Worthy Keeper of the Annals
I’ve never suffered from stage fright. As a matter of fact I suffer from the exact opposite of stage fright. I suffer from the fear of not getting on stage, of not grabbing the spotlight, of letting a potentially magical moment slip by. I’m not sure what drives it, nor am I sure how to control it, all I know is that I will give a three count of noble “no’s” before I risk making a complete ass out of myself.
“Bert, you should get up there and say something!”
“Seriously, the mic is open.”
“I think it’s a bad idea.” Two.
“It would be hilarious…”
And I’m off. There have been some beauties and some beasts (more often than not beasts). And it’s those ugly ones that are generally remembered the longest.
But there have been a handful of beauties, too.…
* * *
One of my earliest recollections is entering first grade. I had a very hard time with separation anxiety my first week. I’d previously gone to a school where my mom taught and my sister attended, so I don’t think I had a firm grasp of what entering first grade entailed—the inherent gravity of it. It dawned on me when I got in my dad’s van that morning, and we left for school—alone. As we merged onto the interstate and into traffic, I felt my stomach swirl. I was in the system. My dad, like everyone else on the road, was thinking about the traffic. But for me, the fact that I was alone with my dad felt odd. We hadn’t spent a lot of time alone up until then. I was still too young, and he was working a lot.
He must have noticed my unease, because halfway to school he asked me what was going on.
“Are you sure?”
“Do you think it would be okay for you not to go to work today and maybe hang out with me at my new school?”
“I’ll hang out for a while, but I’m going to have to go to work at some point.”
“Maybe you could just skip work and hang out, like, outside the classroom.”
“I think they have rules against that, buddy.”
We went back and forth like this all the way to my new school, up the stairs, and into my classroom, where I began to melt down. This is the parenting job my dad pulled on me:
“Here’s the deal: I won’t go anywhere. I will sit in the parking lot all day in my van until you’re done with school. If you need me, just come out to the parking lot and get me.”
And I believed him—for the first ten minutes of first grade. It was then that I politely informed my teacher, Mrs. Thompson, that I would be taking a little break from the introductory portion of today’s lesson and heading out to the parking lot. I explained that I had just about had my fill of being without my family and needed to find my dad, who had promised to wait in his van in case such a situation were to arise. She explained in her soft Southern accent that my dad had gone to work. He was not in the parking lot. I was going nowhere.
To say I took this news poorly is like saying DMX has some bumps on his driving record.
Tears turned into sobs, which turned into panic, which turned into sheer panic, which turned into mayhem. I made my way from desk to desk, from kid to kid, explaining that we might never see our parents again. Mrs. Thompson had lost control, and her only hope was to get me on her side to help calm the kids down. So we made a pact: I would do first grade peacefully, as long as I got to sit at the front of the class, my desk next to her, holding her hand.
What can I tell you, I’m a straight-up gangster.
That year I discovered the band KISS, and with that discovery, found my life’s direction. Whenever I could, I dressed in as much drag as I could pull together from my mom’s closet, threw on as much makeup as I could sneak, and performed solo renditions, earphones on, in our living room. “Shout It Out Loud” was my preferred jam, although “Rock And Roll All Nite” inspired some stellar solo performances.
A couple of my uncles were living with us at the time, trying to start a band, and they would go wild with laughter at my one-man show, which I couldn’t hear (due to the headphones). They would suggest dance moves, wardrobe choices, and mock guitar licks, for my benefit and their amusement. I jumped at the coaching, following their direction to a T. Come Christmas, I was a goddamned air-guitaring Jimi Hendrix.
So you can imagine the excitement that overwhelmed me when I first caught wind of our elementary-school talent show. Finally, all my training could be put to use. I almost felt bad for the kids who had to muster together some kind of performance in a matter of weeks, while I had been in rehearsals since August. I kept a lid on my project, though, and practiced even more dutifully than before. I listened more closely to my uncles’ guidance, as they sipped their Heinekens. I kept my eye on the prize.
Come talent-show morning I was ready. I told my mom the night before that I had entered and would need to borrow some of her clothes. My mom, hands down the most supportive woman I know, didn’t offer the least resistance. She dressed me to the nines. I would handle my own hair and makeup. My mom walked me through what to put on and how to apply it. (I had to pretend that I hadn’t been putting on her makeup in secret for months.)
I met my dad at the front door for school that morning shirtless, in my mom’s panty hose, with chains draped across my chest, cowboy boots, a cape, and a tote bag full of product.
My dad blinked. “What the fuck is this?”
“I have a talent show today and this is my costume.”
“Does your mother know about this?”
“She dressed me!”
“Of course she did.”
