Marmalade’s house looked mighty. No picket fence, now, but a certain Schickimicki exuded from the place, you know? Laura K and I tread up those cobbled steps like we might set off an alarm. Marmalade answered the door and I explained that we wanted to workshop a few jokes with him. He said “No, thank you, I’m busy,” and I managed to get my foot crushed in the door as he closed it. “Here,” I told him, “We’re both comics. Can we send you an email?” Marmalade pushed me backwards onto the porch, closed the door, and locked up. I banged again but got no answer from the damn recluse.
Laura K packed some ice onto my foot and we considered our ganz limited options. Nearby there was one of those awful ghost estates that housed a small human community. Here, Laura K told me, we could find the impresario and comic master Leonard Grape. I said “Grape’s got an instinct for this stuff,” and Laura K told me our artistic capital would win us entry. I longed for the respect that loads of cash had brought me in the past – my comedy capital had hit a low and was declining by the year.
The estate was quieter than we’d thought – Teufel, es war deserted. We pushed open the gate to Brownlow Residences and once we stepped inside the air changed – lights went on, eyes appeared behind bins, air freshener from a fucking industrial hose began spraying down one of the yards. I said as loudly as I could: “We’re here to see Leonard Grape. We’re comedians.” Something awful came scuffling our way, shaking the bins, causing Laura K to rub her earlobes like she used to. A door opened: number 17. When we found our way to the staircase, we looked up – quiet and intimidating stood Leonard Grape, hair flattened, eyes red, and a million other things (would you say enigmatic? The man had achieved near-Williams popularity). “Mr. Grape,” said Laura K, leaving my mind to wander, “We have a few questions about your stories.”
Inside his apartment we examined the fruits of a life in comedy. A TV – a fucking TV – and a microwave in the kitchen, a copy of Humans Quarterly. Couple of bean bags and a couch, and a chair, and no place to stand, really, in the living room. “What would you like to know?” he asked us. Not knowing exactly what to say, I launched into a Kommentar about comedy that I’d posted on one of his videos, “No shit what I’d like to know, what I’d like to know is how you write things that are both funny and relevant, provocative and real, and things that don’t come across as full of effort and reverence. You wanker.”
Grape rattled off a couple of one-liners, none of which were particularly funny, desperate, even, and then he handed us each a copy of his first collection Loving Your Robotic Husband. “You can read the mistakes I made, you can see the immature sense of humour,” he said to us, “Read my work in sequence and see how I improved.” I flicked through a couple of stories, which consisted of jokes about fucking and semen and farts. Real ‘early work’ kind of material. And yeah, so the stories drew on these adolescent experiences, but Grape took, frankly, remarkable lessons from each bodily function. If one could fart, one could live. While I analysed the stories, Grape and Laura K retreated all blushes and giggles to the bedroom. We left the estate eighteen days later when Laura K emerged from that bedroom, her eyes cold; her mouth wet.
She opened her new show. “I’ll tell you what humans are like,” she said, “They try to drink milk and it comes out their nose!” The robots guffawed, recognising the event from their own lives. Backstage I said to the catering staff, “She’s funnier than I thought. Grape really had something.” When Laura K came off stage I hugged her, but she screamed “Don’t touch me!” and I jumped off her, embarrassed as anything – I could feel the stares. I asked her what the problem was and she said something total untrue and hurtful.
And her career took off. The worst thing that can happen when somebody disses you is that they become successful. Bullies are supposed to fail, right, wash the dishes and sweep the floors of society? Nobody liked my comedy anymore, and they loved this milk shit Laura K was coming out with. I visited Marmalade in the hopes of piggybacking on his jealousy for the new Comedy Matriarch. When I showed him my scripts and sketches he asked me the most important question you can ask a writer: “Where did you write these?” I laughed, and said “On a park bench, while feeding some robot pigeons!” He guffawed, and I knew I’d struck gold – it was the perfect trans-machine joke: a joke that appealed to both humans and robots – a joke that would take me to the top.
Marmalade took me to his viewing room, which by now was adorned with posters of Laura K. She’d advertised whiskey, she had written and produced two sitcoms, a sell-out stand-up tour, and was just getting started in the movies. “I’m studying her,” Marmalade activated his WebScreen – a fucking WebScreen, “Her act contains something; an unknown – I don’t want to say variable and sound like a robot cliché, but that’s precisely it.” Now came my moment to shine – my moment to prove to Marmalade that I had value as an investigative comedian: I produced Grape’s book Loving Your Robotic Husband. “She’s got something of Grape’s. We don’t know what. But something happened in that bedroom.”
In the ethers of the comedy club I found an audience. With a bunch of rehashed Grape jokes – and a Laura K style cynicism – I got a couple of robots chuckling. “Would that you loved my own jokes, oder?” But man, if the damn robots didn’t leave me just as soon as Marmalade – a robot, of course – started next door.
