I was a Flaming Idiot...

Artists often accuse critics of being frustrated performers, as a way to counter the opinions they don't like--he/she wouldn't have the guts to get up there and do what I do. It's true that I flirted with actorly ambitions in high school and college, but I never wanted to publicly perform stunts that involved even the simplest requirements in physical coordination. I once sprained my foot crossing the street. As a sedentary kid who grew into an adult who forces himself to exercise regularly, I have developed decent agility in tossing barbs, not balls.

Which is why I enjoyed The Flaming Idiots the first time I saw them: They were able to do both with minimal strain. Actually, they are better at sarcasm--a typical Idiots show relies on a certain amount of failure during balancing and juggling stunts, so that Rob Williams, Jon O'Connor, and Kevin Hunt may display their wicked but not merciless ability to lampoon themselves. This, of course, paves the way for their bitchy asides about audience members, who are dragged onstage as active participants in their mayhem. In what is atypical of most contemporary entertainment, The Flaming Idiots ask something of ticket-buyers in return for their money--a sense of humor about themselves. This might be the biggest risk they take as performers, even considering that they toss knives and flame sticks and crack whips at each other's lips. Luckily, they bagged four cheerfully willing victims at last Sunday's matinee. I, perhaps, was the least willing of them all (OK, the little girl named Claire who had to stand still amid a swarm of flying blades was a contender).

In a blur of Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis, Roberto Benigni, and Farrelly Brothers films, we seem to have lost a savory literary tradition--that of the fool as seer and selectively outspoken wise man. Today we appreciate the congenital fuck-ups, but mostly because of their blind stoicism, their brave ignorance, not their ironic insight. From Shakespeare's fools through Garson Kanin's Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday, the fact that the stupidest outcasts can say the smartest things means little right now, when folks need to feel superior rather than enlightened. The Flaming Idiots wear unflattering spandex outfits and swallow 3-foot balloon shafts whole (one speculates that open-throated, heterosexual Kevin Hunt, a husband and father, may nonetheless have the largest gay following of all the Idiots), but they clearly keep up with the news and socialize some too. Sunday's matinee was as crowded with topical references as it was with projectiles--before Rob Williams makes a bologna sandwich with his feet and feeds it to a female volunteer, he refers to our "primate cousins," then quickly apologizes lest anyone be "from Kansas." After Jon O'Connor notes that juggling beanbags is like negotiating "limbless Teletubbies," Kevin Hunt recognizes with kinky relish that his is purple. Rob Williams, disappointed at the audience reaction to one stunt, declares the applause has been executed with "as much apathy and condescension as a shift of Bennigan's waiters singing 'Happy Birthday' to a customer."

So what was I coerced to do for the show? I beat my chest and grunted like an ape, did an impression of Rodin's sculpture "The Thinker," and recited my favorite line of Shakespeare ("Fie!"). I was much better at those demands than as a player in a Flaming Idiots stunt: I was compelled to stand on the Kalita Humphreys stage, catch each Idiot in my arms as he fell blindly backward, and then straitjacket the trio together, blindfold myself, and wait to fall backward as the audience counted down from 25 and the Flaming Idiots struggled to undo the multiple buckles I'd fastened with shaky hands, so they could separate and catch me in time. That looks terribly easy in hindsight, but the trick was revealed to me step by impatient, "they're-all-waiting-for-you" step with no preparation and no knowledge of the final destination. Although the audience was generous in its vocal support, my daredevil attempts were tepid--I couldn't fall back without stopping myself against one heel, something I could never do years ago even for my father (long story). "You're shaking like a rabbit!" Rob Williams observed of me, correctly, to the audience.

I emerged, if not quite victorious, at least unharmed from the experience. And I can report honestly that The Flaming Idiots are truly among the most dangerous live acts that you can see anywhere in the U.S. Not because they are profane and could potentially contaminate young minds (there's some bawdiness, but it's delivered with a connotative casualness that flew over the numerous children in the audience), but because they are smart and fearless and eager to turn observers into the observed. I wasn't exactly their most graceful victim, but at least the whole time I was onstage quaking, I grinned like...well, an Idiot. Hey, folks, I earned that title.

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Jimmy Fowler