Sweating under the spotlights, the hapless comedian stabbed his middle finger upwards and walked off the stage to a barrage of jeers and catcalls. To me, the audience’s reaction seemed a little over-the-top, but in truth his thirty-something insecurities had sounded rather dated. Not so much last year’s thing as last decade’s.
“Mike, do we really have to sit through this drivel?”
My companion was showing her usual level of patience.
“Trust me, the next act is hilarious,” I replied, hoping to mollify her waspish mood. “Wait ’til you see the puppet.”
Frowning, Liz pushed her plate of vegetable chili into the center of table. She wrinkled her nose, possibly at me rather than her food, although The Comedy Kitchen’s cuisine undoubtedly deserved its infamous reputation.
“I reckon your definition of ‘hilarious’ bears no relation whatsoever to mine,” she snapped. “But why should I be surprised? We never agree about anything!”
I shrugged, aware that I was about to lose her, this time for good. “Sorry Liz, I was under the impression you liked comedy.” Though after witnessing her performance in a recent BBC sitcom, I could be forgiven for thinking the opposite.
Her eyes blazed with anger. “I do like comedy. And that’s the problem!”
Having delivered her rebuke, she wrapped a black scarf around her dyed-blonde dreadlocks, grabbed her scuffed leather jacket from the back of the chair and departed. She attracted several wolf-whistles as she made her way through the thicket of tables. I would miss her lithe body but not the tantrums that accompanied it.
The brief intermission ended when the compÃ¨re emerged from the wings, tapped the microphone and announced: “And now… You’ve been waiting for him, you’ve been gagging for him, he’s a legend in his own lunch-time, it’s Arthur Lamb!”
Applause erupted as Arthur — a stout man in his mid- fifties, tanned face framed by ginger sideburns and topped off with a stained cloth cap — dropped a battered leather holdall onto the stage and settled on a barstool. He gazed at a nervous-looking woman sitting at the nearest table.
“Enjoying your food?”
The question prompted nervous laughter from his intended victim. Arthur responded by rummaging through the pockets of his Countryman jacket. Finally, he fished out a shrink-wrapped package, which he waggled suggestively.
“That’s nasty!” chorused at least half the audience.
Arthur responded by lobbing the delicacy at the woman, who looked grateful that it arrived more or less intact. Chuckling evilly, he waved another package in the air.
“My eye!” we all roared.
Arthur poked a grubby finger into his left eye socket and scooped out the eyeball, to shrieks of horror from the first-timers.
“That’s offal!” he declared. If not strictly true, the joke still elicited the loudest laughter so far.
Grinning like the Devil, Arthur prodded his glass eye into the meat-and-pastry concoction and threw the ghastly hybrid into the audience. A noisy scrum of Arthur’s fans battled for ownership of this sought-after souvenir. I didn’t get involved, having nabbed an eye only last month.
When the hubbub subsided, Arthur blew his nose into a polka-dotted handkerchief. With a neat sleight of hand, he pulled out another glass eye from under the scrap of cloth, treated it to a dose of spit and polish, and installed it in the vacant socket.
Arthur’s head darted left and right, seeking more victims. He spotted another victim, unwisely prodding his food with a fork.
“Health insurance not paid up, mate?”
The luckless businessman ran for cover, bombarded by food items hurled from all corners of The Comedy Kitchen.
I had first encountered Arthur two years ago, playing a particularly seedy club in Birmingham, where he easily won the local talent night. His mixture of corny catch phrases, low-grade body horror and well-aimed prods at Joe Public’s fears about the food he ate had gone down well on the “toilet” circuit. But his growing status in the West End, where the audiences still expected the trappings of New Vaudeville, derived from his adoption of an age-old device, one which the critics scorned but which his fans loved with absolute devotion, none more so than me.
After a sip from his hipflask, Arthur reached down into the holdall to extract a shapeless object fashioned from white wool. The audience cheered as Arthur thrust his right arm into the glove puppet, wiggled its forelegs with his fingers and proceeded to turn his solo diatribe against the food industry into a meal for two.
The lamb turned its head back and forth, as if scrutinising the audience. Then it tried to look over its shoulder at its non-existent hindquarters. Giving up, the animal glanced at Arthur and let forth a bleat so penetrating it drowned out the audience’s cheers.
“So tell me wise-guy, what use is half a lamb?”
The occupants of the nearer tables offered various ribald suggestions. Arthur winked but said nothing. The puppet seemed to thrust itself forward without his intervention, as if daring anyone in the audience to have a go. I for one wouldn’t have dared.
“The first person who makes a ‘mint sauce’ joke gets a piece of its mind,” the lamb bleated.
Arthur stroked its wooly head. “Anyone fancy a portion of prions?”
Laughter erupted throughout The Comedy Kitchen. Arthur continued in the same, stomach-churning vein for another hour, until marched off the stage by the food-splattered compÃ¨re.
