Joey was in a lot of trouble.
Not ‘I was two hours late to an audition’ trouble, or even ‘I slept with my play director’s cousin’ trouble. No, this was much worse than either of those things.
Sitting on one of the bar stools at the counter in his apartment, Joey stared down at the electric bill in his hands, Chandler’s words from last month echoing in his head:
Just try not to leave the TV on all night. And if the fridge is open, maybe it’s better closed. And the phone could —
The telephone on the counter rang. Joey was glad he was alone, because he might have jumped a little, and maybe he let out a little scream at the sudden noise. Slowly, he picked up the handle and held it to his ear.
“Hello?” he asked, trying not to sound scared.
“Hey, Joe,” his improv teacher said. “You okay, man? You sound like you’ve just seen a ghost!”
"Oh, hey Terry,” Joey said, relaxing his shoulders. “Nope, no ghosts here.” He glanced around the empty apartment to make sure because, according to Phoebe, you just never knew. “Anyway, how’s it going?”
“Not good. I’m gonna need to you cover the class next Thursday. Gotta take my sister’s Doberman to a dog show.”
“Oh, really?” Joey couldn’t help sitting up straight and puffing out his chest a bit at the offer. “You want me to teach the class?”
“Well, yeah – I mean, on your resume it says you have experience leading improv groups, right?”
“So how much do you usually get by teaching the class?” Joey said very, very quickly.
“Well, I don’t really consider it teaching, Joey. It’s more like leading,” Terry said with a chuckle, and Joey laughed too, but then furrowed his brow, wondering what that meant. “Anyway, you’ll get paid $200 for the whole night. Oh, and another thing...”
Terry kept blathering on, but all Joey heard was the sound of a cash register as he looked down at the electric bill. Two hundred dollars! With that kind of money, he could finally help out Chandler with the bill. And that vase he broke two months ago. And the lamp.
“Hello? Joey, you still there?” Terry asked.
“Yeah I’m here. Two hundred bucks, you say?”
“That’s right. Bring all your friends, if you want. They can hang around for free, and it’ll make the class look bigger.”
“My friends, you say...” Joey said, stroking his chin.
“Yes, that’s literally what I just said. Don’t get weird on me now, man. You’re my only hope.”
“Hey, I know that one!” Joey said, snapping his fingers. “2001: A Space Odyssey!”
“... Good luck, Joey.”
When Joey raced into Central Perk, he breathed – well, more like heaved – a sigh of relief as he saw his friends sitting in their usual spots.
Phoebe was sitting on the floor at the table, as Ross and Monica sat on either ends of the long couch behind her. She was looking down at a set of cards spread out on the table as Joey approached the group.
Chandler, who was sitting on the single couch, raised his mug to his lips, and then raised his eyebrows as Joey skidded to a stop in front of him. “Let me guess,” Chandler said, pausing before he took a sip of coffee. “Baywatch marathon?”
Joey shook his head as Chandler drank his coffee in disappointment. As Joe threw out one of his hands on the back of Chandler’s chair to catch his breath, he said between shallow gasping breaths, “Good thing you guys are here.”
“Honey, what’s going on, why’d you run all the way over here?” Rachel asked.
“Yeah,” Monica said, “We thought you were —”
“— Hold on,” Ross cut in, “Phoebe’s picking a card.”
Joey looked on, wiping sweat off his brow as Phoebe solemnly picked up a card and placed it face up on the table. As she did so, Joey mouthed, “Gin?” to Chandler, and he mouthed back, “Tarot.”
Joey shot him a puzzled look before his vision finally swam back into focus and noticed that the cards had different pictures on them. Phoebe studied the card she’d just flipped over and clucked her tongue. “Oh, that is not good.” She turned to look up at Joey. “You should not go to the dentist this month.”
“Got it,” Joey said with a nod, his breathing finally returning to normal.
“Phoebe, I’m really not sure that’s such a good —” Monica started to say, but Phoebe waved her arms dramatically and Monica sighed, sitting back in her seat.
“All right, look,” Joey said, causing everyone to switch their attention to him. “I gotta ask you all to do a favor for me.”
“Watch another one of your plays?” Ross asked, raising his own coffee cup to his lips to hide what Joey thought was probably an excited grin.
