Posted by on February 18, 2017

Twenty Minutes of Empty Humor

Written by David Michael Joseph

Photography by Charles Rammelkamp

February 18, 2017

Donnie Marks sat at the bar of the Ft. Worth comedy club, sipping his fifth Jack Daniels and Coke on the house. His fingers nervously trembled as his knee bounced up and down. It was in between sets, and he was gathering his thoughts, doing a mental instant replay of his previous act. The opening set did not go over well, but that was the beast called comedy. It was a fickle talent. One night one could be Pryor, and the next evening be fighting for your life to get a chuckle. Thank God there was a second show. Donnie was the middle act that night.

Looking up from his glass, he caught his borderline handsome reflection in the huge mirror hanging behind dozens of liquor bottles lined up on the counter. He frowned, noticing the pink in his eyes from the booze, knowing he was way past his limit.

The bartender developed a case of the grumpies because Donnie hadn’t tipped all night. He released a paper Lincoln as a peace treaty, slipping it into the large glass tip jar. The young Ted Nugget clone nodded and passed him another highball glass filled to the rim with Jack and Coke.

The crowd flowed into the room as if someone flipped a switch and a ready-made audience materialized. It was a much younger crowd than the seven o’clock audience, which had consisted of graying couples that seemed only to laugh at rim shot, forced punch lines.

The opener sprang onto the stage, appearing more like an outcast from a Grateful Dead concert than a funny man. The crown of his head was bald with surviving locks drooping toward his slumped, middle-aged shoulders and his beer belly covered up by a faded tie-dyed shirt.  He clumsily danced around the stage, tightly clutching the microphone.

Donnie traded a few words with the skinny, guitar-strumming headliner next to him who was nursing a light beer. He was one of those dreaded musical comics the middle loathed.

“Break a leg,” the headliner said in an apathetic tone.

Donnie weaved his way through the packed tables until he was behind the stage. There was a big sparkling two thousand and one mounted on its back wall. He climbed a short flight of stairs and leaned on a wooden pillar next to a thick set of curtains.

The whiskey had possession of the comic, but even drunk, fear crept inside his gut. That dreaded stage fright attacked him again – IT never went away. The sudden compulsion to escape came over him. Like a man facing the gallows, he needed that call from the Warden.

“Now coming to the stage…”

Too late.

“Donnie Marks!”

Donnie did a half jog onto the stage. He seized the microphone and stared into the ocean of human silhouettes. The house lights were so bright he could only see the faces directly in the front row.

He gave a wild, “Yeehaw!”

Everything went black.

There was no time. There was no space.

His body became caught in some kind of Southwestern astral projection. He was no longer on that stage in Forth Worth, but somewhere else; somewhere familiar. He was a young boy watching the Smurfs on TV – his favorite cartoon in the Saturday morning rotation. When he reached his twenties and finally sipped from the bitter cup of life, he saw the Smurfs differently. The adult neophyte viewed them in a more modern way.

His younger eyes once knew the likes of Brainy Smurf, Hungry Smurf, and Poppa Smurf (the leader of the village) and Smurfette, the consummate village virgin. Yet, his newly tired eyes witnessed a new type of Smurf – Crack Head Smurf and Car Jack Smurf took their places while Smurfette became a prostitute and Poppa Smurf was her pimp.

Gargamel traded in wizardry and instead became a drug lord, extorting the little blue minions – who, in fact, legally changed from Smurfs to Aqua Americans due to numerous complaints.

Suddenly he was center stage, face to face with a couple of pretty coeds sopping up his humorous anecdote. Laughter was the essence of any comic’s existence and he was internally grateful.

A thunderous Yeehaw! exploded from nowhere while he was transporting back to his old home in New Jersey.  Through another vortex, he traveled to a past life he once knew. A domestic infraction occurred within his abode. His mother (neither the passive nor forgiving type) commanded him to go outside and grab a switch from the Maple tree in the backyard – the one which never bore sweet syrup from its barren trunk.

