[2018 marks the 44th year that the Puke & Snot Show has been annoying renaissance festival visitors and comedy clubs everywhere. 2018 will also introduce Snot Version 3.0, Mr. Scott Jorgenson stepping into the stained, sweaty and overstretched tights worn the past ten years by John Paul Gamoke, who saw the error of his ways last fall and gracefully retired. John replaced the Original Snot, The One and Only Joe Kudla, who abruptly picked up his sword and went home ten years ago in August. The one common thread through all this loopy frivolity has been me. Ralph Puke. I don’t know how I’ve made it to this point, but the audiences still show up and the laughs are still loud and long in all the wrong places. John and I had just finished a performance at the Royal Fox Stage in Maryland last October, we were standing by the merchandise cart when a group of twenty-somethings strolled by. One of the guys trailing the group, clutching a beer, turned around and said merrily, “You guys are hysterical.” I was touched. “Thanks,” I replied. He took three more steps, stopped, turned around and finished his thought: “You’re older than fuck, but you’re HYSTERICAL.”
So as Henny Youngman told Joe and me at dinner one night at Jimmy Hegg’s in South Minneapolis back in the 70s, “If they want to pay you for it, and it’s what you love doing, you don’t have a choice: just go do it.” Henny was still doing malls and club dates well into his 80s. Just doing it.
I’m working on a second book, the sequel to CALL ME PUKE: A Life on the Dirt Circuit. For the next few months I’ll be posting excerpts from what I hope will eventually be book #2. It doesn’t have a title yet, but given my penchant for rambling on about my curiously long career working in the open air in front of heavy-drinking, over-fed, over-stimulated festival crowds, I’m sure whatever I come up with will be appropriately colorful. For now, it’s AS I WAS SAYING]
How do you convince a couple of home grown Minnesota actors to leave their flyover city and take their odd little comedy act on the road? Why would you do that? What’s wrong with you? Leave them alone.
Ever since the Phoenicians invented money, there’s only been one way to convince an actor to go anywhere and do anything. But if you’re trying to get a job at a renaissance festival, don’t put the word “dignity” on your resume. That isn’t part of the deal. Just pack up the Nash Rambler, get out of town and take your chances.
There will be costs. The home life may suffer. (If only one of you has a home life, it’s a bit easier) Sharing a hotel room to save money can be a poor choice when one of you has a diet that would give pause to a Kalahari goat. And it can be particularly disturbing late at night in humid Miami when the air conditioning isn’t working and the shark steak, french fries and Bloody Marys begin to work their gastric magic on your roommate.
Festival producers, a sub-category of humanity that can be found listed just above mattress salesmen and one step below meth dealers, can be unreliable about contracts. Staging can be dicey. One show in Toronto had us working under a roller coaster. While it was in operation. Audiences can be testy and unpredictable, like the Shriner’s Kickoff party where we were sandwiched into the program between the beer-drinking contest, a guy playing three trumpets while bouncing on a pogo stick in and around pools of spilled beer, and just ahead of the stripper. Five minutes into our show an unimpressed, well-oiled guest yelled, “Where’d ya get the tights, Romeo?” I know my limits. I’ve never paid any attention to them, but I know them. I’m an artist, goddammit. I hissed to Joe “Cut to the final swordfight.” He gave me a startled look, we did, took a bow, and walked offstage.
JOE: “What are you doing? We only did five minutes, they won’t pay us.”
ME: “Oh yeah? Watch.”
We quickly changed clothes, I found the guy who hired us talking to the stripper’s bodyguard. I stuck out my hand and with great relief he handed me the $500 check. He was overjoyed that we’d bailed out. The revelers wanted to see the dancing lady, and our little costume comedy was an unnecessary distraction. This was an early lesson: before booking a show, always find out who the audience will be, how long the bar is open, and if anybody on the bill is going to be naked.
Road life for an actor is a continuous and unpredictable series of encounters and skirmishes that, at the time they were happening, we both knew would make for excellent stories around the campfire at the next festival when the newbies were eager to hear some rip-roaring tales from the wily road warriors.
In this series of posts, I hope to reveal not only some of the delightful and terrifying surprises we encountered in our years entertaining crowds from New York to Florida, Vancouver to San Diego and lots of places in between, but how it came to be that a conservatively raised Catholic boy, the son of small town Minnesota parents– who knelt with their boys on the cold linoleum floor of their drafty farm house every night to say the rosary, thereby causing their eldest son, fifty-eight years later, to undergo knee replacement surgery and blame his parents for it—how that boy ended up as Uncle Puke, a political liberal with a well-honed skepticism of most forms of authority, carving out a strange career as an actor and comedy performer at renaissance festivals, just the kind of pure, exuberant joy conservatives have always warned us about.
Part 1: DON’T KISS ME, I’M DEAD [to be continued]
–Mark Sieve/Uncle Puke