“Ooh, do you need help with another audition?” Rachel asked, from her seat over one of the wooden chairs. Joey noticed, then, that she was wearing her apron, and he also noticed Gunther slowly shuffling over toward her. Rachel also seemed to notice, because she waved him away like she was swatting a bug, and Gunther sighed, heading back to the coffee bar.
“No, even better,” Joey said, “I’m teaching an improv class on Thursday night, and I want you all to come with me!”
The group exploded with reactions: as they all shouted words that ran over each other, Monica and Phoebe looked excited; Rachel started looking for lint on her shirt; Ross looked like he was already thinking about something serious; and Chandler, well. Joey had seen that look on his face before. It did not mean something good.
“Improv!” Monica shouted. “Ross and I used to do that in high school!”
“Yeah, y’know, you and Ross trying to rap in the cafeteria isn’t what I’d call ‘improv,’” Rachel said.
“What do we have to do?” Chandler asked, with that look still on his face.
Joey shrugged. “Just come and hang out. Play some games, pretend you’re different people. Come on, you guys! It would mean so much to me.”
“Well, I’ll have to talk to everyone at the museum to see if I can head out early Thursday night, but sure, I think I can make it,” Ross said.
“Will we get anything out of this?” Chandler asked, still not seeming convinced.
“You’ll have a lot of fun, trust me,” Joey said.
“Not really sure I should be putting any trust into someone who’s teaching a class he’s never taught before,” Chandler said, putting his empty coffee cup on the table.
“I’m gonna get $200 for teaching it,” Joey said.
“So, what time does it start?” Chandler asked.
“I’ll have to head out of work early, too,” Monica said, taking out her pocket organizer.
“Speaking of work...” Ross said, looking in Rachel’s direction.
Rachel began touching her hair. “What, is something wrong with it?”
All at the same time, Joey, Ross and Chandler lifted their chins toward the bar behind Rachel.
She whirled around in her seat to look at Gunther, who had been glaring at her from behind the counter. “Oh, fine,” she snapped, then got up and began clearing all the empty cups around the table.
Phoebe took another card and turned it over. “Ooh, that’s a good one!” she said, beaming up at Joey. “This means your class will go very, very well.”
Joey grinned, feeling a lot better about teaching an improv class for the first time.
“Or it could mean you’re heading into battle,” Phoebe said, and Joey began to sweat again.
“Nice room,” Ross said, whistling as he and Chandler sauntered in through the classroom door. “I could see myself teaching a class in a place like this, one day.”
“Yeah, if you want to teach them Naptime 101,” Chandler said as he approached Joey, who was wiping the chalkboard clean. “Look at you, Professor Tribbiani.”
“Thanks!” he said turning around and gesturing around the room. “I should write that down.” He picked up a piece of chalk, but Chandler stopped him.
Joey relented and turned around to face the nearly empty room. He’d pushed all the desks to the back of the large room, stacked the chairs in the back corners, and swept the floor. It did look pretty good, but really, he had just followed Terry’s example.
They were in a community college building, but the improv class was an extracurricular credit Terry taught for drama majors. Joey had only gone to two classes, but he had fun and got to pretend he was different people – something he didn’t really get the chance to do.
“So, Joe,” Ross said, smoothing out a curling corner of a poster near the door, “what kind of improv skills are we going to learn tonight?”
Joey shrugged. “I dunno.”
Ross stopped trying to smooth out the poster and turned to stare at Joey. “You have a lesson plan, right?”
Joey stared right back at Ross. “It’s an improv class. I figured I’d just make it up as we went along, too.”
“It’s okay, man,” Chandler said, walking over to Ross and clapping him on the shoulder.
Ross, however, got that look on his face that Joey knew signaled an oncoming meltdown. “You don’t know what you’re going to teach us?” he asked.
“What? Terry said he doesn’t even really teach the class, anyway,” Joey said, spreading his arms out, wondering what the big deal was. “He leads it.”
“Yes, by having games, and organization, and little things called rules,” Chandler said.
Ross shook his head. “Joey, you had five days to plan this all out. What the hell have you been doing this whole time?”
“Uh... reading?” Joey said, rubbing the back of his ear.
Ross and Chandler both crossed their arms over their chests, their stares turning into glares.
