“…over social media. He’ll be performing live at Hilarities this Thursday, kicking off his regional tour–but first, he’s here with us! Good morning, Curtis Frinton-Smith!”
“Thanks, Renee. And a good morning to you.”
“And a good morning to you, darling,” I murmured to Nick with my finest Elizabethan delivery, and blushed when it sounded like a stereotypical Transylvanian accent instead. My social anxiety sometimes climbs so high that I can sense hidden mirrors surrounding me, broadcasting every imperfection in crisp, perfect detail–but I’m willing to play a clown if a distraction’s needed. Nick chuckled. One of his eyes remained locked on the television.
“–why I’m not allowed in Target anymore!” Curtis replied. Seconds beforehand, a spectacular onion bagel crunch had detonated through my ears, so I missed whatever Renee asked him. Curtis’s grin threatened to eclipse most of Cleveland. I scooted forward a tad, an undignified grunt leaping out as I squinted at the screen. “He’s so…perky,” I sighed. “When was the last time Curtis got out of bed before ten? How does he look more rested than either of us?”
My husband’s childhood friend constructed setups, flung punch lines, and read his audience as well as any poet I’ve heard. His timing was impeccable; his progress remarkable. An early review had described his act as “a repository of banality shoved into seven minutes,” and concluded by cruelly quipping: “It’s unclear who was more relieved when his time expired–the audience unfortunate enough to be subjected to his humor, or Mr. Frinton-Smith himself.” In virtually every other area of his life, Curtis resisted responsibility and a solid work ethic–and yet, despite all evidence, his belief that standup comedy was the only possible profession for him never faltered. He wrote and practiced and revised. He evolved. The landmarks of his “overnight success” sprawled over several years, and now he’d finally arrived. Something about his style always brims my laughter wells, even if I’ve heard the material before. Just like everyone else, I end up eating out of his hand.
Except for That Bit.
“…all in favor of audience participation, sir, but if you have questions or comments, I’m afraid you’ll have to clear them with the producers of this exceptional morning program,” Curtis was saying to Bill Terrence, who’d been attempting to squeeze a word in since the segment began.
“But Curtis, I’m the co-host of Hello, Cleveland!“, Bill grumbled good-naturedly. The conventional wisdom around town held that the Terrences were incapable of grumbling in any other flavor.
“Bill, my new friend, I applaud your commitment to this…TV personality cosplay. But expecting us to believe that the network would permit a host with two first names on the air? In THIS economy?”
A snicker from Renee. “Sorry, Bill! Guess this means I’ll be getting a pay raise!”
“He’s crushing it.” The corners of Nick’s mouth shifted and a proud, three-decades-of-friendship smile leaked out–but something else was in residence too. He glanced at his phone. “They’ll be wrapping soon.”
“I hope not. I think I’m relatively woke and all, but watching Renee Copeland-Hart try to spit a verse is not on my–“
“The segment, Arial. They’ll be finishing the segment,” he said, mostly to himself. A dollop of egg plummeted from his fork to the dollar-store plate below.
“That’s the joke, hon. Wrap. Rap. They’re homophones. Apparently, not everyone you love has professional comedic skills.”
The faint apprehensive flicker in Nick’s eyes continued to twitch. It was obvious to me what he was worried about. “Nearly finished,” I said, the syllables sounding strained in my mouth. “Maybe he’s not going to do it.”
“Of course he will. That bit is the reason he’s sitting there.” The thought lumbered out his throat, loud and mildly caustic. It surprised us both. He sipped his French Roast. “I know that’s not true,” he added after a few seconds, his voice softer. “He’s put in the time, the sweat. But the bit went viral, Arial.”
“You asked him to consider shelving it.”
“I did, yeah. And what happened when I checked the video again before bed?” My husband paused dramatically. “Three thousand more views. In two hours.”
