“The Joke Routine”

Bryan Yalta


Intimacy, n. A relation into which fools are

providentially drawn for their mutual destruction.

The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce

It was in the middle of his set that Mick Wright sensed disinterest in his audience. No laughter, not even half-hearted chuckles arose. Mick stood offset left from the center stage spotlight, gripping the microphone like a weapon. He was trembling the way a forgotten man would if someone recognized him after years of living incognito. His stern expression exposed the failure that troubled him for ages—the last 36 years of his 73 living, to be exact. He longed for more time, time to outlast the night with dignity. The year was 2074 and one last joke was left to give. The laugh was just out of reach.

Every Friday night, one person would be assigned to entertain a crowd at the Routine for ten minutes. The show—and the life of the performer—would end right after. The Routine was a compact venue hidden under a dive bar, its intention being to go down a list of people born in the 20th century and select one to entertain those born the following century with comedy. It was the idea of a 22 year old man, Owen Tisbon, in 2037, when the youth of his country joined together and revolted against the ideas of the old. Owen led a coalition whose goal was to eradicate any trace of history before the turn of the 21st century. Because the rebellion initially caused a lot of bloodshed in the streets, Owen decided it would be better to capture the enemy and make use of them. As a result, he created the Routine, an online-streamed, once-a-week event. With it, he created one rule: to never look at the performer in the eye, to never look back at history and regress. So, the youthful country turned to its screens to watch each event, whether attending the event or not.

The Routine attracted masses of people every Friday, but only a select few were allowed in due to its limited room. The day Mick was allotted, a crowd larger than usual was drawn in. Owen Tisbon would usually be situated behind the audience and watch each performance without a phone. He’d ignore his own rule to fully experience history gradually fading, this night completing his goal. The Routine was to shut down with Mick Wright, the last man of the 20th century.

Mick had spent the last 36 years of his life in a closed, underground cell, one of hundreds where others like him were maintained, including his wife. Each prisoner had to their name a cellphone with a contacts list that included each person who had been captured since 2037. No one was allowed to speak until it was their time to perform, so they used their phones to text each other. After contacting 55 Isabelles, Mick found his wife once she confirmed their last name and memories.

One day, Mick asked his wife what she would do when she was selected to go perform. She replied, after saying nothing all these years, you’d think I’d want to scream. I’d actually like to say nothing, though my instinct would do otherwise. Mick asked her why but no reply came afterwards. He texted her name multiple times, mostly in capital letters as if it captured his emotions. Mick began to cry, after years of not knowing how that felt like. He fell into a depression for months, questioning why he had to entertain these people at all. For a while, he would return back to Isabelle’s last message and laugh to himself, lying sideways on the cold, concrete floor. Then, years passed and he was soon called to perform.

Mick had been laughed at when he entered the stage and ignored when he slurred his first words in years: I remember in my time we used to laugh at the jokes, not at the performer. As cramped as his audience was, Mick could not induce the sound of a hundred laughs. He scoured the crowd for those who were attentive. He discerned beyond the lights many faces and hands illuminated by dim brightness coming from phone screens. The clash of an older generation against a new one presented itself. He had spoken 1999 to an audience who understood only down to the year 2000.

While looking through the crowd, Mick spotted the silhouette of a thin man in the background without a phone. He sensed some sort of familiarity with the dark figure, whose shape seemed to outline the barbarity and corruption of the ideal future man. Mick shifted his focus back to the crowd and reached for his left jean pocket. He took out his cellphone and used it for the rest of his spare time without a word. Mick snorted reading the last text message of his wife—before she was in his position. It would be the only thing heard from him for a while. The venue took the theme of a prayer room; heads were down, hands working. Silence held the room hostage.

Brows furrowed gradually within the audience. Their view never left their screens, yet each spectator witnessed Mick’s premature resignation. Through their phones, some inspected the area captured around Mick while others merely stared at him. Suddenly, as if a joke had landed, a sea of shadowed heads rolled back simultaneously. Their mouths slit open smiles, glinting whites slowly curving. Their ubiquitous confusion led to laughter.

The sound of hysterical animals arose from the nether of the room. Coyotes, hyenas, weasels—impish animals creating a pesky environment. From left to right eyes infected other eyes, tears passed like a virus. Mick ignored the laughter. He continued swiping his phone. He had accepted his fate. It was over.

The silhouette figure watched the idle stage behind the audience. He swiped his screen to check the time. Mick scowled for a brief moment while his eyes searched his own phone screen. Three minutes left. Mick began his closing words on top of the laughter.

“Look at me,” he said. “I came before you. Yes, I’m the civilized ape you’ve evolved from. Yeah, I cheated time with knowledge just like you. You wanna get rid of me? Fine. You wanna take my wife, friends, strangers from my time? Fine, but just remember you can’t fully kill off your past. There’s always a past. You’ll all take my place when your time comes, overthrown by the next era. They will laugh at you the way you have at me. They will mock your norms, having replaced them for other ones. They will erase any visible trace of your lifestyle, bone and humor. You—you haven’t seen the future the way I have, but you will!”
The shrill laughter of his audience grew tenfold as he spoke. They weren’t there for words. They were there for the same joke they saw onstage each week: primitive arrogance. Each guest glued their eyes to their screens. Mick’s last words were only filler to the single joke of all: his time expired.

Once more, Mick noticed the silhouette figure in the obscurity of the audience background. The figure made a sign with his hands directed at the stage directors. Mick was done. A security guard guided Mick out the stage towards uncertainty. In the process of being forcefully escorted out backstage, Mick bawled at the audience once more:

“Rem—remember your past! Rememb—”

The microphone fell. Mick was hauled out and disappeared unto his fate. The silhouette figure began to clap. Soon after, the crowd joined. Each audience member stood up at the same time, cheering and applauding the definitive death of the 20th century. The crowd looked a bit crueler; the stage, a killing machine. They knew where Mick was headed. In front of the stage curtains, there hung a banner that read ‘No More Shall We Regress.’ No more the need for the Routine. No more obstruction. The audience made its way out the exit single-file into the rising edge of the 22nd century.