“Yeah, okay, I wasn’t,” Joey grumbled. “I was going to auditions, hanging out at the coffee shop, and getting lucky. So hah!”
“Why are you laughing?” Chandler asked, gesturing between himself and Ross. “We are not the ones who blew off planning a two-hour class and who’re going to look like fools in front of twenty people.”
“Yeah,” Ross chimed in, “you really think Terry’s going to be happy when he hears that you spent his class basically doing nothing?”
It started to dawn on Joey, then, just how much he screwed up.
“Oh my God,” he said, “I’m going to get fired on my first day!”
“Hey, it’s okay,” Ross said, going over to the chalkboard, “it could happen to anybody.”
“Not... really,” Chandler muttered, still standing in the middle of the room.
“Look, are you gonna be helpful,” Ross snapped, “or are you gonna watch as Joey crashes and burns, and doesn’t get the $200?”
“Fine,” Chandler said. “Although I’ve just now realized that he would have made the same amount of money without us.”
“Well, we’re here now, so he’s doing this with us.” Ross rolled up his sleeves and picked up a piece of chalk. “Now, Joey, you’re gonna have to think about all the games and acting exercises you did in the classes you went to. Anything you can remember. I’m sure we can fill a two-hour class with all the stuff you’ve learned.”
“Okay,” Joey said, the panic beginning to ebb from his nerves. “I guess I can try to remember a few...”
“If you can’t, we’ll have to make something up,” Ross said, writing down Joey’s name on the board and the class start and end time, then the word, “Activities.” He underlined it twice.
“You know, you really should be a teacher, Ross,” Joey said, “you’re pretty good at this.”
Ross stopped writing on the board and beamed at Joey. “Thanks, Joe. You know, I was actually thinking that one day I could head a class on the theory of Darwin’s —”
Chandler and Joey started making loud snoring sounds, and Ross rolled his eyes as he went back to brainstorming ideas on the chalkboard.
“Okay!” Joey said, clapping his hands together once everyone was gathered in the classroom. All in all, it was a pretty good turnout: there were about fifteen people in the class, counting his friends. They all crowded together in the middle of the classroom, and Joey tried not to focus on his friends’ reactions too much, but it was a little tough, trying to pretend they weren’t there. Ross gave him a sly thumbs up, Chandler looked bored, Rachel looked a little nervous, and both Monica and Phoebe looked excited.
Secretly, Joey hoped he would make them proud.
“Hi, everyone,” Joey said, putting on his ‘audition’ smile. “Terry’s out of town today, so I’m gonna be teaching - leading the class today.” He turned a bit to look at the blackboard behind him. “So, to start off, we’re —”
“— Um, Joey?” A short, old man in the front raised his hand. Joey pointed at him and said, “Ah, yes, uh...”
Joey chuckled a little. “Of course! What’s up, Arnold?”
“Why did Terry pick you to lead the class?”
“Hey, yeah, he didn’t ask any of us,” a much younger looking man from the back said. He was wearing giant glasses and had long brown hair. Joey furrowed his brow. I know that name, he thought.
“Well, I’m glad you asked, uh, Louis,” he said, pointing at the guy in the back.
“Nope, that’s not it,” he said, raising his eyebrows.
“It’s Felix. Don’t you remember any of our names?”
“Yeah,” a middle-aged women wearing a dark green sweater with an owl on it chimed in. “We’ve all been coming to this class for the past two months – you’ve only started coming a couple weeks ago.”
Uh oh, Joey thought. This was turning out to be more trouble than the electric bill.
“Look,” Ross said, stepping over to join Joey at the front of the group and patting him on the back, “I’m sure Terry has a very good reason why he asked Joe to lead us all today, and I can guarantee you that he’s going to do a great job.”
The middle-aged woman – Annabelle? Annie? Joey swore he remembered that owl sweater – narrowed her eyes at Ross. “Oh, yeah? How do you know?”
“What are these new people doing here, anyway? Did you invite all your friends to a free class, Joey?”
“Yeah,” someone else piped up. “Do they even know how to improvise?”
“Nepotism,” Felix said with a sneer, “the downfall of acting.”
“Okay, that’s enough,” Joey said. “We’re wasting time here. I can assure you that all my friends will be paying —”
“— What? Hey!” Rachel cried.
