The Host

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Fantasy
In R J Dent's The Host, an armchair comedian finds himself on the other side of the television screen - in a TV wasteland.

Submitted: April 24, 2016

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Submitted: April 24, 2016

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The Host

by R J Dent

 

 

Eddie was watching the television.

After a hard day's work at the factory, there was nothing Eddie liked more than sitting down in his favourite armchair and watch whatever happened to be on the television. He'd flick from one channel to another as each programme ended; slowly eating his way through the huge portion of fish and chips he habitually bought on the way home.

For Eddie, the television was a window onto the rest of the world.

Thanks to the television, Eddie thought, I'm in touch with what's going on on the planet.

Eddie even had his favourite type of programme – documentaries. Not the ones in which the eating, drinking, mating and sleeping habits of some animal or other were shown, but the ones that showed real people in real situations – the ones Eddie privately called 'True Life Dramas'.

The best example of this, Eddie felt, was the 'drama' in which someone got wrongfully imprisoned, whereupon a research team would be galvanized into finding evidence which would prove the someone's innocence. Then, in collaboration with a phone-in vote and audience participation, the presenter or 'host' would set out to get the innocent person released. It was all very dramatic.

That was Eddie's favourite type of programme.

But the ones I hate are the quiz shows, he thought darkly.

The feeling that Eddie had for quiz shows wasn't really strong enough to be termed hate, for if one was on – and if there was nothing that interested him on any of the other channels – he would watch it. The reason he felt the way he did about quiz shows was because he was sure he could do the job of hosting a quiz show better than most of the so-called hosts could. He had reached this particular – and to him quite obvious – conclusion after watching several of these similarly-formatted shows, whereupon he realized that most quiz show hosts were lacking charisma to the point of blandness.

This particular fact annoyed Eddie very much. At the factory he worked at, he was considered to be something of a ‘character’ by his fellow-workers. He was someone with the ability to entertain at a moment's notice; a man able to take a seemingly mundane incident, phrase,  or even – on occasion – a single word, and turn it into an amusing sketch – or at the very least, a lightly teasing double-entendre – although nothing too smutty when ladies were present, of course. To judge from the laughter he always got, his comedic efforts were always more amusing than anything he'd ever seen being served up by the fading celebrities posing as comedians who tended to end up hosting quiz shows.

Eddie's train of thought had been prompted by the fact that the opening credits to one of those very shows he disliked so much were rolling up the television screen at that very moment.

Grunting noncommittally, Eddie stuffed a handful of chips into his mouth, wiped his fingers on his trousers, and then pressed a button on the zinger – his name for the remote control unit – which was on the arm of the chair by his right elbow.

The channel changed abruptly and a weekly pop music programme appeared in front of Eddie's eyes. A male trio was dancing and miming to the sound of their latest single.  Eddie watched them dance for a while, and then pressed the zinger button again when an aging deejay appeared on the screen and introduced a female rock band.

The picture changed and an American cop show came on the screen. Eddie considered cop shows – even American ones – to be better than quiz shows, but he'd seen this particular episode before and didn't want to watch it again. Finger on the button he paused as the cop raised his gun and sighted along the barrel. The gun roared; Eddie flinched and changed the channel. Something medical this time. To Eddie, medical meant potentially gory.

Not while I'm eating, he thought, quickly flicking back to the quiz show.

He finished his chips, devoured the cooling fish, and then screwed up the greasy paper the meal had been wrapped in. He wiped his mouth with it and threw it towards the waste basket. It hit the rim and bounced onto the floor. Eddie shrugged to himself and turned his attention back to the screen, where the programme warm-up was over and the host was halfway through his ritual guest humiliation routine.

Eddie watched critically. He knew this show very well. It was called The Quotation Game. Round one involved linking the pictures of famous people to famous quotes. Two pairs of contestants fought out rounds one, two and three – three being the quick-fire points decider – then the winning couple attempted the finale, known as misquotes, in which quotations were wrongly presented and the contestants had to correct them. If they could, they won. The prize was usually a holiday. The show involved a fair amount of physical activity from the host – possibly due to the quiz show's literary format. At present the host was duck-walking across the stage, an act which was generating a fair amount of canned laughter.

Eddie watched the host address the contestants, paying particular attention to the pauses the host made between the jokes; the way he made harmless jokes sound like insults; the way he made insults sound like harmless jokes; and how – for most of the time – he kept his gestures to a minimum. When he did use them, it was in an incredibly exaggerated and overstated fashion, so that no one could possibly miss the intended meaning.

There's never any chance of misinterpretation on a quiz show, Eddie mused. No grey areas. Everything has to be black or white.

