“Branson, Jimmy??! Fucking Branson?!?!!
Most of the household staff haven’t begun work yet, but their boss is pacing around the pool, sky above her merely hinting at a sunrise, and quickly abandoning any intentions of keeping her voice down. She is 100% sure Jimmy was not awake when he answered her call one timezone behind, which was precisely the point - the combined element of surprise and suffering.
“Deborah, I know it’s not your usual crowd, but it’s a holiday weekend, and you’ll already be in the Ozarks for Saturday and Sunday. We have to use travel resources wisely now that your performance income is...more fluid.”
“Oh fuck off, Jimmy. I’m not stupid, I know what this is. This is the comedy equivalent of sending me to the fucking glue factory, which I would prefer to this shit.” She pauses to scoff, giving him the undeserved space to grovel. “If it were Pigeon Forge, there could at least be an argument for camp value, but this-”
“You are not precious about audiences, Deb.” His apologetic, weasel-y tone suggests that he knows this was, in professional terms, kind of a dick move, but one he didn’t think would become his problem. “You pride yourself on being a woman of the people, and not just the rich ones who live on the coasts.”
“Don’t use my own shit against me, Jimmy. The people with season tickets to the Yakov Smirnoff theater do not count!”
(The Venn diagram of Deborah Vance fans and people who pay to see Yakov Smirnoff is two separate circles eyeing each other with disgust)
“You’ve done worse venues before. A gig is a gig, right?” The fact that he sounds so blithely dismissive makes her even angrier. “I’m sorry, Deb, but this isn’t really my thing. Marcus worked with the booker, you should really talk to him about this.”
Even though they’ve all nodded their heads and gone along with her plans, Deborah knows that no one really understands what she’s trying to accomplish with the new act, except for Ava. The dissonance, that the hyper-competent staff she’s trusted her livelihood with can’t grasp what the most hapless person Deborah’s ever met knows implicitly, has been rattling her brain as of late.
This show isn’t a new line of caftans or facial steamers or crystal candle holders: this isn’t for everyone, and that’s precisely the point.
“Oh, I will. I just thought that, since you oversee my very lucrative comedy career, you should know that I’ll chain myself to the goddamn Luxor like a 90’s eco-terrorist before I perform in that shithole."
“It’s lucrative for both of us, Deb. I know you love your dignity, but I also know you really, really love money. And you’d hate to break a contract that will cause you to lose some of it.”
She’s furious, and resigned, at how right he is.
“That’s fine, Jimmy. You go back to sleep. By the time you wake up, I’ll have this all taken care of.” It’s the voice she’s used to placate men for decades. She hangs up, adding to no one but herself, “and it looks like I’ll have to show the rest of these fuckers, too.”
Ava was vaguely aware that a team meeting had been called around the kitchen island - she woke up to Damien’s text about it - but that didn’t stop her from strolling in mid-discussion, matcha in hand.
“Marcus, I don’t like to question your judgement, but you never should have cleared this fucking stop.”
Even if it isn’t early for Deborah, Ava thinks, it’s still a bit of a shock to see her this mad before noon.
“Deborah, you have to trust me,” he states while her face clearly says, ‘do I?’ “The numbers are there. It’s the right decision from a business perspective.”
“From a comedy perspective, it’s fucking seppuku.”
Marcus sighs. “I really think you should look at this as an opportunity. You have lots of fans in the Midwest; we have the socials and QVC sales to prove it.” It was obvious that Marcus didn’t enjoy justifying something on which he considered himself an expert, not even to Deborah. While they volleyed back and forth, Damien answered emails, and Josefina scuttled around in the background, refreshing drinks.
“Stop it, Marcus. Just stop. There isn’t a silver lining to this. No one that considers themselves a fan of mine would come anywhere near Branson. In fact, a lot of them might disown me if they find out I’m performing there.”
Ava could recognize the look on Deborah’s face from their evening together butchering fish, except this time, it appears that Deborah wants to butcher an entire city, and maybe her management team.