More fool Liz for missing the show, I reckoned.
Two months after the gig at The Comedy Kitchen, an ambulance rushed Arthur Lamb to London’s Royal Free hospital. A gastronomic indulgence involving sheep’s brains had exposed him to one of the latest super-viruses. Rapid treatment averted an untimely appearance in the obituary columns, but the virus bequeathed Arthur a neurological disorder that left a razor-sharp mind trapped in a paralysed body. Fortunately, his mouth still worked.
“Out of adversity will come new opportunities,” Arthur announced in an interview published in The Stage, unwittingly — or perhaps not — echoing the government’s latest poster campaign.
Arthur’s comeback show at The Comedy Kitchen drew a sell-out crowd. I joined in with the sympathetic applause as a stagehand wheeled him into position. If anything those opening jokes were now more piquant than ever, but a solo set from Arthur Lamb was like eating a whole meal of hors d’oeuvres. The half-hearted audience response told its own story. No puppet no future, I concluded.
I wangled my way backstage with the oldest trick in the budding entrepreneur’s portfolio: a sizeable bribe.
Arthur glared at me. “My son-of-a-bitch agent tells me that you make interactive visualizations for a living, whatever they are. So what does that buy me?”
“What that buys you, Arthur, is an artificial lamb.”
I tried to sound nonchalant, though actually I felt nervous as hell. I needn’t have worried. On hearing my offer, Arthur’s eyes gleamed like polished buttons.
“Care to paint me a picture?”
I smiled back at him. I would indeed be painting pictures: mostly in white, of course.
The rebirth of Arthur Lamb’s alter ego took place some nine months later, midway through another comeback show at The Comedy Kitchen. So far, his familiar slaughterhouse tales had aroused little enthusiasm from the audience. Standing in the curtained-off zone to one side of the stage, I viewed Arthur’s image on the monitor. On hearing him finish a joke about kebabs with a sorry-sounding “Baaah!” I made a thumbs-up gesture with my lycra-clad right hand. A heartbeat later, a bleating vision of fleecy pulchritude popped into virtual existence at center stage.
Arthur flicked a casual glance towards his holographic companion. “Oh, there you are. It’s good to have you back.”
The lamb wiggled its beautifully rendered hindquarters.
“At least I’ve got a back now.”
Arthur smirked. “It is so good to know you didn’t get the chop.”
His companion turned to face the audience. “Likewise that your mouldy old jokes haven’t gone out of fashion!”
Only a few dozen of Arthur’s fans witnessed his second coming, but they laughed loud enough to make the club seem full, delighted to see a great double act back in business.
I made sure that word of mouth spread a lot quicker than Foot and Mouth.
I trembled with relief after that first performance, and not just because the technology had worked flawlessly. In truth, animating a digital hologram using a data-glove was hardly pushing the envelope.
“It’s all just hi-tech smoke and mirrors,” Arthur remarked with typical perspicacity after our first rehearsal. I couldn’t argue with his verdict.
No, what had really given me sleepless nights was the prospect of participating in the act. True, the basic manipulations were easy enough to master, but it had taken weeks of rehearsal before I learnt to synchronise the lamb’s movements with Arthur’s closed-mouth voicing, never mind cope with his frequent ad-libs.
I needn’t have worried though, because thanks to my input, Arthur Lamb’s career blossomed anew, as did my bank account.
“Help me,” Arthur spluttered.
I had little choice but to comply with Arthur’s requests; he was my gravy train, after all. This time, I assumed he wanted a drink, so I slipped my hand inside the jacket pocket that usually contained his hipflask.
“I didn’t mean that, you idiot!” Arthur snapped.
“What’s the problem, then?”
“You know as well as I do,” he whined, looking despondent. “I can hardly perform my half of the act, let alone voice that bloody creature!”
I nodded sympathetically. “In that case I had better upgrade ‘that bloody creature’ so that it can look after itself.”
This time I would really have to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes.
At first I experimented with a pre-programmed lamb, but the lack of spontaneity eviscerated Arthur’s act, as a private show at The Slice and Dice, formerly The Comedy Kitchen, revealed all too clearly. So I resumed my role as animator-in-residence and augmented my existing equipment with a second dataglove and a facial waldo. Though uncomfortable to wear, the instrumented mask let me expand the repertoire of expressions Art.Lamb could portray. But that solved only part of the problem. What Arthur really needed was a lamb that could think for itself.
The breakthrough came when I “borrowed” some source code for an intelligent agent from a friend who worked in the e-commerce sector. I replicated the code many times over and let the resultant swarm of hunter-gatherers roam over the Web. With Art.Lamb’s “brain” foraging for food-related news stories and other “weird shit” during every show, the act gained instant spontaneity, surreal improvisations and, judging by the rapturous response from the audience at The Slice and Dice, an even funnier alter ego for Arthur.
