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Apr/May 2013 Fiction

The Church of Laughter

by Jeremy Schliewe

Artwork by Clinton McKay

Artwork by Clinton McKay


The Church of Laughter started, of all places, in a bar. Even during that first night, when all seemed spontaneous and lovely, when the laughter was pure and ringing and cut brightly through the smoke and jukebox music, it was possible to see the seeds of our own undoing. Our aims were simple: we had no greater intentions than infatuating the two young women who had found themselves sitting at our booth. We were young men, and naturally a one-upmanship had invaded our conversation. Sure there was a rivalry for the young women, though this had been already subdued by the unspoken formation of pairs. If all went well, at the end of the night, the blonde would go to Paul and the brunette to myself. Any tension that this matter had created was dispersed and quickly replaced by a secondary contest. Paul and I, a baker and a waiter respectively, considered comedy to be our true calling, and we soon engaged in a competition to see who could elicit the greater laughs from the young women.

Though we shared a common goal, the angle of our attacks varied. A sense of humor is like a fingerprint, and though two may resemble one another to a staggering degree, there are always minute differences that make them discernible. Paul was, in those days, my best friend. He fell more readily into the role of a clown. His comedy was physical: he pulled faces, affected a boyish shuffle, did impressions not of celebrities but of the people he worked with and those he encountered in his everyday life. I tended to be more verbal, focusing on spontaneous humor, absurdity that on occasion held a poisonous barb—I built on themes, repetition, and running gags. There was little tension that night. Even as our comedic sensibilities became apparent to our companions and a swap became inevitable, there were no hard feelings. We were too busy laughing. I found Paul hilarious, and he found me the same. He could crack me up, crack us all up, just by stroking his chin, raising an eyebrow, and looking as if he were about to say something.

The bar closed, forcing us onto the street. The girls stayed with us. There was no awkwardness. Perhaps they sensed that thoughts of taking them home were the furthest from our minds. We kept up the act in the parking lot. My stomach muscles were aching, and I put my hand on the hood of Paul's car as I stooped and tried to catch my breath. I begged him to relent.

We had drunk our fair share that night, and wanting to put off getting behind the wheel of a car, we decided to walk to a gyro stand that stayed open for the after bar crowd. Red and white car lights painted the black street as we laughed, sitting on our rickety picnic table under the stand's yellow light. I considered it no small victory when the brunette, choking back a laugh with closed lips, squirted brown rivers of coke from out of her nostrils. It was a fine way to spend an evening. We walked back to the bar and left the girls in the parking lot. We liked them, but somehow, in the light of all that laughter, they seemed secondary. They rummaged through their purses for pens and scraps of paper and thrust their phone numbers into our hands.

 

A deeper message seemed to pass between us that night. Perhaps we felt that we had become awakened to a greater understanding of life. In my case, and I believe in Paul's case as well, there was no conscious reevaluation of our lives. Rather, the laughter we had so heavily indulged in the night before had a liberating quality. In the morning, as the sun broke through the gaps in the blinds, I felt an incredible lightness. My sides were tender, on the verge of cramping, from the workout I had given them. I chuckled noiselessly in remembrance of our antics. I have a rare affliction, one I am thankful for, in that a joke, a thought, anything I find really, truly funny, does not diminish in funniness by mere repetition—it often becomes funnier the more I think about it, the greater number of times I see or hear it. I saw no reason to stop. I wouldn't turn it off, I decided. I'd never turn it off.

I was popular at work—who doesn't, when faced with long, tedious hours, love a clown? I could often dissolve the tension with a well-timed wisecrack. I never crossed the line, just danced about it. My show was more for my co-workers than anyone else. To the customers I was a consummate professional, probably someone who looked like a rather sober person. If I spent more time talking than doing side-work, what was the harm? I was able to get away with performing a half-hearted job for a number of months in part, I believe, because of my popularity with my co-workers, who served as a buffer between the owners and myself.

That day, I killed. I had the chefs and cooks clutching their stomachs. Orders were burned or never started. When the owner showed up, the restaurant was in a state of chaos. When she asked who was to blame, all fingers pointed my way. My buffer was gone. I was summarily fired.

