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The last stranger I made laugh was the guy who restores my jeans’ crotches. Two pairs of thighs were splayed on a counter as I simulated equanimity about the friction between my thighs. The tailor made note of the damage and politely acknowledged my jokes with brief laughs. Both crotches had been repaired previously, but new holes grew around the patches as if the denim was taking directions from ‘The Second Coming’—Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold, etc etc (that little ditty about collapse just does not seem to get tired). I avoided eye contact with a row of foam heads in hand-sewn face-masks printed with dogs, with maple leaves, with kitschy skulls; a plastic barrier swayed gently from chains fixed to the ceiling: the tokens of the era were well-integrated into the decor. The tailor’s mood changed when I mentioned the coming lockdown. He said, “Again?” I said, “Yah.” He said, “Come back Saturday.”
I’m a stand-up comedian, which used to be a thing that stood on (typically) a stage in front of a crowd of (ideally) people tightly packed together, and up until March 2020, spoke into a microphone on topics ranging from dating apps to, “Have you heard this thing about a virus in Wu—”
Comedians didn’t invent jokes, but we are part of a lineage that domesticated them, and in the process assigned them a space designed to produce the highest yields. We called the space a room. A room, separate from the crowd, was a thing that could be good or bad, but now it’s just a place we can’t go in Toronto.
THE LIBERTY VILLAGE CANADIAN TIRE is a place we can go, but it is not, I learned in the last weeks of winter, a warm venue for jokes about the farmer’s almanac, despite the proud display of watering cans and flower pots.
THE ORGANIC GROCERY STORE AROUND THE CORNER FROM THE CANADIAN TIRE happens to be on my way home. I had no intention of retrying my failed bit, because it’s a lot to ask essential workers to sell you fair-trade avocados and make you feel valuable in a shipwrecked civilization. I was content to stoically overpay for my perishables. It was the cashier who became enthused at the mention of seeds and appeared to subconsciously ask for a joke on that theme, so I mentioned, as if for the first time, my musings about the almanac. The joke was received with a warm muffled laugh, which I took to mean that spring would come early this year—and of course, it has.
But it’s not just the comedy rooms—some of which are gone completely, others are still there but inaccessible like repressed memories. Live comedy requires a crowd (currently forbidden) a kind of closeness (six feet sound familiar?) and a collection of mouths—a few for joking, most for laughing. And what after a year of historic illness is more obscene than an open mouth? It is a humid hole, currently indecent to expose in public, that looks like a wet fleshy dollhouse for viruses. Does it sound like I’m complaining? I’m just setting up a punchline: a comedy career used to just be a long shot, and now everything about it is a public health hazard.
Except the jokes.
THE TOP FLOOR OF A VERY OLD HOUSE is where I spent most of this past winter, sleeping, working, and decoding the scratching of squirrel claws on the roof. I had sworn off humans since Christmas. When I did leave the house, I tried to be undetectable in the world, barely speaking outside my head. My plan for remaining connected to society was to document the different textures of ice on the lake. On the coldest days, the birds huddled together by genus. When the boiler broke, an HVAC technician stooped over the radiator in my bedroom, and riffed with me in a Welsh accent about genres of heat. After he left, the room held the shine from the microdose of contact. And while it is inappropriate to call on tradespeople to fix isolation, it was suddenly apparent that everything in the apartment was broken. The plumber, it turned out, was a dud conversationally but he did fix the kitchen sink. The superintendent took care of the cabinetry, doorbell, and mailbox before the dog collided with his gonads and he said, “I’m going to need to sit down for a minute.” The super declined the water my roommate offered, then used the remaining air in his lungs to laugh at the joke I waited a respectful moment before making.
ON MY SHORT, WEST-END STREET early in the new year, when it was day but looked like night, I suffered a lapse in judgement. Forgetting the pandemic addendum to the social contract which dictates that we all stare at the ground and pretend other humans don’t exist, I called out to a guy struggling to lock his car. He stared at the ground and walked away. My joke—I don’t remember what I said, just the sound of it in the dark empty street like the lonely call of the last white rhino—became a thing I discarded in a snowbank, to resurface with the dog shit and Tim Horton’s cups after the thaw.
IN THE SOCCER FIELD AT THE NORTH END OF SORAUREN PARK, I sometimes play fetch with a black and white border collie who isn’t mine, but does live with me and licks my feet but no one else’s, so is mine in a different way. Strangers often stop and comment on the dog’s tireless devotion to the dirty tennis ball, the way he lowers himself submissively when I hold it in the air, the delight of a creature who knows what to do with itself. If he were a person, I would resent him, but because he’s soft and sweet (and the foot thing) I let it slide that in a job interview, he’d be the more promising candidate between us. There was a day in November, a man arrived at the field with a black and white border collie and a red foam ball. For a while we played parallel games of fetch, each with our own version of what appeared to be the same dog. Eventually, we turned to each other to acknowledge the symmetry of our universes, and relaxed into the joke that neither of us wrote but we both happened to show up for.