Ambiguity, he knew, had no place within the confines of the quiz show format.

As he watched the overly-familiar routines, Eddie did what he normally did, which was to imagine himself in the place of the host. He would be wearing the same grey trousers, the same bright primary-coloured sports jacket, and the same over-sized bowtie. He would make the same sly faces, the same over-the-top gestures, always getting the laughs – only more of them, of course – on cue thanks to technology. As Eddie again thought of how he could do a better job of hosting the show than the current host, he felt his usual surge of annoyance – although for some reason, the feeling was less frenzied than usual. Instead of ranting at the screen as he normally would have, this evening, Eddie felt that simply his knowing that he was a superior host was enough.

Momentarily content, Eddie leaned his head back against the armchair headrest and stared at the ceiling of his living room, thinking about the unfairness of life – an unfairness that allowed talent-less morons to become household names, but which kept the sensitive, the funny and the hard-working out of the public eye.

As bands of colour from the large television screen flitted across the painted plaster board ceiling, Eddie remembered how his homophobic father had caught him – aged twelve – sucking his school friend's cock. Eddie's father had reacted violently. The friend had been thrown out of the house, and Eddie had been beaten as he'd never been beaten before. His father had used his fists and his feet. Eddie had been hospitalized, too terrified of further paternal violence to say what had really happened – he told the doctor that he had been attacked by a street gang on his way home from school. From that day on, violence had been an integral part of Eddie's life until he'd left home at sixteen. Once he'd set up his own home, the beatings stopped, but the frequent number he'd received prior to leaving had left such a psychological mark that he had continued to hide his homosexuality from everyone – except for himself. To deflect suspicion, he used a number of strategies: denial; silence; cunning. He had studied comedians and had taught himself to be funny; he had deliberately presented himself as a wit. He had cultivated many female friends, some of whom he dated occasionally, in order to stymie any suspicions regarding his sexuality, for in Eddie's experience, suspicion inevitably led to violence.

And that's my life, Eddie thought. A half-life in which my persona is more popular than I am!

Eddie hated his ambiguous life – his divided psyche. He wanted to be open about himself, but knew the cost would be too high. Even after his father had died from cirrhosis of the liver, Eddie maintained his silence and continued to hide his sexuality from the world. To change now would be to bring too much pain into his life – and into the lives of others.

He stared at the ceiling, knowing that the multi-coloured rays of light from the television would be shading him too, so that sometimes he would look as though he was wearing a canary yellow jacket and grey trousers. Even his face would occasionally appear to be as tanned as the host's.

A loud audience laugh made Eddie look at the screen.

The belly laugh, Eddie thought. They always go for the belly laugh during the first half of the show. It's to create empathy with the host.

It was usually achieved by some sort of clowning about, or energetic activity from the host.

Eddie watched the host throw himself around the set, then for a reason he was unable to define, Eddie stood up in his living room and – keeping his eyes on the screen – began to mimic the host. When the host duck-walked, so did Eddie. When the host waved his arms, so did Eddie. When the television picture faded away, leaving only a grey rectangular expanse, Eddie managed to remain unperturbed, although shock hit him very hard when he took a look around his living room and saw it had vanished, leaving nothing but the studio set of the quiz show he'd been watching, with real contestants waiting for him to speak to them.

Despite his confusion and a feeling of overwhelming dread which was welling up inside his body, Eddie's long-unused professionalism took over automatically and he ran through the introductions easily. He then outlined the rules and objectives of the quiz for the audience's benefit. It was at this point that Eddie got another nasty shock – there was only a grey nothingness where there was supposed to be a studio audience.

Doing his best to remain unfazed, Eddie quelled his fear and began the first stage of the quiz show. Referring to the cards he (somehow) had in his jacket pocket, he asked the questions, waited for the answers, and made sure he used the right facial expression and tone of voice at the right time. When a contestant did well, he congratulated them.

When the no-longer-visible studio audience suddenly applauded the contestants, Eddie damped down his panic and took it in his stride. He wondered why he couldn't see the audience, but – professional that he was – he knew the show had to go on – regardless of personal anxieties. That was the first lesson he'd learnt at Quiz Show School: The show must always go on. Eddie believed that particular maxim implicitly.

At the end of stage one, Eddie said one of his catch-phrases. The audience responded warmly. During the response, Eddie took the opportunity to look around. In front of him was a huge grey screen. The studio was a narrow boxed-in area. If he hadn't known any better, Eddie would have sworn he was inside a television set.

He was confused.