After he conferred with my mom for a minute, we drove silently for twenty-five minutes to downtown Tampa. In hindsight, I imagine my dad acted with me the same way he would if he had to, say, give a transvestite a ride home. But at the time I thought nothing of it. I was already envisioning my future glory. As I got out of the car, my dad handed me a bag.
“I had your mom pack an extra set of clothes and your uniform just in case you … got cold.” I took the bag, thanked him, and was on my way. I could hardly wait for the reception I would get from my first-grade class.
The school day went just fine, as I remember it. I distinctly remember not being nervous but excited. Funny, too, because now, as a professional performer, I always get nervous. But that day I was stone-cold confident: I was going to murder.
Then, suddenly, it was time for the talent show. Mrs. Thompson allowed my classmate Brian Callahan and me to go to the bathroom to take care of my hair and makeup. Ten minutes later we were back, and I was Gene Simmons. The class circled me admiringly. I couldn’t wait to see the looks on their faces after my performance. I’d be a god.
We left as a class for the auditorium, and I split off with Brian, who had now assumed the role of tour manager. We learned that I’d be performing in the latter half of the show. So I settled in, waiting for my cue as Brian made his way back to sit with the class.
The show consisted of a predictable assortment of gymnastics, piano, comedy, and juggling. It wasn’t until about halfway through that I saw him. A fourth grader with a violin—dressed as KISS lead guitarist Ace Frehley. My heart sank—this kid had stolen my act. He walked up to me and nodded.
“Which one are you supposed to be?”
“Nice. What are you going to do?”
“‘Rock And Roll All Nite.’”
“No, what instrument are you going to play?”
I looked at him like he had started speaking in Swahili. “Nothing,” I told him.
“Nothing? What, are you … just going to dance?”
He started laughing and walked away. It wasn’t until I saw my act in this light that I realized how ill prepared I was for this talent show. I didn’t really have a talent, per se. All these people were dazzling the masses with actual skills they possessed, had been working on, crafting. My only real talent, as I saw it, was that I liked KISS.
Panic set in as I watched Ace Frehley take the stage. Just seeing his makeup was enough to set off the crowd. Great, my one sure bet and he just stole it. Ace then banged out a semirecognizable version of “Shout It Out Loud.” He closed with a mock guitar strum on his violin. The place went nuts.
He passed me without a word as he left the stage, then went over to the other fourth graders and slapped them five (high fives weren’t around yet). A couple of kids went on in between us and as they did, I felt the pressure mounting and my confidence wilting. I had no act, my costume looked ridiculous, my makeup was suspect. And I realized that I had somehow completely overlooked the “hair” portion of my hair-and-makeup routine.
But there was no time to do anything about it. It was showtime. I had them start the music before my entrance, just as I would do with my uncles. But with no instrument to show for myself, the crowd was more confused than anything. I can only imagine they were trying to figure out what this mini drag queen had in store.
It’s moments like these that define a man—when he must choose between risking major, public humiliation or admit that he’s been outclassed. I took that moment to sprint and then slide onto my knees up to the very edge of the stage.
I then proceeded to air-guitar the fuck out my song for the K-through-Five set.
The build started at the back, the fifth graders who I’m sure had been rolling their eyes at the kid with the violin. After all the pianos, violins, and jugglers, to then have a first grader crank a song they all knew and loved and get weird as fuck on their asses—it must have been a treat. I jammed for the whole song. Students sang along with me as I belted out the lyrics as loud as I could.
I don’t remember too much of what followed. There was the looks on their faces. The sounds of their cheers. But mainly I remember the elation of having been on stage. When my parents picked me up at school, I wasn’t the same kid who had been dropped off that morning. I didn’t enter the talent show the next year, the year after that, or any other years at elementary school, but one thing was for sure: the bug of performing had bitten me.
* * *
They haven’t all been beauties. For every beauty, there are a dozen beasts. Fast-forward to 1993, Florida State University.
By this time in my life I had begun to make a name for myself as a Funny Guy. I would write comic songs on my guitar about our friends, I was quick with a joke or a comeback, and was the go-to dude when our fraternity needed to put together a sketch or a skit. People would introduce me as one of the funniest guys they knew, and every once in a while, someone would pull me aside and tell me in all seriousness that I should try my hand at being a comedian.
It sounded beyond unattainable, so I stayed in my small circle, continuing to make my friends laugh. My fraternity was the one place I knew I could always draw an audience. There were a few times a year when all 180 of us would gather, and one of those was elections. Guys would prepare a speech, put on a coat and tie, draw up bullet points on poster paper, and go around the room trying to sway votes in their direction.
The more ambitious among us saw this as an opportunity to grow, network, pad a resume. I found it an ideal time to mock those guys. You got ten minutes to win votes. These were my ten minutes to entertain, my first brushes with stand-up. The first year I sang a song, got huge laughs—and lost. The second year, I gave a very sincere ten-minute speech, completely naked. At first I got laughs, then very uncomfortable eye contact as I strutted around the stage pretending not to be naked. My platform was, “I have nothing to hide,” and despite my command performance, I lost again.