UNDERGROUND IN CABBAGETOWN, in the catacombs where the condo people park their cars and store the Ikea bed frames they post on Craigslist, I drove with my roommate, following the directions of the condo dweller who walked alongside the car. We continued in a creeping spiral that screwed us deeper into the earth. I periodically threw jokes out the car window, lightening our load in case everything above us collapsed—like, if everyone up top jumped or suddenly felt the weight of their isolation—and we had to make a quick getaway to the surface.
THROUGH THE TAKE-OUT WINDOW OF THE LITTLE ITALY HAMBURGER PLACE, I robotically selected ‘humour’ as the best setting to create an air of casualness, gearing up for my request to the tall hamburger salesman—seeming ever-taller as I made my case—that maybe this time someone could label the vegan hamburger so I don’t again confuse it with my friend’s visually identical meat hamburger, shuffling across that narrow (maybe imaginary) strip of the social landscape where one can both save the cows and not seem uppity. And he—the hamburgerman—proclaimed from the bottom of his socks with sandals, “Yeah whatever,” as I fell into a pit of lava.
BY THE HUMBER RIVER, ON THE STRETCH OF THE PATH RIGHT AFTER YOU HAVE TO DUCK UNDER A TREE THAT’S LEANING DEAD OR JUST LIVING SIDEWAYS, I took a seat with a friend and geese flooded the path, so that the next people to come through the tree had to pause in the traffic. Because we had arrived first, the newest humans asked us about the geese as if they were ours—a bouquet of balloons we’d inflated ourselves—and we responded like we knew something that no one else did. Of course, we knew nothing.
I read a book by a guy who mentioned a study by some folks who thought it could be true (pending verification by other, unaffiliated folks) that people who sing together—who blend their voices—produce oxytocin, which is the neurotransmitter released during breastfeeding that people bring up when they’re trying to make a point about love and bonding and security. Here’s a hunch: I feel like people get a hit of that when they laugh together. I’m not going to look that up. This is the internet: a room in which I am unbound to a body or proper citations. But if I did have a body, I’d clutch the crystal around its neck and settle into the comfort of my assertion that it feels true that laughing with someone is like putting your mouth on a nipple and meeting outside your bodies.
ACTUAL REAL LIVE COMEDY SHOWS were reborn last summer in parks and backyards, or patios with socially distanced tables. I tried out depressing observations that I’d first tested on my mom’s neighbours in the spring, yelling from our deck to theirs, then writing notes in my phone like, ‘dads = cottages.’ Before this, I’d been in my hometown since February, wrapped up in the walls of my mom’s house like a new moth that’s not ready to move on to the part after pupating. In June, I drove to Toronto for a show, preoccupied by the fear that people post-lockdown wouldn’t be able to laugh, that our diaphragms would be too brittle, our jaws clenched around or own frantic inner monologues.
Anyway, I was wrong; they laughed. With their gaping covid-holes. I laughed with mine. The crowds were like the rich soil—that good dirt that’s left after the thing before it decomposes.
Admittedly, I get embarrassed at the proposal that comedy is important or necessary. This past year the idea circulated that people need comedy, “now more than ever.” My response was to stare at the ground and keep walking. What’s left in a lockdown is either what people need or what can't be taken away—those are two different things; comedy is the second, I think. I think you can’t need something as inevitable as a joke. The world is less funny when it’s falling apart. But it’s still funny. Which is a relief, because if people did need comedy, then I probably couldn’t do it.
ON THE FIFTH FLOOR OF A HOSPITAL last March, exactly as the first lockdowns started, my dad just happened to die, unrelated to the waxing global catastrophe. It made him seem very important that the world should stop right as the last of his body did. As best as I can remember, the first stranger I made laugh in the pandemic—that I laughed with—was a nurse who took care of him, the one who rolled my dad to his side so I could take a photograph of a long scar on his left ass-cheek that I knew was there but had never seen, because I was creating a record of where he’d been marked up. In a dark room created by thin curtains pulled around his bed, in a locked-down hospital where only the dying could have visitors, I laughed, and then the nurse laughed—quiet, good laughs—when I realized I had wiped tears from my eyes with my shirt sleeve that moments earlier had been doused in my dad’s urine.