I had a near catastrophe at the Wisconsin State Fair this year. The last routine that I do in my outdoor show is a combination trick where I do a whole bunch of stuff at once. I juggle two balls in one hand, do Loop-the-Loop with a yo-yo in the other hand, spin a top on a helmet on my head, pump a foot-pump that is attached to a squeaky balloon with my foot, and blow a party horn with my mouth. Not surprisingly, I need some help to get the trick started, so I always ask for a volunteer.

When I select my volunteer I usually point at them and mention what color they are wearing, or if they have a hat or glasses or some other distinguishing feature. Then, especially if they are unsure who I’m talking about, I sometimes say, “Yeah you, the one with the head… and the arms.”

I was doing a show for a really big crowd at the Wisconsin State Fair, and when it was time to pick a volunteer I picked a little Asian boy who had his hand up. He hesitated, so I started to say my standard thing, but since he was partially obscured behind another kid I said, “Yeah you, the one with the head… and the arm.” It was a good thing that I switched to the singular because when he stood up, everyone could immediately see that he only had one arm. The crowd got nervous.

Ordinarily I have the volunteer hold the juggling balls in one hand, and the yo-yo in the other and I make a little left-hand/right-hand joke, but obviously I skipped over that one. The kid had a normal left arm, and a small hand sticking out of his right shoulder. As I asked him to hold onto all the props I was worried for a second that he might not be able to do it, but of course he managed just fine. I went on with the routine explaining what he had to do, what I was going to do, and that when I said so he needed to run for his life.

At this point, after I had been talking to the kid for several minutes, a woman from his group yelled to me that he didn’t speak English.

“He doesn’t speak any English at all?” I said.
“Just a little bit.” She said holding up her fingers to show me a very small amount. “He’s Chinese.”
“Well, that’s ok…[long pause]… it’ll just make this all that much funnier.” I said.

That got a big reaction from the audience. It was the kind of laughter that says, “that’s funny, and I’m laughing, but I’m very uncomfortable with this whole situation, and how are you going to get yourself out of it?” I took a minute to acknowledge the crowd’s reaction, to laugh to myself about this situation I was in, and then I just blazed right on ahead.

I got the trick going, got the kid to hand me the props he was holding, and I started yelling, “Run! Run like the wind!” No surprise, since the kid didn’t speak English he just stood there. I kept yelling, “Run!” and I started pointing, as if that was going to help, while yelling, “Run! Run from the horrible man!”

Fortunately, someone from the audience yelled, “Run!” in Chinese and the kid took off. I completed the trick, and the crowd roared. Before everyone cleared out I ran over to the kid and gave him a big high-five just to make sure everything was ok, and to thank him for helping me out.

For a moment there I thought I was doomed, but in the end picking that kid made the show way better, and I’m pretty sure that he had as much fun as I did… I guess I’ll never know though since he only spoke Chinese.