I asked some theatre friends for performance horror stories. This one by the magnificent Gary Wright.
Shortly after I graduated high school, my friend Scott and I were hired to perform at a post-graduation dance party for 8th graders, with a circus theme. The principal wanted two 15-minute sets of clown humor. I don’t remember what she offered us, but we felt it was pretty good money, so we put together the 2 sets, which were a mixture of admittedly weak original material (for the first set), and some considerably better stuff, stolen from far more talented comics (for the second set). We were not the only entertainment. There was also a well-known, very funny, much-cooler-than-us disc jockey from a Sacramento FM station. So, the entertainment was a beloved celebrity with rock & roll on his side…
The kids, having just graduated 8th grade, came into the gym fairly vibrating with triumphant, atavistic energy, as if they’d just conquered a small country. They went from Pomp & Circumstance to pandemonium in 6.4 seconds. Shouting, shoving, slap-fighting, spitting on the gym floor (I swear to God), ripping circus-themed decorations down from the walls, hitting each other with them, and trampling them underfoot. Scott and I watched all this from behind the stage curtain. I remember vividly how wide his eyes were, the whites gleaming in the backstage gloom, his cow-in-the-abbatoir terror quite palpable. Even so, I’m pretty sure I was more scared than he was.. “These kids are animals,” he breathed.
The lights dimmed, and the DJ started spinning popular tunes, and making the kids laugh with his easy drollery. He had kind of a Bill Murray vibe. The atmosphere calmed considerably, and began to feel a little more like a junior high school dance, a little less like the Sack of Rome. Until…
The DJ announced that he was gonna take a break, and informed the kids that “some very special people” were going to entertain them. The kids were openly skeptical. The house lights came up (which caused a LOT of grumbling), and Scott and I opened the curtains on the gym’s tiny stage, to reveal the circus-themed “set” — a jumble of flaccid muslin flats which the dance committee had built and painted (horribly) for our act.
Groans of disappointment from the kids, ramping up into actual anger. One boy said, very clearly, “I don’t wanna see no stupid PLAY, I wanna DANCE!” Loud agreement from, it seemed like, about 95% of the graduates.
Scott and I started our act. Bravely into the valley of death… This was the first set, and by far the weaker of the two. At first, silence. Then the wrong kind of laughs. Then jeers, and active heckling. And then, threats. I’m not exaggerating.
Scott whispered to me: “Jump to the Monty Python bit.”
“Wrong set” I protested, “that’s not till the second set!”
“Yeah, we gotta get some laughs now, or they’re gonna lynch us.”
So, we jumped ahead, gutting our second set in an attempt to salvage the first. We did get a few laughs, but not enough. We were basically booed off the stage. As we exited, a girl said, very kindly “I didn’t think you were TOO bad.”
So, as the lights dimmed, and the DJ resumed his duties, much to everyone’s relief — Scott and I held a panicky meeting backstage, sweating through our greasepaint, trying to figure out what to do for our second set. We’d used up all our best stuff, so the second set had no good laughs, and no structure at all — it was gonna be ten times worse than the first had been. While we were trying to come up with something, the principal came backstage.
“Sorry we didn’t quite go fifteen minutes,” said Scott.
“Oh, that’s okay,” she assured us. “It seemed about the right length.”
I asked if she would like us to shorten the second one as well?
She pulled a sealed envelope from her purse, and seemed to choose her words carefully.
“No, maybe skip the second one altogether.”
“Oh?” said Scott, trying to seem disappointed. I asked if she was sure?
“Yeah.” She handed me the envelope. “Here’s your check. We’re paying you the full amount. But I think it would be best if you’d both just leave.”