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Cue Laugh Track!: A Group Writing Project

Group Writing 1

About the Authors

1 Miles Griffis, Los Angeles, CA – October 17, 2016

2 Helen Maimaris, Norwich, UK – October 24, 2016

3 Ryan C. Bradley – October 31, 2016

4 Mara Bandt-Law – November 07, 2016

5 Chris Phethean, UK – November 14, 2016

6 Jin Mei McMahon, Colorado Springs, CO – November 21, 2016

7 Kaley Kiermayr, Boston, MA – December 05, 2016

 

About Dually Noted

Dually Noted is TBL’s exciting group-writing project. New and established writers from around the world come together to create one ongoing story through weekly installments. If you would like to add the next section, shoot us your 500-word addition by Friday night. Our editor will publish the best submission at the beginning of each week.

Title

Cue Laugh Track!

by the TBL Writing Community

Hysterics

“Cue the laugh track!” the director yelled. “Push it, push it! You goddamn shit for brains intern!”

After four months of a “for credit,” no pay, and no appreciation “internship,” the intern snapped. She pushed the long laugh track, then the short laugh track, then the evil villain laugh track, then the duck laugh track (why did the show even have that option?), and so on until all of the buttons were lit up and the studio erupted into a fit of recorded hysterics, like the scariest clown movie you’ve ever seen.

During her melancholic days in the studio, the intern would often drift off while she tap-tap-tapped away on Instagram, looking at cosplay makeup tutorials and thinking about who the people on the tracks were and what was so goddamn funny. Mostly, she imagined a room crammed with people, a shit ton of green laughing gas and bam, ha ha ha HA! The Joker’s white face and red smile would appear in her mind asking why so serious? Her other hypothesis: a cliche plate of brownies at a party that, oops, had a couple grams of indica baked in them. But when her mind was particularly dark—which was often—she imagined hundreds of people stripped and tied down in a dungeon while short, chubby, leather-clad men tickled them with giant peacock feathers for some type of sexual pleasure.

What the intern knew for sure: there was a reason for no live studio audience. The intern knew that the writing for Dad’s New Wife Was My College Roommate was, to say the least, a complete dumpster fire of cringe-worthy “dad jokes” (and even more cringe-worthy inter-generational sex jokes).

The intern had been ready to quit from the first day on the job, realizing there was very little to gain in the long term by pushing buttons and fetching coffee—though, of course, in her interview the director declared that “this isn’t one of those internships where you run around and get coffee.” But the director was a big shot and said he would read one of her scripts. She asked him politely every Friday if he had, but he hadn’t, and she knew he never would.

But now she would have revenge. She locked the controls on the soundboard, threw her chair through the studio glass, and jumped through like the warrior she’d cosplayed for Comic Con. She darted straight to the furious, red-faced director and

pantsed him. She shrieked at the sight of his polka-dot undies. The actors on stage laughed with the cacophony of frightening recordings, creating their own cacophony: “Take them off! Take them off!” and giving her zest and courage to yank down his boxer shorts.

“No! No!” the director protested.

“Yes! Yes!” she yelled, laughing like a maniac, and she realized that she felt—for the first time—as free as his concave arse and saggy nads.1

 

Part of the Landscape

“Cue the laugh track!”

“Would it kill you to smile a little?”

“Come on, give me a grin. No? Jesus, what’s the matter with you?”

Even months after they broke up, she still heard his voice in her head.

She took to walking along a stretch of the river every day. Particularly when it was sunny, being outside and alone made her feel invincible, full of joy; the sensation of it burned in her chest, ran thick through her bloodstream.

Soon, she began pausing to sit on the riverbank for a few minutes, the monologue of his voice a layer that wove into the flow of the water and the rush of the wind. Over time, she tried various spots, working out which sheltered her from the roughest of his taunts, which had natural emotional padding, which provided the best view in hindsight, which could elicit a twitch of her mouth or the first bubbles of laughter in her stomach, even if they did quickly fade away.

It wasn’t long until the loop to and from the river seemed superfluous. Sitting there, the minutes slackened, seemed to lose their tension, their rhythm, and she found whole mornings disappearing; once, she was surprised to learn she had misplaced a whole weekend.

