There’s always some travel guy writing some travel thing about some where. About the places you’ve been or don’t want to be. The places you’ve seen or don’t want to see. Or the places you’ve died. Yes, dying. Stock in trade for a gag and bone man like myself. I was a comedian once. Specialized in ‘shock humour’. Ever hear of Bernie Goebbels? Thought not. Nobody else did either. That was the trouble. Was pretty much washed up by 1996. But there is this one gig that sticks out in my mind and makes the four hairs on my alopecia totalis cranium still stand up.
The time. Winter 1992. The place. Begorrah. Begob. Bejaysus. Be the hokey. The Emerald Isle. Ireland. A private trip. To visit my mother’s people in Killeshandra. Uncle Timmy Tommy to be precise. One night I’m in ‘Ugh’s’ – the local bar. Proprietor’s name was Hugh. Hadn’t replaced the ‘H’ over the front door since 1968. Some guy comes up to me. 73% Ned Beatty. 27% Stacy Keach.
“Are you the comedian? Are ya?’
“Making people laugh must be the hardest job in the world.”
“It’s the second hardest. Tracking hurricanes is harder.”
“Tell us a joke.”
“What do say to a retarded dog?”
I want Ned Stacy to go away. Hope he doesn’t like the joke and leaves me alone. But after a pause, he grins like a madman and a deep uncontrollable laugh spews from the nadir of his bowels.
“Jaysus, you’re just the man I’m looking for! Would you like to make a few bob?”
The house is up a hill. Over a meadow. Through a bog. Under an unsettled blackcurrant sky. An Irish picture postcard designed by Edvard Munch. Ned Stacy wants me to entertain a ‘small social gathering’. I surprise myself by agreeing immediately. Maybe because Uncle Timmy Tommy- a true taciturn Cavan man- and myself had run out of things to talk about after five minutes. My journey. My mother. The weather. And I’m only two nights into my stay.
We arrive at the house on the hill. Introduced to a Maisie, 54 % Kathy Bates. 46% Elsa Lancaster. And Malachy. 78% Ernest Borgnine. 22% Charles Bronson. Maisie is odd. Malachy is scary.
“I brought the funnyman”, Ned Stacy announces.
“Will we bring him inside?” Maisie wonders.
“Sure that’s what he’s here for.” Malachy growls in a register four levels lower than gravel-voiced.
I am ushered into a large back room. Dimly lit. Seems pretty cluttered. Is that furniture in the middle? No. A piano. Wrong again. It’s a coffin. Oh. Next to another coffin.
Ned Stacy, looks down, makes more introductions.
“Paddy Joe and Philomena Grimes.”
Paddy Joe. 93% John Hurt. Obviously a dead John Hurt. And Philomena. How can I put this? She looks quite unlike anybody I’ve ever seen in my life. Ned Stacy shakes his head.
“Their first holiday away, in Torremolinas, and aren’t they run over by a wayward Eye-talian”.
“But isn’t Torremolinas in Spain?” Outside of comedy and the movies, and unlike most Americans, place names and geography are a particular speciality of mine . Capital of the Isle of Man? Douglas.
Malachy clears his gravel.
“Paddy Joe and my sister always loved a good laugh. A good joke.”
So Malachy is the brother. I scrutinize Philomena again. Yes. On second thoughts an uncanny family resemblance. Think Borgnine. With a perm. In a dress. Holding rosary beads.
Ned Stacy stops picking his nose.
“We were wondering. Given the night’s that’s in it. Us here, having a bit of a wake, before we put them in the ground tomorrow, could you tell them an auld joke, ah go on, they loved a bit of a laugh!”
Maisie taps me on the shoulder.
“Go on there now! We’ll see if you’re any good at all!”
The other two start to laugh. Maisie joins in. Sometimes laughter in unison can create a certain warmth. A joint frivolous giddiness that announces it is good to be alive. This wasn’t one of those times. I look down on Paddy Joe and Philomena.
Malachy stares at me. “Tell them a joke. See if you can bring a smile to their lips. One last time.”
Suddenly I feel an upping of the ante. Doing Carson’s Tonight Show in October 1981- my only appearance – was less pressure.
A joke. Which one. What do I do?
Then an idea. There’s an old habit in comedy. If you play in a small room with a strange audience, ideal time to try out some new material. And this was a small room with a strange audience. Very strange. Although maybe not the right crowd for my ‘Mother Teresa Becomes a Lesbian Porn Star Junkie’ monologue. Malachy glares. He is getting impatient. A pinball machine starts up in my chest. Must do something. My Padre Pio joke! Always works in Boston.
“Padre Pio, might have been a saint, but he always cheated at hide and seek”. I place my open palms over my eyes. There is a long pause. I start explaining. Always death for a comedian.
“See, he had the stigmata in the hands…..allegedly.”
Ned Stacy gets it. He nods. But he’s already a fan. Malachy and Maisie are unimpressed. I keep explaining.
“The holes. He could peek through the holes…”
This is becoming extremely uncomfortable.
“When he is counting. Hide and seek…one…two…three…..he looks through his palms…”
Malachy’s fist tightens. He is about to strike me when we hear the faintest titters emanating from the coffins.
Malachy and Maisie are stunned. Maisie blurts out.
“They laughed. Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the donkey, they laughed. Thank you so much. You made them laugh one last time.”
My face freezes. Not gobsmacked. Gobwhipped.
Walking back to ‘Ugh’s.’ Over the meadow. Through the bog. Still stunned. I turn to Ned Stacy.
“Well that’s something for my cv. Makes the dead laugh.”
He looks at me.
“I was starting to feel sorry for you back there. Used to be in show business myself years ago. Did a bit of an auld ventriloquist act. Marty and the Dummy. Well are you going to thank me or what?”