“Hate to interrupt this incredibly not-tense debrief, but..um...Branson. Where is….that?”
“Missouri,” Marcus says. “Family friendly entertainment capital of the heartland.”
“If your family is white, straight, and the most annoying type of Christian,” Damien adds, only looking up when Marcus grunts with disappointment. “What? It’s true.”
“Malignant skintag on the armpit of America,” Deborah states emphatically before taking another sip of her ever-present fountain soda.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Ava interjects. “I don’t like agreeing with Marcus, but I thought a gig was a gig. And that we weren’t supposed to be judgmental about Panera people.”
“Ava,” Deborah stops her with a deadly seriousness. “These are not Panera people, these are Chik-fil-a people. Big difference.”
After moments of dumbfounded silence, Ava asks, “No offense, but, why do they want to see you?”
“It doesn’t matter why!” Marcus shouts, his mounting frustration finally at a crest. “What matters is that almost 75% of the theater is sold out and tickets have only been on sale for three days.” A small ripple of surprise moves throughout the kitchen. “At this rate you’ll be sold out by the end of the week.”
“Selling out a theater does not matter to me if it’s named after Yakov goddamn Smirnoff.”
The entire team oofs as if watching the replay of a sports injury.
Marcus sighs. “I did advise them against that particular venue. But it's the biggest theater in town.”
“Christ, that makes it even worse!”
Ava attempts a calming tone. “Deborah, if you’re worried about how this will play with the LGBTQ+ community, let me tell you, the gays are loyal. They won’t drop you just because of one shitty theater in one shitty town.”
“You don’t understand, Ava.” There’s fury in her eyes, but behind that, there’s defeat. Ava thinks she might be the only one in the room who’s able to see it. “This isn’t just a tour stop - this is a statement. Any comedian that lands in Branson without wanting to land in Branson is one that’s lost all relevance to the public.” She sighs, dejected. “I didn’t think I’d prove Marty right this goddamn quickly.”
Then Ava says, “But you’re not just any comedian. You’re Deborah Fucking Vance,” like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
Marcus speaks up again. “I don’t like agreeing with Ava either, but she’s right. You have the unique power to bring together all kinds of people.”
“Oh, no,” she scoffs, “that’s definitely not what I meant,” which makes Deborah’s eyebrows quirk with curiosity.
“Whether we like it or not, the narrative is that you burn shit down, right?”
“Sure...” The look exchanged between them is charged, bolstered by the fact that only they know the narrative is not the same as the truth.
“So you blow into Branson, all invited and shit, and suddenly you’re the foxiest fox in the henhouse ready to burn. that. shit. down.”
“I don’t care how much you hate the Midwest, Ava, we are pivoting away from arson.”
“It’s metaphorical, Marcus.” At this point, Ava only needs approval from an audience of one. “Wouldn’t it be fun to blow their conservative little minds? And on their own turf, no less?” Her eyes are alight at the potential for chaos (and, if she were being honest, online social justice cred). “If it gets you trending as an anti-right wing hero, then that’s just a bonus.”
It only takes a second for that same sparkle of mischief to show up in Deborah’s gaze.
“What do you have in mind?”
The brainstorm continues through brunch, where Josefina gives away her loyalties by serving Marcus the wonkiest of the crepes. They haven’t gotten much of anywhere, but Deborah, Damien, and Ava pass the iPad back and forth in search of opportunities for disorderly conduct amongst the sad collection of virtuous anti-fun that is Branson’s tourism website.
“I don’t want to trash anything. I’m not trying to make an innocent working stiff take the fall for someone else’s shitty agenda.”
“Wow, Deb,” Ava chimes in her most smug tone. “If it weren't for this off-brand Versailles of a house I might actually think you cared about economic equality.”
“Oh, look! Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum! Maybe we can leave just one of your hands with them. You know, for posterity. You can keep the one you vape with.” No matter what, everything always goes back to hand jokes, and at this point, Ava is content to let the roasting end there with a smile.
“I don’t think we need to vandalize a space as much as we need to vandalize their minds.”