One day, when she had sat by the riverside for some time, she felt a slight prickling in her ears. She gazed at the water, and the stones scattered across its flow, and the white glare of the sunlight in shifting patches, and the faded glow of his once lustrous jeers, and let the trickling of the river wash through her mind. The prickling intensified and began to muffle her hearing, as though her ear canals were filling with sponges. Her joints felt odd: when she shifted a leg or an arm, it felt increasingly loose, as though her motor control was seeping out through her knee caps and the tips of her elbows.

The water flowed. The moss grew, first in her ears then in her nose and across her eyebrows. She sat there, beside the river, as soil filled her bones and the trees creaked in the wind.

Soon she was as much a part of the landscape as any tree or rock or tuft of grass. Children played around her. Dogs marked their territory against the trunks of her legs. Walkers laid out picnics at her feet, and as they ate, they wondered what she had been laughing about and followed her gaze to the flow.2

 

In Front of a Live Studio Audience

Cue laugh track. I know what to do, how to stand and how to smile like a TV star because the electric buzzing lets up if I do everything right. When it wants me to stand straight, my back tingles where it’s bent. If I ignore it, or if I move the wrong way, walk away from a conversation I’m not supposed to, it will give me a full blown shock that leaves me shaking (and shocked again) if I can’t clamp it down. It keeps hurting me until the lights go out.

And then it’s even worse. I had pain before here, wherever here is. Here, there’s nothing. My eyes are there, but I can’t see my own finger without touching my eye. I’ve still got arms and legs to feel around. I can go in any direction, but I’ve never found anything else. Not walls. No floor. I float, like I’m in a sensory deprivation tank. No ceiling either. Sometimes it lasts for thirty seconds, or two minutes and then I’m back being buzzed into compliance. But sometimes it lasts much longer and I have to stay in this nothingness until I scream my voice raw, until I pass out. It’s impossible to lay down, so I sleep in the air, levitating in nothing.

The others unblemished, mildly stupid, and hopelessly narcissistic don’t notice. At least as far as I can tell. If I ask them, I get shocked. I’m deviating from a script I’ve never read, but it doesn’t matter. I’m shocked if I say the wrong thing, and shocked if I stay silent. I’ve never found one of them in the dark. Maybe I could ask them. Then there’s the constant resetting. We live days again and again, and I’m the only one who remembers. How do you forget you’ve slept with someone? Or that your father died? And how do you keep telling the same joke, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year—

God, has it been years? I was on my couch, watching TV. I dozed off and I was transported here. Rerunning the same days and then being thrown into that abyss. There’s a mind somewhere, something that’s controlling all of this and I can’t get near it. It won’t let me go.The worst part is hearing a studio full of people and knowing that millions more around America are laughing at us. Why won’t they stop? I can’t be the only one. If you read this and you’re out here too, find me. Let me know I’m not alone. Please.3

 

A Horrible Place

Cue the laugh track. That’s what Charlie’s father would always say right before he’d audibly fart. At the children’s laughter and applause his father would beam, then for just a moment look to his red-faced wife and nod, look to his smug son and wink, then return his gaze to the children, always sure to meet every eye staring up at him. To an eleven year-old boy, the farting father was the pinnacle of coolness. Charlie’s family had to be something.

“Cue the laugh track,” Charlie said aloud to no one in particular. To the red fire hydrant he was currently occupying, to the hornet suspiciously close to the pant leg he spilled ice cream on earlier that day, to the thick, moist air that hung and wrapped itself around his body. He hated his body. He was twenty-six years old with paper skin and a handsome face. For the first time in a long time he recognized the sensation of a fart worth sharing, a fart to make his father proud, to make his mother cringe and laugh, where her lips would curl in and paint her teeth red.

He hated this fire hydrant. All fire hydrants. When he was thirteen he’d wait every day at the bus stop with his dog. One day a boy who shared his stop climbed the hydrant and jumped. The dog turned, the boy landed on the dog, and the dog’s tooth caught the boy. Charlie never saw this dog again.