“— And they’re gonna be amazing, so let’s get started.” Joey gestured at the board. “Our warm-up activity for today is going to be ‘Presents.’ Pair up and pretend like you’re giving a gift to your partner, but don’t tell them what it is. They’ll open it up and say what they think you’re giving them, and then they’ll give you a present. Think fast, because we’ll go for...” he glanced down at his watch. He frowned, tapping it, and Ross held up his wrist so Joey could look at the time on his dinosaur watch. “Thanks, man. Five minutes!”
As the people in the group split up into partners, they didn’t look all that happy, but that didn’t worry Joey. He’d just have to make sure the class was so good, no one else would care that Terry chose him as the teacher - leader. Whatever.
“Hey, Ross,” he said, stopping Ross from heading over to Chandler, “let’s do a couple rounds before I switch with some of the others.”
“Oh, okay,” Ross said, and Joey saw Chandler’s look of utter horror as Arnold grouchily shoved an invisible present at him.
“Sorry,” Joey mouthed at Chandler, then turned to Ross. “Okay,” he said, rubbing his hands together, “What do you think?”
Ross mimed taking a present out of mid-air and opened it. “Joey, you shouldn’t have! A mint collection of Superman comics!”
“No, I mean, what do you think about how I’m doing? Nice save back there, by the way.”
Ross pretended to close the box and put it on an invisible shelf. “Oh, I guess we’re not really doing this, then.”
“Was I okay? Everyone looks pretty mad.”
“Yeah,” Ross said, lowering his voice, “I, uh, wouldn’t look at Rachel right now, if I were you.”
Joey did, and recoiled at her glare from across the room. He turned back around. “Come on, I’m not gonna make you guys pay for the class,” Joey whispered, pretending to take a box from Ross. He opened it, said, “Cool, a hot dog!” and pretended to eat it with one hand, tossing the invisible box aside.
“Are you sure? Because if this crowd gets any worse, maybe we need to leave,” Ross said. Then, after a while, he prodded, “Um, Joe?”
Joey held up one hand in the air. “I’m not finished.” Ross waited as Joey pretended to swallow the rest, and said, “I’ve dealt with some pretty bad crowds before. This is nothing! You guys will be great, I know it.”
After their warm-up activity, Joey had the group move on to another game. It was the regulars’ favorite in the past two classes, so Joey thought that might please them long enough to keep from kicking him and his friends out.
“Awesome party,” Felix said to Chandler as Joey approached them, pretending to swirl around an invisible drink. “So, how do you know Maude?”
“Oh, we’re very close,” Chandler said, his hands shoved into his khaki pockets. “I’m Harold.”
Joey elbowed him, and Chandler said, “Okay, okay, uh – we work together.”
“Really? I thought she was a lion tamer.”
Chandler turned to look at Joey, turned back to his game partner, and said, “Well, yes, but the circus needs guys like me. Guys who do the serious work, like data reconfiguration.”
“Wow. Got any family?”
“No,” Chandler said through gritted teeth.
“A girlfriend, then? Maybe dating one of the trapeze artists.”
“No. I’m very likely going to die a lonely, crotchety old man.”
“You really know how to get into character,” Felix said, looking almost impressed.
“Thanks,” Chandler said.
“I mean, your guy sounds completely miserable!”
“So I’ve been told,” Chandler gritted out through his clenched teeth. Joey grinned and clapped his hands together.
Suddenly, all of his classmates started moving around in jerky, random movements, continuing their conversations like normal. Even though Joey had explained the rules to the entire group, his friends stood there watching their partners’ odd movements. They turned, almost at the same time, to look at Joey, and he shrugged.
Phoebe was the first one out of all of them to join in, carrying on her conversation with her partner, the woman with the owl sweater. She grinned as she seemingly danced erratically, calling out to the others, “Well, don’t just stand there! Join in!”
“And don’t break character!” a couple of Joey’s classmates hissed before going back to their normal conversations.
Monica soon joined in the awkward jigging, then Ross did, and Rachel, and finally, Chandler blew out a long, miserable sigh and shifted back and forth in quick jerking motions as he asked Felix about his job.
Joey grinned, and clapped his hands again. It prompted all of his classmates to start speaking in complete gibberish, though they sounded like they were still have normal conversations.
