I make my living hammering nails into my head.
It wasn’t always nails. I have had things such as ice picks, spoons, screwdrivers, power tools and switchblade knives up in there over the years. But I always come back to the nails. Right now it is a sixty penny six inch spike. I tap it into my nostril and it slides to the back of the skull and it stops short of hitting my spine. This leaves an inch and a half of the nail still exposed for the audience to see. As I run through my related jokes and observations I tilt my head up and down, side to side. On a good day the audiences eyes lock onto that nail as if a ball at a tennis match.
The initial shock of seeing a grown man doing something any child would be smart enough not to do can vary from person to person and crowd to crowd. And there have been many crowds. In the summers it is at the Sideshows By The Seashore theater in Coney Island. The audiences are tourist and New York families looking to experience some Coney Island tradition. The evenings are in bars and clubs in Manhattan alongside burlesque dancers, comedians and magicians. In the winter traveling across the states with a Vaudeville Review jumping from town to town with my trusty hammer and nail. I have hammered nails in front of college classrooms, office Christmas parties, Bar Mitzvas and deep cable television shows. I once even found myself officiating a wedding under the Brooklyn Bridge. The bride and groom took there rings hanging from the nail in my nose. The reactions are always the same.
First there are the people who are delighted to see something strange and odd. They may have heard about such a stunt being performed by the Fakirs of India or by performers of the past. They could have read about it in the books that romanticize the tent shows of the old carnivals or circuses. Some may have even seen an explanation of the stunt on TV . Now they are seeing it live. They laugh with anticipation and excitement as the nail is tapped into place. Their minds race back and forth with conflicting arguments. They convince themselves that it can’t be real, but it must be real, but it can’t! When I take the back end of the claw hammer and drag the nail from my face they are cheering and hollering before the nail hit’s the floor.
Then there are the curious but disturbed. These are the folks that watch the act from between there fingers. The ladies squeeze up against their men. The men grimace and watch out of the corner of their eyes. They squeal and give out nervous laughs. They don’t want to watch but they will. These are the people I can have fun with. I break the patter and try to comfort them in a calm soothing voice. “Trust me, its not hurting you.”. This rarely works. They twist and laugh, there reaction becomes the show. Sometimes I get closer and demonstrate how I can make the tip of the nail twitch and jump at will. Sometimes I even convince them to pull the nail from my face. They hold it with thumb and forefinger at arms length. They may be slightly repulsed but very entertained.
There are also the fainters. Not a common occurrence but always a memorable experience. It is always the larger men who pass out. The gentleman’s body goes limp, his eyes roll back into his head and he slumps into his seat. This is usually followed by the lady he is with screaming with confusion and fear. I have learned from experience and resist the urge to jump into the audience and help revive. The first thing that you see when you come to should not be me with nail in head shaking you awake. The men always say that it was too hot, have a glass of water and continue with the show.
Then there are the disgusted, not the fun I-don’t-want-to-watch-but-I-have-to! Disgusted but a specific kind that just shuts down. They stare to the ground stone faced. Some will turn around completely if the have the opportunity. They show no emotion except for great concentration of ignoring what is going on. They do not like it and they never will. I leave these people alone. Maybe I can get a laugh out of them with the next act when I stick my tongue in a mousetrap.
I have learned many stunts in my years as a professional performer. Swallowed swords in the streets of Times Square and warmed up a room eating fire. I got a great workout from juggling a chainsaw and had indigestion from eating too many light bulbs. I spent a summer hanging from my ankles escaping from a straitjacket and learned a few jokes along the way. But when I am looking for something that is going to stick with the audience nothing beats the old hammer and nail.