Crying Laughing, page 1
ALSO BY LANCE RUBIN
Denton Little’s Deathdate
Denton Little’s Still Not Dead
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright © 2019 by Lance Rubin
Cover art: emoji copyright © 2019 by Apple, Inc.
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
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ISBN 9780525644675 (trade) — ISBN 9780525644682 (lib. bdg.) — ebook ISBN 9780525644699
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Also by Lance Rubin
About the Author
Real humor does not come from sacrificing the reality of a moment in order to crack a cheap joke, but in finding the joke in the reality of the moment.
—Truth in Comedy, The Manual of Improvisation Charna Halpern, Del Close, and Kim “Howard” Johnson
Laughing and crying, you know it’s the same release.
I am big enough to admit that I am often inspired by myself.
No one knows how funny I am.
Well, that’s not entirely true. My dad, and sometimes my mom, and my best friends, Leili and Azadeh, know.
And I know.
But no one else.
Definitely no one in school, where successful humor tends to involve farts.
I’m not knocking fart humor, but I recognize it is but one color in the comedy rainbow. For many people at my school, however, it is one of just three primary comedy colors, the other two being sex humor (e.g., pretend-humping in the hallway) and mean humor (e.g., pulling away someone’s chair as they sit down), which isn’t even humor so much as an excuse to be an asshole.
Anyway, if a joke falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, it does not make a sound, so sometime in the middle of last year, I stopped saying my funny thoughts aloud. It’s like giving your finest, most expensive jewelry to your hamster. Guess what? That hamster does not give a flying eff about carats.
(He might, however, care a great deal about carrots.)
(I’m sorry. I am aware puns are, in many ways, no better than fart jokes, but there’s a long tradition of really smart comedy writers appreciating puns in a manner that is half ironic, half sincere—and that is the way I appreciate them.)
So, yeah, when it comes to my sense of humor, most of the people in school are hamsters, which is why it’s incredibly surprising that just now, on the second day of my sophomore year, I seem to have made Evan Miller laugh.
“Ha, that’s hilarious,” he says, standing next to me, our lunch trays balanced on the metal rack of the cafeteria line, as his less sophisticated friend Tim Stabisch looks on like Wait, seriously? Was it?
I should mention: Evan Miller is, by many accounts (not mine), the funniest guy in school. He’s a junior, and though our interactions have been minimal, I’ve had quite a bit of time to become familiar with his comedic stylings, as I assistant-directed last year’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace, in which Evan played the brother who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt and is always maniacally charging up the stairs of the house. And yes, Evan was truly hilarious in that play, mainly because he was so confident and committed to the role. As my dad has said, “The secret to being successful in comedy is confidence. That’s, like, ninety percent of it right there.” And Evan Miller has that, so I understand why his comedic reputation has soared.
Now, does he possess the other ten percent of the formula, which includes having a smart, interesting perspective on the world around him? Not so much.
Though it’s possible I’ve underestimated him, because he did just laugh at the thing I said moments ago (which was not a pun or a fart joke). I was standing in the lunch line by myself when this happened:
EVAN (next to me in line the whole time, though I hadn’t acknowledged him because I assumed he had no idea who I was): Hey, you worked on the play last year, right?
ME: I did.
EVAN: Winnie, right?
ME (surprised he knows my name): Oh. Yeah. And you’re…(I pretend I don’t know his name, I have no idea why.)
EVAN (slightly disappointed): Evan.
ME: Right! Evan, yeah. You were really funny in the play. (I felt bad that I’d pretended not to know his name, which is why I gave him a compliment.)
EVAN (perking up again): Oh, thanks! (inexplicably going into stereotypical California girl voice) That’s, like, totally cool of you to say.
ME (unconvincingly): Ha.
PEARL THE LUNCH LADY (to me): Chicken or vegetable?
ME: Wait, what is it?
PEARL: Stir-fry. Chicken or vegetable.
ME: Oh. Chicken, please.
(PEARL slops stir-fry onto my tray.)
ME: Thanks. (looking to Evan) She and I go way back, that’s why she hooks me up with the good stuff.
EVAN (laughing): Ha, that’s hilarious.
And there you have it. Evan is laughing at something I said. I don’t even know why I said it.
Tim, trying his best to keep up, asks, “Wait, did she just give you extra chicken?”
