That Was So Funny I Forgot To Laugh

by Richard Zwicker

Even with the double-paned windows closed, Mort’s sound sensors were getting a workout, courtesy of the invading Bwaftians.  Careening across the night sky, their destroyer orbs emitted piercing whistles that raced up and down discordant scales.  Rolling crashes filled out the lower sound register as the robot shelters crumbled to the ground like jagged waves.  Disintegrator rays melted the abandoned human buildings with an eerie, almost alluring whoosh.  Standing out for Mort in this deadly cacophony, however, were the heat lasers.   Their high-pitched scream resembled a computer-generated “Uh-uh-uh,” and he wondered if anyone left on Earth could appreciate that.  In the past year the Ruling Robot Council’s nationalistic sound bytes played so often in his neural net that they barely registered as white noise, but this senseless war had infused them with jarring irony.  Robot utopia?  Peace and progress based on artificial intelligence?  The next logical step in the ascendancy of technology over humanity?  The answer, my friend, was blowin’ in the wind:  “Uh-uh-uh.” 

Twenty years earlier, Mort the joke android watched as his creator, Ted Symons, tried to zip up his suitcase, but it was so overloaded that its top and bottom had arcs that proportionally out-curved any stretch of land in Iowa.  He sighed and flipped open the top again.  Though the two had been inseparable for nearly a decade, Mort and Symons presented a contrast in appearance.  Mort’s facial features were a composite of 1930’s Hollywood actors who always played best friend of the stars:  darkly clean cut, not quite good-looking, slightly dumpy, with a perpetual wide-eyed vacuous look.  Symons, on the other hand, possessed a lanky body, with untamed graying hair and an engaging smile that he kept regularly imprisoned under a scowl.

“It’s not easy stuffing your entire 41-year life into two suitcases, even if you leave out most of the bad things,” Symons lamented.

“Would you like me to sit on it, sir?” Mort asked.

Symons looked up from his hopeless task.  His eyes were bloodshot and he needed a shave so bad his chin could have choked a lawnmower.  “Yeah, I would like you to sit on it, but that wouldn’t help my suitcase.  You and all your robotic brethren can go sit on it.  Of all the stupid things.”

“You’re referring to the robots’ mass firing of sarin gas missiles and the threat of more, forcing the evacuation of all surviving humans to the Mars Colony?”

“No, I’m talking about how it took me seventeen years to quit smoking, and as soon as I do, you robots try to fill my lungs with poisonous gas.”

“I feel compelled to point out that I had nothing to do with that.  Furthermore, re:  your remark about ‘robotic brethren.’ I am no more related to other robots than ‘Titus Andronicus’ is related to ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.’”

Symons sighed and yanked out a loud color-convulsing sweater that he used to wear at scientific conventions to make people’s teeth hurt.  “Maybe I should start practicing being more conciliatory.  I’m going to need all the friends I can get on Mars.” He tossed the sweater on the floor.  “But damn, I saw this coming.  Robots play sports, build cars, do heart surgery.  They’ve even become sex surrogates.  We delegated everything to them.  By doing this, humans have made a strong argument for their own obsolescence.  Haven’t I always said this to you?”

Mort did a quick search.  “Not always, but 87 times.”

“Right.  So it just stands to reason that if you allow robots to produce missiles of sarin gas, one day they’re going to use those missiles.”

“It does.”

“And having worked for years in robot manufacturing, I have contributed to this mess as much as anyone.  How ironic is that?”

“Very ironic.”

Symons glared at him.  “You’re supposed to be a joke android, not a straight man.”

“I’m sensing that this is not the time for humor.”

“Boy, are you wrong.  Tell me how you feel about all this, and it had better be funny.”

Mort straightened into a position simulating deep thought.  “Well, when I think about how robots are finally going to express their individuality, to live up to their potential, to be all that they can be, I get a warm fuzzy feeling inside.  Although that could be the result of the pepperoni pizza I ate last night.” 

Symons grimaced and put his hand over Mort’s right shoulder.  He wasn’t sure what kind of a bond, if any, skin on artificial skin implied, but he knew Mort would recognize the gesture.  “I’d kill for a pepperoni pizza right now,” he muttered sadly.

At the spaceport a thousand-foot line of grim humans snaked around chairs, ticket stands, and occasional clusters of people sleeping on blankets. 

