Step right up! Come one, come all! Be ready to be entertained, repulsed, titillated and shocked all at the same time. Well…not really. It seems that the side/freak show that used to be prevalent at any number of carnivals doesn’t really exist anymore. I began to realize this tragedy while recently viewing the documentary American Carny. With the help of barker/showman Todd Robbins, the film really documents the last gasp of the great American sideshow tradition.
So what triggered the demise of the sideshow? It seems the sideshow went mainstream. That’s what happened. The bearded lady? We’re more likely to see her shopping at the local Walmart than hidden underneath a canvas tent. She might not only be shopping there, she may very well be employed there. How about the guy with no hands and feet? Again, the same thing. In the old days, people with abnormalities or deformities were shunned and ridiculed. They had very little choice in regards to a career. The carnival sideshow was the only employment open to them. Thankfully society has progressed to the point where it is more accepting and accommodating to such individuals. Science has come along way in explaining and ameliorating/curing many of these physical oddities such as Siamese twins.
The tattooed lady or man? Please, tattoos are not taboo anymore and their ability to shock? Yawn and ho hum. These days you’re considered a freak if you’re not tattooed. The snake lady made it possible for pet stores to develop a new clientele full of otherwise sane folks who keep snakes in their living rooms, bedrooms, and bathrooms. And don’t let folks tell you that snake tastes like chicken. It doesn’t, it taste like these little tree frogs I had one time in the Philippines.
But what about all those crazy, dangerous stunts the sideshow was known for? The Human Blockhead, the sword swallowers, the fire eaters, the strongmen, the knife throwers? They became victims of the times as well. With the advent of MTV’s Jackass in 2000 those old carny acts were considered quaint, passÃ©, and the killer for any act – boring. Johnny Knoxville along with cohorts Bam Magera, and Steve-O redefined what the terms “freak” and “sideshow” meant to the detriment of us all. They concocted and participated in various stunts where they were tased, shot at, and in Steve-O’s case had his scrotum stapled to his leg. I mean who can compete with that? But being vulgar for vulgarity’s sake is never a good thing. However, one-upmanship more than anything else has contributed to this Jackass culture. The need to top the other guy, to be more outrageous than the psychopath down the street – there’s your answer. Where does it all stop? Rules, ropes, and certain decorum have been replaced with steel cages and reckless abandon.
What impresses me about Todd Robbins and his compatriots is their professionalism, work ethic, dedication and a commitment to stagecraft and an art form that had been around for more than a century. These exact qualities are totally absent from the new crop of daredevils, stuntmen, thrill seekers, and village idiots. In the old days if the sideshow tent burned down, the show would still go on somehow. These days tent burning itself would be celebrated and sponsored by any number of soft drink companies. It’s the real thing baby. Yea, but weren’t there hucksters and con men involved in the sideshow business? Of course. As a naÃ¯ve teenager I once visited a carnival sideshow and witnessed the “Petrified Lady”. As I peered into the tent, I kept hearing these screams – “I’m petrified, I’m petrified, go away”. Ha, ha. But that incident was the exception, not the rule. So it’s not the death of the American sideshow that saddens me, it’s all the other things that fell into the grave along with it.