No matter how many times Jimmy insists this is a “good thing,” Ava refuses to be happy about moving on to the next round of a talent show for adults still chasing the thrill of playing Conrad in their high school theater club’s shitty production of Bye Bye Birdie.
Still, the latest response—a simple, “Stop texting me, I won’t risk my show like that”—from the last supposed “friend” Ava had in the industry was enough to send her out to an open mic night that weekend before flying back to Nevada for callbacks. The new material didn’t earn her any raucous laughter, but it’s an LA club for christ’s sake, not some Vegas casino full of middle-aged couples from Florida. Laughing out loud is so passé, but Ava’s pretty sure she saw a few people nod, maybe even an ironic snort of laughter or two, which is basically a golden seal of approval.
At least it is among the people she wants to impress. Who are, she realizes during the second round of auditions, nothing like the judges Jimmy keeps telling her she really needs to impress.
Kendra and Jake or Jeremy or whatever his name is both turn to Deborah fucking Vance when Ava finishes her set to absolutely no laughter (or approving nods). And seriously, who made the QVC muumuu lady who burned her husband’s house down the arbiter of good comedy?
“I thought I told you to write new material.”
Ava feels her spine stiffen at that. “I did.”
“Sorry, I should have clarified: I wanted you to write funny material.”
“Just because it’s not funny to you—”
“Have you ever watched someone read a New Yorker cartoon?” Deborah interjects.
“How many times have you seen someone actually laugh at one?”
“I mean, sometimes—”
“No,” Deborah cuts her off again. Ava folds her arms over her chest and glares. “No one laughs at them. Maybe a smile. A self-congratulatory little pat on the back for actually understanding the joke. Your act’s the same way.”
“Look, some of us aren’t out here trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator.”
Deborah arches a brow back at her. “Guess what, honey? No one pays to hear a New Yorker read aloud to them for half an hour.” Ava’s actually pretty sure there was a performance artist who did that in West Hollywood last year, but she doesn’t think Deborah really cares. “And hating your audience is never going to get you…un-cancelled, or whatever the hell your generation is calling it. You need your audience as a comic.”
Jared cuts in before Ava can point out that she’s not a fucking stand-up comedian; she’s a writer, and even if she were, she wouldn’t want to be some two-bit hack. “As much fun as this has been, we’re gonna have to move on to our next act, Anna.”
“Right.” He gives her a smile that’s all teeth and no emotion. “It’s gonna be a no from me.”
Kendra hums into her mic, looks as if she’s actually considering something other than a resounding no before adding, “You know I totally dig your style, and it’s so great having a comic make it past the first round this year, especially with Debbie here!” Ava catches the purse of Deborah’s lips before she forces herself to offer a bland smile to the camera. “But with Drew moving on already, I just can’t say yes in good faith. You should totally watch his act when the show airs, though. Bet you could pick up some pointers!”
“Cool,” Ava mutters, already grabbing her notebook to get the hell off the stage. “Thanks, or whatever.” Maybe she can find a job slinging burgers at an overpriced Hollywood diner until some Kardashian does something culturally insensitive enough to drive her name out of everyone’s memory.
“Wait,” Deborah calls out
Ava can see the camera man drawing his finger across his throat. Deborah ignores him entirely. “You’re my golden stamp or whatever.”
“What?” Jared snorts.
“Your golden ticket?” Kendra asks. “Already? For her?”
“What the hell is a golden ticket?” Ava chimes in.
“You’re through to the next round even though you bombed harder than Jared here’s first solo album.” Deborah holds Ava’s gaze. “You get one last chance. Do better.”
That night, Ava glances down between old SVU reruns and finds four missed calls from Jimmy. She texts him back: “What’s up?”
Her phone lights up with an incoming call.
Groaning, Ava answers. “Hello?”
“I’ve been trying to get ahold of you all afternoon, Ava!”
“Wait, do you have a real gig for me? An interview? A resume drop? Anything?”
“You have a meeting tomorrow afternoon.”
“Oh my god, I love you. God, I’m so sorry I talked all that shit about that time you tried a goatee, I totally didn’t—”
“No, girl, you were so right. That goatee did not work,” Kayla chimes in. “And why hide that cute little chin dimple of his?”
“Kayla!” Jimmy huffs. “Get off the phone.”
“Roger that.” A beat. “I’ll totally vote for you if there’s no one cuter, Aves!”
Ava hears Jimmy’s loud sigh. When nothing more seems to be forthcoming, she clears her throat. “So…who’s the meeting with? A late night show? Miranda’s show? I heard it got picked up for a second season, and I’ve got such good—”
“What? The muumuu lady? No. Why?”
“They’re kaftans. And apparently she stuck her neck out for you today.”
“I didn’t ask her to.”
“Yeah, well, be grateful she did. Because no one—and I mean no one—is picking you up. The board’s only letting me keep you on as a client because you’re on to the next round.”
