Heckled to Death: The Mystery of a Good Joke

I love mysteries, preferably British ones with asexual detectives who have odd personality quirks. My entire Netflix queue consists of what my roommate calls “tea and death,” disc after disc of various murders that take place in England. I'm fascinated by murder. I even like real-life axings, like the kind on A&E's The First 48. Each episode of the show follows an American homicide investigation from beginning to end, and watching it has taught me a few things about getting snuffed. Basically your chances are pretty low unless you sell drugs, piss off a drug dealer, or are on drugs yourself. If you are on drugs, stick to one dealer you know. Trust me: If you go out trolling for dope in some new neighborhood, you're gonna get jacked and whacked.

The only problem with The First 48 is that the element of surprise isn't really there as it is with a fictional murder mystery. If it looks like the uncle did it, then that's because the uncle did it. Ho-hum. Not being able to guess the ending is part of the appeal with this stuff. The human brain enjoys the unexpected. Think about it: Even humor relies on not knowing what comes next. Something is funny if you haven't thought about it that way before, or if someone suddenly trips and falls, or if the comedian dares to say something out loud that we have all thought but were afraid to say. Good comedy is a whodunit, solved.

In that spirit, I amassed a group of eccentrics for a murder mystery dinner of sorts at Cobb's Comedy Club in North Beach. Patton Oswalt was performing, and we reserved a table for seven at the 8 o'clock show. Cobb's is a big venue with cozy lighting and deep-blue curtains around the perimeter. A long bar sits along the back wall, but the waitstaff is highly efficient and comes by your table every 15 minutes or so. I rarely feel like I am on a night out on the town in San Francisco, but North Beach always makes me feel that way, and being at a real live “nightclub” sealed the deal. I was happy.

I don't really run with a regular crew, but the guys I was with that night were the closest I come to it. I like to refer to them as the Usual Gang of Idiots, in homage to Mad magazine. Firstly we have J, who I wrote about some years back and described as having Karl Rove's dick (a one-track mind for scoring with chicks). Then there's G, who is a six-foot-four marathon runner who somehow thinks drinking a six-pack a day is a good way to condition for a race. Then we have the recently sober couple F and B; F is a soft-spoken fan of Joanna Newsom, and B has mastered all of the “expert” levels of Rock Band. Then there's E, who has the odd combination of a Nietzsche tattoo on his arm and a low testosterone count — two seemingly incongruous things. Finally we have a guy named P, whom E affectionately refers to as the Baby for no good reason. I suppose the final character of the evening would be the waitress, an attractive blonde. But if there were a real motive for murder, it wouldn't fall with her; she had a guaranteed gratuity since we were a big group. If she poisoned one of us, she'd never see her tip.

Any good mystery has to involve a feeling of foreboding, and standup comedy always has that for me. I get nervous for the performers. What if they bomb? What if they look uncomfortable when they bomb? I turn into one big codependent mess who spends most of the time hoping the act goes over well. This is why I generally avoid live standup. Then of course there is also the risk of being singled out and heckled by the comedian. This has happened to me before, and trust me, it sucks.

The opening acts did their best to defy expectations and gave us surprise endings in their jokes. Slowly I began to relax and enjoy being entertained. Nothing bad is going to happen, I told myself. The second guy even bombed a little bit, but he handled it so well that it was okay. The Band of Idiots was guffawing and chortling along merrily, too.

By the time Oswalt got onstage, I was sittin' pretty. Besides, his brand of humor usually doesn't involve ridiculing audience members. The waitress had vigilantly returned to our table to check on us several times. She reminded me of a nurse in a natal ward — efficient and kind. Oswalt was setting up his jokes and then twisting them off into surprising directions. He was using words in new ways, pointing out foibles, and generally placing all suspicion on the butler only to reveal the real killer — the Swiss chauffeur — in the last few seconds.

Yep, everything was going swimmingly … until one lady in the crowd opened her big mouth one time too many. Apparently she was loudly parroting back everything Oswalt said before she laughed, which would be annoying if you were a comedian. But when he took notice, I tensed up immediately. Ho-boy, the dénouement I had been waiting for was coming. Oswalt really heckled the crap out of her. He made a cogent point, actually — if dumbasses really love your stuff, then do you suck? Still, it was tense to hear, even though Oswalt was indeed sticking to one of the core rules of comedy: Point out what everyone else is thinking, even if it hurts.

Eventually Oswalt took his focus off the woman, and the nurse came back around to take our drink order and make sure that we were okay. I felt a strange elation — I had survived watching a heckle! The room was okay, I was okay, and dang, even the lady seemed okay. Her girlfriend had put an arm around her in comfort, though there was some debate at our table as to whether she had gotten up to run out of the place in the heat of the badgering. Some saw her stand up and be pushed back down by her friend, while others said she sat there like a champ (that's the problem with eyewitness testimony; it is wholly unreliable). I chose to believe she was fine and had emerged unscathed.

The Gang of Idiots and I huddled on the street afterward, chattering about the show. Some hardcore Oswalt followers were bemoaning the fact that he had rehashed some old material; others were saying it was the best time they had ever seen him. I was happy someone else had been berated instead of me. That's another cool aspect about mysteries, the Rashomon effect: one event, three different experiences. There is always a heightened feeling of camaraderie after you see a show with friends, though, and we survivors headed to the library (read: dive bar) for a cognac (read: PBR) to discuss things further.

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