GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
We've all gone to the circus and seen how fun it looks to fly from the flying trapeze, to juggle all those balls in the air, to walk the tightrope. But the time and effort it takes to master any of these disciplines, it can really be a tremendous pain. Our next guest, he wanted all the adulation without the hard-working bother. And it turns out, it doesn't take much work to start a circus. And for some people, it doesn't even take any talent.
JAMIE DEWOLF, BYLINE: This is the one and only Chicken John.
CHICKEN JOHN: Hey, my name is Chicken John.
DEWOLF: Chicken was a touring musician from New York. But after his bandmate's death from an overdose, Chicken decided to change it all. So he moved to Los Angeles.
JOHN: You know, I went to LA to start a new life. I was going to be a stand-up comic.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, who's out on a Monday night? You've seen this guy before. He's back for more. Give it up for Chicken John.
DEWOLF: There was only one problem - no one was laughing.
JOHN: I bombed, like, 60-something - 62 times in a row. And I kind of started to like it. Here, they're telling me, you're in a hole, stop digging. No, I'd just dig more, just, like, to see where it was. Was there more? And then, in the process of doing that, I, like - I realized that I could only bomb so much as one man. I was like, we need more people bombing. They're like, yeah, start a circus.
DEWOLF: So Chicken put out an open call for performers and pranksters to tour the United States. Anyone could join, but this wasn't like any other circus.
JOHN: And there was only one rule - no talent. You're going to do, like, a show on a stage. Here they are, the da-da-da (ph). You know, you're going to introduce this person who's doing this thing, but that thing that they're doing can't involve any talent. Like you could juggle one ball because juggling two balls requires some kind of talent. We can't have that kind of thing in our show. As a matter of fact, if you had talent, you're welcome to join, but you have to do something else for the show.
DEWOLF: And so the Circus Redickuless was born, and Chicken John started hunting for venues across the country.
JOHN: I would book ourselves in, like, rec halls and, like, a recycling center.
DEWOLF: From garbage dumps, punk-rock dives to a rehab, Chicken pushed for venues that had never seen a clown before. And in every city they went to, the circus began to grow.
JOHN: The first show that we did, we had 17 people. And as that tour went on, we would collect strays. We would never say no. Somebody, like, came and saw the circus and was like, hey, guys, you're amazing. I want to - I get it. I'm joining. I said, OK, hop in.
DEWOLF: And then the show would begin.
JOHN: That's right. It's everything you've never wanted in a circus and much, much less. There was this one-man band Elvis impersonator. Then we would do, like, a 35-minute freak show.
DEWOLF: But Chicken's no-talent rule created new kinds of performances.
JOHN: Some of the acts were just incredible, what these people came up with, like the reverse stripper. That was always fun.
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JOHN: Girl comes out completely naked. The bands like (imitating band). I was like, well, what do you want to see her do? Come on. And get the audience to chant, put it on.
JOHN: Put on, like, a tank top, a glove and another shirt, a sweater and a onesie. By the end of it, she's, like, in a sleeping bag, wiggling back and forth on the ground in a sleeping bag (laughter).
DEWOLF: Reverse stripping, the temporary tattooed man, the speed metal tap dancer and the world's only drunken knife thrower.
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JOHN: He's like, all right, I need an audience participant from the audience, and he's, like, drinking out of a Jack Daniels bottle.
DEWOLF: ...Who asked for a volunteer who would allow themselves to be tied to a target.
JOHN: And we blow up these balloons, and we tape the balloons into her armpits and next to her head. And then he gets out the knives, right? And he, like, gets on the other side of the stage and he's like, OK, going to throw the knives, blow the balloons. Holding the knife, he's getting ready to throw it. And it's like, wait a minute...
DEWOLF: ...What about the blindfold?
JOHN: He's like, oh, that's right, the blindfold, right? And he puts on a blindfold. So we blindfold her. The drunk knife thrower takes off his blindfold, and he's no longer weaving or drunk. It's an act, you know? And then I'm standing right next to her. And I say, OK, ready, ready to throw the knife? OK, spin him around a couple times. OK, there you go. He's not spinning. He's like, OK, you ready to throw the knife? And he's like, OK, I'm ready.
He's not even holding the knife up. And then I pull a knife out of my pocket and I pop the balloon and stick the knife into the wood right next to her head. He puts his blindfold back on. We take her blindfold off. And all she sees is the guy standing there, weaving around, like he just threw the knife at her. I mean, we were basically providing no content as our content.
DEWOLF: But Chicken's show came to take on an enormous life of its own.
JOHN: The circus was, like, 30 and 40 people traveling for, like, six months a year for five years.
DEWOLF: Over 200 people performed in the Circus Redickuless. Couch surfing, sleeping in the backs of buses and pulling up at truck stops wearing signs that said, will clown for food.
JOHN: Two-hundred performers - just a constant revolving door of people coming and going.
DEWOLF: Until the circus, designed to bomb in front of every audience, did the unthinkable.
JOHN: The Circus Redickuless enjoyed some curious success. It got a 9-page, 18-photo spread in Spin magazine.
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FATBOY SLIM: (Singing) I like to praise you like I should.
JOHN: A huge expose on our show, pictures of all of us and the dog in the bus.
DEWOLF: The world said the no-talent circus had talent.
JOHN: Like we're the cool, hip thing - and it killed it - dead. Because with that kind of attention, people in the troop were expecting things to change now that we were successful, for there to be food maybe, cigarettes or something, you know, like some improvement. Just because someone reads your name in a magazine doesn't mean that you get any money. They thought it was like this is going to change everything today, and it did.
DEWOLF: And the Circus of Redickuless went from one that craved chaos to one that craved success.
JOHN: The heartbreak when they realized that vibe that anything can happen - I'm really good at creating that vibe, that, like, anything can happen. But eventually, anything could happen has to become something. That was the end.
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DEWOLF: A victim of their own success, the heyday of the Circus Redickuless came to its end. But Chicken continues on with new cohorts on their mission of mischief, challenging the world to ask what talent really means. And you'll never know when they'll strike again.
JOHN: You know, we're like the militia. We're always in reserve - you know what I mean? - to come ruin the day or save the day, whatever is more important.
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WASHINGTON: Chicken John's misadventures are continued in "The Book Of IS." We'll have a link on snapjudgment.org. That piece was produced by Jamie DeWolf and Mark Ristich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.