back, massaging your shoulders, saying nice stuff to you, only for you to keep repeating to yourself and others, ‘I’m all alone; no one cares about me.’ It would be hilarious if it wasn’t annoying.

I’m certainly not happy. I know no one who is. But I do have moments. I can remember my greatest moments, like my first day on stage. I said a joke, and everyone laughed. It wasn’t chuckling; it was laughing. I stared at my audience as they laughed, and all I could feel was love. I loved them, and I loved my genre, and I loved myself. I wished that moment would last for hours, or forever; but if it did, I would not have known the true value of the moment. Sometimes I think successful comedians do not value the audience’s laughter because they hear it every time. The memory of that moment keeps me coming back to the comedy club every time, in hope of experiencing it again. The hope overpowers the consistent disappointment I have faced ever since.

Another moment was my first date with my ex-girlfriend. She laughed at almost everything I said, and all I could feel was love. When we started living together, she laughed less. Whenever she laughed less, I felt like she loved less. I feel love through laughter.

One time we fought because she did not laugh at my joke. Okay, that was not the exact fight, but if a detective was to look for why we fought, I’m pretty sure that would have been the reason he found. That was our first major fight. She said she would leave as we were fighting. I did not object. I sulked in the living room as she packed her clothes. Then I heard her sobbing. I went over where she was. And we had sex. And that set the standard of our relationship. We would fight; she would threaten to leave; she would get sad; we would have sex, and she would stay. One time she actually finished packing her clothes. She got to the door. I was in the living room waiting to hear her start sobbing. My heart sank lower every minute she did not sob. So, when she started on her way out to the door, I was heartbroken. I felt like I was on the edge of being depressed. But when she got to the door, I heard a subtle throat catch. I’m not even sure it was there, but I did not leave things to chance. I sprang from my couch and ran to the door and immediately kissed her. We had sex. Right at the door. That was another moment.

I often think about how life would be if I was eternally happy. That would suck, I say to myself. Life would be a flat terrain; no moments. I think of moments as oscillations between extremes. The contours that give life a grip. My work as a comedian is to give people the high of life which, when contrasted to the lows of their daily life, will be their moment.

I’m thinking about all things while I’m on stage. I’ve retreated to thinking because I’m tired. Tired of making jokes that people are not laughing at. So, I stay silent and think. But I can see people leaving. One by one, two by two, two by one. But now I care less. Let them leave. No, I do care. It’s making me sad.

The comedy club is empty. I am on stage. My cigar is carelessly dancing while sandwiched between my lips. There is one person on the front seat. An old man. I see him often. I don’t care about him. I’m not interested in making him laugh. He is old, very old. But now he is my only audience. I pay close attention to him. His face is twisted in a horrific way. His cheeks seem to be non-existent; they look like a thin layer of wrinkled skin tightly gripping his jaws. I can see the outline of his jaws and his thin lips, thin dry lips. They are stretching outwards, giving his grotesque face an outline of a smile. When I look closely, I see a sentiment on his face. It’s almost like he is mocking me.

‘You did not leave’, I say to him.

He responds. His voice is husky. He is struggling to speak. He speaks in between mild coughs and an aged stammer.

‘I was listening to your silence.’

Of course, that is what he would say. Old men like to be wise. They make up things just to sound wise.

‘The show is over.’

‘It was over a long time ago.’

The old man, struggling, reaches into his jacket pockets. Of course, he is wearing a jacket. It is a thick jacket, and he is old. If he does not wear it, he will die, I think to myself. Old people are vulnerable to pretty much anything.

He reaches into his jacket pockets and lifts out a rolled paper. He puts it in between his lips. He reaches into his other jacket pocket and lifts out a lighter. His hands are shaking. Too much. He is struggling to light his roll. He looks at me, and I pay attention to his eyes. They are deep in their orbits. They are watery too. They are desperate to see. I listen to his eyes. I can hear them calling me. I go to him and take the lighter from his shaking hands. I light his roll. I can smell the roll from where I stand. It’s pot. This will kill him, I think to myself. If it doesn’t kill him, the smoke will. He coughs.

‘I was a comedian once’, he says between coughs.

‘Were you good?’

‘No, not really.’

‘So, you are a failed comedian?’

‘No. I thought I was.’

‘What now makes you think you weren’t?’

‘I watch you.’

Ye, he is mocking me. He starts laughing. That is, after he takes his puff. He laughs and puffs and coughs. His laugh is infectious. I start laughing too. I think the more I laugh, the more he laughs, and the more I laugh again. A vicious cycle of laughter. I look at him while I’m laughing. He seems desperate to stop laughing, but it seems like it’s out of control. The laughing and coughing. It’s funny to me, so I continue laughing. He laughs until it gets scary. He is struggling to get air. I stop laughing. He slows down, holding his chest. I reach out to my phone to dial emergency. He raises his finger and stops me. He is coughing now. His breath becomes shallow with every attempt. Finally, his chest rises as he seems to want a deep breath. But air fails him, and he slumps back. He does not move again. He stares blankly at me.

I look at his lighter which I am holding. I return my cigar between my lips. I light the cigar using his lighter and take a puff. It does not happen the way I want it to happen. I cough. I try another puff, and I cough again. I try again until I can do it smoothly. I dip my other hand in my pocket. I stare into the old man’s eyes as I take puff after puff. And I think to myself, I made a man laugh to death.

About the Author

Josiah Mbote

Josiah Mbote is a Kenyan Writer studying Pharmacy at the University of Nairobi, Kenya. His central drive for writing has been to express himself, although he is currently compiling his debut collection of short stories. @josiahelite1