On this fire hydrant he was waiting for a woman. He often waited for the most wonderful of things in the most horrible of places. Of this he was proud. Jackets, for instance. He’d wait in the cold in his button-up short sleeve until sufficiently chilled before unwrapping and putting on the bunched jacket he carried beneath his arm. Or peeing. He’d always hold it as long he possible before waddling to the bathroom, each time relearning how it feels to breath.

The woman’s name was Alison.

“Cue the laugh track, Alison!” He said it, but imagined it was his father speaking in a growl. He wanted Alison to meet his father, and for Alison and him to have children who would stare into his father’s deep green eyes and applaud and laugh until they also forgot to breathe.

The hornet was gone. The hair felt more humid, and the pressure in Charlie’s stomach was greater than before. And then Charlie farted. He farted the way his father would, a controlled performance, a satire, a spectacle.

Inexperienced, afraid of Alison, he slowly turned around. In this turn he imagined she shook with friendly laughter. He imagined she bit her lip and looked pointedly away. Or she frowned or gave a fake smile. Or she reached for him or she walked away. In this turn she grew old, with him, without him.

But Alison wasn’t there. Alone, Charlie spread his arms wide and began to laugh.4

 

Secrets

“Cue laugh track!” the director shouted.

An intern thumped the button on the soundboard. Laughter rang through the studio—sending a chill through the whole staff. They all knew the exact sequence of laughs that were played, every single day. But the noise emanating from the sound system was completely out of place. It was not the predictable sound of forced, audience laughter. It wasn’t even another track, somehow shuffled out of the normal order.

Instead: a horrible, menacingly evil cacophony of sound. The director jumped, bewildered at the noise.

“What in the blazes—”

“Good evening everyone!” came a shrill voice over the sound-system.

The director froze. He knew that voice. It struck horror through his bones. Could it be—him? Not so soon. The director had been promised his safety. After a truly terrible month, he had only just regained enough composure to return to work. This was not what he needed right now.

“I most sincerely apologize for the interruption to tonight’s entertainment,” the voice was saying. “But we must pause for a special, urgent announcement.”

“How is he doing this? Find a way to shut him off!” yelled the director.

“Right about now, the director of this show will be instructing his staff to cut this transmission. I must implore that they do not. They do not know what type of man the director really is.”

“SHUT THIS LUNATIC DOWN! Get him out of my system this instant!” the director shouted. Sweat ran over his reddening face.

“They’ll consider abiding out of loyalty to him, before they realize that they owe him no such devotion.”

“Do not listen to him,” pleaded the director. “Please, I can exp—”

He looked at his staff. They all sat back from their controls, listening to the voice.

“They will probably not be surprised to hear the revelations I have for you tonight. You all need to know—”

The director gulped. This was it. It was all about to come out. Years of hard work, all to come crashing down around him. He could not let that happen.

“Because you see,” the voice was continuing, “our director here is not who he says—”

Silence. The voice cut out. Everything went dark; the lights from the soundboard flashed off.

“Show’s over,” said the director, holding up a power cable. That had been too close. Relief washed over him, and he began to laugh. His secret was safe for now.

The laugh took over him. It bubbled up and grew into the terrible, menacing cackle of a madman. The staff around him ran for the doors, breath caught in their lungs.

Now, not for the first time—he was alone. Just how he liked it.5

 

A Director’s Debut

Cue the laugh track—

(she says.)

I grit my teeth and hold out my hand for the clipboard. She passes it to me with sudden deference; when she apologizes I shake my head, flip through the nine sheets of paper. They are covered with edits I have never seen, changes I have never made, and they turn the scene from a masterpiece of composition to the revised equivalent of day-old take-out. There is laughter where there should be smiles, tears where there should be passion, and I want to take her aside and explain this travesty of dilution. Page two, for example. Charlie cannot simply go from fucking a girl to making love—his character is not strong enough to take it, not good enough a man. There is a roadmap of development he has to follow, a busted face to repair and a dog to adopt, before he can reach an ending that does not truncate abruptly in a car-meets-cliff dissolution. If these changes stand, my motivation dies.

I tell her this.

(That, someone mutters, would be a goddamn blessing.)

