I have performed in a talent show once before. The James Buchanan Middle School First Annual Talent Extravaganza. I got roped into it because I was the second-chair clarinet in the eight-grade band. First chair had to join the jazz ensemble, and second chair had to join the Dixieland ensemble. Mrs. North decided that the talent show would be a good way to get a concert for both groups out of the way without having to go to the trouble of actually organizing a full concert on her own, so it was smart from her standpoint.
Part of the stated purpose of the Talent Extravaganza was to boost the student body’s self-esteem by “letting” us perform in front of our peers. That meant that the show had to be held during school hours. Whoever was in charge of it realized, at least, that no junior high school student would come to school after hours to watch a talent show solely to boost his classmate’s self-esteem. So it had to be held during school hours.
The school was also going through one of its instruction time-counting kicks, though, so it was pretty much impossible to have any assemblies or special events that would impinge at all on those 47 minutes of classroom instruction that each teacher received and guarded with their life, even if they used it for teaching us how to fill out word searches or something like that. So, because the administrators had not even the tiniest understanding of how junior high school brains work, they scheduled the talent show to run in the lunchroom, during lunch.
They took out one of the long tables to accommodate the stage area, making everyone angry: other tables had to accommodate the displaced kids, and depending on social status, some of those tables developed refugees of their own who had to nurse their hurt feelings at seeing how tenuous their hold on their social standing was. They tapped Mr. Nichol, the lunchroom attendant, to emcee the event, leaving no other rule enforcement in the room.
And most blindingly: By performing at lunch, we were facing a captive audience heavily armed with goulash, chili, peas, applesauce, and half pints of milk.
The Dixieland ensemble was up second. First was Jamie, our heroic mentally challenged special-needs kid who really, really liked performing “American Pie.” The catcalls were mocking at first, but, well, it’s a long song and by the end, the crowd was pretty riled up. (Jamie didn’t realize this, of course. He thought he did quite well.)
We were the first and last of the non-special acts. The food started flying before we had even gotten our music stands set up. By the time we’d made it through “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey,” word had somehow made it to the principal, who shut the show down with a stern lecture at the performers about how being pelted with food could cause the school serious liability.
The only positive to come of the show was that my second key got irrevocably stuffed with applesauce, so I could finally quit the stupid instrument.
I don’t do talent shows. I don’t perform in them, I don’t attend them, and I try not to even think the words.
A lot of my fiction has some spark of inspiration from a true story, but not this one. Inspiration from this passage from Exile Issues, a monologue by Carla bemoaning the talent show that she is about to be required to perform in, comes from two true stories.
First was the band-playing-at-lunch-at-school part. That happened in 8th or 9th grade (although I played trombone) and the results were only slightly better than you would expect from a performance by unpopular kids in front of junior high school students armed with poor-tasting but aerodynamic foodstuffs.
The second part comes from high school. Periodically—homecoming and things like that—we’d have an afternoon-long celebration with activities miscellaneous and varied. I think it was senior year when each of these started to include karaoke, and every time, the mentally challenged kid did perform the classic and extremely long “American Pie.” As I recall, the audiences were rather supportive for him in real life, but in fiction if the characters are treated well it’s not comedy, so there you go.
Why is there a talent show in the book in the first place? Well, Nathan, the titular transdimensional exile has enlisted the support of a pair of humans to help him get home. It’s a long process, and so he believes he’s being thoughtful by planning entertainment such as this for the little band to take part in.