Summer Shorts: Comedy Club

Punch lines – flash fiction by Hannah Lincoln


It’s Wednesday night and still too early for the bar to fill with bodies, let alone cigarette smoke and laughter. This isn’t the type of crowd to smoke, anyway: Westerners in their twenties, mostly white, simply dressed, with patient faces waiting to be entertained by tonight’s comedy, sharp eyes ready to judge, and over-invested analyses already penning affected reviews. Myriad blog posts could flow from the fingertips of their sweating hands, damning you, tonight’s entertainment, to legendary mediocrity.

As the audience trickles in, your heart staggers under the weight of this possibility. Jenna, your best friend, sits alone near the back, her discomfort with solitude thinly veiled by the routine manipulation of her cell phone. Two Chinese girls, red-lipped and booted, straddle bar chairs, their sultry presence exonerating them of unfamiliarity with Western stand-up. A typically unexcitable young couple rush over and greet friendly Jay, who everyone knows because he’s a British black man and in Beijing. You recognize Drew, who writes for The Times, and on his hip is a baby-faced kid, potentially his intern. Fuck him – fuck them both.

The first time you attended Comedy Club, laughter had shaken the low rafters of this hutong bar and warmed the inhabitants previously blistered by a February freeze. There had been a long line-up that night. The windmill of comedians had been propelled by the crowd’s hysterics, invoked by pleasure as much as pity from those empathetic Beijingers. Hadn’t the winter hardened them? 

Like comrades in the trenches, they had thronged in tacit agreement to support one another in their ongoing struggle – the bloggers and the journalists, the bar owners and the beer brewers, the teachers and the PhD’s. The night had ended with a roar of hopeful applause and a rumble of hands on tables, encouraging and imploring the comedic soldiers to continue the battle in a war whose outcome could affirm them all in their Beijing existences.

For you, their contributions on the battlefield were not enough. For you, there is only one person whose victory could affirm the righteousness of your own life’s decisions.

In the shower that night, cigarette musk lifted from your hair as you began to envision your routine. 

Tonight you crouch in the trench, hair flattened with sweat, waiting to be given the command. “Don’t be nervous – just be yourself,” Jenna had said, unhelpfully. The host takes the stage. His face glistens. “Thank you everybody for coming out tonight, sorry the air conditioning is broken…” 

“Sorry” doesn’t cool down the crowd, rumbling regrets that they had ever left their apartments on this precocious late-spring night. The bartender, a surly-faced Chinese ayi, is grappling with the draft beer handle. She pumps it and swivels its gauge, but only foam pours out. She plunges a spoon into the glass and dumps the foam into another cup, then hands it to an equally sour-looking buyer. He raises the glass and examines it, as if weighing a decision on an antique scale. The foam then meets his beard, and the opportunity to impart wisdom as to the correct way to pull a pint vanishes into his gullet. That’s one battle he is no longer willing to fight.

“Without further ado, I present to you our first act!”

“Step up to the mic,” your sixth-grade teacher had said. “The word is rhinoceros.”

You had swallowed hard. “Rhinoceros. R-H-I-N-O-“

In the back row, your parents, siblings, and grandma. Each held up a poster with a letter, spelling out your name. Grandma gave you a gift afterwards, a book called Journey to the Center of the Earth. Inside its cover, she wrote her usual note: “Looking forward to reading your own stories someday!” Grandma, who would later die of a stroke while you were freelancing in Beijing. You would receive that news the same day Drew from The Times would personally e-mail you a sympathetic rejection letter.

“R-H-I-N-O-S-A-U-R-U-S. Rhinoceros.”

At the bar, red lips smack a cigarette to life. They spew clouds, which fan out over the crowd -- hushed, sober, under-indulged. You step up to the mic.

Hannah Lincoln lives in Beijing. Also read her previous stories for the Anthill, Love Anywhere and Patrolman and Pumpkin

This story was an entry for Beijing Cream's Flash Fiction for Charity competition