She pats my arm, offers me words so empty they vanish before they reach my ears. Her nails are powder-blue and egg-shaped, more trophy wife than director’s assistant. The executives assigned her to me as insurance. A new director with his new inspirations—dangerous things, both, and so I was saddled. She strides when she thinks I’m not looking and tiptoes when I am. If she is supposed to be helpful she is doing a piss-poor job. If she is supposed to take over my show, she is five stars and counting. Every creative decision we’ve made is a parody of the process, hard-won battles whose distinct winners can be tallied on whiteboard and bet upon. Today, I decide, Charlie is the sticking point. The actor is lying half-naked on the powder-blue bedspread—

(Oh, I get it now, well-played)

—ready for a scene whose 90s bed-and-breakfast background has bled off the soundstage and into the souls of the crew. Cameramen trail toast crumbs and bad coffee, make-up artists blue eyeshadow and rouge. Plastic faux wood grain is in abandon. In front of me, my assistant director’s mouth finally closes and I think, probably, that she has also powdered her face. I don’t tell her this in favor of paraphrasing Frank Sinatra, and then, when that bounces spectacularly off, going with the crasser American idiom instead.

She grabs the clipboard out of my hand and throws it on the ground. Paper goes everywhere. My pencil flies into the red shag rug. The actor-playing-Charlie jumps, nearly falls off the bed.

(That’s it—she says—I can’t do this anymore—you’re a nightmare, a goddamn nightmare—)

Actor-playing-Charlie sits up as she leaves. Silence tries to fall over the soundstage; the moment seeks to pause.

“Don’t cue the laugh track unless I say,” I say, and on we go.6

 

Canned Laughter

She’s on the line, wriggling, fishhook through her lower lip.

Her giggles are bubbly, sparkling like the wine she inhales at a steady rate—like his eyes against her—as he continues: “You know, typically I don’t even go for girls with short hair. No offense, but I never really found it attractive.” Of all the fish in the sea, he snagged her.

Ha ha! She giggles. I guess that’s fine, I mean, to each his own, right? Ha! Ha! No, it’s fine! I’m not offended at all!

He’s already flagging the bartender for another round, winking genially. “Alright, cool. Hey, are your friends good without you over there? They keep looking over. I’m not bothering you, am I?” He waggles his fingers, playful. Could she excuse herself to the restroom? That might be rude.

He jokes that girls have it so easy at bars, especially on Ladies’ Night. Ha ha! Burbling, breathy exhales, a rapid staccato. Her throat contracts. The air escapes. She watches his throat as he laughs too, because every bobbing Adam’s apple could become a fist. Are you trying to get me drunk? she asks.

“Wasted,” he admits. “That’s what bars are for, right? I just wanted to buy a pretty girl a drink. I mean, look at you. Can you blame me?”

It’s the same practiced, stagnant laugh, every time: ha ha ha, the sound bloated, pregnant with no, don’t worry, it’s fine, you’re soo funny, there’s no problem here. I can talk another ten minutes. I can talk as long as you want. I’m a carefree girl. A cool girl. I know how to take a joke. She can hear herself as if from underwater, down a long tunnel, voice tinny and metallic, tinged with the unreal—the hollow.

The alcohol will help. She’s kind of a happy drunk. Come on, girl, loosen up. Cue the laugh track.

There’s no need for a live audience with this kind of laughter. In front of the bathroom mirror or alone in her apartment listening to the television, the laughter starts up automatically: she mobilizes it whenever a man says “how’re you doing, sweetie?” while they wait for the crosswalk sign to change, when she reads an article about women dyeing and weaponizing their underarm hair, when she hears about a woman who was followed to her cabin in the Adirondacks by a man who had asked her on a date the week before. That woman said no.

So maybe he’ll ask her to go on a date with him, this nice boy at this bar who buys her drinks and believes that sparkling laughter. And why shouldn’t he? Why shouldn’t she? Has the world given him any reason to think a nice girl wouldn’t laugh at his joke? Has it given her any reason to behave otherwise? He only hears what he wants to hear. She only gives him what he has come to expect and take for truth: laughter, gutted, canned.7

What goes on behind the scenes of your favorite sitcom? What sort of drama ensues off-script? Tell us your 500-word stories! Feel free to borrow characters and locations from other installments. Your section can stand alone or build on what came before. Send us your submissions by Friday for consideration!