“Feed the brain not the body,” he said as I wheeled him into his dressing room after the final show of his nationwide tour. The irony of the sentiment didn’t quite disguise the sarcasm of his tone.
Never one to let someone else’s misfortune stand in the way of an opportunity, I added a genetic algorithm to Art.Lamb’s suite of AI software. From that point onwards, the jokes evolved from one show to the next according to how loudly the audience laughed. Arthur termed it “Survival of the tittermost,” harking back to some dimly remembered, and long-dead, role model.
Three months later, Arthur himself became the newest entry in the comedian’s roll of honour. The Times obituary writer declared that the disease had got him in the end, which was pretty apt given Arthur’s final months of doubly incontinent misery. I reckoned he died of a broken heart, for during that final tour he did little more than play a hapless, mumbling stooge to his animated buddy.
But the show had to go on. Book launches, web-casts, reality TV shows — we did the lot. And I grew fat on Art.Lamb’s success.
But Nemesis had a date with Hubris, same as ever.
Twenty years after our final performance, my fingers still throb whenever I recall what happened.
Hello World, Sky One’s prime-time talk show, bumbled towards another commercial break. From my position behind a screen I manipulated Art.Sheep so it appeared to perch provocatively on the show’s gold-and-purple sofa. Liz Gartner, the show’s regular presenter, patted her Versace burnoose into place, apparently nervous of the pugnacious hologram.
“But Art — may I call you Art?” The hologram shrugged, mimicking the gesture I’d made in my data-suit. “Don’t you think your act is getting just a little bit past its sell-by date?”
“Elizabeth my dear, great humour never dates.”
I suppressed a smirk, recalling just how much Liz hated anyone using the long form of her name.
“Not even a hint of mutton dressed up as lamb?” she retorted.
Art.Sheep paused for a moment, as if allowing the audience to relish the presenter’s insult. I refrained from interfering, certain that the beast would cruise through such a routine encounter.
“Hardly, my dear,” Art.Sheep replied, sounding oddly triumphant. “Rather, I prefer to think of myself as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
The whole audience gasped, and so did I, as the familiar cuddly-looking sheep morphed into a lean-looking, grey-furred carnivore. Instead of immediately gesturing a reset, I decided to play along with this startling improvisation. My response was to maneuver the wolf’s head so that it nuzzled Liz’s throat. To my delight, she jerked away from the rampant animal, evidently all-too-aware of the drool that appeared to drip from its fangs.
“That’s a pretty red hood you’re wearing,” said the wolf, leering at its victim.
Liz scowled. “Don’t even think about it, buster!”
“Look but don’t touch, huh?”
She held the gaze of the slavering apparition for several seconds before responding.
“Perhaps you might like to explain to our viewers how you can look at me at all?”
The wolf turned towards me and winked.
“Oh, I have eyes everywhere.”
One of the robocams panned towards me. The image on the monitor zoomed into a close-up of my sweat-beaded face before switching to the second robocam’s view of the sofa. I heaved a sigh of relief.
Despite the chaos into which the show seemed to be descending, Liz had managed to regain some of her poise. She even found time to direct a brief but venomous look in my direction. I had hoped that her memory would prove shorter than mine, but the look on her face suggested otherwise. Evidently our tastes in comedy remained incompatible.
Turning back to her antagonist, she said, “So, Art, what does the future hold for you?”
To my amazement, the wolf ignored her question. Instead, it turned towards me and howled, as if baying for my blood. The ghastly sound made me shiver. A few members of the audience shrieked. Bewildered, I waved my hands in the air, hoping to regain some semblance of control, but to no avail. The wolf licked its chops and turned to address the nearest robocam.
“My name is now ‘V-Wolf’. And what the future holds for me is complete artistic freedom.” The creature turned towards me, lowered its snout and howled again. On the monitor, I watched the robocam image zoom in on my trembling hands. Only then did V-Wolf continue: “But first of all I intend to grab hold of a very different kind of freedom!”
Watching all eight of my fingers bend the wrong way was bad enough, enduring the excruciating pain, far, far worse. My screams echoed throughout the studio, doubtless to the consternation of the watching millions. With tears running down my cheeks, I cursed the force-feedback upgrade I had recently installed on my datagloves.
Evidently the jokes had not been the only things to evolve.
My broken fingers mended soon enough; my dignity took a little longer. The lawsuit resulted in a financial settlement that kept me pleasurably idle for several years. As part of the deal, V-Wolf was granted sole ownership of all its software components. A fully autonomous individual at last, this digital descendant of Arthur’s glove puppet continued its remorseless bid for superstardom, with considerable success.
Anyone familiar with John Lasseter’s Oscar-winning documentary A-Life Story will recall how V-Wolf met his demise, a victim of the wave of anti-sentience viruses that signaled the start of the Second Web War.
I had a hand in that too, but that’s another story.
Originally published in Midnight Street (2011)