Friday, October 27, 2017

The Story Behind the Story:
“Ten Dead Comedians,” by Fred Van Lente

Author Fred Van Lente

(Editor’s note: This is the 74th installment in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Today’s essay comes from Fred Van Lente, a Brooklyn, New York, writer best known for his work on graphic novels such as Cowboys & Aliens [the basis of the feature film], Odd Is on Our Side with Dean R. Koontz, and several entries in the “gorily funny” Marvel Zombies series. His debut prose novel, Ten Dead Comedians, was released this last summer by Quirk Books. He has a follow-up novel, The Con Artist—set in the comic-book industry—due out in 2018. Van Lente writes below about how his love of stand-up comedy led him to explore that world further in Ten Dead Comedians.)

The town I grew up in was called Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Yes, that was the actual name. Supposedly, it’s a mispronunciation of the original Native American name of the river running through the town, but personally I’ve suspected the original settlers could have benefited from the invention of Xanax.

Chagrin Falls is a small town and, as is often the case in small towns, small differences get magnified, particularly when you’re a kid with a bowl haircut who wears the wrong sneakers and jacket. You can get picked on a lot. And because this wasn’t just a very small town, it was also a very rich town, and the other boys didn’t want to risk mussing up their Izod shirts by actually beating me up, this bullying was verbal, rather than physical in nature.

And this is how I learned to love stand-up comedy.

By the time I reached the fifth and sixth grades, I found that I was better at insults than my tormentors; and if I could make fun of my attacker’s haircut in a clever way, not only did I diffuse his attacks on me, but the other kids would start laughing with me, and not at me. Eventually, the attacks stopped, because they knew I could give back as good as I got. I can’t begin to tell you how empowering that was to a little kid. Words have power!

At about this same time, I discovered the golden age of 1980s comedy on my parents’ HBO-TV screen. I loved Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Bobcat Goldthwait, Sam Kinison, Rosanne Barr, and many others. But my absolute favorite comedian was George Carlin. I loved the way he raised and lowered his voice to make an effect. The way he talked high and fast or low and slow, depending on the point he was making. I listened to cassettes of his albums, such as Place for My Stuff and Class Clown and Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television, until the tape literally broke, hanging on the way he spoke truth to power in such a hilarious way. He wasn’t defending himself against bullies before the homeroom bell, he was going after hypocrisy, politics, racism, and more. That didn’t mean I didn’t incorporate some of his methods into my schoolyard self-defense “act,” of course. Even when I was a ’tween I was like, “I want to do that kind of thing!” Words have power.

Now, in addition to looking like a bookworm, I am, in fact, an actual bookworm. My parents lined our house with books. My mother’s favorites were mysteries—Ten Dead Comedians is dedicated to her. She loved the classic, Golden Age stuff, like Agatha Christie, whose And Then There Were None is Ten Dead’s most direct inspiration. I was more of a Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, noir type. But like all great genres, the mystery can be more than the sum of its parts. The mystery can be “literary” as well as entertainment because, at heart, it’s about an investigation, it’s about peeling back the layers of a society to see what’s there. It also speaks truth to power.

So that’s why combining the Golden Age of Murder and stand-up comedy in Ten Dead Comedians seemed like a such a natural pairing to me. After all, so much of the language around stand-up comedy concerns metaphors for violence. If you do really well in a stand-up set, you “killed,” you “slaughtered” the audience; if you did poorly you “bombed” or “died.” It’s a real kill-or-be-killed vibe in the comedy club, or maybe predator and prey. If you are as terrified by public speaking as most people are, this life-or-death language isn’t so surprising. The audience is fickle and unpredictable. It’s dangerous. It can turn on you at any moment, and you’ve got to be able to read the room and adjust your act accordingly, or your showbiz lifespan is not going to be very long. Maybe lion-taming is the better comparison.

So to a lonely Agatha Christie-style island in the Caribbean Sea come eight comedians, all of whom are familiar types, perhaps, but unique in their own ways.

There’s a retired late-night talk-show host and a Vegas insult comic who’s had one facelift too many. There’s an up-and-coming star who suddenly seems to be on every TV show and movie trailer at the same time, and a guy on the other side of the fame parabola, trending downward, who can barely get work as an improv instructor. There’s the prop comic with the sledgehammer everyone looks down on and the Hipper-Than-Thou alt-comedian who looks down on everyone else. There’s an “urban” road comic who’s lived out of hotels for the past eight years as he goes from club to club and a multi-millionaire “blue-collar” comedian who hasn’t seen the inside of a trailer park since the first Bush administration, despite his good ol’ boy shtick. They’re all in the Caribbean at the invitation of a ninth comedian—one of the most famous who ever lived, but whose career got sidetracked by his appearances in a lot of really bad comedies that found him married to a cat. His assistant, an up-and-coming comic who is the 10th in our cadre, leads them there, and acts as surprised as the rest of them when they find the island and its mansion deserted.

Although that’s not as surprising as when they start getting knocked off, one by one, in methods reminiscent of their individual acts, and they come to the slow, horrible realization that one of them is the killer.

What pleased me so much about writing a mystery was being able to explore and investigate the lives and motivations of folks who do stand-up comedy, from various generations, economic backgrounds, races, genders, sexual orientations, and widely disparate success levels. The people who brave hostile crowds, bad weather, crummy food, living out of hotel rooms, and bombing—and one guy who literally bombs on stage … sorry, that’s a spoiler. That is what mysteries can do that other genres can’t. They let you peel back those layers to see the beating heart underneath. I wanted to see my fictional comics put their humor skills to use in their own self-defense, as I did back in that Chagrin Falls schoolyard—though a bit more literally than I did.

And in doing so I was able to marry two of the great loves of my life—the spoken word, in the form of stand-up comedy, and the written word, in the form of the novel—into one.

The feeling was not unlike the solution to a murder mystery, or like the punch line to a joke:

It felt both inevitable and surprising at the same time.

* * *

Click here to enjoy a short excerpt from Ten Dead Comedians.

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