Missing The Donut
On the day of the big live performance, I tore my right bicep nearly in half while attempting to hoist a diminutive Kenyan acrobat into the air. This ultimately resulted in the final crossbow arrow just missing the jelly donut on top of my head in front of about fifteen millions viewers.
I probably should back up.
I received a phone call one morning about six months earlier from a variety artist friend of mine. He had recently borrowed my stun gun juggling batons for a theater show. The fire marshal nixed my buddy's torch routine, and he needed a replacement bit. I lent him some props. Three stun guns, a half-million volts each, attached to handles made from metal pipes. After all, what are friends for?
"An America's Got Talent scout saw me at that gig last week," he was telling me excitedly over the phone. "He wants me to juggle stun guns on their show."
"Uh, my stun guns?"
"No, I can get my own."
So, not my stun guns, just my stunt. Now you'll understand how much I hate any kind of confrontation when I tell you that my first impulse was to say--what the hell, go ahead. However, I have a wife who runs our business with me as a full and equal partner (except she does more work), and who has to live with the consequences of my wimpy decisions. And this one was going to cost her and me monetarily. Big time.
So I said to my friend, "I really should be trying to get the stun gun piece on that show myself. You know, to promote my act."
"Well, let me call the producers, and see if I can get you an audition this afternoon."
That was his immediate and supremely cool response. About two hours later I was standing in a ballroom in the Ambassador Hotel in downtown LA, beginning a six-month odyssey on what I would soon discover was the hottest show on American summer television.
The stun gun routine* went over very well. Especially when I added the new closer--stepping into a tub filled with water while juggling the crackling guns. I came up with that bit of business backstage waiting to go on.
Originally I'd planned to jump off the stage and juggle the stun guns in the judges' faces for a few laughs. But the lip of the stage was lined with poorly supported footlights, and I couldn't just jump over them into the darkness. Necessity is a mother, like they say, and the new tub of water ending was really strong. The judges loved the whole thing, and voted me forward to the next round.
Which brought me to Vegas week, and the challenge of performing to a cavernous theater, empty except for the judges and camera crew.
For this stage of the competition, I did a giant version of the old magic trick where the magician tries to avoid impaling his hand on a spike hidden beneath one of four or five Styrofoam cups that have been mixed up out of his view. My version used large Styrofoam coolers and a fifteen inch Bowie knife. Too big to smash with my hands, I leapt in the air and performed a three-quarter front flip landing flat on my back on top of the empty coolers. Crushing them one by one.
Oh, and I let the judges choose the coolers.
That last was the hard part, trust me. Because they really did have free choice. I also punked the judges by having a knife pop out of my chest when I got down to two coolers, and chose the only empty one left to flop onto. I thought it was a nice little finesse. Again, very well received. On to the live show in Hollywood.
Until I appeared on the show, I had never seen it. In our house TV is that thing on which my wife watches reality cooking shows and police procedurals while she's trying to fall asleep. Turns out there's other stuff in there too. Like America's Got Talent.
AGT, as it's often abbreviated, is a star spangled, red, white and blue show about Americans for Americans. A show created by a Brit and (at that time) judged by two Brits and a Canadian. It's a show in which people who have spent tens of thousands of hours perfecting their skills get a chance to demonstrate the full range of their astonishing technique and mastery in ninety-second snippets between commercials for car insurance and antidepressants. First prize is a million dollars, paid out--I'm not making this up--in twenty thousand dollars a year installments over fifty years.
The competition just to get on the show is fierce. So I had come out of the gate with the most spectacular trick in my repertoire--juggling a million and a half volts of electricity. And I was expected to top myself each time I returned. That's how the game is played.
Could I do that? they asked. Did I have other pieces to return with if I was sent forward in the competition? Sure, I told them. Though I may have forgotten to mention I hadn't written them yet.
I came up with the knife in the cooler bit out of sheer desperation. And when it worked, suprisingly well, I was stuck once again for a new, and necessarily even more amazing, routine.
