Every year, my high school had a week where students were enabled to focus on studies outside of the classroom. Some kids backpacked through Peru; others accrued community service hours by volunteering at local charities and homeless shelters. During my junior year, at the age of sixteen, I decided to spend the aptly named Spring Discovery week in New York. What did I end up discovering? Myself.
While it might not have been as noble as some of my other options for Spring Discovery [Ed. Note: Courtney hates the homeless], I can safely say I experienced more in that week than I have done in any given month as an adult. I saw Bebe Neuwerth in Chicago and Wilson Cruz (Rickie from My So-Called Life) in Rent. I saw Stomp and The Blue Man Group. I even got to see Natalie Portman play Anne Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank, though the highlight of that production was watching Macaulay Culkin and Eddie Kaye Thomas chain-smoke cigarettes in the alley outside the theatre, trying desperately to impress a group of young, impressionable Catholic school girls.
I explored Greenwich Village and the west side of Manhattan. I bought a vintage second hand wool coat for $20. I ate at a tiny family-owned italian restaurant after 11:00 at night and watched the owner chase out a drunk homeless man with a baseball bat [Ed. Note: See? She hates the homeless]. We even got to stay in a hotel on a slip street just off Times Square, so that my friend Rose and I could wake up early with our chaperon and friend ‘vid, grab a bagel and a cup of tea from a street vendor and walk to Tiffany’s to do our best Audrey Hepburn impression.
To this day, I firmly believe that little can match the life and excitement–for any adult, much less a sixteen year old girl–of Manhattan. But of all the things to look so fondly back on, the obvious highlight of my week was participating as an audience member to two back-to-back live tapings of the Maury Povich Show.
The first show was one of Maury’s signature “you are / are not the father” episodes, where he uncovered the results of paternity test after paternity test to reveal whether or not Sharon’s husband’s brother was her baby daddy. (It should be noted that, in person, when you can see that these people are actually real people, it’s less funny and actually rather sad.) The second show was about “special” children. Now, I put “special” in quotes not because they were that kind of special, but because whether or not they were special is really determined by who you ask; and if you ask me (and you didn’t), they weren’t.
First there was a young girl. Maybe 14 at the time. Her “gift” was her ability to use her mind to make herself heavy. “But how does one prove this?!” you might ask. Well, Maury called upon the services of a tall, broad man, who came out on stage with his muscles glistening in the hot lights, revealed by a shirt AND jacket with the sleeves cut off. He walked to the front of the stage, stood facing the girl, and – upon Maury’s cue – put his hands under the girl’s arms and picked her up off her feet with ease. But then, and this is what is so remarkable about this story, she used her mind to make herself heavy. So when Maury instructed this man to lift her again, he put his hands back under the girl’s arms, tried to lift her but found that he couldn’t because SHE. WAS. TOO. HEAVY!
The other wunderkind on the show was a 17 year old young man who had an “amazing” memory. Maury went through the audience and picked ten or so volunteers to respond to prompts that the young man would then memorize. The boy could repeat back who said what, in and out of order. One person was asked to say a color. Another was asked to say a vegetable. Another man, sitting in the middle section at the back, was asked to provide a consonant. While the episode that aired on TV showed him promptly replying “L“, those watching live saw that he first provided the well-known consonant, “Brooklyn“. Yes: surprisingly, the general intelligence of the Maury Povich crowd was low; which might be why my group stood out, since none of us girls were impressed by a boy who could remember ten things.
Though the week had exposed me not only to Broadway, but also granted me the amazing opportunity of performing a monologue in front of a casting director to get their feedback and notes, it is this taping at The Maury Povich Show that is the story I tell at parties; but it might not be for the reason that you think.
What people may not know about these kinds of talk shows, and what I was surprised to learn when I went to this one, is that Maury Povich has a warm-up comedian. He’s the guy that comes out and talks to the audience during commercial breaks and between shows, to get them riled up and responsive. Those boos you hear when you see the out-of-control-teen talk about how she wants a baby despite having syphilis? Those don’t just happen. They are the result of someone working hard to keep the audience engaged, invested, and, above all else, vocal. (Before you go judging talk-show comedians, it’s important to note that another of Maury’s comedians later went on to produce and write with respected comedian, Louie C.K.).
The only thing I learned about Maury’s comedian, was that his name was William. I don’t remember how I got his attention, or what started us bantering, except that my classmates and I were likely trash-talking, bragging about what it’s like to have the ability to remember eleven things. But regardless, William and I hit it off, and before I knew it, he had invited me up on stage. From then on, during any commercial break where the stage was being re-arranged, we jumped up and played an Improv game called Interview where the audience would give William a profession and I would interview him about it.
For the first one, he was a musician in James Brown’s band. After a series of questions, we uncovered that he played the saxophone, but also doubled as a backup dancer [making him somewhat of a wunderkind too]. I asked him questions like, “do you sometimes struggle to match the artistry of playing a musical instrument with the sensuality of dance?” and William transformed into Marcus, with a gold spandex suit and a jheri curl, dancing for the audience with great sexual awareness, demonstrating how he practiced in front of his mirror every night before going to bed.
In another interview, William became a shepherd. It was from him that I learned the only way to get a sheep to sleep was to sing them a song.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” I told him “we would all so love to hear it.”
William, with great reluctance, “sang”:
Come on all you sheeps
Time to get some sleeps.
And if I hear you peeps.
I’m gone shoot you.
By the end, William and I were in tears. I laughed so hard I didn’t notice that Maury Povich had come back into the studio from a break to watch us. With a broad smile on his face he approached me as I gathered myself to get out of his way. He shook my hand and walked me back to my chair.
“So you’re all together?” he asked, as I returned to sit with my friends.
“Where are you visiting from?”
“The West Coast,” I told him.
“Oh really? What state?”
“Where in California?”
“Just north of San Francisco.”
“Oh,” he smiled, “Connie and I know that area well. What town?”
And then, still fresh from trading jabs with William–or perhaps channeling the Rodney Dangerfield within me–but also enough with the questions already–I found myself asking Maury Povich, “what, do you want my home address?”
This successfully ended the conversation, and, his smile now obviously faked, he turned his back to me and returned to the stage.
After the shows were over and the audience filed out of the studio, I knew the only souvenir I wanted from New York was William’s autograph. I found the only papery thing I had–a one dollar bill–and asked him to sign it for me.
I have had this dollar bill for twelve years, tucked away in a book tucked away in a drawer. While hidden, it is one of my most treasured possessions. I never learned what William’s last name was and his autograph on my dollar bill never provided a clue. He appeared a few times years later as a guest correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but I never made the effort to write down his full name to look him up. Perhaps, as selfish as it might be, I feel that who William is on television or otherwise isn’t as important in my life as who he was that day when he called me up on stage. There, he was Marcus the backup dancer / saxophonist and the shepherd that sang his sheep to sleep; he was William, the man that first introduced me to the feeling of getting in front of a group of people and making them laugh.
So maybe what I said before about discovering myself (or at least partly) wasn’t too far-fetched; and while that may sound trite, and I may have earned myself an eye-roll or two, I can’t help but think that if, during that remarkable experience, I also managed to somehow insult Maury Povich, and thus tangentially, Connie Chung…well, that kind of makes me the luckiest girl alive.