I didn't hold any hard feelings. I had been awakened to a new calling, one that would not fit so snugly into the template of my old life. A small part of me panicked when I got home and found myself with nothing to do—all of those days I had spent at work, dreaming that I could just go home, and here I was, at home, having never really thought about what I would do once I gained my precious freedom.

I called Paul, hoping to find a sympathetic ear. I found something even better. Paul had also lost his job that day—for excessive clowning.

 

The Church of Laughter, announced by a hand-lettered sign hung on the door of the duplex I rented, began soon after. We pushed my furniture to the outskirts of the room and populated the emptiness with a loose arrangement of wooden chairs, some of which Paul brought from his own home and his parents' garage. Most of the chairs were empty on those first nights. The only followers we had in the early days were the blonde and the brunette we had met at the bar, but they came quite readily. They looked around the room. "What is this, some kind of sex cult?" they asked. We told them far from it. They seemed let down.

But their disappointment didn't last long. In my ramshackle living room, we resurrected the magic we had created in the ramshackle bar a few nights before. We stayed up late, talking and laughing. Paul and I did most of the talking, but we all partook in the laughter. We were not trying to hog the spotlight. The ultimate aim of our movement was simply to create laughter, and any and all were welcome to participate. The girls seemed to be more inclined to listen, at times with bemusement and shared, darting glances, at times during shaking fits of laughter.

Paul and I were always in attendance. Sometimes we were the only ones, passing the nights talking and tossing jokes back and forth. Sometimes drinking beer or whiskey, sometimes drinking nothing at all. We didn't want to impose rules or expectations on our church. It certainly wasn't about sitting around getting drunk, though if it helped us achieve our aims, so much the better. The name of our little operation, The Church of Laughter, was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, in that we wanted it to be the furthest thing possible from an established religion and still reflect the reverence we felt for the act of laughing, which we agreed was the finest experience one could have.

The blonde and the brunette—we later found out their names were Jody and Barbara—came around more often then not, as did some of my former coworkers and some of Paul's. Repeat visitors to our church became more frequent. People were welcome to come and go as they pleased and to stay as long as they liked. Wanting to blur the division between the sacred and profane, rather, wanting to introduce the sacred into every minute of the day, The Church of Laughter was always open. Frequently people slept on the couch, and on more than one occasion, I would retire to my room exhausted, only to find my bed occupied by a member of our congregation and perhaps two or three others asleep on the floor.

I should clarify the nature of our meetings. Though aimed at producing laughter, they were not, as one might reasonably believe, a comedy free-for-all or joke-telling marathon. Jokes in the traditional sense were seldom told, only when they came to mind, and were considered somewhat vulgar, a taking of the low road to achieve our goals—though, secretly, I cherished a good joke most of all. That, and the supreme falling away that came with the deft delivery of a punch-line. More important was the natural flow. We engaged in a sort of heightened conversation, avoiding mundanities and chitchat, though silliness was more than welcome. We self-deprecated, we deprecated others, we shared our waking dreams and our sleeping dreams, our ideas for books, movies, video games, puzzles, and board games. Others would contribute, crack wise, run with tangents, point out cliches or originalities, forecast possible futures, dissect scenarios, pontificate on manners and situations. And through it all, the rolling torrents of laughter that punctuated the low rumble of our conversations were that which made it holy.

Attendance grew. Initially, it was nice to have new members, as it somewhat lightened the burden I shared with Paul. More people meant more contributors, and more contributors meant more laughter. Any and all were free to contribute in any way, though the majority of our congregation was content to listen, or if the mood struck them, to build upon pre-established themes with the addition of a joke or elaboration. Some of the quieter ones only spoke up on the occasion that a laughing fit had grown into something that was no longer pleasurable to bear and we would hear a cry of "please stop" of "move on" from the outskirts of the room. Our growing numbers had brought more than a couple of shining stars, and Paul and I, if ever wearied from our comedic soldiering, could let the others take the reins for a while. This was more often the exception than the rule. Whether our motivations were a continuation of our one-upmanship or a succumbing to the love of our cause, we often found it impossible to sit idly by. When we saw an opportunity to contribute, to build, we did so without hesitation.