Ava’s pulse thuds in her ears. For a moment all she can hear is the rush of blood and her mother’s voice reminding her of what a horrible career choice she made, how unstable it is, how she’s going to end up moving back home in her 30s with no degree and nothing to show for her years in LA and no bedroom even left to sleep in anymore. Ava manages to tune back into the conversation in time to hear Jimmy rattling off some address and telling her she has to push back her return flight to LA and spend more time in this godforsaken desert.
To say Ava is pissed about the delayed flight and the $50 Uber ride out to a palatial mansion that looks like it got plucked out of an interior design special on how the tackiest members of the 1% live would be an understatement.
Her mood improves not at all when she’s greeted not by the woman forcing her to stay in Las Vegas for an extra day, but by some other woman who seems hella judgy about Ava’s choice in water. She shows Ava to some kind of sitting room, and Ava forgoes the velour couch with more tassels than she can fathom in favor of snooping around the photographs lining the shelves. She finds a younger Deborah performing. A candid of her with a little kid. A few of her with some old dudes, only one or two of whom Ava recognizes as some of the comedy greats. Then there’s a photo of Deborah, sans glitter and kaftans, sitting at what looks like some kind of congressional hearing. It’s jarring enough to have Ava picking up the frame and trying to figure out what it’s from.
“If you’re done pawing through my things…”
Ava nearly fumbles the photo before managing to get it propped back up with just one or two extra thumb prints on the glass. “Wasn’t sure if I could sit, or if you needed that couch in pristine condition when you send it back to the Liberace exhibit it’s clearly on loan from.”
Deborah snorts, and Ava can’t quite help the tiny flare of pleasure at it. “I knew you could be funny somewhere under that horrendously awkward exterior of yours.” And there it goes again, just as quickly.
“Did you make me come all the way out here to your museum of Antiques Roadshow rejects just to insult me?”
“I brought you out here so that you’d stop embarrassing yourself on national television.”
“Believe it or not, I’m proud of the shit I write.”
“Wonderful. I’ll get you a participation trophy for putting words on the page.”
“Wow, that joke’s as old and tired as your act.”
“Oh, you’ve seen it, have you?”
Ava rubs at the back of her neck. “I’ve seen, you know, clips.”
“Clips. Right.” Deborah takes in a deep breath. “Why are you here, Ava?”
“You told me to be here. Or you told my agent to get me here.”
“Please, I have better things to do. One of my employees told Jimmy he had eight hours to get ahold of you. But I mean on the show.”
“I told you—”
“Yes, yes, you’re cancelled over a failed joke. But what I fail to understand is just what you think you’re accomplishing by showing every potential employer how deeply unfunny you are.”
“This is the kind of humor they want.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Um, yeah, it is.”
Deborah sighs and turns on her heel, pacing across the room. “Any writing room worth its salt wants someone adaptable. Someone who’ll meet the show and its audience where they’re at. All you’re showing them is that you’re a stubborn little shit who refuses to take constructive criticism from your own target audience.”
“When’s the last time you changed your act?”
“When’s the last time I needed to? I got where I am now by reading the fucking room.”
Ava can feel herself digging her heels in, and she knows Jimmy’ll kill her for it if he ever finds out, but she can’t bring herself to stop it. “Yeah, and I’ll get where I need to be by knowing what people who aren’t retirees wanna see.”
“Fine. You want to lose to Drew fucking Higgins and show every aspiring young comedian that he’s the future of comedy? Go ahead and be my guest.”
“Oh, you don’t already know him?” Deborah taunts, her voice lilting over the words. “Here I thought you knew everything.”
Groaning, Ava pulls her phone from her back pocket and taps out his name. She clicks on the first YouTube video to pop up and fast-forwards through the intro material. When it reloads, he’s talking about Tinder. “I mean look, we all know there’s a triangle when it comes to women. They can be hot. They can be single. They can be sane. But never all three at once. But guys, I’m here to tell you, looking for that golden trifecta? You’re missing out on the best sex of your life. She’s ugly? Best blowjobs of your life. She’s—”
Ava closes out of the app before he can get any further. “How the hell is this guy my competition?”
“He’s the only other comic left, and unlike you, he’s got Jared and Kendra on his side.”
“What? You think I want to see that fucking guy go any further?”
Ava shrugs. “Apparently he knows how to cater to his audience.”
“No, he knows that he can walk into any comedy club and have 60% of the audience already on his side with shitty jokes recycled from the 70s.”
“So what? Now you’re gonna be a feminist by telling me I have to work twice as hard as him?”
“You do!” Deborah snaps. “Jesus, Ava, this can’t be a foreign fucking concept to you. Maybe you’re smart and funny and talented, but that’s the baseline. And it is never going to be enough. You are always going to have to work really fucking hard and claw your way to a place where you can maybe make it a little better.”
“And what? That’s what your golden stamp on me was? Your way of so generously giving back from your giant Cheesecake Factory house?”
“No, that was me giving you a leg to stand on since you keep cutting off your own. Giving back is this.” She gestures between the two of them. “I’m giving you a whole fucking day with me if you can shove that overinflated ego of yours into that backpack you carry everywhere long enough to learn something.”