“Yes,” I say, even though she obviously gave me the same amount she gives everyone. “But don’t feel bad, that’s only because we were platoon mates in Vietnam. I saved her life. Twice.”
Evan laughs har
“You’re really funny,” Evan tells me. “You should join Improv Troupe. We always need new funny people.”
This catches me off guard. I mean, he’s right—I saw the improv troupe perform a couple of times last year and they could probably use my help—but it’s a foreign and delightful feeling to have someone who isn’t me recognize that. Unfortunately, I retired from performing two and a half years ago after a traumatic incident at my bat mitzvah. Nevertheless, I’m flattered.
“Oh yeah,” I say. “Maybe.”
“First meeting of the year is tomorrow. After school.”
Pearl, back from replacing an empty serving dish, asks Evan, “Chicken or vegetable?” He opts for vegetable, which surprises me, then turns back to me as I’m grabbing a rice pudding and walking away. “Seriously, think about it. You’ll have even more fun than you did in Nam!”
“That’s not possible,” I say. “Nam was a blast.”
Evan cracks up harder, and I try to hide my smile.
Maybe I should join Improv Troupe.
“Howdy, pardners!” I say as I approach the table where Leili, Azadeh, and Azadeh’s field hockey friend, Roxanne, are sitting.
“Howdy to you too,” Azadeh says, popping a grape into her mouth. “What was going on over there with Evan Miller?”
My face gets hot. Neither of the twins is one to dance around the truth, but Azadeh has a slight edge in the candor department.
“Geez, at least let the girl sit down first,” Roxanne says. She’s an inherently cool person. (See also: shiny stud in nostril, pink streaks in hair.)
“Okay,” Azadeh says. She patiently waits as I sit down next to her. “Now, what was going on—”
“Wait,” I say, getting up from my seat. “I forgot to get ketchup.”
“Come on!” Azadeh throws her hands in the air as Leili and Roxanne laugh.
“Just kidding.” I sit back down.
“Now you should actually tell us,” Leili says, her perfect eyebrows slightly angled in that jokingly stern way. “We only caught the end, when he was laughing like you’d invented the first joke.”
I can’t help but smile and I’m sure I’m blushing like a doofus. Who actually did invent the first joke? And what was it? That seems like something I should know.
“Seriously,” Azadeh says. “If it’s that effective, I want to borrow what you said to use on other people.”
“Rowr,” Roxanne says, pawing the air like a leopard.
Leili throws Azadeh a curious glance. “Anyone in particular?” she asks.
“No, Lay, no need to be protective. It would just be a general addition to my seduction repertoire.”
“Ha,” Roxanne says. “Seduction repertoire.”
“I’m supposed to be protective,” Leili says. “I’m many seconds older than you.”
“Yeah yeah, blah blah,” Azadeh says, affectionately rolling her eyes.
Azadeh and Leili Kazemi are identical twins, but I’ve known them since third grade, so it’s really easy for me to tell them apart. Azadeh’s nose and chin are slightly rounder than Leili’s; that’s the main giveaway. Also her eyebrows are slightly shaggier than Leili’s. Also Leili usually wears a solid-colored hijab, and Azadeh usually wears a patterned one. But really, if you spend more than three minutes with them, it’s just obvious. I’m always shocked and offended on their behalf when people can’t tell the difference.
“Okay, just to clarify,” I say, “I was not seducing Evan Miller. But, for those interested, he laughed because I said this thing about how Pearl the lunch lady and I fought in the Vietnam War together.” All three of them stare at me blankly.
“Wait, what?” Leili asks.
“It’s…It was a context-specific joke!” I say. “You would have laughed if you had the full setup leading into the punch line.”
“You’re so funny,” Leili laughs. I know she’s amused for the wrong reasons, but I’ll take it.
“Hmm, yeah,” Azadeh says. “I don’t think I’ll be putting that in the repertoire. So we were arguing for no reason, Lay.”
“We weren’t arguing,” Leili says.
“You were kind of arguing,” Roxanne says.
I take a bite of my chicken stir-fry. It’s not as good as I want it to be, but eating with a spork more than makes up for that. I don’t understand why we as a society have limited ourselves to the disposable version. Stainless steel sporks, people! Think how much easier it’d be to set the table!
“I heard Mrs. Tanaka is giving a pop quiz today,” Leili says, taking a huge bite out of an apple.
