(Originally performed at Is This A Thing?)
I feel like part of a freak show.
From the moment we walk in, the stares and glares and whispers begin. We, the red-black-and-white-clad drunkards, amid a sea of blue-and-gold-clad drunkards. We, the nine Nebraska Cornhusker football fans, surrounded by 200 Michigan Wolverine fans at this Ann Arbor watering hole.
Mere hours before, Nebraska had narrowly defeated Michigan in dramatic fashion at the Big House, one of college football’s most hallowed stadiums, so we were fully prepared for an icy reception. But it was not enough to deter us from our alcohol-fueled post-game mission: karaoke.
Because after you’ve been drinking cans of cheap beer outside for 10 hours, nothing sounds better than karaoke. Except for pizza.
Our mission had led us here, The Circus Bar, the only karaoke establishment in downtown Ann Arbor, according to Yelp. Two-and-a-half star review be damned, let’s do this.
A row of billiard tables line the long side of the L-shaped establishment. On the other side, a stage. And smack in the middle is at what looks like a concession stand. The low, bright yellow laminate half-moon counter encircles a half-dozen women working furiously beneath a fake lion’s head. But instead of slinging popcorn and cotton candy, they are pouring shots of Jager and popping caps off Miller Lite bottles.
The walls are covered in circus-themed murals. A lion tamer and his beast. A mustachioed ringmaster and old-timey tightrope walkers. And one wall with nothing but clowns – The Sad Clown, The Hobo Clown, The Jolly Clown playing saxophone -- images pulled straight from my nightmares and slapped onto a dingy wall to the left of the karaoke stage.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the only open tables in the entire bar are in front of the horrifying clown mural, so we stake our claim to Clown Corner, a small piece of land in our enemy’s territory.
Once retrieving our first round of PBRs from the concession … bar, something else becomes clear: These people ain’t got NO karaoke skills. I shake my head like a disappointed mother as a group of frat boys slur through “I Want It That Way” and a pair of just-turned-21-year-olds completely fuck up the words to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
At this moment, I finally understand the plight of The Sad Clown on the mural behind me. I feel your pain, dude.
My friend Matt and I had spearheaded the karaoke bar mission, so we immediately approach the “sound booth” to put our names in for a few different songs. The karaoke jockey, or KJ, as I like to call them, has a bit of an attitude.
He gives us the once-over as he presses an ear into ginormous headphones. “We’ve got a lot of people who want to sing tonight, guys.”
He’s taking himself a little too seriously for a KJ at a circus-themed bar in Ann Arbor. But again, this is not our home turf, so we roll with it.
We keep to ourselves in Clown Corner until a few songs later, Matt is called to the stage by his brand spanking new nickname, Big Rascal.
See, the night before, some of my friends had gone to the liquor store to procure tailgating beer, and while waiting in line, a couple of, we’ll call them vagrants, started chatting up Matt, who has legitimately been mistaken for Josh Sitton, a bearded, shaggy-haired 6-foot-3, 318-pound offensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers.
“You look like a guy I should know,” one of them said to Matt, who shrugged his shoulders and left with his wares. After Matt walked out, another friend overheard the vagrant say, “That guy right there, that guy is a big rascal.”
And that, my friends, is how nicknames are born. And truly, it’s kind of hard to believe that hasn’t been Matt’s nickname his entire life.
So now Big Rascal is on stage, donning head-to-toe Nebraska apparel. He begins crooning “Runaround Sue,” a classic karaoke jam that, it turns out, is particularly popular with people at circus-themed bars, especially when sung by a giant teddy bear of a man with a surprisingly smooth voice. They love him. We start chanting “Rascal! Rascal! Rascal!” The whole bar chimes in.
The space between our group and the locals dwindles a little, and now there’s some comingling between enemy factions.
And soon it’s my turn to take the stage. In the back of my mind, I know there’s still a small chance of being booed for what I’m wearing and my team affiliation, so I’ve really gotta bring it. Big Rascal throws me a pair of sunglasses, and I grab the microphone as the electronic, bass-heavy intro of “Intergalactic” by the Beastie Boys plays.
Well, now, don’t you tell me to smile, you stick around I’ll make it worth your while, got numbers beyond what you can dial, maybe it’s because I’m so versatile.
The Circus Bar goes wild. I flawlessly rap for the next 3 minutes and 30 seconds and bust out some sweet robot moves, which are aided by the estimated 47 beers I’d consumed day. I have to use every ounce of restraint not to do a mic drop as I walk off the stage.
The high fives are flowing on my return to Clown Corner, which all of the sudden has become THE place to be.
My next trip to the concession bar is a little different. The glares have dissipated, but the stares and whispers remain. Only now, they’re GOOD stares and whispers.
“Hey, it’s Maggie!”
“Dude, Maggie! You’re awesome! Let me buy you a drink!”
My red Nebraska hoodie has transformed from a target of ridicule to a target of praise. I’m a flippin’ celebrity up in here. We all are. And we won them over with the power of karaoke.
When we arrived, I felt like part of a freak show because I didn’t belong. But now, I still feel like part of a freak show, the REAL freak show that is the entirety of The Circus Bar. Everyone in here is a freak, and I freaking love it.
As we leave after last call, visions of future weekends at the Circus Bar unfurl in my mind. In these visions, they’re still talking about the legendary night of Big Rascal, Maggie and the Nebraska crew. Or at the very least, the patrons have stepped up their karaoke game so The Sad Clown isn’t quite so sad.