knock, knock? who's there? the man who explained all of his jokes by Cory Haas

Very early on it became clear that comedy was not an innate skill for Ulrich. It did not matter how much he watched The Tonight Show or fell into a YouTube rabbit hole of stand-up comedy routines, the late gods of Richard and George were simply NOT with him.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. During his early years, he always managed to make people laugh, well, chuckle is probably the more appropriate word to use here. When he was in kindergarten, he led, what he would call, a small gang, which was nothing more than a group of mindless children running after him because Ulrich had decided to be the first to run around. At lunchtimes, he would sometimes read out jokes that were inside of the candy wrappers his mom had packed in his lunch. Once again, the vocabulary is important here, ‘jokes’ is strong, they were little stories, meant to humour (which is not the same as making people laugh), meant to produce an ephemeral exhalation and small ‘ha’ sound (again, not the same as ha ha). Most of the kids managed to produce this combination of exhale/ha before returning to throwing rocks at each other. Despite these lunch break rituals, the times that Ulrich’s gang actually laughed out loud, or LOL’d for the laypeople, was when he would run into the door on his way back to class. The first time that this moment of outward recognition happened, this real laughter, the three ha’s in a row, was Ulrich’s first interaction with the sort. He didn’t understand it. He immediately defended himself and contextualised that it wasn’t supposed to be funny, that he had actually hurt himself in the process of running into the door, that he simply wasn’t looking. The cackles, the tears, the guffaws were loudest at this point. It was as if someone had stamped this blip in time forever in Ulrich’s mind. That someone had pressed this defining moment, had seared it into his brain, as the defining definition of his comedy skills. The fact that whenever he explained his mishaps, people would see him as the epitome of cool. Finally, they saw Ulrich for who he was, someone funny, entertaining, at the highest point in the playground hierarchy. All of this, Ulrich did not yet understand.

Despite this moment in time being etched forever in his soul, it took him a little while longer to understand that the explanation of the wisecrack was a necessity to make people enjoy his performance. At first, he, understandably, got really upset. The door had left a mark on his forehead, a three-centimetre gash across his left temple. It wasn’t enough to warrant a call to emergency services, but enough to earn a free pass to the infirmary, and make Little Timmy pass out from the sight of the red liquid running down his face. Little Timmy coincidentally called this, not because of his size, but because of his family’s long lineage in American organised crime, but that is another story for another time. After this event, Ulrich continued to attempt learning jokes, gags, farces, puns and one-liners, but the response was never as apparent and regal as the time he ran into the door and defended his actions. For years, he went on and on, working at a skill he so badly wanted to have. He read books, he took classes, he watched videos, but the response he got from his actions were simply not the ones he got when he bulled headfirst into the door and further analysed what happened.

At some point during his 17th year of existence, Ulrich was invited to a party. It was a typical high school party: cheap alcohol, cheap drugs, cheap pizza, and well, free social anxiety. Most crucial was the presence of a number of his so-called rivals. Marissa, Lionel and Lisa. They were all in the same class and despite everything, they got along, save for the fact that Ulrich secretly despised them, not that he would ever tell them that. His hatred stemmed from the fact that there was one crucial difference between Ulrich and the terrible trio: Marissa, Lionel, and Lisa could make people laugh with their jokes and stories without having to explain them. Halfway through the evening, Ulrich joined one of those semi-circles which fulfilled the double duty of including those who felt they were members of the circle’s social group and excluding everyone else. The moment had come, he would attempt, the way he attempted so many times before, to make those around him laugh. He launched into the joke, one about various religious identities walking into a bar. The punchline came and went, much like a race car zooming around the final corner and just as quickly gone from sight. The participants in the circle all eyed each other, silently communicating to each other that if everyone took a step in, an impenetrable wall could be erected, leaving Ulrich on the outside of the circle. The silence was deafening, the awkwardness resembling the first time you walk in on your roommates having sex. That horrible feeling knowing you’ll picture the moment every time they pour milk into their cereal but also that feeling that well you wouldn’t be opposed to joining if they asked. This is where it dawned on Ulrich that he could take control of the situation, he did not back down and a newfound strength filled his scrawny body. He realized that maybe they hadn’t understood the joke, that maybe he could walk them through the thought process behind the story.

