Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette did a great documentary a few years ago called The Aristocrats. It’s about the ultimate joke teller’s joke. The beauty of the joke is in the individual details in the versions that so many comedians do. So to tell you the nutshell of it I will have to strip bare everything that makes it a great joke. The joke is about a family of performers that go to an agent’s office. The father and son’s tuxedos and the mother and daughter’s evening gowns all match. The agent asked what kind of an act they do. They show him, and in doing so perform the vilest and most disgusting, scatological and sexual deviant bit of performance ever conceived. When they finish, the stunned agent asks what they call the act. With a tremendous amount of pride they shout in unison, THE ARISTOCRATS!
I am the Aristocrats. Admittedly my act doesn’t evolved bestiality and the other pervert stunts often included in the telling of the story, but there are strong similarities. The humor of the joke is the juxtaposition these heinous feats and the dignified elegance in which they are presented, the capper being the ridiculously inappropriate name of the act.
I come out in a suit and tie, and with ask much class, poise and warmth as possible, proceed to eat glass and hammer a nail into my nose. I work hard to entertain the audience with these and other acts many would categorize as gruesome and “just wrong”.
My intent is have the spectators appreciate these acts on many levels and feel that watching my show was a worthwhile and rewarding experience.
And, if I do say so myself, I’ve been pretty successful at attaining these goals, even though this is about the hardest performance choice anyone could want to make. I must admit that this success has not been 100%. Far from it. But I have been able to make a decent career out of working this stuff.
The purpose of this post is not self-congratulation. No, I want to share a few things that have worked for me as I have traveled along this career path inflicting mayhem upon myself for fun and profit.
First off, I try to make the audience laugh. There is an old saying in the pitch business, “if you can make the marks smile, you can make them buy.” Laughter can take the stink off of the shocking nature of this material. And often the humor is directed at me, thus letting the audience know that I understand that these acts can be hard for them to watch. But the self effacing humor is used in small doses. It is very easy to do too much of it and end up with a message, “there’s no reason to watch all this.” And if I don’t give the audience a reason to watch, they won’t.
So this leads to the next element of my act. And it is the most important element of all. I have stepped back from my act and taken a look at it all and asked some questions. Why do I do these particular stunts? What about it appeals to me? Why do I think it is important and worth watching? I’ve answered these questions and work hard to conveying this meaning to the audience.
I love the history of these feats, the backstory and lineage of them all. I love the culture they came out of and the vanishing bit of Americana that was their natural habitat. And I love that these acts of intimate daredevilry can instill a profound sense of amazement in many audiences. Amazement can be a powerful thing.
I am currently working a gig in a tropical locale. It is the middle of the hot season and many of the venues have no air conditioning. I am performing at posh resorts for people that have been sitting out in the hot, hot sun on the beach all day. They have just had a large meal with an open bar. In other words, the audiences are practically comatose. About the last thing they would want to watch is a guy shoving swords down his throat and sticking his hand into an animal trap. But they do watch, and they send me off at the end of the act with a strong round of appreciative applause. And I think the reason for this is that I work hard to take this material farther and deeper than the shock appeal that is on the surface of classic sideshow performance material.