Interview: Michael Davis

 
 

Comedian/Juggler Michael Davis talks to Conor Luke Barry about how he’s not a comedian, his favourite US presidents and how he never got salmonella

There seems to be quite a cut and paste approach to making it big in show business in America, be it through singing, acting, dancing, or, for the adventurous, a combination of all three. Juggling, however, is not something you’d normally associate with entertainment industry renown; you’d barely even associate it with a viable way to make a living. Yet juggling extraordinaire Michael Davis did just that, successfully crossing that tricky barrier of niche appeal and becoming somewhat of a national star. Davis went from a travelling circus, to becoming a top street performer, moved onto a Broadway show in 1980 and eventually performed for multiple presidents at the White House.

With such a bizarre career path, Davis explains how he started: “When I was a lad, my plan was to avoid any real type of work, other than the odd job doing manual labour so I could feed myself and become a poet. When I left high school in the early 1970s, I rented a house for $35 a month in the most dangerous section of San Francisco. I was 19. I lived alone and got a typewriter, I thought I would be able to sit alone in a room and write my life story and obviously that was a problem. The life story was not in that room. So I left the room and performed on the stage with an Improvisational theatre group called Improv Incorporated, where there were girls.”

Moving on from his earlier clowning days, Davis honed a more reserved act as a well dressed, nonchalant juggler. This brought him much notoriety, appearing multiple times on Saturday Night Live, opening for Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas, as well his multiple performances for various US presidents. “I have been lucky to meet five US presidents: President Ford, President Reagan, President Bush, President Clinton, and President Bush. President George Herbert Walker Bush is a lovely man and invited me to his home in Kennebunkport, Maine to perform for the birthday the party he was having for Barbara Bush, his wife. He gave me a cheque to pay for the show; I told him I wouldn’t cash it, and he sent me a nice watch, which I keep in a safe deposit box.”

The act that made him famous includes tricks such as juggling a machete, a butcher’s knife and an axe, Davis deadpanning: “It’s a very old axe. It belonged to George Washington. I had to replace the handle… and the head”. Another trick involves juggling a bowling ball, an apple, and an egg, eating from the apple as he does so, inevitably enough ‘accidentally’ putting the raw egg into his mouth. “I have probably smashed 2000 eggs in my mouth. Salmonella is a concern but hasn’t happened.”

As impressive as all of these tricks are, it is Davis’ likeable personality and comic timing that sell his set, a humourous mix of overly confident about his purposely less impressive tricks and self-deprecating about his spectacular stunts. “The funny thing is I never really realised I used a deadpan style so much until I went to New York and the reviewers described me as lugubrious and deadpan.”

Having said this, Davis doesn’t see himself as a comedian: “I am not a stand up comedian because when I juggle or play the guitar or use a skill, I have a justification to be on the stage. Then one becomes a juggler, or a ventriloquist or a magician. In my experience, even if I do a bit of pure stand-up before I begin to juggle, I am still not a “stand-up”, because I know where I am going eventually. It’s cheating.”

Comedian or not, his comic timing is such an integral part of his act that it’s hard not to feel that he’s been influenced by other comedians. In fact, his self-deprecating schtick is reminiscent of Steve Martin’s early stage work. “I was very influenced by Steve Martin. He was the first comedian I ever saw live. I was 20 years old. I was going to see a folk singer named U. Utah Philips at The Boarding House in San Francisco. Steve Martin was the un-billed opening act. At the time I had just learned to juggle and I saw that he juggled a bit too. At the end of his act Steve use to walk down off the stage and in to the audience and just stand there which was weird and that’s why he did it. He stood next to me, and I said, ‘Hey, I juggle too’. He said ‘great!’ or something like that, in his Steve Martin way. Much later Steve Martin was a headliner at that same nightclub and I was a waiter. I suggested he come down to Fisherman’s Wharf and see me street performing. He did, with a beautiful girl on his arm. At the time the street performers favourite hat pitch line (that I was using too) was ‘If you can give, please give and if you can’t give, don’t give, but whatever you do, don’t take.’ Mr. Martin rewrote the ending to ‘…what ever you do, please give!’ I used that line for the next 3 years.”

Davis currently tours around America. Forever modest, he comments on his new act saying “My latest performances are so mind blowingly funny, deep, and philosophical that all of art will be influenced well into the 22nd century. You should see them.”

You can find out more about Michael Davis at michaeldavisentertainment.com

 

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