A makeshift theater formed in the center of the living room. Paul, along with a pair of initiates who had found their way by word-of-mouth, had formed a troupe of improvisational comedians specializing in short, absurdist sketches. Sometimes members of the congregation would leap into the arena and take their scenes in an unexpected direction. Other times, ignoring my protests and false humbleness, they would pull me up from my chair and into their charade. I was torn. I did not like the introduction of this structure into our services, as harmless as it seemed. I liked things as they had been, nothing more than a number of people talking and laughing, that transient spotlight that followed the magnetism of whomever happened to be speaking at the time.

 

My half-house soon became too small to comfortably hold our congregation. A move seemed inevitable. I considered it a stroke of happy synchronicity that this occurred at precisely the same time I was facing eviction, though my dedication to my church had left me little time to search for a new location. Jody, a faithful member, admittedly somewhat more grounded than its founders, procured for us a spacious loft above the Elk's Lodge. Rent would be paid by donations from the congregation, and Paul (also dedicating himself full-time to the church, also facing eviction from his apartment) and myself would live in the loft full-time. Other members were welcome to stay as long as they would like—several among them had already enjoyed lengthy stays in my duplex, and it became increasingly difficult to tell whether they were enthusiastic members of the church or simply in need of a place to stay.

As if in appreciation of our new accommodations, our numbers soon swelled to fill the space we had gained. Despite their protests, from time to time I tore myself from the congregation. Our services were ongoing, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A steady roar echoed from the loft, and the sleep I did get, I stole in brief snatches, buffered from the noise of the crowd only by a thin sheet I hung in a doorless doorway that led to the narrow utility closet into which I had crammed a cot. Paul's improv troupe continued to perform. A crowd formed around them as does in the movies when a pair of gifted dancers takes the floor. They were a hit, and they roped me into their acts with diminishing frequency.

As we had projected, a wave of indolence rolled through our city like drowse. We could only interpret this as a community in resonance with our beliefs. Local restaurants complained of a drop in business. Absences in high schools and the nearby community college reached an all-time high. We had jammed a knife blade in the machinery of the everyday, and those who were not among our numbers panicked. Television reporters arrived and pointed cameras and microphones at us. Our official position was to let them film, but not to speak to them directly, to let our work stand as a testament to our beliefs. A couple of minor members of the congregation, perhaps enamored with the promise of appearing on television, did speak to the press, but this seemed neither to help nor hinder our cause. We had little use for the outside world. We paid it scant attention and went on with the business of the church.

 

On a slow day Paul, accompanied by some members of his improv troupe, began hauling plywood and wooden beams into a corner of the loft. When I asked about their intentions, they told me that it was time that a proper stage was constructed so that his troupe could perform.

"Think about it," he said. "We could do our thing up here. Stand-up comedians could perform."

I didn't like it. I told him so. He handed me a thin sheaf of paper, binder-clipped at the corner.

"What's this?"

"A script. We want you to play the part of the butler. Look it over. It's perfect for you."

Despite my protests, the stage went up. The Three Wise Guys, as Paul's comedy troupe came to be known, put on two shows a night. A handful of our members tried their hands at stand-up, with mixed results. Barbara, who at first had seemed so quiet, more of a listener than a participant, had constructed an act that went over quite well.

Paul's troupe moved away from improv and soon performed only scripted comedy sketches. Some had become audience favorites and were put on several times a week to cheering and applause. I played the role of the butler in their sketch (along with other roles they had thrown me out of what I could only imagine was respect for my role in the church). In the interest of keeping harmony, I never refused a part, but I felt as if I were slowly being edged out of my role as a leader. I missed our loose semicircle of chairs, our casual conversations and joke-sessions, our trash-talk, our good-natured insults, our puns, our pratfalls, the easy laughter. The laughter, I realized, was merely a by-product of the fantastic world we were creating, the land of dreams and friendship that we had woven over our heads. The stage was the enemy. The dynamic of the room was irrevocably altered—it pulled a wandering eye like a television mounted in the corner of a bar. Perhaps the most damaging blow it dealt was when it was empty. It broadcast a desolate message across our congregation—our reason for gathering was somewhere else now, not in that space between and above our heads.

