Having just finished another great MadFest juggling convention I have come to a better understanding of why there was such a controversy over the popularity of the Chris Bliss video that swept the internet a while back. (If you haven’t already seen it, check it out here before you read the rest of this article.)

MadFest is the annual regional juggler’s convention that is held each January in Madison Wisconsin. I have helped organize it to one degree or another since it started. For the last six years I have been in charge of the Public Show.

This year, as usual, we had a fantastic show. We had great jugglers like Luke Wilson (Brittish, living in Germany) and the Dew Drop Jugglers (Minneapolis/St. Paul MN) and we had great variety acts like The Rope Warrior (Chicago) and the Flybar Pogo Stick Demo Team (Chicago/Ohio), and sold out our 1300 seat theater once again. It’s always a challenge convincing people to go to the show, but once they go they are usually astonished at how great it was. For the most part, once people have seen the show they make it a family tradition to go every year. Initially it was frustrating to me that people didn’t seem to believe me that the show was going to be good enough to be worth seeing. I eventually got over the fact that not everyone thinks juggling is as cool as I do, although that never seemed like the whole story. This year I think I have seen the light, and my frustration has changed to a slightly different form: I think that American society no longer believes that live entertainment is worth the trouble.

I don’t know exactly where this lack of faith comes from, and of course there are exceptions like Broadway and rock concerts, but for the most part Americans won’t make the effort to see live shows. In our modern society people tend to be more isolated from their neighbors than ever before. There is more fear than ever about the dangers of the wide world outside (sometimes justifiably), and that is combined with less reason to leave the home to find high quality entertainment. People just don’t go out as much as they used to. With the amazing advances in technology we can have more top-quality entertainment at our fingertips than we will ever have time for. But, in my opinion, nothing can ever beat being in the audience of a great live show. Ever. This is where Chris Bliss comes in. Stick with me though, I’ll get back to him in a minute.

I have long wondered why the great old vaudeville theaters are so grand, and modern theaters are usually so boring. For a while I thought it was just the style at the time, or that we don’t value ornate buildings anymore, but that’s not it. I have been reading a history of Vaudeville called “No Applause, Just Throw Money” by Trav S.D. and it has shed some light on this question. It all comes down to money. When the great Vaudeville theaters were built, Vaudeville WAS the entertainment industry. The whole thing… or nearly so anyway. The content of the shows was always changing and the customer never completely knew what they were going to see. As a result, one of the only ways the theater had to bring people to their shows, and not those of their competitor across the street, was to build a fantastic theater that people wanted to come to. Part of the reason that it was worth the expense was that live performance was the only game in town. Radio was in its infancy and television did not yet exist, so if you wanted entertainment you went out to the theater. It was a big market.

Ok, back to Chris Bliss. One of the reasons his video was such a big hit is that it struck at just the right cultural moment. Many jugglers complained that his performance was not particularly good because the juggling wasn’t difficult, but there is no question that it was a great performance if you listen to the reaction of the crowd. Although I think that with fairly little effort Chris Bliss could make that routine a lot better, it is definitely a great performance, and if the point is to make a living, a great performance is the most important thing of all.

The Chris Bliss video is not a live performance, but it is a recording of a live performance, and the reaction of the crowd is infectious even through a computer monitor. So what the video turns out to be is a live performance that happens to be in just the right format to get in front of millions of people who don’t go out to see live performance, and they loved it.

That is exactly why the Chris Bliss phenomenon was so frustrating. I do not know Chris Bliss. I have nothing against him or his performance. If we were friends I would give him some constructive criticism, and he might or might not take it. I have seen many, many truly great performances in my time as a working professional entertainer, and as an avid attendee of juggler’s conventions; what frustrates me is that my knowledge of great live performances shouldn’t be anything special. It should be something that all Americans have in common. We have an astonishing number of truly great live entertainers in this country, and most people don’t know it. If we had a successful network of cabarets and other smaller more accessible live entertainment venues like they have in Germany, the Chris Bliss phenomenon would not have happened because Americans would already know that great live entertainment exists. There are many great performers from around the world who live and work in Germany because there are so many performing opportunities, and Germans appreciate live performance.

By the popularity of the TV show America’s Got Talent it seems as though there is some demand in this country for variety arts, but that show will not be the one to deliver it to us. After reading some of their legal documents, and talking to former contestants, it is clear that the show was created to find musicians and sign recording contracts.

I know how convenient it is to not have to leave your home to get a movie, or how easy it is to just flip on the TV and find something great to watch, but I think that American society as a whole is really missing out on a great resource that is within easy reach. What we need now is a venue for it, and to get up off our collective butts and see some great shows.


Chris Bliss Diss video by Jason Garfield. This one got a LOT of heat, and made it to the national news. It is from the viewpoint of a highly technical juggler.

Amazing Juggling Video. Perhaps the best juggling video I have ever seen. Keep in mind that videos and performances are not the same thing.