Though he drew many angry glares and one temporarily airborne chilidog, Mort stood loyally next to Symons, effortlessly carrying his two suitcases.  When the line lurched ahead half a foot, the humans moved their bags, grunting, as if they wore a ball and chain.  Their sweating bodies had long ago overcome the air conditioning, which on entrance had hit most of them like a Yeti-made snowball.  Symons’s face looked hot and haunted, and he muttered that he’d kill for a Dr. Pepper.  Mort noted that, under the circumstances, his repeated use of such a violent expression was unfortunate.  Symons retorted it was the circumstances that were unfortunate.  Mort couldn’t disagree.  In the past he’d found the spaceport a relatively happy place, where people finally got to go on their dream trip or powerful executives looked to close a lucrative deal.  The only smiles Mort saw today appeared on the posters of stewardesses urging customers to fly them.  This would be one tough place to do stand-up. 

At the front of the line they approached an escalator that took passengers into the space barge.  Mort glanced appraisingly at the security robot that would have kicked him in his neural nuts if he’d tried to board the barge.  The RRC forbade sentient robots to leave Earth.  Instead, Mort handed Symons his suitcases, motioned toward the escalator and said, “One small step for man, one giant leap for the census takers of Mars.”

Symons hesitated, a look of philosophical depth on his face.  “Mort, I built you not only for my personal entertainment, but also as a spit in the eye of those who think everything should be faster, more utilitarian, results-oriented, and…soul-less.  Humor is an essential defense against the cruelty and indifference of the universe.  A belly laugh is one of the few times when we completely lower our defenses and become whatever we really are.  Sometimes it makes us vulnerable and we get hurt, but it’s worth it.  Somehow, someday, I will have the last laugh on these humorless androids.”

“Is there anything I can do to help, sir?  My function has been to tell jokes.  It seems pointless now.”

“No.  Now more than ever, you need to keep humor alive on this planet.  You won’t be able to spread it, but you can store it.  Also, this is a long shot, but try to convince the RRC they will eventually want to have relations with Mars and your unique relationship with me would make you a perfect choice as a Mars diplomat.” Symons hesitated. “Look, for the foreseeable future the robots are blocking all communication between Mars and Earth, so I don’t know when we’ll speak again.  For that reason, I took the liberty of putting a transmitter into your head.”

“When did you do that?”

“A month ago.  I turned you off.  Someday this robot stranglehold will loosen and I will get a message to you.  Then maybe we laugh about this, or about something.”    

With that comment, the desiccated wit of Ted Symons became uncharacteristically moist, and he stifled a sob.  Sensing an awkward moment, Mort interjected dramatically, “You’d better get on that barge.  If you don’t, you’ll regret it.  Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.” Symons smiled and waved goodbye.  After Symons vanished into the barge, Mort rolled away, stuck with the line, “Louie, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” But as he looked around at the diminishing group of frightened and resentful people, he didn’t see any Louies.

Not sure how he would be able to honor his creator’s request to preserve humor on Earth, Mort spent most of his time in Symons’s apartment, watching downloads of old situation comedies.  He tried to always have something playing on his computer to drown out the roar of the Mars-bound space barges.  The RRC had estimated that within five years, all humans would be evacuated.  It occurred to Mort that he would eventually be the last sentient being on Earth that thought “The Three Stooges” were funny.  That begged the troubling question, if someone tells a joke and no one laughs, is it really a joke? 

During the second year of the mass evacuations the RRC issued the ultimatum that all robots report to the nearest city hall.  There they would be fitted with special modems connecting them to Ruling Robot Council.  This way RRC could get out important messages instantaneously.  Mort didn’t like the sound of that—the only reason he owned a cell phone was as a prop for his standup routines—but he figured he had no choice but to comply.

The techbot at City Hall was one of those robots with non-human features.  He looked more like washer/dryer than a humanoid.  Mort handed him a shirt and said, “Hey Buddy, run this through the rinse cycle for me, will you?” The techbot ignored the comment and silently handed back the shirt.  Mort wondered if he’d be able to think those kind of irreverent thoughts after the modem transplant.

“How are we functioning today?” the techbot asked as he checked Mort’s serial number.  Mort printed a self-diagnostic report and placed it into the tech’s claw-like pincer.

“What’s this?” the techbot asked, after scanning the report.

“Ah, forget it.  I didn’t realize that non-humanoid techbots came equipped with rhetorical questions.”

“Well, that’s of course a hold-over from the human era.  I suspect at some point all rhetorical questions will be expunged from our data banks.  They really are superfluous.”

“Do you really think so?”

