When I was a kid I wanted to be famous. I wanted the whole wide world to know my name, and not just for fifteen minutes either. I would look on TV and see stars like Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld and I wanted that. People used to tell me all the time that I was funny, so in my mind it wasn’t that much of a stretch to be my heroes. Those two guys were the height of funny, and I would practice my “set” for anyone who would listen. One day, I said, I was going to be on TV. People would know my name.
And I was on TV too. When I was in 7th grade I was on the Disney Channel telling a prepared joke. It was for one of their “in between shows” segments where they used to have real kids tell real jokes. I can’t remember what it was called, but I was fascinated when I walked into the Philadelphia Museum of Art and saw all of the cameras. I guess I had never really thought of the fact that in order to be on television you would have to be in front of cameras.
They gave me a joke well ahead of time. It was on a piece of paper, but they said I would have to read it off the teleprompter when my turn came, so that it seemed natural and so that I was definitely facing the cameras then. They showed me the teleprompter, which was a fancy TV screen beneath the camera that was facing me, and I watched in fascination as the words magically appeared on the screen.
Then I had to wait around because there were kids from other schools there to do the same thing I was about to do. I didn’t pay attention to them, though, because I knew I was the “star” of the show. I knew my joke was better than theirs, that people would remember me most of all. I was delusional, but aren’t all kids? It was finally my turn, I read off the teleprompter, and the screen went dark. It was over.
Was I going to be as big as Bill Cosby? Was I going to be as funny as Jerry Seinfeld? Were people going to start calling up my mother and asking if I was available to star in their new shows? It all flashed across my mind’s eye on the way back to school after it was all over. The Disney Channel folks said I had done a great job, that I could tune in that next Friday to see myself on TV.
I set the VCR to tape my magic moment. I was giddy all week, telling everyone I knew that I was going to be as big as Bill Cosby. They cheered me on like my own support group, and I dreamed of signing a big TV contract in the near future. My joke had been funny, hadn’t it? My performance of it had been electric, hadn’t it? I chewed my fingernails down to the quick with anticipation.
Then Friday came, the show was copied, and I got home from school ready to see my magic moment. I fast-forwarded through the real show, and then there I was, but it wasn’t like I thought it was going to be. I looked wooden, like a deer in the headlights, and you could tell I wasn’t looking into the camera, that my gaze was underneath. As a result the joke fell flat, even though it was followed by a laugh track. Then it was over.
It hit me in a rush. I wasn’t going to be as big as Bill Cosby after all. I wasn’t going to be the second coming of Jerry Seinfeld. I was going to have that one moment on TV, the not even fifteen minutes of fame that accompanied it, and that was it. Maybe someday there would be more appearances, if I was lucky, but the odds were they would be as small as the one I just had. That was the sound of the air escaping the balloon, the sound of my dreams shifting to accommodate the encroaching shadow of reality.
I realize now that it was okay. That it was never my fate to be a TV star. I may still be destined to be famous, but only time will tell. For now, though, I’m still glad I had that initial experience, because for a moment in time I was on TV. And back then that mattered a lot.