Hence the crossbows.
Here's the stunt. Five loaded crossbows in stands facing each other in two rows. One row has three crossbows facing stage left and a parallel row has two crossbows facing stage right along with myself. I’m holding the sixth crossbow.
Each of the fixed crossbows has a target attached to its trigger and is pointed at the target on the opposite crossbow's trigger. Except the last one. That one's pointed at my head. Well, it's pointed about two and a half inches over my head. At a jelly donut. That I'm wearing like a hat.
My job is to get myself into the exact right spot, then shoot my crossbow at the target on the first crossbow's trigger. It then fires across at the next crossbow's trigger, and so on down the line until the last crossbow arrow, or bolt as they're called, pierces the strawberry jelly donut I have strapped with elastic to the top of my head.
And there's the trouble. That elastic contraption that holds the donut on my head. I have to put it on myself. Perfectly. But with a torn bicep, my arm doesn't quite reach high enough. And I can't see the top of my head, so I don't know that the donut is canted at about ten o'clock. Not straight up at noon as it ought to be.
It's all on account of the damn chicken pox. And now I have to back up again.
Two weeks before the crossbow stunt I'm performing at a corporate show, and I break out in hives. Only it's not hives. It's chicken pox. Never had it as a kid. And when you contract it as an adult, it's damned serious. Some folks end up in the hospital. I ended up losing fifteen pounds of lean muscle in two weeks, and my immune system went on a rampage eating away at my own connective tissue.
On the day of the stunt, I tried to lift the smallest of a team of Kenyan acrobats for a publicity shot. A red hot pain shot up my arm, as I felt something tear. My bicep.
You know how they say the show must go on? That's no joke. That's what we do. And that's what I did. I had to hold my crossbow reverse handed and aim in a fashion I had never done before. But I hit the first target. And bang, it hit the next, and bang it hit the next, and bang, bang, and thunk.
I missed the donut.
The damn thing was sitting at that cocky angle, just enough so that the last bolt grazed it, but didn't go in. I was out of the competition. Done. And even though I knew I had no chance of winning the whole thing (I had absolutely nothing left to do, and no more ideas anyway) it was devastating.
But here's where the show America's Got Talent became, for me and for nearly all the contestants who have ever been on it, a great metaphor for life and accomplishment in general.
You WILL ultimately fail.
Even if you keep coming back, sooner or later you get booted off the show. How's that for a motivational message? Gets you all juiced up, right? Makes you want to get up before dawn and charge right into the machine gun fire of the new day. Yeah, I'm not thrilled about it either, but I have a reason for pointing it out there so starkly. You have no doubt heard it said that at times failing is simply not an option. Bullcrap. Despite the fact that some very smart and capable people keep telling us that's how it is, it's just not true.
And like Mark Twain said--
“It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble.
It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”
The thing to understand about failing is that in fact you have no choice. Failure is mandatory in life. And where you have no choice you have nothing to worry about, really. Eventually, you're going to miss the donut. It's freakin' inevitable. And yes, it can really sting. I'm not sugarcoating this because finding the willingness to live with the bitter taste of that in your mouth is half the battle. I know about all that, because I wasn't willing for an awfully long time. Or was it a long awful time? It was both, really.
And it's a notion I still revisit--that you can somehow get through life without serious failure. But again, never failing really is not one of your choices. Here are your actual choices, the handles, the part that's up to you:
#1. Don't try.
That's it. Exercising option #1 will yield you no victories. No surprise there. But guess what, you still won't avoid failure. You will fail to reach your potential. You will fail to experience and to participate in life in all its naked and sometimes cellulite pocked glory.
Exercising option #2, on the other hand, will yield a mix of victories and failures. And here's the beauty part, the victories are inevitable too. Keep that in mind.
All it costs you is missing the donut once in a while. You can do that, it's easy. Believe me.
*The external links in this write up all go to videos of the stunts or variations of the stunts performed in the story.