The Secret Lives of Comedy Jugglers

Matt Baker and Louie Foxx are practitioners of the arcane showbiz arts. Foxx (left) does comedy, magic, rope tricks and shadow puppets, among many other things. For fun, he operates a joke-telling robot named Robo. Baker (below right) does comedy, escape artistry and stunts like catching a bowling ball on his face. He runs a mobile curiosity museum on the side. They both have multiple Guinness Book World Records.

Foxx and Baker are also jugglers, and with this obscure but bankable skill they get more bookings than most standups I know. Many comics disdain jugglers, but as a fellow showman I’m impressed by the way they manage to earn a (better) living. I’m fascinated the difficulty of what they doever try to juggle meat cleavers?and the specialized entertainment vocabulary it requires.

I sat down with Baker and Foxx over coffee in Georgetown to ask some questions about their livelihoods.    

You’re not just jugglers, right?
BAKER: I call my show a comedy stunt show. For me, a traditional juggler is someone in the circus who’s dedicated their life to honing their seven minutes. A lot of these people will practice for 15-20 years just to have a seven minute set-

FOXX: -and they do that until they can’t physically do it anymore.

BAKER:  They do it their whole lives, that same seven minutes. I had a lot of weird skills as a kid. At 17 I was a pro hacky sack player sponsored by Snickers candy bars, and I toured Europe playing hacky sack. Once I realized you couldn’t really make money long-term that way, I was like, “What else can I do?” So I learned to juggle and messed around with standup.

FOXX: I’m primarily a magician. People would ask, “You do magic, can you juggle?”

What does the circuit look like for juggling?
FOXX: I do a ton of libraries. They have a theme every year so you have to write a show based on their theme. It forces you to create, but at the end of the day they’re easy, get-the-money shows. It’s not a show I’m gonna be doing ten years from now.

For kids?
FOXX: Mostly kids, but I think I get a lot of work because my show has grownup humor. So it’s not like, “My kids are gonna watch this and I’m gonna sit in the back and text.”

I’m doing a bunch of fairs over the summer. Last year I tried to get out of the library circuit. I did no marketing and still did 73 libraries.

BAKER: You always get more work when you don’t market. [Laughs]

FOXX: This year I embraced it and did a little marketing and only did 53. But then I did a bunch of county fairs this year.

BAKER: A traditional standup, you’re limited in the venues you can perform at, especially if you can’t work clean. This month alone I’ve done a fair, a bunch of colleges, a cruise ship, a corporate event, and tomorrow I’m doing a retirement home. You can work at a lot more venues than you can as a standup.

FOXX: We can work during the day. When I first started doing paid comedy gigs, Brad Upton said, “You’re so lucky because you can work during the day.” I was 22, and I was like, “Fuck, I don’t wanna work during the day!” Now I’m in my 30s and I’m like, “Working during the day is awesome!”

It seems like you need some extra “thing” to do comedy in the daytime. For a comic, any daytime show sounds terrible. If it’s not dark and there isn’t any alcohol-
FOXX: So you add a visual component to it.

BAKER: If people aren’t into laughing, you have this other thing you can do to get their attention and stimulate them and keep them as an active participant in your show.

FOXX: Once you have the visual component, it’s something that can run. They’re not laughing, but if I do this trick or stunt it’s gonna fill five minutes.

You can’t bomb in the same way, right? Because you’re doing something that astounds them?
FOXX: Ehhhhh. [Laughs]

What’s bombing look like for a juggler?
BAKER: Same as bombing for a comic. They’re just not responsive to the things you’re doing. My show is so comedy-driven that if they don’t laugh, I’m fucked. I will talk for so long and then my trick will be 30 seconds, and sometimes I’ll fuck that up-

FOXX: It’s a long drive into nowhere.

BAKER: Imagine if you have a five-minute story with one punchline at the end and then you stumble on that punchline.

Jugglers are shat on by comedians more than anyone. Most standup comics, even if they’re just joking, are like, “Jugglers are the lowest form of entertainment.” Why is that?
BAKER: A lot of comics are egotistical. They think they’re the top of the food chain-

FOXX: -like what they’re doing is pure and we’re muddling it up.

BAKER: You use props and people look at you like, “You need this thing to get laughs.” Also, there just aren’t a lot of people who do it well. The people who do it well aren’t working clubsthey’re out making real money. [Laughs] Louie will go open for someone at a casino at seven but he’ll book two school assemblies during the day, so he’s making more than the headliner.

I’m still amazed that people shit on what we do. It’s entertainment. We’re doing our own original content in our own voice. I think it’s funny that I’m called a hack, when there’s all these white male comics saying the exact same things in the exact same way and here I am, the only person in the world who does a lot of the stuff I do, but I’m being called the hack.

Maybe there’s a little jealousy there?
BAKER: I don’t think so. [Laughs] Look at Billy Crystal. He sings, he dances. All these old school comics are cut from Vaudeville. People did everything; they sang, they, danced, they acted, they did impressions. Johnny Carson was a magician!

FOXX: Arsenio hall was a magician!

BAKER: Eddie Izzard was a street performer and magician. All those guys have a background in some sort of variety entertainment.

It does feel closer to the roots of Vaudeville, the showmanship and mass entertainment appeal of it. Whereas comedy has become this very fragmented thing. “I do smart, liberal comedy.” “I do blue collar comedy.”
BAKER: You want to have as many tools in your toolbox as you can. If it’s a family show I can do family entertainment.

FOXX: Part of why the magician or juggler gets looked down on is because you associate them with the bad show at a kid’s party or something that came to your school.

BAKER: There are a lot of bad acts that do what we do and they make a killing.

Are there as many bad jugglers, percentage-wise, as there are bad comedians?
BAKER: No, not at all. Look at how many people do comedy in the country. I went to an open mic at Jai Thai and I was like 45th on the list. There aren’t 45 jugglers in Seattle alone. To pull off a 30 minute set of juggling, you’ve gotta have some chops at least.

FOXX: Either you have some chops or it’s straight hack stuff. There’s no middle ground.

BAKER: When you have that skill, it does enable people to not write for themselves. We write together and it’s all original content, but there are people who buy routines. A magician will buy a routine and do it verbatim.

FOXX: I’m sort of guilty of facilitating that, because when I travel I do workshops for pro magicians. Essentially they’re buying stuff I’ve created.

Maybe that’s where the legitimacy comes into play. 
FOXX: That’s bigger in magic. In juggling it’s all the street jokes.

BAKER: Yeah, it’s a lot of street hack jokes. That’s why I don’t call myself a juggler at all, because people have a negative association with it. My act has the pacing and feel of a comedy show but then I do these unusual skills. That’s why I call it a comedy stunt show. I only juggle once in my show, but I get called a juggler a lot because that’s the one thing they can associate with-

FOXX: It’s easy to put a label on.

There’s a sense of two marginalized groups, comics and jugglers, with one seeking to further marginalize the other. “At least I’m not those guys.”
BAKER: To be honest, I feel like the people who shit on us the most are the people who don’t make a living at it. I got to go to China twice this year, Korea, Japan, all over the Caribbean—because I have this element of my show. Standups aren’t doing that so I’m happy to take those gigs. I’m happy to not go to Dubuque, Iowa for the weekend. I’d rather go to Beijing and kick it. [Laughs]

Visit Baker’s website and Foxx’s website.

Photo Credit: Images 1 and 3 by John Cornicello