BOSTON. It’s 7:20 a.m., an early hour for late riser Will McHusack, but the young man who is currently employed as a night security guard at a local college dorm nonetheless seems filled with enthusiasm. “Got to chase my dream, you know?” he says to this reporter as he stakes out a place first in line at a non-descript building on Commonwealth Avenue. “A lot of people think talk shows are filmed late at night, but that’s just an illusion from the backdrops.”
McHusack is here along with other budding Ed McMahons for the first day of spring semester classes at Fenneman’s School for Sidekicks, which offers courses designed to prepare young men for the highly-competitive world of second-rate entertainers who, once they realize they will never make it big based on their talent, aim slightly lower for a spot on a couch next to a television talk show host.
At 7:30 a.m. the doors swing open and the assembled students file into a large, open room outfitted with 42 desks with adjoining couches and, after instructor Bob DaVilla checks their names off the enrollment list, each takes a seat opposite a dummy through which DaVilla’s voice will emanate once the “lab” part of instruction begins.
“First thing you guys have got to remember from Sidekick 101 is don’t act, RE-act,” DaVilla says with heavy emphasis on the last word. “It’s not The Tonight Show with Ed McMahon, it’s The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson–got it?”
Heads nod in comprehension, and a few students jot down notes. “I really wish you wouldn’t do that, you’re going to have to ‘wing it’ as a talk show sidekick, so you have to learn to perform without a net,” DaVilla says as McHusack scribbles “I really wish you wouldn’t do that” before screeching to a halt when DaVilla clears his throat ominously.
The instructor leads the class in a few warm-up exercises, taking pains to point out that a sidekick must himself be warmed up before he goes out to warm up the crowd for the host. “Let’s do ten double-takes, five to the right, five to the left,” DaVilla says, and the young men practice the patented comic gesture of surprise without incident except for one young man who develops a crick in his neck when his first “take” is executed too sharply.
“Now for some broad laughs at your host’s lame jokes,” DaVilla says, and the sound of forty-two young men emitting a pleasant but controlled “HA-HA-HA” bounces off the walls of the barebones classroom.
DaVilla’s charges are now ready for some physical activity, and he segues into a typical transition with a scripted introduction of a fictional young starlet whose agent has placed her on a talk show to promote a new movie in which she will, for the first time, play a starring role. “She’s appeared in supporting roles in a number of films including I Know Where You Went on Vacation Last Summer, Farthammer II and Land of the Lost Unicorns, say hello to . . . Marci Eversharp!”
The students stand up and clap with restrained enthusiasm, then begin the delicate movement they will execute thousands of times, like matadors performing a cruzar before an on-rushing bull, if they hit the big time; making way for a guest to greet the host and take a seat on the sofa.
“Good, good,” DaVilla murmurs audibly into his microphone before he spots something he doesn’t like and shouts “Hold it!” loud enough to be heard next door in a cosmetology school.
“Everybody see what he did wrong?” DaVilla snaps as he descends on a hapless young man in the first row.
The other students are silent, mainly out of fear that they’ll give the wrong answer and become the next victim of DaVilla’s wrath.
“Anybody?” DaVilla asks, calmly at first, and then, with exasperation, “Nobody?”
The silence persists, so DaVilla is forced to answer his own question.
“You always move down the couch, away from the host, not towards him–that’s where the guest sits!”