“Crowd size, merch sales–” Nick’s head tilted slightly, like a surprised sparrow. A healthy chortle from the audience washed over us, and I realized that Curtis had already slid into That Bit. “…about 10 years old, so unlike the other kids on our block, Nick and I understand how the world works. And the world has problems, sure, but we’ve planned for that! We’ve even written down our suggestions. ON POSTERBOARD. But Nick’s mom, she’s a little…overprotective. And I tell her–“
“Everything’s exploded,” Nick muttered. His fork dragged along the plate with a scratchy howl, failing to unearth additional food that might have been hiding. “The bookings, social media interactions. Curtis will retell that joke every night for years, Ariel. Upon this bit, he hath built his mainstream success.”
Most people, their faces come equipped with some type of…natural concealer. It spreads quickly whenever they need to mask their emotions, then evaporates once it’s no longer needed. My bottle’s been empty since age sixteen or so. “Honey,” I began carefully, as our ritual demanded. “I’d never tell you ‘it’s just a joke.’ Your experiences are yours. And for what it’s worth, I disli–Nick. Nick, look at me.”
Sandpaper scraped between my teeth as I heard Curtis pipe “They’d never even check to see if the penguin’s missing, Curt!” in a falsetto imitation of my husband. A hoot from Bill Terrence’s side of the couch blasted through our television and smacked Nick between the eyes.
“We’ll be stopping now.” I reached for the remote.
“It’s his first TV appearance. It’s a milestone. He’ll be texting me any minute.”
“You can be supportive without subjecting yourself to–“
Curtis interrupted, hurling the punch line in Nick’s 10-year-old voice: “That’s not how you make a S’more!”
“Curtis Frinton-Smith…at Hilarities this…Thursday!”, Renee reminded us between cackles. The Hello, Cleveland! logo groggily appeared in the corner of the screen as gratuitous shots of the couch and studio audience ushered in a toothpaste commercial.
I slammed the OFF button.
Nick stared at his Cole Haans. “Is this my contribution to the world?”, he asked his dress shoes. “Some stupid things I blurted out as a kid? If millions are going to laugh at me, I should at least be the one collecting the checks.”
“I don’t laugh; you know I haven’t.” Caught between the urge to yell and the need to soothe, my voice settled on a confused squawk. “But Nick, I promise you, those audiences aren’t laughing at you. To them, it’s a bit about two 10-year-olds.”
“They renamed me ‘S’more’ at work, Arial.”
“I…I know. And–“
“Did I tell you that Diane asked if I’d met the Keebler Elf? That half the time, I return from lunch to discover that a row of marshmallows is guarding my keyboard?”
“You did, and I’m so s–“
“How many penguin references did your friends drop this week?”
At least five. “One…but that was Marcie, and you know how she–“
I scooped my plate up and stood, waiting for him. My free arm politely slithered around his. “Nick, I’m sorry. But hon, you’re not being disloyal to him or anything if you skip that bit, and I still don’t understand why you always refuse.” He reached the kitchen table first and was forced to hunt for his keys, as usual. This time, they were buried under an overturned Amazon box. Mine were neatly arranged in the corner, waiting. “You tell me sometimes that Curtis has trapped you both in a loop, but you and I are in this loop now, Nick. We’ve had this conversation so many times, and–“
The front door beckoned, cajoling us, selling hard. The tension would dissolve, it promised; all we had to do was walk straight ahead. Nick’s fingers tapped the side of his keyring. “He’s got to,” my husband said very quietly. “The bit always kills.”
We’d repainted the kitchen and living room five years ago. I don’t even recall how he made me laugh like that, but I smudged one of the corners. It draws my eye sometimes, at random. I inevitably insist that this time, we really ought to stop procrastinating and just tackle it. Somehow, a much more pressing problem emerges at the last minute. There’s always a reason to wait.
“Yes,” I said–not to Nick’s retreating form, but to the tiny, feral, maroon splotch above over heads. “Yes, it does.”
This was a request from @monicajbradbury, who said: “You know how sometimes a standup comedian will tell a story from their childhood with the real name of another child (who would presumably also be an adult by that point)? And sometimes a standup comedian will get really popular and have one bit that goes viral? I would like to read a story about how that affects (positive, negative, or both) the person whose childhood anecdote (heroic moment? butt of joke? up to you!) is now viral.”
@jillwebb suggested having the performance occur on a morning show.