‘You see, the three men are of different religions, but also they probably wouldn’t drink, because of their religion, so the fact that they entered a bar, it’s already a weird thing, and so when the bartender sees them, and say ‘what is this a joke?’, the whole situation is a metatheatrical and philosophical musing on the fact that they are inside of a joke…’, he fumbled confidently through the explanation. The next second of silence was even more unbearable. He felt like when Wile E. Coyote steps off the cliff and somehow defies gravity, if he could just maintain this physical impossibility for another second, it would pass and he would be saved. Just when he was about to lose confidence, deflate, and plummet to inevitable death, the semi-circle erupted in a fit of laughter. Even Lisa, Marissa, and Lionel lost their shit. People were applauding, patting him on the shoulder, refilling his drink with liquor that no human being should ingest, much less a 17 year old. Ulrich was a Rockstar.

On his way home that night, after making out with someone for the first time, no big deal, it dawned on him that what happened tonight was a bit like a déjà-vu. He scratched his head, thinking about what memory was stirring inside of him. As he rubbed his Harry Potter-like scar on his forehead, it hit him like a bolt of lightning. The last time he heard this amount of enthusiasm for one of his performances, was the time he went headfirst into the door and attempted to make the members of his gang understand the consequences of his mistake. Back then, the reasoning behind why this was in fact not laughable, was the unequivocal source of the laughter. Tonight, the reasoning behind why this should be laughable, was the unequivocal source of the comedy. From now on, his life could only be delineated by two distinct phases:  the Pre A-Ha! and the Post A-Ha! phases. Both of these lightbulb moments, not to be mistaken with Ha Ha moments.

From that day on, the world changed for Ulrich. Another dimension had opened up. He unlocked the secret of his success. Ulrich would be able to confidently enter a party, tell a funny story, then follow with the explanation of the joke, to huge rapturous laughter and applause. Through the end of high school into his first years of university, this is how he operated. His confidence boosted and he no longer hated the moment when no one laughed at the initial offer, knowing full well that he would blindside them with an explanation and that this would be the moment where the deal between joker and jokee would be upheld. Then, when he was 26, he fell in love.

Maxim was smart, confident, tall, and handsome, he was also honest. Very honest. Their relationship took off in a fury, one night, in the walk-in closet of one of their mutual friends. The sex was surprisingly, for Maxim, amazing. For Ulrich, it was as if all of his problems had been solved. He was now smart, funny and had found ‘the one’. The one who would stomp on his heart and soul.

A few months later, they had now had sex 17 or 18 times, but no one was counting, Ulrich decided it was time to ask Maxim if they could be boyfriends and make their situation official. When he approached the Adonis-like man lying in his bed and told him the proposition, the silence that ensued was worse than any of the ones he endured in the pre A-Ha! phase of his life. Finally, Maxim’s long and thoughtful sigh cleared the tension, just for a moment, before going on to say that he did not want to enter a real relationship with Ulrich. He didn’t think they meshed well together, that outside of the sex, there wasn’t much connecting the two of them and that he was thinking of calling it quits soon anyways. This was the first blow, destabilising Ulrich, shortening his breath and making him slightly nauseous. The next sucker punch, Ulrich did not see coming. Maxim said he always thought he would be with someone with a strong sense of humour, someone that could make him laugh. This second blow came out of left-field, little birds were flying around his head as if in a cartoon, he was swaying left to right, a precarious position which only needed a slight draft to be made even worse. Finally, as if Ulrich’s mind had been read, Maxim confessed the final, deadly blow and struck Ulrich with, what can only be called savage irony, an explanation of ‘it’s just that people are always laughing at you and not with you’. 

It took 17 years to reach this level of understanding, to finally realize that he had the power to make people laugh. It was a slightly different way of making people laugh, but Ulrich could not help but wonder that maybe this was his USP. His singular way of making people feel good. Then, it all came to an abrupt end. It was ripped away from him in a single instant. He left, ran home and cried.

For months after this night, the incident gave him panic attacks, caused him severe PTSD, he became a recluse and retreated unto himself. Day in and day out, he went into work, made himself small, barely spoke to anyone at the office, and then went home. He seldom went out, put off any kind of relationship, and, toughest of all, stopped enjoying comedy. YouTube videos, SNL, stand-up clubs, candy wrappers, or comic strips were all off-limits. It was his only rule. No. More. Comedy. The effect of this on anyone would lead to a sad and dark existence, most commonly referred to as a constant state of stick up your ass. Thousands of human beings suffer from this life, but usually, it’s because they had a Catholic upbringing, or were raised by members of a conservative family. But for Ulrich, this unimaginable way of living had huge repercussions on his health and well-being. That is, until that fateful Tuesday.