The third year I hadn’t prepared anything when I saw that Josh Young was running uncontested for the position of Worthy Keeper of the Annals. I had been taking myself really seriously at the time. I was in a band, plotting a path away from Writer-Comedian and toward Brooding Artist. But old habits die hard. My bandmate, John Dacre, leaned over to me and whispered, “Are you going to run against him?”
“Are you going to run at all?”
“I don’t think so.” Two.
“Well, you can’t let him run uncontested, you gotta go up there naked again.”
“To be honest my stomach is kind of bothering me; if I did go up there, I would probably just shit all over the place.” Three.
Having heard only the last half of the conversation, our bassist and John’s best friend, Brent Brackin, chimed in. “That would be hilarious! You have to do that!”
I looked to Dacre, waiting for somebody to back down, but his eyes had widened.
“Yeah, you’re doing that!”
And just like that it was decided.
The two stood up and, in unison, said, “We nominate Bert Kreischer for the Worthy Keeper of the Annals.”
“Bert,” our president said, “do you accept?”
I reluctantly nodded. The three of us headed back to the bathroom to prepare for my speech.
Worthy Keeper of the Annals, the unfortunately titled office I was running for, was fairly low on the ballot, which meant it came early—and that we had very little time to plan anything. Lucky for us, the speech as we conceived it required very little preparation. I stripped nude, Brackin found a tie for me, and Dacre, in a moment of genius, pulled an empty pizza box out of the garbage. The president came back to the bathroom to see if we were ready. We were.
We walked in toward the end of Josh’s speech, for which he was wielding a laser pointer (brand-new technology for the early 1990s). He was in a suit and tie, and closed with something to the effect of, “And that is why I think you should vote for me.”
Josh took a seat as Brackin walked into the room and began to speak on my behalf, the kind of endorsement every candidate was required to have.
He started solemnly, “Guys, as you know Bert can be something of a jokester, a prankster if you will. But ever since we started our band, I’ve seen a very different side of him. And I think tonight, if you look past the Bert you have come to know, you, too, will see a different side of him. With that said, for the position of Worthy Keeper of the Annals, our brother, Bert Kreischer.”
Dacre discreetly slid the pizza box into place. I revealed myself to the crowd, wearing only a tie. Like last year, they went nuts. A little lightheartedness was welcome, in what had come to be very serious and sometimes unhealthy campaigning. I walked up to the pizza box, butt cheeks clenched, and waited for the crowd to calm down.
“I would like to show you all a very different side of me,” I said, turning my back to the crowd, facing the previous year’s council. The audience laughed at what they thought was a simple joke: my ass. But as I let go, I heard a gasp.
It was the sound of the last breaths of fresh air in the room behind inhaled.
The council, sitting at their designated table, seemed confused at first. I started peeing at their feet. (As we all learned that day, you can’t go number two without a little number one.)
The smell was absolutely atrocious. The room cleared out in a matter of seconds. People literally jumped out of the windows, piled out of every door, began violently dry-heaving. The council lost their minds and demanded that I go back in the room and clean up my mess, which I did (and directly after, threw up). I’ll spare you too much description except to say that my aim for the pizza box was balls-on accurate.
We gave the room a solid ten minutes of aerosol air freshener, assumed our places, and waited for everyone to vote. Ballots were collected as Josh and I stood at the front of the room, listening as people chuckled over what they had just seen. As the votes were tallied, I heard a rumbling of dissent from the members.
“You guys have got to be fucking kidding right now.”
We answered with curious faces.
“There is only one vote for Josh. Bert won in a landslide.”
The place went fucking bananas. Josh walked over to the ballots and confirmed what the council had told us, that everyone had voted for me … except for his own vote, for himself. (I had opted to abstain, as I found both candidates incompetent. I instead wrote, “Mills Sucks Pole” on my ballot.)
The council congratulated me as Josh began to shout. “You’re not really gonna let this happen are you? The guy shit on a pizza box! I have a plan and a laser pointer. I wore a fucking suit.”
“He won fair and square,” said the president.
Josh looked at his brethren and shouted, “This is fucking bullshit!”
An unknown brother piped back, “No, it’s bertshit.”
* * *
If these two stories, the beauty and the beast, form my legacy as an entertainer, then so be it. I hope to keep growing artistically, and I think these stories suggest I have. But if, at my funeral, the only people to speak are my makeup artist Brian Callahan and my bandmates John Dacre and Brent Brackin, and they share these two stories with the friends and family in attendance, please know that I will be smiling from up above. Naked. In KISS makeup. Rocking the fuck out.
Copyright © 2014 by Bert Kreischer