“And what am I supposed to learn from you? That it’s super progressive to tell jokes about how men are from Mars and women are from Venus, so long as I’m shitting on men instead of women?”
“Fine, then go home. Get the hell out of my house and humiliate yourself on television. That’ll really show me.”
Ava rubs at her forehead, remembers Jimmy’s warning, pictures all the phone calls she’ll endure if her mother sees her getting voted off of American Talent after a scant three weeks. “Alright. I’m listening. How are you teaching me?”
At that moment, someone comes bustling into the room. “I’ve got us a meeting with Marty to talk about Fridays and Saturdays—” He glances up then and spots Ava.
“Marcus, this is Ava. The one I was telling you about.” He grimaces, then looks over at Ava and offers her a half-smile.
“Ava, change of plans. I need to take this meeting. You’ll come to my show tonight instead.”
“But my flight—”
“Marcus will handle it.” And then Deborah is off in a swoosh of fabric.
Ava blinks over at Marcus. “Look, you really don’t have to do this. It’s not like I need to see the show. YouTube’s a thing, ya know?” Marcus doesn’t smile back at her. “She’s a, uh, real kick in the ass as a boss, huh? But seriously, I know that’s not your job.”
“You’re not my job. She is.”
“Um, right. Yeah. Okay.”
“Why don’t you just give me your flight information so that I can do my job better than you’ve done yours?”
There doesn’t seem to be any good response outside of AirDropping him her ticket. He ignores her questions about what the hell she’s supposed to do for the next three hours because she’s sure as fuck not spending another 50 bucks to Uber back into the city.
So she spends the next half hour scrolling through Twitter and debating a text to Ruby and peering at the pictures in the living room before Josephina catches her vaping inside. Then she spends another couple hours outside skirting around the edge of the pool and vaping and getting a horrible sunburn that’ll make her look even worse on television. Great.
At some point, Josephina shows up with a plate of food for her. It looks suspiciously like what Deborah’s corgis are eating, but it’s still ten times better than the lukewarm chicken parm she ordered from room service last night was, so she can’t quite bring herself to care that she’s getting the dogs’ leftovers.
She’s nearly done eating when Deborah comes storming outside, looking angrier than Ava’s ever seen her. “Get in the car.”
Ava ends up bringing her plate with her and ignores Marcus’s glare and the wrinkle of some other guy’s nose. He, at the very least, seems to put Deborah in a slightly better mood. Something about making eBay his bitch and getting her some old-ass rug. Ava wonders if he’s the one who’s got a hard on for too many tassels.
When they arrive, Ava is swept up in the momentum of it all, shuffling her way through the back hallways, plate still in hand because really, there hasn’t been a good place to put it.
“Not back here,” Marcus says, stopping Ava before she can follow the rest of Deborah’s team into the green room. “Go watch from the wings. Try to learn something.” He closes the door on her.
In a fit of frustration, Ava hands Deborah’s fancy plate off to some PA or other and stomps over to the wings, sending Ruby few carefully curated emojis in response to her latest Insta story. And then finally—finally—Deborah’s strolling out on stage in a glittery pantsuit that would put the wardrobe of every Hillary Clinton drag queen Ava’s ever seen to shame.
“Learn something?” Deborah asks once they’re back at the Cheesecake Factory and Marcus and the eBay guy apparently named Damian have been sent home for the evening.
Ava has spent an agonizing half hour reading through every rejection message she’s gotten back from her industry contacts, trying to remember that this woman is in charge of the sad existence she now calls a career. “I, uh, you definitely have stage presence.” She pats herself on the back for managing something both complimentary and true. “I could probably up my game ten points just from copying your posture.”
Deborah arches an eyebrow. “You’ll notice my audience was also laughing.”
“Right. Yeah. Yeah, you, uh, read the room, I guess.”
“What aren’t you saying?” She takes two steps forward until she’s barely a foot away from Ava, who is suddenly realizing just how much shorter she is than Deborah in heels.
“Look, it’s not my kind of humor.”
“Because it has punchlines?”
“No. I…” Ava rubs at her forehead. “What do you want me to say?”
“You haven’t held back yet. Why start now?”
“This shit was tired 20 years ago, but now? I mean, it’s like watching Friends. You know at some point someone thought it was funny and maybe even a little progressive, and lots of people are still laughing, but you can’t think too hard about it.”
“Is that all?”
Ava should shut up. But every bullshit thing Deborah’s said about her is running through her mind, and nothing in the world could get her to stop now. “Beyond all the gender essentialism, there’s so much about gay people. I mean, shit, are you a lesbian?”
“Are you?” Deborah shoots back. “’Cause you dress like Rachel Maddow’s mechanic.”
“There you go again! Seriously, you’re a little fucking obsessed for a straight lady. And half those jokes would get you more cancelled than I ever was. So by all means, go for it! Keep at it. Maybe your new viewers will be young enough to know how to Google you, and then you’ll be the one in the spotlight, and I can go get my old goddam job back.”
“Get the hell out of my house.”
Ava storms out in a flurry of righteous indignation before realizing she’s stuck in the middle of nowhere without a car to be found.