Autumn. Kids go back to school. The leaves change. A chill fills the air.
And for seven years of my life, I performed in an incredibly special show.
I’ve done a lot of different kinds of comedy performance.
I used to do a lot of sketch and improv comedy in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In particular, I did a monthly late night variety show called Look Ma, No Pants. It was filthy. Just filthy. The cast regularly polished off an entire jug of Carlo Rossi wine on stage during the show.
One epic show, I was supposed to jump across the stage and land on my knees, but we had spilled so much booze, I hydroplaned and almost slid off the stage. Later in the show, when we were doing some stage combat, one of the other highly trained professional actors accidentally punched me in the face and cut my lip open. Another sketch called for me to tear the white dress shirt I was wearing off my body, which I did. By the end of the show, I was topless, bleeding, and my pants were soaked through with wine.
My friend, who had just bought a theater in Wisconsin, looked at that and said, “Hey, I should ask him to do children’s theater.”
I needed the money so I said yes. I drove out to Wisconsin with some fellow Minneapolis actors and did a nice wholesome show about Johnny Appleseed.
I didn’t even play Johnny Appleseed. I played Johnny Appleseed’s silly friend, Bill. I was made to wear overalls and full body long underwear with the opening in the butt region so I could defecate in an historically accurate manner.
The show itself wasn’t exactly historically accurate.
All of the actors and the director had decided–without any actual discussion–that even though this play was set in 1850s Wisconsin, all the characters should have horrible, vaguely Southern accents.
So I said lines like, “Well, gosh n’ golly, Johnny! You sure done planted a lot of apples today! What you going to do with all of them apples, Johnny?”
None of us knew why we were talking like that. But we all kept doing it FOR SEVEN YEARS.
The cast used to have a joke that if you forgot your line you could just say the word “apple” or “Johnny” and you would probably be right. Because here was the plot:
Johnny Appleseed has a dream to walk the Midwest and share apples with everyone he meets. And he does. The end.
He thinks apples can solve everything. There was a scene where his silly friend Bill was attacked by a bee.
I would say, “AHHHH! It’s a bee! Get it off me!” and dance around like an idiot.
Johnny would say, “Calm down and have an apple.”
Nothing in this show was true. I described the show to my friends as a collection of apple-based lies.
Here’s the true story of Johnny Appleseed:
He did walk the land helping people plant apple trees. But the trees bore bitter, inedible apples that could only be used to make hard, alcoholic cider.
The only reason Johnny planted the trees was so he could give strangers pamphlets about his weird religion. He was a Swedeborgian. Johnny believed that if he never had sex on earth he would be gifted with as many wives as he wanted in heaven.
That didn’t make it into the show. Bill never got to say, “Hey kids, it’s time to talk about our favorite alcoholic religious zealot, Johnny Appleseed! How many wives you gonna have up there in heaven, Johnny?”
Also, did I mention the show was a musical?
In the course of this hour long show, we sang seven songs about apples. In Southern Wisconsin accents.
I can’t sing. I’ve starred in three musicals. Acting is a weird profession.
Here’s a sample of one of the lyrically complex numbers:
Pick an apple, put it in the basket
Pick an apple, put in the basket
Fill that basket – HIIIIIIIGH!
We’re gonna make an apple
We’re gonna make an apple
We’re gonna make an apple – PIIIIIIIIIE!
And of course these songs featured show stopping, Broadway level choreography. All performed at 9 AM by exhausted, hungover actors from a different city.
We would end the songs on our knees. Hands out! Panting! Our sweat reeking of alcohol, having given everything we had to selling our fifth song in a row about apples!
And the audience of 200 second graders would just stare at us as if to say, “What are you doing with your life?”
No applause or anything. And we would fight our way to our feet and continue with our conflict-free apple narrative.
The thing that really made me mad about the kids not applauding is we had told them to do it. At the top of every performance, we did a pre-show speech telling the children exactly how to react to the show.
First, we would do fun little warm-ups. We would ask them if they liked apples like it was a rock concert.
DO YOU LIKE APPLES???!!!???
And they would lose their little minds. Except that one poor kid who would shout out, “Actually, I’m allergic to apples!” No one listened or cared. Because it’s Fall in Wisconsin and you’re going to like apples or GTFO.
Then we’d ask the kids a bunch of leading questions like: What do you do when an actor says something funny?
And the kids would yell out answers like: REPEAT IT!
And what do you when the actors are on stage talking?
THINK ABOUT OTHER THINGS!
And when the actors are done singing and dancing, what do you do?
These are all real answers shouted at me by children.
After that, we would practice applauding and laughing and listening. Then, no matter how horribly the children had behaved during the warm-up, we always said, “Wow. I think this is the best audience we’ve ever had. Even the kid in the front row who’s flipping me off right now.”
We didn’t say the second sentence out loud.
But all of the absurdity, the lies, the warm-ups, and the hangovers were worth it because I discovered I loved performing for kids.
There were many parts of the show where Johnny Appleseed’s silly friend Bill would fall down or shake his butt at the audience. The children would die with laughter.
Kids are the most honest audience in the world. If they liked it, they laughed. If they were bored, they would let you know in some subtle way like screaming, “I’m bored!”
We would often get cards sent to the theater by kids. The children’s notes scrawled in big crayon letters said things like:
I liked it when Bill fell down and hurt himself!
I enjoyed some of the show!
I have a cat!
My mother is praying for you!
Again, all real examples.
Every day at the end of the show, we would stand outside and greet the kids as they left the theater and got on the bus. They would yell, “It’s Johnny Appleseed and that other guy!”
I would say goodbye to them in my dumb southern accent. “Bye! Bye! Thanks for coming!”
About 90% of the children had a picture of Spider-Man somewhere on their clothing so I would compliment them on their Spider-Man paraphernalia:
Bye! I like your spider-man t-shirt!
Bye! I like your spider-man shoes!
Bye! I like the spider-man stickers on your cast!
And then one day, I was enjoying myself just a little too much.
A child walked by wearing a truly great Spider-Man watch. It was really cool. Not just “for a kid” cool. I wanted it for myself as a mature adult. It was dark red and the actual watch part was like a big spider and the hands of the watch were webbing and I lost myself in the moment and I said:
“WOW-EEE! THAT’S ONE [BLEEP] OF A SPIDER-MAN WATCH!”
But I didn’t say [BLEEP]. I looked around quickly. Luckily, no adults had heard me. But the kid did. He stopped in his tracks. He looked at his watch. He stared up at me.
He looked deep into my eyes and said, “I like it when you fall down.”
I know he meant my literal, physical falling down in the show, but it felt like he was saying, “I know something’s gone wrong in your life that you’re standing on a public sidewalk wearing long johns with a hole in the butt, speaking in a Southern accent, swearing at children about their Spider-Man watches, but you know what? It’s okay, because you made me laugh when you fell down. So maybe it was worth it.”
And maybe it was.
Maybe it [BLEEPING] was.
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