iocus mortis by Joey Barlow



It’s another sellout crowd for Hugh Briss—his third in as many days at the famous Club Comedia. His set, titled ‘Laughter for a Lifetime’, consists of only one joke—not a particularly funny one, and one that isn’t even originally his, so they say, but according to the critics it’s all in his delivery. See, he does this thing, where he

     pauses, for comedic effect. He starts talking, with this golden voice, a twinkle in his eye that says, “I have had a vision of the future, and you will still be laughing.”
And then, when he feels like it, he

   stops. Just like that. And the audience waits on him, afraid to even inhale lest they displace his oxygen, rendering him unable to deliver a punchline prophesied to make them laugh into the future. They are in a state of religious awe as they wait, and for those precious seconds, Hugh has total control.

The pregnant pause, comedians call this. A moment full of endless possibilities. Hugh calls it ‘God’s Fag Break’, likening it to the brief moment God took—post-plucking of Adam’s rib from which he created Eve, while waiting for the sinew of Eve’s new corporeal form to set—to reward himself with a quick cigarette.

There are only two ways that the joke could go wrong: you fumble the setup, confusing your audience; or you miss the punchline. Yes, that’s right, it can be done. Others have. They waited too long. The margin is so fine that to an amateur comedian, they may not even notice they’ve surpassed it—but they will discover as much when the punchline limps off the tip of their tongue, to the vacant eyes of the unimpressed masses. In that fraction of a moment, the joke dies and the comedian enters a state from which there is no recovery.

The scientists call it—iocus mortis.


Hugh Briss takes to the stage late. On his first night, he had been too keen and walked out four minutes early. He had to wait for the back rows to finish filing in before he could begin the joke’s setup. On his second night, he learned from his previous mistake and walked out at precisely the right moment. Tonight, pleased with how the previous night went, he walks out seven minutes late and a little tipsy.

The mutters and tutters of the patient crowd fade away. The spotlight seems brighter than it was yesterday. Hugh wafts his hand around and the lighting engineer brings it down a touch.

“Cheers,” he says, and the front few rows giggle. For any lesser comedian, that would have been enough to call it a successful gig, but Hugh is here for another night of rapturous applause. Some comedians might introduce themselves first, then welcome the audience and thank them for coming. But Hugh doesn’t. That’s a bit beneath him.

He launches straight into it, the words collecting around his taste buds, rolling down the central valley of his tongue and soaring past his two front teeth and into the stands; he paces across the stage, building a rhythm slowly, methodically, seeing the audience raise one eyebrow (they’re hooked) then the other (they’re on the edge of their seat—what could possibly come next?) and then Hugh’s right heel touches the ground, as his left foot rolls up onto his toes, and he

        admires how exquisitely he set the joke up— the look on the faces of a young couple in the front row, clearly a first date, but the
perfect one; she’s happy to be here, he’s happy her hand is resting on his knee—a man in seat four, row J, block two, holds a single kernel of popcorn to his lower lip, as if his neurons have forgotten how to instruct his hand to raise up that little bit higher in order to drop it into his open mouth; not until that post-punchline dopamine hits, please—a young boy tilts his head quizzically, and for a moment within the
moment Hugh worries the setup has confused the boy, but he decides he doesn’t care what he thinks as long as the rest of the audience are having a good time—unless of course this boy is a critic from the Guardian, in which case he is concerned that this boy is confused and rather hopes that he isn’t (he would not want to get a bad review on the closing night of his show, God no) but then the boy drops one of his eyebrows, so that he only has one eyebrow raised instead of two—which settles it, Hugh thinks: the boy is confused, but he can’t work out why when the setup had been performed so exquisitely—then realises, therefore, that the only reason the boy could pull such a face is if Hugh

       delivers the punchline late— and remarks to himself how the quizzical young boy looks almost identical to himself
when he had been a child, attending his first comedy show; in fact, it was the very same comedy show in which he first heard the joke he is now performing, and had found it so funny that it changed the course of his life; he begged his father to send him to comedy school but his father told him to wait until he was older, so he begged his mother to beg his father to send him to comedy school, and she too told him to wait until he was older; so he waited, and waited, and closed his eyes squeezed them tight fists clenched and prayed to God that he could be older so that his parents could send him to comedy school, and God looked down and told him he already had all he needed to be a comedian—but the quizzical young boy does not look impressed, in fact he is now distracted by his older sister, sat next to him, pulling out her phone, face illuminated by the text message she’s sending to her best friend telling her how much second-hand embarrassment she’s currently feeling for the quivering, frozen man on stage—and doesn’t she just look the spitting image of my daughter, he thinks—and next to her is his daughter’s daughter who is yet to be born—and next to her, her daughter’s daughter’s son’s daughter’s daughter, who will look back on this night in six hundred years time and call it the most disappointing night of her pre-existence—and inside the bright but slightly dimmed spotlight above him, Hugh sees the face of an old man; it could have been his father, had he lived long enough to reach such an old age, or perhaps it was his father’s father (or his father’s father’s mother’s father’s father) and the old man smiles, despite the second-hand embarrassment he feels at Hugh’s expense, and takes a satisfied, long drag from his cigarette.





Joey Barlow is studying an MA at Birkbeck, University of London. This piece was performed as part of the MIR Live event in December 2023

The image is iocustelly.png, MIR Graphics


15 March 2024