I step into my closet, which is twice the size of my bedroom, and flick the special switch my dad installed. Footlights glow in the corners of the room and along the edge of the built-in stage. My arms tingle.
"Laaadies and gennntlemen!" the announcer's voice booms inside my head. "Put your hands together for the next act in the fifth-grade talent show … Looooou-ie Burrrrr-ger!"
I jog onto the stage, grab the microphone, and toss it from my left hand to my right.
"Thank you. Thank you," I say. "It's great to be here in the Barker Elementary gym, but don't ask me to do any pull-ups. I had to do pull-ups for the President's Challenge fitness test, and I sprained my armpit. I guess I'll never be president."
I pause for a minute to let the crowd laugh. Today the crowd is made up of shoes, T-shirts, and posters of my favorite comedians, especially my idol, Lou Lafferman.
I'm about to deliver my bit about school cafeterias when I hear a knock at the door, and my dad bursts in. Instantly I feel naked with nothing but a microphone stand to hide behind. I dive off the stage, land in my beanbag chair, and grab a Nutso magazine.
Dad raises an eyebrow. My magazine is upside down. I toss it on the floor and fold my arms across my chest. "You're supposed to wait until I say come in."
"Sorry. I forgot." He steps back outside and knocks again.
I roll my eyes. "Come in."
Dad slips inside, sits on the floor, and smiles at me. "I'm glad you're using the stage. Are you ready to show me your act?"
"Not yet." I squirm. "It's not finished."
Seriously. I've only been working on it for two years. You can't rush comedy.
My dad nods slowly, and I blush. There's one problem with my dream of becoming a world-famous comedian. I'm too chicken to show anyone my act. What's the deal with stage fright? It's not like the stage is going to bite me or give me a wedgie. It would make more sense to have audience fright.
Actually, I have that, too.
I slump off the beanbag and onto the floor. "Sorry you wasted your time building the stage."
Dad made me the coolest stage any kid has ever had in his closet: shiny black, with neon silhouettes of laughing people painted around the sides. There's a silver curtain for the backdrop, too, exactly like the one on Lou Lafferman's Laff Nite. It took us three whole days to make, and I didn't even have to ask for it. Dad heard me mention how cool it would be to have a stage like Lou's, how it would make me feel like a real comedian, and boom, next thing you know, we're building a stage.
Dad squeezes my shoulder. "I'm glad we built it. I bet now that you have the stage, you'll be ready to perform for an audience in no time. Maybe if my parents had pushed me when I was your age, I would already be a successful artist, instead of a forty-year-old beginner."
When he says that, he stares right into my eyes. A funny feeling burbles in the pit of my stomach, and I imagine my grandparents pushing my father off the roof of their house with one of his sculptures. It doesn't sound so great to me. My dad's a junk artist, by the way. That's a real thing. You can Google it.
"Sometimes kids need a push," he continues.
"Sometimes they need a forty-two-inch flat-screen TV in their bedroom."
My dad laughs, then nods his head as if he's decided something. "You're funny, Louie. You should do your act in the school talent show."
The mention of the show turns my intestines to Jell-O. "Uh, the show was canceled this year," I say.
"Nice try." Dad gives me a noogie. "But it was printed in black and white on the calendar that came with your class list last week. The show is next month, plenty of time for you to finish your act. It'll be good for you."
I picture myself standing in the spotlight, telling my jokes while Ryan Rakefield shouts from the back of the room, "You're so funny I forgot to laugh!" It's the same way he heckled me in third grade when I told knock-knock jokes for show-and-tell.
"Too many people," I say.
Dad nods his head sympathetically, and I sigh in relief. Then he says, "Start smaller. Do your act for me."
Even one person feels like too many. My dad might not laugh. A shoes, T-shirts, and baseball-cap crowd is much safer. "My throat's dry."
"I understand. Maybe another time." Dad gets up and puts his hand on the doorknob. "Tomorrow's a big day. You nervous?"
Tomorrow is the first day of fifth grade. I should be nervous, since Ryan Rakefield is in my class. Again. But I actually feel excited about school this year because my best friend is finally in my class, too. Nick Yamashita. First time ever!
"Nah," I say. "Not with Nick in my class."
"I've got a big day tomorrow, too."
"You do?" I turn my head to look up at him. He has a lot more hair in his nostrils than I remembered. I bet it keeps his boogers warm.
"I'm meeting with a gallery owner."
"But Mom said it would be years before you start to sell your work."
My dad tilts his head and gives me a curious look. "She did?"
"Uh…" I scratch my head. I think that was supposed to be a secret.
Eight weeks ago my dad was a vice president of strategic marketing. Then his company decided they didn't need so many vice presidents. They gave him a pile of money, though, so Dad decided to try his dream of being an artist, and Mom decided to go back to work. She also gave Ariella, Ruby, and me a million talks about saving money, helping around the house, and being patient and supportive.
"No. Wait. I'm confused," I say to my dad. "I think she said days."
Dad rubs his left temple. I don't think he believes me, and I worry that what I said to him was the junk artist version of You're so funny I forgot to laugh. I want to take it back.
"Uh, Dad," I say before I can stop myself, "maybe I could do my act for you tomorrow. After school."
"You're on!" My dad's happiness almost cancels out the cold, clammy feeling spreading down my neck. He snaps his fingers. "Let's make a pact. I'll take the art world by storm, and you'll become a comedy showstopper."
My dad does jazz hands and Groucho Marx eyebrows as if to say Whaddaya think?
I'm not sure. I want to be a comedian more than anything in the world, but what if … what if I'm not funny?
"Don't leave me hanging, Louie!" My dad clutches at his chest. "Let's help each other out tomorrow. The Burger men have to stick together."
"Okay," I say. "I'll try." I put out my hand, and my dad grabs it and shakes.
I hope I can live up to my end of the bargain.
The Barftastic Life of Louie Burger
A Comedy Sketchbook
By Louie Burger (obviously)
The Scientific Evidence That Proves I Am a Comedian
Exhibit A: I'm funny looking. I have curly orange hair. I'm skinnier than a jump rope and my ears stick out a mile. I'm also completely uncoordinated. Need I say more?
Exhibit B: I play the accordion.
Exhibit C: I'm strangely connected to many famous comedians. My initials are the same as Lucille Ball's. My birthday is the same as Charlie Chaplin's. And I'm from the same town as Bill Murray. Also, I have the same first name as Lou Lafferman, the greatest comedian in the history of comedians.
Exhibit D: I already have my own catchphrase: barftastic! It means amazing times fantastic plus unbelievable. Squared.
Text copyright © 2013 by Jenny Meyerhoff
Pictures copyright © 2013 by Jason Week