‘Lived Experience of Mental Health’ by Sam Watson
Sam Watson, Short Story Winner, LISP 3rd Quarter 2020
‘Lived Experience of Mental Health’
When I applied to my job, they listed a ‘lived experience of Mental Health’ in the desirable criteria. It took me a while to fill out that section. Not that I would count my ‘eccentricities’ as dysfunctional. Without them, I doubt I would have a sense of humour. The paradox did make me laugh though. For some, Mental Health - or lack of it - is a flash in the pan; for others, it’s flipping poles between mealtimes. Neither would describe me exactly. Still, it was less suspect than an essential requirement for an ‘open mind’.
The first time I went to a comedy open mic I thought of taffy. That quintessentially American Sweet. Salt-water taffy, sweet and dense, pulled out into long, technicolour ropes. Cut into little cubes of a hundred different flavours; Banana, Watermelon, Peppermint and Apple Pie. Wrapped in crisp wax paper and sold as a novelty on the Jersey Shore. Jokes could be pulled out, flung around and moulded this way and that. Flavoured a thousand different ways only by shifting an expectant pause, a comma. It had seemed to me the smartest thing in the world. I never had any interest in performing though. Being called on stage during a childhood pantomime had scarred me thoroughly. However, I was never short of material.
My day job is to moderate an online message board. Although not the front page of the internet, our depths mine deeper than the most desperate lonely-hearts section. A year in, I recommended a ‘lived experience’ of the madness of crowds as an essential characteristic. Page upon page of vitriol, abuse, hate-speech and blather to sort through. Each day it gets a little easier, but only if you believe it all signifies nothing. Real-world ramifications are best kept out of mind. I have always pitied my colleagues behind the locked door of the explicit images section. After an average week, I’ll usually have enough raw material for a tight hour-long special. Users goading each other into even darker attempts at humour, the message board giveth and I receiveth. Then I slap them with anything from a suspension to a lifetime ban - the system works.
If honed and marketed correctly, these raw nuggets of hate often make excellent stand-up. Inevitably certain topics have a stronger centre of gravity, particularly in the anonymity of online message boards. Therefore, I have accumulated troves of wit only truly performable by the people they offend. In their hands, hate could be transmuted. Or at least recast into the hate of comedy gold.
I found my comedy partner when, one winter evening, he wheeled himself on stage. Perfect timing, he was neither too refined nor too crude to be pigeon-holed. But he definitely had the common touch. A perfect mouth-piece, he could make it big. Thankfully, he just couldn’t write.
-You’re good, but your material needs a lot of work.
No sense in not being direct.
-You’re not the first person to talk down to me.
True to type, always ‘on’. After a few drinks, he became more himself. Or at least my estimation of what that meant. Leaning in, he told me that watching Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights made him want to be a comedian. He seemed to enjoy my awkward pause. Made me sit in it. He loosened up even more after that.
We agreed an eighty-twenty split his way. He never asked why I had so many disability-related one-liners or how I’d thought up the longer-form stories from his perspective. It’s likely he thought me a bit sick in the head. Though only as far as any true comedian can - which is less than the general population. Some might even see it as part of the job specification. I suspect he rationalised it all as me having identity issues.
Knowing that not every impulse is relatable, I have never shared my talents with anyone outside the industry. By inviting another set of eyes in to observe, you often only end up distorting your private pleasures. So, I never took dates to the local comedy store to flaunt my connections. And I had a great many - this guy wasn’t the only one I had sold to. I shouldn’t have been concerned, they all made efforts not to meet my eye. But it made no different to me how long they wanted to spend at the bar after their set, talking shop. Sitting in the audience, I’d feel how I imagine a forger feels, standing in some major gallery or private, upscale residence. No worries for my anonymity, just the pleasure of knowing the precise flow of the brushstrokes required to create each effect. And the joy in everyone else’s ignorance of that fact.
Ever more and more desperate people clambering over each-other for the spotlight. Find me a means by which I can disappear. History is too bloated as it is. Let those who’d die without the light occupy centre stage. I will just move them how I see fit. Then I’ll leave and walk down the street, lost in the crowd. Can they do that?
The first venue didn’t have a ramp to the stage. By the time we made it to the panel shows however, we could expect one with glow-in-the-dark trim. As clear a sign you made it as any. I enjoyed my role within his entourage, neither essential emotional support nor an overexcited hanger-on.
It didn’t take long for him to be offered his own show. Given a pun-centric name, you were meant to assume it a self-deprecating joke. In truth, it had just tested the best with the focus group. Believing themselves in on the act, the group had revelled in the play-of-words, even suggesting their own. Behind the one-way mirror, from the look on my partner’s face, he was not amused. Wheeling himself out into the hallway, he had watched them as they left. Saying nothing, his expression told them the joke hadn’t been quite entre-nous. He enjoyed their realisation. But who could complain?
I often did. But at the same time, I refused to work with anyone else. Output had to be quickened, he had become known as the tightest thirty-minutes in the business. I even provoked an online exchange or two. Waiting under the net, I gave myself an ulcer sifting through what I caught.
The only real issue was his goading of the guests. After a lifetime of not getting the attention you feel you deserve, your reaction can take on various flavours. One involves basking in the arbitrariness of your new-found freedom to be seen. Another involves making sure no-one else forgets life’s cruelty. Sometimes, I could see his point. Many of the guests had floated past cloud-nine and on into hypoxic bliss a lifetime ago. They needed a fool to resuscitate them. But not everyone really cares for humour, do they?
Alcohol played a part; as it often does. In imitation of the best chat-shows, the green room was a speakeasy. Around awards-season, we were lucky enough to get the Hollywood elite completing their tipsy BAFTAs rotation. One guest catapulted us to worldwide fame before obscuring us completely. As always, I watched from the wings.
You never saw the wheelchair, at least not on tape. Sitting behind a desk, my partner would usher the guest in from the revolving door on the left. The actor in question had been a matinee idol in his youth. Given a couple of hard decades, a court-ordered therapist and a second marriage to his masseuse, he now looked far more cut out for comedic roles.
Whenever he had an American guest, my partner put a photo of FDR on his desk. In a flush of self-conscious seriousness, the actor had shown his admiration for the great statesman.
-Definitely one of our greatest presidents. If only the guy in the White House now cared enough to do another New Deal.
-Yes. I have to say - to me - FDR is one of the most inspiring cripples.
-Have you any idea how offensive that is?
A couple of sarcastic retorts later and the actor knocked the comedian flat on his back. Even told him to stand and take it like a man. It went viral.
After the initial outcry and an apology tour later, the actor got his first directing gig. Could even make the Oscars. He refused to work with anyone who had sat on my partner’s couch. Our show was terminated. Shortly after that, we concluded our partnership.
A new host was found for the slot, a shiny-faced non-descript who had gone to school with a prince. He even made it in America. I read that he was caught on camera masturbating in his assistant’s shoe. I didn’t see the footage but not long after he was selling-out stadiums.
After so much insanity, I stuck to the day job.