Chandler whipped his head around to stare right at Joey.
Joey mouthed, “Two hundred dollars,” gave him the thumbs up, and left him alone with Felix. The only thing he was starting to regret was not bringing a video camera.
Out of sympathy for Chandler and Rachel, Joey moved onto the next game after a few more rounds of clapping. He went back to the basics, gathering a list of settings from the group to write on the board, then told everyone to pick a setting - a national park, a movie theater, Uranus - and make up a conversation from there.
Again, Joey walked around the room, surprised at how much all his classmates and friends - well, except for Chandler - seemed to be enjoying themselves. Phoebe looked like she was having the time her life, especially when she partnered up with Arnold and made up an elaborate story about them mining for gold on Uranus. Chandler had switched partners to be with Ross and at least looked like he wasn’t about to murder Joey anymore, and Monica... well.
“Oh, yeah?” she practically shouted, waving her arms around dramatically, “that’s nothing! You wanna see Mother of the Year, you should see the way this woman talks to me, always acting like I can’t do anything right, or that I’ll never measure up to a certain someone who she thinks deserves a medal just for breathing!”
“But you can do anything right!” Rachel, who was her partner, insisted, and she started to cry as she wrapped her arms around Monica. “Oh, honey, don’t let her, or anyone else tell you otherwise.”
“Thank you!” Monica sobbed against Rachel’s shoulder. “That’s what I’ve always wanted to hear from her!”
“Ooh, are we hugging now? Let me get in on this!” Phoebe elbowed her way through the small crowd to join in on Monica and Rachel's tearful embrace.
Joey considered stepping in, but he decided to let them cry it out. It wasn’t like any of his classmates minded, since a couple of them had done something like this in the other classes.
He felt someone nudging his shoulder, and turned away from his friends as they continued to hug tightly, trading declarations of love and solidarity.
“Hey, Joe,” the woman with the owl sweater said, and Joey snapped his fingers.
She looked a little surprised, but not in a bad way. “Oh, you actually do remember me. Listen, I just wanted to say, thanks for leading the class. And for bringing your friends - they seem like a pretty good group of people.”
“They are,” Joey said with a grin, “and you guys are a good group of im...provers. Thank you for giving us all a chance, and I’m glad you’re having a good time.”
“It’s the best class we’ve had in months!" she said, and Joey beamed. Then she looked past Joey and said, “Oh, what’s Ross doing?”
Joey looked around at the sight of Ross snarling and swiping his clawlike hands toward Chandler, who was just standing there with his hands in his pockets, his face expressionless.
“No idea,” Joey said, turning back toward Violet and shrugging. “I think he's a werewolf.”
“Well, he's really good at that,” Violet said, watching in awe as Ross pretended to bite a very uninterested Chandler.
“Seriously,” Joey heard Felix say to Chandler as they shook hands, “you’ve gotta tell me later how you stay in character for so long!”
“Sure,” Chandler said with a tight smile as Felix, the last person in the regular class, walked out the door.
“Oh, man,” Joey said, “I can’t believe this is what Terry has to do every week!”
“Well, you did it, Joe,” Ross said, putting the chalkboard eraser down after having wiped the board clean.
Phoebe clapped her hands. “Yeah, great job!”
Monica and Rachel, who had dried their tears, were grinning from ear to ear. “That was amazing!” Rachel said.
“Definitely,” Monica agreed. “Way better than any of your pl - I mean, this class was such a freeing experience!”
“Aw, it was nothing. Couldn’t have done it without you guys,” Joey said, walking over to Chandler and patting him on the back. “Especially you, man. You’re getting my entire paycheck for this class, and I’m taking you all to Central Perk. My treat.”
“Well, that does help balance out the soul-sucking vortex I found myself in for the last couple hours.”
Joey grinned, putting his arm around Chandler’s shoulder and squeezing it affectionately. “But it’s over now, and you’'ll never have to come again.”
“Oh, but I want to!” Phoebe said.
Rachel’s and Monica’s eyes lit up, and they chorused, “Me too!”
“Looks like you’ve inspired a movement, Joe!” Ross said, “Interested in leading another class?”
As the group all headed toward the door, Joey laughed. “No!”