Authors: Laura Langston
Tags: #JUV031000, #JUV013070, #JUV039150
Jacob steers me over to a monitor. On the screen, I see the four judges sitting in the front row, iPads resting on their knees. Their heads are bent together. Raven Prest is sitting second from the end. My breath stalls. She’s my all-time, hands-down favorite comedian. I can’t believe she’ll
watch me perform today. It’s like a dream come true. Except for the walking across the stage part.
“They’re about to announce who made the first cut,” Jacob tells me.
Twenty comedians start out in each category. Half will be eliminated after the first round this morning, and another half will be cut after this afternoon’s round. Only five in each category will go on to tomorrow’s final.
The judges straighten. The room goes quiet. I stare at the screen as one of the judges—British comedian Connor Hillis—looks into the camera and says, “I speak for all four of us when I say this was a difficult decision, and every contestant is to be congratulated for his or her efforts. Based on our criteria, here are the contestants in the straight stand-up comedy category who will compete in this afternoon’s event.”
Ten names flash onto the screen. There’s a moment’s pause and then comes a shout, followed by a burst of clapping. I barely have time to scan half the list before Jacob pulls me into a sweaty hug. “I made it.” His voice trembles with emotion.
The next fifteen minutes are pandemonium as people are congratulated and consoled and the
contestants in the first category trickle out of the room. I find a space against the wall and check my texts.
You’re the funniest person I know. Remember that.
From Mr. Roskinski:
Let the audience reaction guide you.
The next half hour is a blur of instructions and final details. I listen as the organizers remind us that we’ll be able to watch the event live on the monitor… that we’ll be taken to the stage area ten minutes before our names will be called…that there will be a lunch for all contestants following our category.
Swallowing hard, I eye my competition. I recognize a guy from Idaho, one from Boston and another from Santa Fe. Girls from Tampa and Phoenix and Chicago. I’ve watched them all on YouTube. I’ve been awed by their talent.
Today they look as terrified as I feel. The thought doesn’t offer much comfort.
As the competition in my category begins, I calmly watch the monitor along with everyone else. But by the time the fourth contestant starts into her routine, my panic reaches epic proportions.
These guys are good. Very, very good. Their material, their delivery, everything.
I don’t measure up.
You’re here. You’re prepared. You need to give it your best shot.
I turn away from the monitor, lean back in my chair and mentally review my first routine. I changed it up last night when I realized Brooke would be in the audience. I needed to take out some of the stuff about her. So after meeting Carly and Hunter for dinner, I put in some fresh bits, smoothed out the transitions and practised until I was sure I’d memorized the changes. It’s too bad, because Brooke is a great source of material. But as much as she pisses me off, there’s no way I’ll embarrass her in such a public way.
That’s her style, not mine.
“Paige Larsson,” a voice calls out.
My eyes fly open.
An usher with a belly the size of a small suitcase is standing in the doorway. “Paige Larsson,” he repeats, glancing around the room. “You’re up next.”
I swallow the lump in my throat and stand.
feel weirdly detached as I follow the guy down the hall. Like I’m floating above my body. I hear talking off in the distance, but it only vaguely registers. I see the girl from Chicago coming toward us, her face flushed, looking like she’s going to cry.
I want to tell her it’s okay, that she did her best, that whatever happens, happens. That there’s not a thing we can do because the results are out of our control anyway.
Of course, I say nothing. I hold the words inside me instead, silently repeating them over and over like a mantra.
You’ve done your best. Whatever happens, happens. There’s nothing you can do about it now.
I feel all floaty and Zen-like as I follow that usher. But when he stops beside the door marked
, my heart leaves the Zen zone for panic city.
OhGodohGodohGod. It’s happening.
Holding a finger to his lips, he opens the door and motions me inside.
Like last night, the lights backstage are dim. But unlike last night, the place is crawling with crew. They move silently between the cables and under the scaffolding, an army of black T-shirts focused on one thing only: doing whatever they need to do to support the performer onstage.
We stop at the edge of the wings. I stare at the guy in the spotlight. Andrew somebody or other. From Boston. He’s good, and he’s getting lots of laughs. But his words don’t register. I peer into the audience. It’s dark. I can’t see them. But I know they’re there. Hundreds of people who will watch me walk across the stage. Who’ll listen to my routine. Who will laugh. Or not.
Hundreds of people who can make or break me.
At least Hunter and Carly are here. They’ll laugh. My parents and Grandpa will too. I’m suddenly grateful they’ve come.
It seems like only seconds later that Andrew is finished. There’s a roar of white noise in my head as I hear the announcer say the next contestant is from Seattle. He mentions the name of my school and my YouTube channel. And then he says, “Please welcome Paige Larsson!”
The usher gives me a gentle shove. “Go!”
Knees knocking, I’m suddenly walking across the stage. My breath is coming so hard and fast I’m pretty sure it could power a small city. It takes me a century to reach that damned microphone. By the time I get there, I’m already sweating.
“You think that walk across the stage was slow…” My voice booms. I jerk back from the microphone. The spotlight hurts my eyes. “At least I didn’t walk out here in stilettos. I might have killed myself. Or maimed my good leg.”
There’s a smattering of laughter. The relief I feel is almost palpable. I have the audience on side. Or part of it, at least. And that’s the first thing any comedian needs to do.
“And what’s up with stilettos anyway?” I need to slow down—I’m talking too fast. “Did you know there’s a gym in New York that offers
a stiletto workout?” There’s another ripple of laughter. So far, so good. “Yeah. It’s true. Like squats and lunges aren’t painful enough without doing them while you’re balancing on five-inch heels as skinny as needles?”
There’s a holler from the left. “You go, sister!”