Marcus finally interjects. “How can you sound like this not high?”
When she retorts, “High on mischief, baby,” he grimaces. But Deborah is content to disregard them both.
“It’s a shame I don’t attract protesters like I used to. Fucking with those people was the best part of my day sometimes.”
“Do you think we could get them back? Like, stir some shit up before the show?”
“How would we do that?” And where would we do it, exactly?”
“I don’t know, man, I think we could do some serious damage at Jesus Live! It’s just down the street.”
“I told you, I think we should keep any direct ties to religion out of this, just to be safe. If it comes to blows, the ACLU better be on my side.”
“What about the amusement park?” Damien asks. “That seems chill enough.”
Everyone at the table considers the idea (except for Marcus, who is still frowning into the remnants of his brunch). “It’s about as close to a modern-day capitalist public square as we’re gonna get,” Ava points out.
“So, what? I hold an impromptu blue comedy show in the middle of an amusement park and wait to be dragged out while everyone posts about it on Christian-stagram?”
“No.” The cogs behind Ava’s eyes are whizzing, the pieces of a wonderful, terrible idea snapping into place. “We show up and get as gay as possible.”
“......and? That’s it?”
“Come on Deb, it’s perfect. They can’t legally kick us out for that, right? If Twitter got a hold of that, they would be decimated. And besides, you have the queerest squad per capita in all of show business, which is really saying something. Use us!”
Marcus chimes in. “I actually think we could work with this.”
“What?” rings a chorus of every other person in the room.
“We could turn it into a fan meetup opportunity. You know, give people who might not have gotten tickets the chance to connect.”
“Now you’re getting in the spirit!” Ava gestures her arms wildly, the maestro of their chaotic orchestra.
“I am concerned about security, though. Not so much with fans as with, you know, potential agitators who see a bunch of queers on their family vacation.”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that. Any theme park always gives celebrities an escort to guide us around and, you know, cut the civilians in line.” She adds, “DJ shared her flask with the one at Disneyland before he ran over Goofy with our golf cart.”
“Great!” Ava practically yelps. “So no drugs for the park liaison, just vibes; lowkey, threatening gay vibes.”
“Marcus,” Deborah turns to face him, “why don’t you bring the water cop? It would add to the effect, the two of you being very muscular and infatuated with each other.”
“I don’t know if-”
“Perfect, we’ll save him a spot on the jet!”
“Yes, this is amazing. We’ll have our own pride fest in the middle of Missouri with the legendary DV as our imperious, heterosexual overseer.”
“Don’t make me sound like such a square. I’m a woman of the people. I’ll get in on the fun, be a little flirty. Kiki would have such a good time causing trouble.”
Damien chimes in while keeping his eyes on his phone. “Kiki’s out, actually. She doesn’t think she’d be able to find a sitter for that weekend and doesn’t want to expose Luna to ‘that kind of lifestyle.’”
“I can’t blame her,” Deborah sighs, but quickly smiles again. “Josefina?”
“I’m sorry, Miss Deborah, but I can’t just run off on tour with you. I need to stay and take care of the house. Besides, I don’t think you’d want the dogs exposed to that kind of environment either.”
The giddy excitement of the entire group settles as Ava and Deborah lock eyes, fully aware of what the lack of other options implies for the both of them.
“Deborah,” Marcus breaks the silence. “This is just spitballing. I still think this is a bad idea anyway. Nobody has to do anything they’re not comfortable with.”
Ever defiant, she declares, “Who’s uncomfortable?! It’s not like I plan on scissoring anyone on the carousel. We’re just having fun, sowing discord. Some silly photo ops, no big deal.”
It’s not discomfort behind Ava’s eyes, but worry, maybe even downright fear, before she adds with a huff, “Maybe you should take this as a sign to hire more women.”
The weekend before they’re scheduled to leave, Damien tweets out from Deborah’s official account: Any Little Debbies in the Branson, MO area: meet me and my team at the entrance of Silver Dollar City this Friday, 10 AM sharp. Let’s show this town what Deborah Vance is all about.