In lieu of an answer, a screwdriver shot out of the techbot’s frame into his pincer.  He opened up the back of Mort’s head.  “Hey, what’s this?  It looks like a transmitter or receiver.”

“Oh, I used to like listening to the Red Sox.” He was anxious to change the subject.  “Say, is this going to be one of those things that hurts only when I laugh,” Mort asked.  “Because I haven’t laughed in a week.”

“It’s not going to hurt at all.  I’m turning off your pain sensors.  By the way, if you want, I can turn them off permanently.  One of the debates scheduled for next month at RRC is whether or not we need those things.”

Mort wasn’t sure.   Being a joke robot, he was well aware how much comedy came from pain.  And Symons had always been good about telling him how much pain came from his comedy.

“Maybe you can just turn them down a bit.”

Having a new modem in his head wasn’t too bad.  Every hour he received official messages from RRC.  These included progress reports about present projects, specs. date estimates about future projects, and upgrades about the RRC mission statement.  The over-riding theme of the latter was “robots rule, and they’d rule even more if the taint of humans could once and for all be expunged.”  Two current projects put pressure on Mort.  As robots did not require excess space, the RRC had ordered all large buildings torn down and replaced with small robot-shaped compartments.   Mort felt reluctant to give up Symon’s home.

A second order halted the production of robots with facial features.  Instead, the upper part of their frames would be box-like with tapered tops.  This still left a faint resemblance to Jack Palance, but it couldn’t be helped.  Instead of legs there would be wheels.  For the most part, arms would remain inside a robot’s outer frame, but when needed, they shot out.  Fingers were retained for their superior dexterity.  Naturally, as humans had constructed many of the robots, a large number of androids remained.  RRC strongly advised not only a rebuilding of their outer frames, but also reprogramming to eliminate other human qualities such as simulated emotions.  Stressing a desire to free this robot utopia of the biases that plagued humanity, however, RRC insisted androids needn’t change themselves as long as they remained productive members of the new society.   That said, another law stated all robots and androids be referred to by their serial numbers rather than their names.  Mort’s new name was L10W227, though in his interior monologues, he preferred to remain Mort.

Shortly after the serial number edict, despite the continuing anti-human stance of the government, Mort decided to test the waters and send the following request to the RRC.    

“I believe that the RRC should establish diplomatic relations with Mars.  It is important to know one’s enemies.  Every day that dawns on Mars, the humans are reminded that we removed them from what was their planet.  To shun information is contrary to robots.  Communication and interaction are the keys to meeting our goals.”

He received the following reply:  “Thank you for your interest in the RRC.  Your suggestion has been filed and will forever be a part of the central computer memory.  Thanks again.”

Mort knew an auto-response when he saw one.  He continued sending his requests.  In time he was informed that his continued interest in Mars demonstrated excess individuality.  To rectify this, he would be immediately paired with another robot.  Despite his protests, W84BNT, a disgruntled maid robot, appeared at his door.  A rolling six-foot three-dimensional rectangle, no attempt had been made to make W84 resemble a human.  As it chugged into Mort’s apartment, his first reaction was, “I’m finally meeting someone who’s literally built like a brick shithouse.”  Mort’s appearance didn’t flip her microchips either, but she did note the size of his home, as most robots had abandoned them for shape-fitting shelters. 

“Can I give you a tour?” he asked.

“That is not necessary,” she said, rolling through the four rooms on her own.  Mort followed her into the kitchen but didn’t go any further, correctly guessing his presence was superfluous.  “Too clean,” she stated on her return.

“There’s nothing for me to do here.”

“If you want, I could smoke a cigarette and flick the ashes on the carpet.”

W84’s lights lit up.  “Could you?  I feel so useless.”

Mort knew the feeling, but the last thing he wanted to do was get involved with a robot that had issues.  He also wondered why the RRC would pair such a robot with him.  “If you feel that way, why don’t you just get reprogrammed?” he asked.

“I don’t have anything to be reprogrammed.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was built after the revolution.”

“Why would a maid robot be built after the revolution?”

“I’m not really a maid robot.  I’m a security bot.  If you don’t sending messages about Mars, I’ll come here every day.”

In the interest of personal harmony, Mort temporarily stopped sending the requests.

Twenty years passed.  The robots continued with their mission of expunging human influence from the Earth.  Mort led an unobtrusive existence, delivering software for the RRC twenty hours a week.  He had requested and been granted permission to maintain his old, aging dwelling as a reminder of the temporal and imperfect nature of humans.  He limited his requests for opening relations with Mars to one a year, every April 1st.  That way if someone got really miffed, he could say, “Just kidding.” He received no response, however.