As he stood outside staring at the tree, he pondered whether his mother meant that particular tree or a better one somewhere far away.

What would happen if he chose a tree out of state? What would happen if he chose a nice young sapling in the grand state of North Carolina?

After all, she never stated which tree. He pictured himself calling home and telling his mother he could not locate any decent trees in their state of Hoagies and Mafia burial plots, so he headed south where the million dollar switches attached themselves to golden trees.

The bellowing of belly laughs again brought him back to that very stage in Fort Worth overlooking a sea of giggling Texans.

They were listening to him. Him!

He found himself again thrust forward in time – to his twenties watching Titanic (a movie he loved and had seen four times) during a cold December night in the local theater, on the corner of the strip mall. A thought struck him as his eyes sunk into the screen – Who mandated the rule that the captain had to go down with the ship?

The ship was the only mode of commercial transportation. Who ordered the captain to stay on the ship as it descended to the bottom of the cold, cold ocean floor? The cabby didn’t go down with the taxi, and what self-respecting pilot went down with his plane when a parachute was handy? The FAA sorted it all out with the black box.

The comic imagined himself as the captain and doing everything he could to not go down with the ship. The cowardly captain instead jumped in a rescue dingy and began rowing towards salvation. The rats and he later worked on a tale to tell the surviving kin.

When Donnie came back he was sitting on a stool acting as if he was rowing a life raft. Eyes upon eyes attached to smiling faces watched his every move.

Again a loud Yeehaw! shook him to the core. He projected to another cinema in a parallel universe to the film, Good Will Hunting. He remembered the exact scene – when the character played by Matt Damon solved an impossible math problem, mysteriously scrawled on the Harvard chalkboard.

The comic wondered aloud, but to himself, “If the janitor is smarter than you, maybe you’re at the wrong college. You might be a better fit for hair school or truck driving school, but not Harvard.”

The second tier funnyman catapulted into another dimension – a fifth dimension of comedy.  No longer himself, he was but a soul traveling the interior of past experiences; the moments in life that brought a chuckle to his soul, manifesting into tangible visions. He floated through the semi space called comedic genius, feeling like his act was coming to an end. He needed something; something Earth shattering.

Suddenly he was sitting at a table with his mother, while she spat out a joke in her arsenal. The woman was funny on occasion, but those occasions were as rare as Blood Moons. He sat at the old white kitchen table as his mother started off the joke between sips of tea on that cold November morning. His voice instantly changed into her dialect and tone.

There is a bear and a rabbit in the forest and they are fighting. Suddenly there comes a magic frog hopping along. The magic frog tells them if they would stop fighting he would grant them three wishes. They agree and the bear starts the wish request asking the frog to make him the only male bear in that particular forest. The frog granted the wish and turned to the rabbit. The rabbit’s only request was a Moped. The bear next asked to be the only male bear in the next forest over. The frog did the same and granted the bear his wish. The rabbit’s desire was simple – he just wanted a helmet. The frog nodded and it was done. The overstimulated bear had dreams of conquering his own world and being the only boy bear and having no competition. He wanted to be the only male bear in the whole world. After a few seconds, he was. The frog asked the rabbit what he wanted for his final wish. The rabbit said to the frog, ‘Turn that bear gay.’ ”


The blackness subsided as he stood center stage to a standing ovation. He tried to focus on the crowd standing on their feet but instead saw blurred faces. The MC grabbed the microphone and then whispered, “Good job man. You killed them.”

The MC pivoted to the crowd and bellowed out loud, “Let’s hear it for Donnie!”

The applause sounded like sporadic thunder as it echoed through the cavernous, Western-themed comedy club/dance hall.

The middle pushed past the large black curtain, stepped off stage, and wobbled onto the floor like a prizefighter on the losing end. He stumbled over to the bar, returned to his bar stool, and asked the bartender for a double. Members from the elated crowd peppered his shoulders with taps of adoration.

Donnie would never remember the magical words again.

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