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The Spectacular Rise of Stale Joke Comic

By David Shawn Klein

Mattie Zeller was teaching his eighteenth consecutive year of Stand-up Basics: A Class For People With Too Much Time On Their Hands, at the Big Apple Comedy Brewery & Tasting Room, when the YouTube video of his chunk on airlines went viral. It scored a higher proportion of thumbs-ups to views than Dogs Wearing Dresses and the McCardle brothers’ Most Hilarious Deadly Accidents combined.


A week earlier, Blaze, his quasi-girlfriend and an occasional staff writer for both Amys, Schumer, and Sedaris, had recorded his act in an exchange of promises whereby Mattie forced his Wednesday night class to buy tickets for her one-woman show in the back room at Yenmez Turkish Restaurant and Buffet.


Mattie had known going in that his flying bit and that night’s crowd was a risky combination, but he’d always cautioned his students that fear has no place in the life of an artist.


“Why do airlines call it your final destination?” he asked, looking out over the smattering of wheelchairs, walkers, and maroon-uniformed aids to gauge how his audience was reacting.

The joke was met by two chuckles, a Jamaican accented “Final destination!” and one long string of drool. For Mattie, the chuckles were like a Niagran roar; Blaze had her hands full fending off post-show testosterone. As soon as she shut her door, she uploaded his act on YouTube, with the title, “Stale Joke Comic.” She’d expected only a handful of entertaining snarks from her friends, her way of coping with a resume whose highlights were the brief stints with the Amys, a Mario’s Auto Parts commercial, a studio apartment over an Indian spice emporium, and a quasi-boyfriend ten years her senior with Brillo tufts for hair.


She had no idea Mattie would go viral. He didn’t even know he was on YouTube until ten thousand hits when his mother sent an all-cap email of congratulations.


To test whether his success was a fluke, Blaze posted a compilation of bits from the Stale Joke Comic. The highlight was the one that began, “What’s up with Trump’s hair?”

His views shot to 50,000.


At 100,000 views, the Brewery’s website crashed from fans trying to book his class. Gil Sweet, the Brewery’s owner, who had barely stooped to acknowledge their common humanity, made him the Tasting Room’s M.C., referring to Mattie as “My favorite comic of all time.”

Mattie had long ago cycled through Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief for his career, so the abruptness of fame hit him like the kiss Lily Grommet stole after fifth-grade bio, hours before her family relocated to North Platte. But before he could soak it up, reality flattened him like a Tracey Morgan Bugatti: his fame was a kind of joke. Why had Blaze used only his bad stuff? Why not the bit with him as Walter White in “Breaking Bad”? Or his killer joke where he was barred from using a gender-neutral bathroom and pointed to the one that reads, Your Guess Is As Good As Mine?


At 150,000 views, he signed with a manager, and they began mapping out a Netflix special. Mattie gutted his savings for an overhaul of his web site, suffering only the briefest hesitation before running “Stale Joke Comic” across his home page. He bought a condo on Avenue A with windows twice his height. He and Blaze saw less of each other while he began dating a corporate compliance attorney at Google, and the developer of an app devoted to spiritual centering and wheatgrass colonics.


Gil Sweet offered him $1,500 to teach a one hour class, “Old Jokes, New Audience,” but Mattie held Gil’s feet to the fire for $2,000 and forty minutes. He bumped other comics from the stage at will. His new shtick was a call-and-response. “I just flew in from Vegas,” he’d say—and the audience would shout “And boy are my arms tired!” “Take my wife,” he’d beg, and. the audience gleefully cried, “Pull-ease!”


Mattie took Gilda French, backup dancer with The Lion King, to the One World Observatory to precipitate their growing intimacy. While Gilda Instagrammed the view to her 125 followers, Mattie cast his gaze across the city that had finally embraced him as an artist,

“The life to come!” he thought. “The life to come!”

Thirteen hours later, that life sped away like a 5 Express when you’re across the tracks stuck in a local.


Mattie and his manager, Greg, were nursing lattes and working on Mattie’s Netflix special when several tables, ogling iPhones, erupted in laughter. Mattie tried a high-five, but Greg was plastered to his Notebook.


“I’m looking at YouTube,” he said. “Cats Performing Surgery On Humans is sucking up views like a Hoover. You haven’t had a single new view in hours.”

Laughter burbled from a table near the window. “Can you believe the dexterity that tabby has made a Cherney incision?”


Greg took a call. “That was Netflix,” he told Mattie, with an expression that suggested his Reindeer Milk Latte had spoiled. “You’re toast.”


Mattie begged Gil to let him teach again, at his old rate of $250 a class.

He sold his apartment to the creator of Cats Performing Surgery On Humans.

He kept phoning his dance mistress, compliance attorney, and app developer. A student explained the concept of “ghosting.”


Blaze had hustled a job as an assistant showrunner for a new comedy on Hulu. Mattie offered to move west, and Blaze said that would be super, but L.A. was basically a dessert, and was Mattie forgetting how easily he dehydrated?

After seventy publishers passed on his memoir, “Still Standing: The Spectacular Rise of Stale Joke Comic,” Mattie decided to hell with the gatekeepers. He began studying Amazon’s self-publishing platform.


On the launch date for his memoir, Mattie took a Kindle and Brenda Fine, a recent divorce´ he’d met through the dating app, Golden Years, to One World Observatory. Holding his 87,635 words out to Manhattan’s glittering magnificence, he cried, “The life to come! The life to come!”


About the Author:


David has read and taught his fiction at HOSTOS College and New York City high schools for The Hudson Review Writers In The Schools program. He has also taught pro bono classes in workers’ compensation, personal injury, and wages & hours laws for numerous unions, as well as for The National Day Laborers Network, La Colmena, El Centro del Inmigrante, The Workers’ Justice Project, New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) and the Mexican and Ecuadorian consulates.


David Shawn Klein’s first novel, THE MONEY, is forthcoming from Black Rose Writing on February 25th, 2021. His short stories, essays, and poetry have appeared in The Hudson Review; Film Comment; Columbia, A Journal of Literature and Art; New York Stories; Runner’s Gazette; American Jewish Times Outlook Monthly; Art: Mag; Lowestoft Chronicle, and Pembroke Magazine, among others. A short story was anthologized in Intrepid Travelers. His writing has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, Best American Mystery Stories 2020, and Best New Poets 2019.

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