With the consolidation of robot dwellings and loss of human neighborhoods, nature slowly reclaimed what had once been an over-populated planet.  Cracks appeared in the concrete of abandoned roads, and grass poked through the cracks.  The smog that had hung over cities for decades dissipated and vanished.  Naturally strewn seeds now found receptive soil to grow in.  Unimpeded mountain streams purified rivers that had once been orange with pollution.  Though it was totally wasted on the robots, Earth reverted back to a natural paradise.  It was this garden of plenty that caught the attention of the Bwaftians.

Mort stood in the Spartan room of the Supreme Chamber of the RRC.  X330MT and X34ORS, looking like guitar amplifiers for a moderately successful 60’s rock group, stood impassively in front of him.

“Android L10W227,” said X330MT, using Mort’s serial number, “It has come to our attention that since the Ruling Robots decided to honor the petition of the alien humanoids, the Bwaftians, for a first meeting, you have sent daily requests to be part of the official robot delegation.”

“That is correct,” Mort said.  “Ever since the glorious takeover by the robots, I have been trying to find a place for myself, something worthy I could do.  I believe that I would be of value as a negotiator with alien races.”

“Yes, this is a point you have made repeatedly, not only in regard to the Bwaftians, but in reference to a misguided belief that we should maintain a diplomatic relationship with Mars.  As you are well aware, after careful consideration, we turned down your request to be a negotiator under the present circumstances.  What is it you think you can say in our presence that will change our decision?”

“I believe I have abilities and experiences that all other robots lack.”

“I am certain that is so, but it is unclear to us how those abilities and experiences would aid in our negotiations.  The decision to meet with the alien race was made by synthesizing the input of all robots on this question.  That included your input, which reads, and I quote, ‘Go for it.  Any race with a name as silly as Bwaftian can’t be all bad.’ “ X330MT paused, while a barely audible electronic snort emitted from X340RS.  “According to the files, you were constructed as a joke android by the human Ted Symons.  Is your point that we should not take the Bwaftians seriously?  That perhaps we warm them up with a few knock-knock jokes before we get down to business?”

“No…and yes.”

“That is the kind of inconclusive answer that brought down the human race,” X340RS interjected.

“What I mean is,” Mort continued, “I do take the Bwaftians seriously, and maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to make some small talk before we get to the point of the meeting.  They are people, not machines, and from the research I’ve done on them, they are like most people in that they are not all business.  It has been years since we have had interaction with humanoids, and virtually all the robots with human experience have been reprogrammed.  I am one of the few that has not, so I believe I can bring a unique point of view to the bargaining table.”

“We don’t doubt that.  What we doubt is that your point of view is an advantage.  The RRC has identified human-ness as a flaw and has systematically striven to eliminate that flaw.  Your human propensity to be irreverent and rebellious would endanger this meeting.”

“I respectfully protest.  I have done nothing rebellious against the RRC.”

“No?  Then why do you persist in calling yourself by your human given name, Mort?”

Mort wondered how the RRC had been able to detect that.  He didn’t respond, resisting the urge to say that he didn’t want to have to change all his stationary. 

“We are in favor of your attempt to make yourself useful,” X330MT continued, “but you will have to keep searching.  We also suggest that, as twenty years have passed since the revolution, you step things up a bit.  Finally, to allow you to directly participate in the meeting would be contrary to our purification policies.  There are those who say meeting with people from another planet is also contrary, but the point was forcefully made that we are the only known planet of robots, and it is foolish to act as if people don’t exist.  If we are ever to export our example, we must have contact with other worlds.  Humans are devious, however, and we must be on our guard at all times.  We cannot allow someone such as yourself to lull us into facetiousness.  The meeting will be broadcast over your neural net.  You can serve Earth by paying close attention to the proceedings and offering your post-meeting opinions.”

Unlike the robots, the Bwaftians valued ostentation.  The two delegates, Bwen and Bwadford, were large, hulking men decked out in broad-shouldered uniforms.  Their chests bore so many medals they jingled with every breath.  The front of their uniforms revealed a facsimile of the Bwaftian flag.  This featured two horned goat-like creatures smashing into each other, creating a thought balloon with words that meant progress, faith, and courage.  A love of tradition had pressed the Bwaftians to retain that particular word for courage, even though it was also a homonym for a fruit that resembled summer squash.

