Funnyman – A Short Story

Early in his comedy career, Billy Rodgers heard a joke that always stuck with him.

A man goes to see the doctor. “Doc,” he says, “You gotta help me. I’m so depressed I just can’t stand it. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. Some days I just can’t stop crying. There’s not a single thing in the world that makes me happy. What should I do?”

“I can fix that, easy,” says the doctor. “The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. He’s the funniest man in the world. He can bring a smile to anyone’s face. Go and see his show, it’ll make you laugh so hard you forget all your problems.”

Instead of being relieved, the man bursts into tears. “But Doctor,” he says, “I am Pagliacci.”

Something about that punchline. It always brought Billy right back to that day at the hospital, to the first time he figured out how to be funny. He was just a kid then, trying to make his mom laugh. He didn’t remember now what he’d said or done- just that he wanted her to stop thinking about depression and alcoholism and mental illness, about that bullet lodged in her husband’s head.

And it worked. Eileen Rodgers laughed until she cried, and afterwards she hugged her son and said, “I don’t know what I’d do without you here to cheer me up.”

Of course she didn’t. Billy Rodgers was the only person who knew what it was like to live in a world where you didn’t have Billy Rodgers to make you laugh.

“But Doctor,” he says, “I am Pagliacci.”

He’d think of it at the strangest times. Sitting alone in a dingy hotel room, scribbling notes about his latest set onto a pad of paper. Standing in the corner of the green room, waiting to see which one of the young guys was brave enough to come ask for an autograph. Hanging up after telling Molly a bedtime story over the phone, while her mother and stepfather tucked her in a thousand miles away.

Every memory was part of the joke. Even the sad ones. Hell, especially the sad ones. Didn’t somebody say once that comedy and tragedy were the oldest brothers?

Billy shrugged, almost smiling to himself. That was probably the whiskey talking. Or the barbiturates. But maybe there was something there. It was a shame he didn’t have time to figure out how to work it into the act. Might get a laugh. Maybe he’d try anyway- it was worth the gamble, if it got a laugh. There was nothing quite like making people laugh.

The only thing better would’ve been being able to laugh with them. And that was the biggest joke of them all. The comedian who gives away all of his happiness, leaving none for himself.

Billy checked his watch. Five minutes until curtain.

He checked his pocket. Only four more of those little white pills left now.

The words to a stupid old rhyme popped into Billy’s head when he dropped one of the tablets into his glass of Jameson, watching it fizz down to the bottom.

One for the money. Had it ever really been about the money? Billy was proud to say it hadn’t. All the money in the world- it didn’t matter. “But Doctor,” he says, “I am Pagliacci.”

Next pill- two for the show. The place was packed tonight. A full house, all waiting to see Billy Rodgers’ farewell performance. Not that any of them knew that. They’d be laughing the whole time. Laughing, not worrying that anything was wrong. What could be wrong when you were watching the great clown?

“But Doctor,” he says, “I am Pagliacci.”

Next pill- three to get ready. Billy checked his watch again. Time already? The booze and the pills were making his head swim. Good thing he’d done this set a hundred times before. It was good, solid stuff, at least he didn’t have to worry about that. It would bring a smile to anyone’s face.

“But Doctor,” he says, “I am Pagliacci.”

Last pill- four to go. Billy stood up and finished the rest of his drink in one gulp, just as they turned down the house lights.

“Showtime,” he said aloud. And in that moment everything melted away. Because when Billy stepped out onto a stage and put on his mask, the mask of the great clown, the man behind it disappeared.

And this time he would stay gone. No more tears, no more pain. Never another word about depression, alcoholism, or mental illness. Just laughter.

Billy Rodgers couldn’t see much of the audience under those bright lights, but he could hear them laughing. Sometimes muted, sometimes deafening, but always laughing. The sounds swam together. A giggle, a guffaw, a big bellylaugh, a snort- a cacophony of mirth.

It was his mother laughing at him in the hospital waiting room, it was the audience who had laughed at his first show on amatuer night, it was Molly laughing at the silly voices he used to do during playtime. It was the culmination of all those times that Billy had wanted to laugh himself and couldn’t manage anything besides a hiccupping sob.

When Billy Rodgers collapsed, it was in the middle of a joke that he’d never told onstage before. He threw it in, knowing somewhere in the back of his foggy, slipping mind that he’d never have the chance to make it to the punchline.

It was a shame. Billy had always thought that there was just something about that punchline.

“But Doctor,” he says, “I am Pagliacci.”

It’s his last thought as he collapses upon the stage, laughter still ringing in his ears.

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