“On what?” Azadeh asks. “It’s the second day of school!”
“Apparently it’s easy,” Leili says, “just a keep-you-on-your-toes kind of thing.”
“But what is—” Azadeh starts saying before I cut her off.
“Hey, Evan said I should join the improv troupe.” Speaking over friends is not what I’m usually about, but I feel like that was a premature subject change. Also, quiz talk makes me anxious.
“Oh wow, really?” Leili says. She’s already in the improv troupe and, if the two performances I saw last year are any indication, one of the best improvisers. But that’s Leili; she’s good at everything she does. And she’s in, like, almost every extracurricular group. (You think I’m exaggerating. I am. But also not really.)
“Interesting,” Azadeh says. She is definitely not in the improv troupe. Though she’s a hilarious person, she hates performing or speaking in front of people (and unlike me, she’s always hated it). I’ve seen her do a bunch of class presentations over the years, and it’s the cutest thing ever: she morphs into a different person, her voice robotic, her face expressionless, her gaze rooted awkwardly to some indistinct spot at the back of the classroom. Pretty much the opposite of how she is the rest of the time.
“Is that so surprising?” I ask.
“No, of course not,” Leili says. “Oz and I used to tell you, like, three times a week to join, but then you made us promise to stop asking!”
“Well, yeah, because my performing days are over.”
“Right, exactly, so that’s why I’m surprised you’re bringing it up.”
“I didn’t bring it up,” I say, “he did!”
“You know,” Azadeh says, “I just heard he and Jess Yang broke up a couple of weeks before school started.”
I didn’t know she and Evan had been dating. I try not to waste brain cells paying attention to things like that. Jess Yang is the crown jewel of Manatawkin High School’s drama department. In that production of Arsenic and Old Lace, Jess played the young, pretty fiancée, one of those bland, bullshit female roles men have been writing since the caveman days. She’s a good actor, but she wouldn’t know comedy if it starfish-suctioned itself to her face.
“Ohhhh,” Leili says. “I was wondering why Jess’s Instagram feed had gotten so cryptic and weird lately.”
“Yeah, that’s why,” Azadeh says.
“Instagram blows,” Roxanne says.
“What are you suggesting?” I ask. “That Evan only asked me to join the improv troupe because he was flirting with me now that he’s single?”
“No, no,” Azadeh nearly shouts. “But, yeah, maybe that was a small, tiny, little part of the reason.”
The idea that Evan Miller would be flirting with me is annoying but also flattering. Guys don’t usually flirt with me. Or, at least, the ones I am hoping will flirt with me never do. Not that I put Evan in the category of hope-will-flirts. He’s more of a neutral-will-flirt. Which is still an improvement over the please-don’t-flirts.
“He can get it,” Roxanne says.
“Ew,” Azadeh says.
“Well, anyway,” I say, “perform
“So you bombed at your bat mitzvah, big deal,” Azadeh says.
“Yeah,” Leili says, “you need to let that go already.”
“Wait, what happened?” Roxanne asks.
The phrase bombed at your bat mitzvah should have come with a trigger warning, as hearing it threatens to send me into the fetal position on the cafeteria floor. I take a deep breath.
“Evan’s right,” Leili says, kindly ignoring Roxanne. “You should join. You’re really funny and you’ll be great and you’re more obsessed with comedy than any human I’ve ever met.”
She makes a lot of good points.
“And I’ll be there too,” she continues, one hand in front of her mouth to shield us from her apple-chomping, “so you don’t have to be nervous.”
“I’ll think about it,” I say.
“You really are funny,” Roxanne says, which makes her even cooler than I already thought she was.
“And we’re, like, the only people who know that,” Azadeh says as she peels off a piece of Polly-O string cheese. “More people should know.”
“Well, of course they should,” I say.
Azadeh, Leili, and Roxanne laugh.
I knew that line would kill.
So, of course I spend the rest of the school day—minus the part where I’m taking Mrs. Tanaka’s chemistry pop quiz, which, FYI, is much harder than Leili made it sound—thinking about the possibility of joining the improv troupe. I’ve broken it down as such:
I will be a part of a group whose main purpose is to be funny. Seeing as that is my life aspiration and my life philosophy and maybe the one thing I’m actually good at, I will love being a part of this group.