Very, very scared, but also aware that he needed to keep the quiz show interesting and smooth-running, Eddie deftly moved the quiz onto stage two. Without a pause, Eddie spoke his words, making them sound completely unrehearsed – which they were. He introduced the next stage of the quiz, suggested that the questions were real 'brain-strainers', and grimaced in order to indicate the amount of intellectual power that would be needed to answer such questions. Then it was on with the quiz. The contestants were now answering the questions in earnest. The audience was quiet and attentive. The show was going well.

Eddie, very pleased with his performance, had just mentally congratulated himself on doing 'a fine job', when the entire studio set and the contestants vanished. A long-buried survival instinct took over and Eddie acted as though they were still there. This was just as well, for they were; he could hear them, but was unable to see them. All he could see was the grey screen in front of him, slowly becoming transparent. Through it, Eddie could see his own living room. He recognized his furniture – armchairs, table, lamp, waste basket, the faded wallpaper, the carpet and rugs. The only thing he couldn't see was his television set.

Whilst absorbing this new visual information, Eddie had continued to direct and monitor the quiz show. He'd asked the questions, received the answers, and tallied the scores. He then announced a break. The audience applauded and Eddie used the applause time to contemplate a new problem – himself. He considered it a problem because through the large screen, Eddie could see himself – as a viewer – sitting in his armchair, watching himself – as an entertainer – intently.

I know you, you bastard! he thought. Don't you dare attempt to pull my performance to pieces!

But as he thought this particular thought, Eddie knew instinctively that the other Eddie, Eddie-the-viewer, would inevitably analyse his performance, just as he had analysed every host's performance of every quiz show he'd ever watched. It was this realization which prompted Eddie to give the performance of his life. He would be the host of the greatest quiz show ever.

This particular quiz show – taking place on this particular day – will go down in television history as the best example of quiz show hosting ever seen! I'll be crowned King of the Quiz Show and no one will ever take my crown!

When the audience's applause had died down, Eddie recapped the results of stage two and began stage three – the quick-fire round. He opened his mouth to ask the first question and something terrible happened. Something Eddie could not possibly have anticipated.

Eddie-the-viewer changed the channel.

The channel was changed and Eddie was left in a soundless, featureless, grey void. Even the floor had disappeared. There was no audience sound, no contestant sound - nothing. Everything vanished, including Eddie-the-viewer – who'd been sitting in the armchair holding the zinger – and the room he'd been sitting in.

Terrified, Eddie wanted to scream. He desperately wanted to escape, but he could find no escape route. There was nowhere or nothing to escape to or from. Everything and everywhere was flat and dull and silent and grey.

Help me! Eddie screamed, finding to his horror that he had no voice. All he had was the awareness of his voice – or a memory. Even that was confusing. Was memory awareness, or was awareness memory? He didn't know. Suddenly fearing the worst, he looked down quickly and had his fears confirmed. He had no body – no actual, physical being! He was a nothing. Not living, not dead. Not existing, not unexisting. He was there – yet not. He was there because he could sense he was – could see he was – he could actually see and hear perfectly well – there just happened to be nothing to see or hear. He had been reduced to a collection of random thoughts, swirling in a grey silent nothingness, simply by the flick of a button.

Put me back on, you bastard! he yelled voicelessly. Nothing.

And then he relaxed as something rather obvious occurred to him. All he had to do was wait. At some point in time, Eddie-the-viewer would press the zinger button and put the quiz show back on. His natural curiosity would make him compulsively return to it. At present he was looking for something else to deride.

I'll be back on in a few seconds, Eddie told himself. He grinned. Or rather, he felt that he grinned. Perhaps, he thought, television works on the same principle as the tree falling in the forest did. If there are no viewers, does the show still run? And who can prove anything either way without looking to see – and thereby becoming a viewer?

Eddie-the-viewer would change the channel in a minute, freeing his television counterpart from the limbo he was trapped within. Eddie would then be able to continue with the show – he'd be free to continue with his superb performance.

Without this fake reality I'm in, I'm a nothing, Eddie thought. A nobody. And I'd  rather have the fake reality in which I'm a somebody than a real reality in which I'm a nobody. Only when I'm participating in it can I hope to escape from it. Not when I'm not. As I am at present, I'm a star. I owe my existence to a fiction made real.

Having finally reassured himself that all would be well, Eddie patiently waited for the show – his show, The Quotation Game – to be put back on the air.

Come on, Eddie, he silently pleaded as he waited. If you change the channel and start watching me again, I'll give you a show you'll never forget. I promise. All you have to do is press that button. Go on, you can do it. It's easy. That's all you have to do – just make that change.

 

*

 

The Host

Copyright © R J Dent (2001 & 2016)

 

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