Juggling Act

BY THE SUMMER of 1984, Chris Bliss had stumbled into the most coveted spotlight in show business. After opening for touring pop luminaries like Julio Iglesias and Kenny Loggins, the then 30-year-old juggler had serendipitously snagged a spot on Michael Jackson's "Victory Tour," playing to stuffed and sweaty stadium crowds. Bliss was, by his own account, the most famous juggler in the world. He was also miserably bored. "You can be the world's most famous juggler, and still nobody knows your name," he explains from the stage of the Southern Theater, where he is producing the premiere of his new one-man show, appropriately titled I Was the World's Most Famous Juggler (And Other Dirty Laundry). "I'd had my big 15 minutes of fame and there was nowhere to go. I suppose I could have moved to Vegas and become a 12-minute casino act, but I'd rather blow my fucking head off."

Instead, Bliss ditched his balls and pins, and started working the club circuit as a standup comic. During a series of one-night stands in the hinterlands of Wisconsin, he ran into Minneapolis native and Mystery Science Theater alum Josh Weinstein. The two comedians shared a ride to their next gig, and by the time they arrived, they had become fast friends. As Weinstein listened to Bliss's outlandish stories, the younger comic decided that his new friend's life would make a fine play. And so a few years later, the pair began working on I Was the World's Most Famous Juggler.

These days, Bliss and Weinstein look like a natural comic team: The former juggler has a wiry build and a thin, scrubbed face, while his much younger partner has the pleasant, earnest demeanor of the longtime straight man. Both have enjoyed considerable success as transplanted Los Angelinos--Bliss as a comic, and Weinstein as a writer for America's Funniest Home Videos and NBC's upcoming teen series Freaks and Geeks--yet both are also happy to be back on familiar turf (Weinstein is a native; Bliss lived in Minneapolis for two years). "In L.A.," says Bliss, "they think a one-person show is just a longer standup routine with the childhood jokes at the beginning and the Depends jokes at the end. Audiences here are so much more open and receptive and so much less jaded. In L.A., there's all this neck-turning to see if whoever just walked in is famous."

Despite the title, Bliss and Weinstein's show is only peripherally concerned with the perils of juggling fame. Instead, their "dramedy" is a series of connected anecdotes about growing up in Washington, D.C., during the Cold War ("The threat of mutual assured destruction really took the pressure off me," explains Bliss); show-business follies (Bliss was once convinced by a girlfriend to perform in a clown costume); and, most significant, the assisted suicide of Bliss's brother, who was dying of AIDS. "Like most good stories," explains Bliss, "it's not really about what it's about. Life winds up being more about the questions you ask than the answers you get back. If you ask bad questions, the answers don't matter and you end up as the world's most famous juggler. If you ask the right questions, like my brother did, you end up with some pretty deep and profound answers."

A potentially thorny subject, perhaps, for a former juggler and a onetime joke writer for Bob Saget, but according to Bliss, their show is both lighter than it sounds, and less cathartic. "We don't want to uplift anyone," he says with a grin. "If you need uplifting, you're pathetic."

 
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