One night after a show in which I’d damn near hugged an audience member to get a response, I ‘tuned in’ to Robot Letterman. Laura K sat there, bathing in the love of the crowd. I repeated my trans-machine joke to myself and chuckled. On screen, Laura K acted pally with Robot Letterman. She brought up the recent human relocation to Frankfurt – “This one girl,” she said, “Said ‘Do they even acknowledge our existence? Why does nobody do anything about the ignorance of the Robot Empire?’ And then she did something about it – she killed herself.” Robot Letterman began to guffaw and then the fact registered. “She engaged in suicide?” he asked. Laura K said yes. The robots were silent, not recognising the event from their own lives.
“You’re saying she shut her body down?” asked Robot Letterman. On the WebScreen – I had gone and bought a fucking WebScreen – I analysed Laura K’s meticulously planned facial movements. Manipulative arsehole. This wasn’t comedy. “Yes,” said Laura K, “She stabbed herself twice in the heart.” Her eyes focused in that way I’d only seen on the day she left Leonard Grape’s bedroom. Robot Letterman stood up, “We must find the body!” he exclaimed, “We will find this poor girl’s body and feast upon it! Then we will dedicate downtown L.A. to the girl!” Cheers from the robot audience, then Robot Letterman led them out of the studio and onto the streets.
I dialed Laura K – I was probably drunk – and said “Hey, do you want to hear my trans-machine joke?” I said it to her and she laughed.
I said “Do you have any jobs on your show, you need writers, right?”
She said “Nee, not just now.”
I said “I’m a good writer, and I’m not doing viel for the next few months,”
“So write a show. You’re good. Write and perform.”
“But have any of your writers left?”
I hung up and texted Marmalade to see if he wanted to go get some pussy with me, but the fucker was married or something. Schade.
The suicide story began to attract accusations of dishonesty and manipulation in the robot press. Audiences began to turn on Laura K, and somebody posted some of her nudes online. On the other hand, with strong hate comes strong love – and her Altona apartment had become a mecca for progressive comedy fans. I joined the throng one evening, and felt surprised to see Marmalade front and center. “We want more knowledge of suicide!” Marmalade said at full volume, “We want the statistics!” A few robots had set up tents on the green, and a few others had set up a database to trawl for information on suicide. “Laura K is our prophet,” shouted Marmalade, “And we will no longer be complicit in the injustices of the Robot Empire! Save the humans!”
I sat down on the grass and pulled out a flask of green tea. A tap on my shoulder – it was Leonard Grape. He sat down beside me, more amiable and open than before – maybe he’d drunk from the autism cup – and said “Tell me your famous trans-machine joke.” I said it to him, and he said “That’s terrible.” As angry as I felt at his dismissal, I knew that Grape – protege of the grand Tim Moran – couldn’t be wrong. I said “I’ve waited eight years to get a proper sitcom and Laura K has her own sitcom where is mine I’m the best.” Grape listened, saying little, and then passed me a copy of his book Divorcing Your Farts.
We moved to a lakeside cafe and turned on the WebScreen to see Laura K stripped of her show on WDR, given another show on Arte, and generally shunted around. WDR sued her for insisting that a girl had killed herself. The middle-aged robot waiter serving us got an autograph from Grape, and in return he offered us a few of his pitiful jokes. Ach. He didn’t recognise me. Sometimes I wished for the old economy again, for the respect that loads of cash had brought me – a billionaire at 28! I told the robot waiter my perfect trans-machine joke. He laughed. I knew the joke was a failure because the robot was middle-aged. I said it again. He laughed again. I felt so empty. Grape put his hand on mine, as if to say “Don’t worry, my son,” When he spoke again, his voice sounded weary and faded. I got the impression that he might be fatally ill. I asked him if this was so, and he said yes.
Grape snuggled his fingers through mine – through me – his lesser protege; or maybe just a reminder that he still had fans (did he even know my name?). As he held my fingers the life drained from his eyes until I held the hand of a corpse. His hair was still wet from the rain. I called out to the robot waiter, who asked “Is this a suicide?” He pulled Grape’s hair, “We have to stop more suicides.” I said no, I didn’t think this was a suicide. The robot waiter said something hurtful so I lashed out and called him a “Stupid robot!” I looked at Grape, who was dead. The robot waiter repeated my perfect, trans-machine joke to me, and I said “That’s copyrighted,” but I knew he didn’t care. I knew he would repeat it to customers.
I visited Laura K in Altona, where she was still paying off Arte’s lawsuits. Her lawyer sat by her, rifling through fines and criminal records. We lamented the comedic landscape, and I said “Arte really did a number on you,” and then “I think Leonard Grape killed himself.” She took me to her balcony – away from the ears of her lawyer – and said “There’s too little room for development here,” she pulled me closer, “Too little room to become myth; there’s only one way to become Leonard Grape.” Laura K climbed the balcony railing and jumped. Holy shit.
Stephen Totterdell is a writer and film scholar from Dublin. He lives in a large area.