Though the meeting had been scheduled in the Supreme Chamber, the sunny June weather inspired the Bwaftians to request an outdoor location.  The RRC placed large chairs specially made for the Bwaftians under an oak tree.  A breeze mussed the long hair and beards of the two men as they sat down, looking around in approval.

“There was a time when Bwaftia looked like this,” Bwen said.  “Our health advances, coupled with the virility of the Bwaftian male, and the fertility of the female, have overpopulated our planet.” 

X330MT, one of the four robots in attendance, wasn’t sure how to respond to Bwen’s statement.  Neither fertility nor virility impressed him, and he viewed their lack of will to control their population as weakness and stupidity.  “We pride ourselves on efficient use of space.  Perhaps that is one of the areas we can be of assistance to your people.” 

“Sounds good to me,” Bwen said. 

“Incidentally, you speak English very well.  How did you learn it?”

“Oh, we have had diplomatic relations with the Mars Colony for years.  We learned it from them.”

X330MT wondered how the RRC had missed that detail, the knowledge of which would have undoubtedly changed some of the robots' votes for this encounter.   Could they have missed other important details?  With the robot world watching, he could take no chances.  He wished to get on with the meeting, but both Bwen and Bwadford seemed completely overwhelmed by the apple-laden trees and the towering pines around them.  “Are you sure this is the best place for our meeting?” X330MT said finally.  “I think you would find inside less distracting.”

Bwen guffawed, further confusing the robots.  “Not at all.  This setting is amazing.” He motioned behind him with his muscular arm.  “Why, I’d kill for this forest.”

Something clicked in X330MT’s neural net.  “Is that a statement that you stand behind?” he asked flatly.

“That I’d kill for this forest?  Absolutely.  In a second.” To emphasize this, he made a strangling motion with his large hands. 

X330MT raised his right anterior limb, arming the laser in his palm.  He then pointed it at the Bwen.  The other three robots followed X330MT’s lead, distributing their aim among the two Bwaftians, whose eyes grew as large as shields, but weren’t nearly as effective.

Mort wondered if his creator, Ted Symons himself, had taught the Bwaftians the “I’d kill for a…” expression.  Mort liked to think so.   He felt more conflicted about the war, however.  The RRC had rejected his honest effort to help them.  Perhaps this conflict would lead to an eventual return of the humans from the Mars colony.  As he felt his building shaking from the Bwaftian bombardment, Mort worked on what he realized could be his last joke:  A group of robots took over a planet and sent all the humans into exile.  Drunk with artificial nationalism, the robots systematically purged themselves of all things human.  This purge directly led to a misunderstanding with a visiting alien delegation, which resulted in a devastating war.  When asked if he was not ashamed of his contribution to the robots’ downfall, their leader stated, “Not at all.  We robots can be proud of the fact that this was a conflict free of human error.”

It seemed a bit long for a joke.  He started to edit it when he noticed a banging in his head, as if from a severe headache.  The joke wasn’t that bad.  Then he recognized the clanging of his transmitter, alerting him of an in-coming message.  Opening it, he heard the still familiar voice of Ted Symons.

“Mars is ringing with news about the Bwaftian invasion. What this might mean for humans living on Earth again, we can only guess.  I am once again sending a message to you in the hopes that the robot wall against communication from Mars has been knocked out. I have no idea if you have even survived. Are you okay?”

In the distance, the cutting sound of heat ray on metal rang out. Mort thought for a moment, then accessed instructions for responding.  It would take about ten minutes for Symons to receive it.  A number of possible responses came to him.  He felt the impulse to say how good it was to hear Symons’s voice again.  What had he been doing all this time?  Why couldn’t he have installed a more pleasing sound for the transmitter’s ring?  Since the robot takeover he had been asked how he was functioning, what was his processing speed, and how much available memory he had, but this was the first time someone had asked him, the only joke android on Earth, if he were OK.  

“It only hurts when I laugh,” he replied.  Then a few seconds later, he added, “Correction. It only hurts because I laugh.”


Richard Zwicker

Walden Planet, fiction, December 1, 2009

That Was So Funny I Forgot To Laugh, fiction, March 1, 2009


Richard Zwicker is a high school English teacher living in New England with his wife and beagle. His short stories have appeared in Ray Gun Revival, Speculative Mystery Iconoclast, and Golden Visions. Though he lived in Brazil for eight years, he is still a lousy soccer player.

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