I start to laugh. My confidence gains a little more traction. “I know, right?” Even though I can’t see faces, I make sure I look from left to right. I want people to feel like I’m talking directly to them. “I mean, working out in stilettos is guaranteed to give you skinnier thighs, except it’s also a great way to break a leg or dislocate a shoulder.” I pause, wait one beat. Two beats. “But at least you’ll look hot when they load you into the ambulance.”
The laughter is loud and long. There’s clapping too. I can’t stop grinning. I’m doing it. I’m really doing it!
“I don’t get it,” I say when the laughter fades. “But who am I to talk? I was born wrong. My feet won’t let me do stilettos, and my brain won’t let me do Sephora. Honestly, you need a degree in frivolous to shop there.” The laughs keep coming, and before long I’m heading back
to the dressing room, trembling with the rush of adrenaline and success.
I did okay. Better than okay, I decide as I sit in the corner of the dressing room under an autographed picture of Prince. I did great. I scroll through congratulatory texts from Hunter, Carly and Mom. They all say so.
But was I great enough to make the next round?
Since only four people come after me, I don’t have to wait long to find out. Soon the room falls silent as everyone sits and watches the judges on the monitor.
Please let me make the next round. Please.
The judges lift their heads. For the second time this morning, Connor Hillis congratulates everybody for taking part. “And here are the ten people in the video comedy category who will go on to this afternoon’s round.”
My heart slams against my chest as I stare at the screen. The letters are a mess of squiggles, and it takes me a second to skim down the list.
I’m there. Paige Larsson. Three-quarters of the way down.
I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding.
I’m going to round two.
Though Hunter and Carly urge me to join them for lunch, organizers bring in pizza, submarine sandwiches and bottles of soda, so I decide to eat backstage with the others. Our category is up first after lunch, and I don’t want the distraction of leaving and then coming back.
With the first round successfully behind us, the mood in the room is upbeat. Over slices of Meat Lovers Supreme, I talk to Andrew, the guy from Boston who bleats like a sheep when he laughs, and the girl named Robyn who already has fourteen thousand YouTube followers. We exchange stories, admit to being nervous and try to one-up each other with one-liners about the city of Portland.
By the time I’m ushered down the hall to do my second routine, I’m in the zone. Feeling confident. Five of us will be chosen to go on to the final, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be one of them. So this time when the announcer calls my name and I take that slow walk across the stage to the microphone, I’m practically relaxed.
Okay, maybe not, but my knees are hardly shaking and I’m hyperventilating only a little. Which is way better than the first time.
“You’ve heard of the slow-food movement,” I say when I reach the microphone. I don’t jump this time when my voice bounces back at me. I welcome the heat from the spotlight. The darkness where I know the audience sits. “Well, I’m the poster girl for the slow-move movement.” A single titter from somewhere far back in the theater.
I stare down to where I know the judges are sitting. Funny isn’t only about telling a joke—it’s a way of connecting. And I need to connect with them. “I have a twisted perspective on life. It goes with my twisted leg.”
Silence. My chest constricts. There’s interested silence and bored silence. A trickle of sweat rolls down my back. What kind of silence is this? I’m not sure. “Which goes with my twisted hair.”
I launch into my hair-product routine, but I’m talking too fast and not giving the audience time to respond, and the energy in the audience feels off. Or maybe it’s me. “Honestly,” I say as I wrap up the end of that bit, “my hair’s better fed than I am.”
I hear a few gentle chuckles, but it’s not enough. I start to sweat. I don’t have the audience. Too many of my jokes are falling flat. I go into my bit about my disability. “I was born wrong.” I launch into my sleeping-on-the-job-in-utero routine, ending with a barb about sales clerks who think I’m deaf and dumb because I limp.
I get laughs, but they’re uncomfortable, awkward laughs, and even the clapping seems less than enthusiastic. With my stomach in knots, I walk offstage and slowly make my way back down the hall.
In the dressing room, Andrew offers me a high five. “Good job,” he says. The other contestants all avoid my gaze.
No wonder. I pretty much bombed.
Everybody blows it sometimes, I tell myself. Every comic, every actor, every dancer. They all fall flat once in a while. It’s part of the job.
But why did I have to fall flat now?
In my pocket, my phone vibrates. Ignoring it, I sit in the corner and wait for the judges to rule. How will I face Hunter and Carly when I don’t make the cut? How will I face Brooke? What will
I say to Mr. Roskinski? To my drama friends who are counting on me and that ten thousand dollars for the drama department?
“Here they go,” someone says.
I look up. There’s Connor Hillis again. My breath jams in my throat. I drop my head. I can’t watch. I don’t want to know.
After a minute, excited shouts break out. But it’s not until Andrew taps me on the shoulder and says, “Congratulations,” that I look up.
He points to the monitor.
I see my name. Paige Larrson. I’m last on the list.
But I made it. I’m going to the final round.
hat night, when Dad treats us all to dinner at a small, dimly lit Italian restaurant, everybody’s full of congratulations and encouragement. Nobody seems to think my final routine sucked or seems concerned that I was the last finalist named. Even Mr. Roskinski brushed it off when I saw him afterward. He said I did well, though I still talked too fast.
“They weren’t in any particular order.” Carly twirls pesto linguine into an egg-shaped mound on her fork. “Don’t even think about that.”
Hunter, his mouth full of lasagna, nods. So do Mom and Dad. Brooke and the twins are too busy flirting with the dimpled waiter to comment. (I don’t blame them. He looks totally like Liam Hemsworth.)
“All you need to think about is tomorrow,” Grandpa says. Buttery bread crumbs dust his gray sweater. “You’re going to win, Paige. I know you are.”