Ulrich was 28 at this point, it had been nearly two years since he was run over by Maxim’s words and occupied this newfound way of living. Today, was a typical Tuesday, it was no longer Monday, yet it was still so far away from the weekend where he could stay at home and read his book, a non-fiction about the effects of torture on inmates, called ‘Waterboarding Woes’. Lunchtime had come and Ulrich realised he forgot his food on the counter of his apartment, which meant that he would have to walk down to the cafeteria, order food and sit at one of the tables. This was the type of social event he’d been avoiding for the past two years. He entered the cafeteria, scoped the place out and noticed a spot near the far corner where minimal damage could be done. He put his headphones in, looked down towards his feet and started quickly shuffling towards the food line. He grabbed a tray, a plate, cutlery, an empty glass, then he ordered from the worker behind the counter; got his food and headed straight for the table. The soup went down fine, no one came and disturbed him, but when it was time to launch into the main meal, four of his co-workers sat next to him along with their lunches and more enthusiasm than anyone should have in a workplace cafeteria at lunch time. He nodded and managed a forced smile but as much as he wanted to leave, he was drawn into the conversation. One of his co-workers, we’ll call him Joseph, because that’s his name, said he had heard a really dumb joke the previous day. Ulrich had no options. He couldn’t leave since he had barely eaten anything. He couldn’t put the volume full blast in his headphones or people would start noticing, and well he had enough of that on the subway. Finally, he couldn’t interrupt because that was just rude. Joseph launched into the joke ‘Knock, Knock?’, the rest of the group responded, almost in unison, ‘who’s there’, ‘Annie’, ‘Annie who?’, ‘Annie thing you can do, I can do better’. Ulrich’s disgust must have been apparent, or maybe it was the very obvious eye-roll and grunt that caught their attention, but while no one laughed, Joseph immediately turned to Ulrich and said ‘see? it’s an awful joke, no one laughed’. Ulrich’s life flashed before his eyes, his gang, the terrible trio, Maxim, the worst feeling of his life, the YouTube videos, the books of one-liners, sleepless nights working on his act, all of it. The sensation was so palpable, nothing he could do could stop him for what was about to happen next.

‘It’s not because the joke is bad that they aren’t laughing, it’s because you didn’t understand it. Anything you can do, I can do better, is lyrics from the song Anything You Can Do, a song from the 1946 Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun, composed by Irving Berlin. The knock, knock joke is doubly funny in the fact that it is both a play on the name Annie, the titular character of the musical but also because it closely resembles the word any. Furthermore, it is funny, if you know the song and say the punchline like the song, because everyone knows the song, and then it becomes an immediately recognisable piece of popular culture. Knock, Knock? Who’s There? Annie? Annie, who? Annie thing you can do, I can do better’.

The moment the notes had left his mouth, he heard not only the rest of the table, but the whole of the cafeteria erupt with cheer. Ulrich’s world went into a cinematic slow-motion sweeping shot, he surveyed the cafeteria. He could see Jan from the second floor hold her belly as if with child, Jenny from accounting had black mascara streaks from the tears gently rolling down her cheeks, Jamal from the 6th floor kicked his chair so hard from laughing that he almost hit Pam from shipping and receiving, but it’s okay because at that moment her fit of laughter took her backwards and she sprawled on the cafeteria table behind her, lifting her feet off the ground and narrowly avoiding the chair. Some people he had never met were high fiving and others were holding each other steady, trying to recuperate from the exhaustion hilarity can sometimes produce.

He was back baby.

From that moment, the dark clouds were lifted, the stick was out of said ass. Ulrich had re-captured the essence of his life, his purpose, to make people laugh, to bring strangers joy, through the explanation of jokes. He finished his meal, went back to his office, cleared his desk and quit that very day. He knew what was to happen next.

Ulrich is now a spritely 68 year old, he lives in a nice walk-up in Brooklyn. From that day in the cafeteria, his life had been nothing but joy, fun and funniness. He had succeeded, albeit differently than most comedians, in making millions of people laugh. Sometimes Maxim’s words echo in his mind. The reality was that all of these strangers were laughing at him and not with him. He made peace with this idea because in the end, they were laughing and that’s all that matters.