I tried to harder than ever to keep The Church of Laughter together. Whenever the stage was empty, I went to work on the chairs, arranging them so that they faced each other. I gathered stray members, encouraging them to join in our sittings. I kept a constant vigil, trying to evoke the early days above the Elk's Lodge, the earlier days and nights we had spent in my cramped duplex. Many joined me, perhaps they felt the same, perhaps they could see through my smiling veneer to the unhappy man I had become and were merely keeping me company. With the empty stage looming in the background, beaming its contagious barrenness across the room, it was nearly impossible to recapture the feeling of the old days.

 

My grip was loosening. I felt like a stranger in my own congregation. Our informal ongoing gathering had given way to the oscillation of staged performances and the silence of empty stage and empty chairs. They were lonely times for me, those late afternoons when the sunlight shot a yellow trapezoid from the high windows to the wooden floors: broad beams that swam with a thousand motes that churned slowly like the feeling inside of me. I was losing my sense of humor.

I had no other person to turn to but Paul. I approached him one afternoon as he was sinking long screws into the beams of his stage with a power screwdriver. He was no engineer, and while the structure seemed basically sound at first, of late it had become prone to wobbling. He cut the high-whirring noise of the screwdriver when he saw me approach.

"We need to talk," I said.

I told him that the church was in trouble, that we were in danger of losing sight of what was important. He didn't understand. We were doing better than ever as far a he was concerned. Attendance was up, more and more people were taking the stage. We had Paul's sketch comedy troupe, stand-up comedians, vaudeville acts, musical numbers... everything we could possibly want. Some among us were becoming celebrities, local to be sure, but what was to stop them from going further?

He was even in the process of reworking the schedule so that it would allow for each of us to take a day off. But I didn't want a day off. If everything were done according to my plan, or lack thereof, every day would be a day off. A day off from pain, from the mundane, from the fetters of emotion and attachment, from cares and worries. We had given up our jobs to laugh full time, and Paul, blinded by his own ambition, was busily constructing for us another work week, another division of the sacred and profane. I questioned his methods, his throwing of forms over something as formless as a group of people getting together for the purpose of doing nothing more complicated than laughing. It seemed to me a convoluted way of reaching a state that was simple to achieve. I sought nothing less than that exquisite, eternal release, and all those empty quiet hours parsed by the stage had become unbearable. I had no choice but to tender my resignation.

Paul protested. He even shed tears, something that took me by surprise, for the distance that had grown between us was perhaps smaller than I had imagined. It hurt me to leave. I gathered my few belongings that I kept in a small suitcase at the foot of my cot in the utility closet. For some reason its smallness, its cold painted bricks, seemed dirtier and more lonely than ever. It had once been my sanctuary, the place where I would rest my weary head, the aching muscles in my jaw... a place where in darkness I could replenish myself in preparation for another blissful day. I looked at my pitiful belongings. They would simply be a burden. I took the suitcase to the donation box and put it in, contents and all.

I thought of Jody. The opportunity that had faded. Perhaps if things had gone differently that first night in the bar, the night of my awakening, things would have been different between us. Maybe by now we would be engaged and looking for a house together. It was too late. Nothing would ever come of us. I thought of Paul, my brother in laughter—a bond stronger than the ties of blood. I would miss him most of all. His quiet, ambling silliness. His tallness and his friendly round belly. The way he would stroke his chin, raise his eyebrows, and look if he were about to say something.

I would say no goodbyes. The thought of it was simply too painful. I would abandon my congregation, my church, like a shamed priest stealing away in the night. But I felt no shame. The church had strayed from my vision, and I had not changed. The church would go on without me. It was a sunny, empty afternoon when I left. I did not know where I was going. The leaves rattled greenly as a chill breeze cut through the idyll of the day. I hugged my arms, and for a second I regretted the army jacket I had left in my suitcase in the donation box. I pushed the thought away. I cut through the park in the center of town. A large maple tree by the modest fountain invited me. What else did I have to do? I sat on the mound of grass and put my back against its sturdy trunk. I emptied my mind of everything except for the cold water of the sputtering fountain and the faraway sharp chirps of the sparrows. A series of staccato exhalations through my nostrils started something inside me, like the engine of an old truck turning over and rumbling to life. Before I was even aware of it, a daemonic bout of laughter consumed me entirely.

 

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