This story was submitted as part of India Science Festival’s flagship science fiction writing competition, ‘Spin Your Science’.

I miss that laughter, the real one. The men, with their aluminum bowls with silver coins, fluttered around the car as it auto produced screeches that made their ears ring. Those unsettling screeches made them cover their ear and roll back.
Today almost every car comes with auto screech feature. Nobody wants their car to be touched by their smudged clothes. I felt sorry for them, I always do. I made the screeches stop and lowered my
windshield. The beggars then returned, mumbling blessings for me and my family. I gave them some notes and coins. They one by one took it in their bowls. I moved. I knew as soon as I drove, their mouths would talk filth for us. My wife hates me giving them money. Fruitless charity : she says. I agree with her but I still do it anyways. My daughter, since a long time, was demanding a visit to COMEDY CLUBS. I decided that I should better take her now, I kinda detest family fights.

I parked the car and we went towards the tickets, we were a bit late. Too much office work. This hustle culture would kill me. Fortunately the machines needed a boot up, so the show had not started. We entered the hall, it was dark, cold, and filled. We took our seats and wore the helmets. Metal, neon-lighted, wireless headsets that looked more like scooter helmets. They were bit tight but everyone had to wear it for the show. All the helmets in sudden made a long, melodious, beep and everybody including me was put to a trance-like sleep. Then it started, I mean I didn’t see the comedian starting up because I was asleep but it must have started. We started laughing, since we chose intellectual comedy, so we were laughing like sane people. But those who chose slapstick jokes were laughing a maniac’s laughter.
Those who chose metaphysical jokes were just giving out slight smiles. I didn’t actually see these people laugh because as I have told you, I was myself asleep and laughing. But these are usually how people laugh at different genres of comedy.

Ever since the comedian came, people preferred it more. The comedians were machines that could create simulations by sending artificial messages to the frontal lobe of the brain and then to the cerebral cortex. They even trick the brain into releasing dopamine, serotonin, endorphins. I do not know brain science, all of this is written on an instruction booklet. Plus to double-check that the user laughs, they also release nitrous oxide (laughing gas). After the comedian came into the market, there were protests all over but only the audience can decide the fate of the artist and since comedian cost less and was more effective, they did. It was disappointing. Some even say that there were some powerful mouths involved in promoting the machine. You see stand up comedians and politics Never went well together. Of course politicians would prefer a Façade making machine then immature individuals who criticize and comment. Some said it but everyone knew. The show got over and laughter lingered. Reality losing from hyper-reality, Baudrillard’s nightmare.

My wife and daughter wanted to stay for one more show, they selected this time ‘offensive jokes’. I do not know what kids are into these days. I had enough comedy for the day so I went out for a walk. There is no time nowadays. Run and run and work and work. I work in IT. When I was small I thought that all technical works would be carried out by robots; they are flawless, accurate and don’t go for toilet breaks 24 times a day. Some companies tried to do so but they soon realized that since the majority of jobs are technical jobs, replacing would mean the collapse of any economy or any political system. So they dropped it, instead they aimed for artists. I was meandering by the streets but then I heard a laugh. A very slow sound of the crowd laughing. It was coming from a narrow alley. I strolled towards it. The alley was tarnished. Cans, rotten food, all over it. The alley diverged left and right. I went and in the straight right, I saw people in grubby clothing, sitting as an audience and a man with a shaggy sweater doing stand up comedy. His face was dull and had black sprinkled over it. The jokes were bleak. Most of them made fun of ‘the comedian’.

He said, “Okay, so this one time that goddam tin machine got fused and blasted. Guess what the show was called.” He paused for a while, “the comedy of error.” They gave a dead laughter. It was not dead, it was zombie laughter, without a soul, without hope. He made a couple more jokes, all were unfunny and aimed at the machines, boring. I stood till the show was over, all of them after giving a small clap adjourned. They saw me and noticed my fine clothes and gave me an angry or agonizing look. I felt insecure. I was then approached by the stand-up guy, “sir, I am very honored that a man like you came to see my work. Was it any good?”

I was never going to tell him the truth, “yes, I…uh…enjoyed it.”

To tell you the truth, I was a bit curious about him. So I asked, “would you mind if I ask you what was all this?”

He smiled and then looked up at the sky, “I was a comedian, quite a popular one when all this crap did not happen. I am now a part of a rebel comedy community. We do shows for free to make people aware and try to bring them back to our side.” There was sheer exhaustion in his voice, like was done of trying and now only wanted to sleep, “why would no one come to the shows,” I asked.

He took a heavy breath and answered, “because we don’t write jokes by researching psychology, we do not make you laugh by electrical transmissions, we make you laugh by experience. Not all of our jokes work, some may offend you, some may make you uncomfortable, we don’t work by genres. Plus we do not make annoying beep noises.”

I then decided to walk back but stayed for a last question, “wait a sec, you told me that you do these shows for free.”
“So how do you actually earn?”
“I do a job, no robot in the history of human civilization could replace.”
He took out an aluminum bowl from his pouch. I laughed, for real this time.