Double juggle, trial and trouble
They've performed for the Oscars, CEOs, and the OJ Simpson trial jury. Now the Raspyni Brothers are juggling back to their roots on the streets of Dublin, writes Peter Crawley
There have certainly been more auspicious starts to a performing career than that afforded to Barry Friedman and Dan Holzman. Two jugglers from California who had clicked together in their early 20s, their big break was performing in a slot at a Renaissance fair in Chicago - "It's where Americans pretend they're European for a day or two," explains Friedman - in 1982.
There they donned big bloomers, stripy tights and dodgy Olde English accents, passing a hat around a disinterested crowd when the juggling act was finished. They had no schedule, no salary.
Holzman fondly remembers the words of encouragement they first received from their boss: "We don't need you here." A likeable Californian with a soft voice and a rising wry inflection, Holzman also remembers sitting with his performance partner on a bale of hay, looking out on the pouring rain, and suggesting that they think about pursuing more indoor opportunities.
The ensuing 25 years have taken them into television studios (from Johnny Carson to Jay Leno), into Las Vegas shows (supporting Tom Jones and Robin Williams, among others) into the Oscars, and - only in LA - into the courtroom of the OJ Simpson trial.
Today, they are most likely to be found in the function rooms of corporate America, entertaining the staff of Google, Amazon or General Electric, where the money is very good, the conditions are very dry, and nobody tells them that they are not needed. For three days this weekend, however, after nine years of near-exclusively indoor comforts, they have decided to venture outside again and enter the AIB Street Performance World Championship - the hugely successful start-up festival of last summer, now bigger and attached to a corporate sponsor.
"Yeah, usually we're out robbing corporate America of their hard-earned cash," says Friedman from his home in Sacramento. "That's what we spend most of our time doing. Except when we go to Ireland." Holzman chips in: "Once or twice a year we'll pick an event that we think sounds like fun and we'll do it just because we want to do it. Most of the time we're just doing shows for companies because of the money they'll pay us. We've never been to Ireland and we've heard some great things about the festival from some friends of ours." "Was that a little bit too honest to open with?" wonders Friedman.
I did think it would take longer than 30 seconds to broach the subject, but the Raspyni Brothers have a sunny irony about their position as corporate clowns. Their website, for instance, proudly brands them as "Corporate entertainment you'll never top". It offers customised performances, from keynote speeches to product launches ("Let the top-brass prove their commitment to success by standing between the blazing torches and razor-sharp knives of the Raspyni Brothers") and carries a bright litany of famous CEO endorsements: "You guys are the Google of comedy," insists the search-engine's founder, Sergey Brin.
When a Raspyni Brothers appearance can cost a company anything from $10,000 to $20,000 (according to one talent booking website), their forthcoming appearances as one of 13 international performers in Merrion Square this weekend (which costs only what you decide to pay for it) starts to look like a seriously good bargain. "We don't do much pass-the-hat work any more," says Holzman. "Those are our roots," adds Friedman. "When we get to Ireland you'll see that there's not much dirt thrown over those roots at all."
How do you describe the Raspyni Brothers' act? Largely, it is a balance between perfect skill and throwaway humour - one of Holzman's long-standing opening gambits is to juggle three clubs "while thinking about something else" - but the more the act advances, with its apparently failing tricks and stealthy corrections, its unwieldy objects such as golf clubs, balanced on top of other golf clubs, somehow balanced on top of Holzman's forehead, the more their wits fall in line with their coordination: in both cases, quick responses are crucial.
"In an hour-long show I think there's 12 minutes of juggling," says Friedman. "It depends more heavily on the comedy. We've learned over the years that that certainly has a wider appeal. But if you throw in something very bizarre that people have never seen and don't expect to see, the combination is very winning."
"I recently came to an epiphany," says Holzman. "I've been doing motivational tapes quite a bit because that's what I'm into - and they talk about finding your passion. I thought, is my passion juggling? Because that becomes a hobby when you've been doing it for such a long time. But I realised that I do have a passion for making people laugh and for making people happy. And that passion has never waned. To me the juggling is a type of vehicle that allows for a humour that is not offensive. Usually humour has to pick on one group or idea - it's political, or religious, or sexist, or whatever - but by having a framework where the comedy is purely situational, it's about what you're doing and the silliness of juggling. It kind of creates a very universally enjoyable humour."
This is good news for families in need of entertainment, but, on the other hand, such accessibility also seems to cause the Raspyni Brothers some concern. During a recent Edinburgh Fringe Festival, for instance, a reporter dismissed them as a safe option. "He said, 'They don't have the high unicycles'," reports Holzman. "'They don't have much danger.' Whereas we always thought of our show as a sitcom with props. It's more about the situations and the relationship. That's one reason we're not a top street act, which we're fine with. To be a top street act you really need to play up the 'I'm going to kill myself' angle."
There may be another reason for their reluctance to give offence, though, which owes much to the sensitivities of their regular patrons. At a recent performance, Holzman made a relatively harmless reference to Brokeback Mountain. "Oh, it was nothing," he says. "Something about having the director's cut of Brokeback Mountain at home and it was scratch and sniff." Later they were told that, while the show was great, the joke was offensive.
"The culture is so conservative" in the US, he continues. "They want their shows to be Disneyland clean." Friedman, too, has some stridently liberal politics, which he will iterate with the vigour of someone usually forced to swallow his views so as not to rile the shareholders. "It's not a great time in the world to be an American, believe it or not," he says with typical understatement. "A lot of the world looks at America as a whole bunch of George Dubyas walking around. We don't ever get to say anything about that. We don't get to represent America another way when we're in corporate America. So we get to say things in a street show that we never get to say on a corporate stage." Such are the sacrifices of any street performer who has ever decided that one day it might be nice to have a pension and a dental plan. Indeed, though Friedman talks up his liberal politics, his response to another question is more in line with big business: when did they decide to go full-time into corporate entertainment? "In our first six-figure year," he says.
The Raspynis have played for tougher crowds than industry conferences, "secret of success" motivational seminars and shareholder AGMs, however. In 1996, at the height of the OJ Simpson trial, they performed for the sequestered jury. "It was in the exact court room where everything took place, on a Saturday morning," recalls Friedman. "The jury was sequestered so they couldn't go anywhere except the hotel and the court room, so we did our show right in the court room." Are there knives in the act? "Yes, there are knives," he says. "Do you want to know if we pulled them out of envelopes?" "It was the most ridiculous thing you could imagine," says Holzman. "Nobody told us, 'don't do this' or 'don't say that'. At the time nobody could see the jury, so we had a 'backstage' look at the courtroom, which was much smaller than you could imagine, and also at the jurists. And when you do a show it's sort of easy to gauge the intelligence level of the crowd, based on what jokes they get and what they don't."
How intelligent did they find the jury that famously acquitted OJ Simpson? "Well," answers Holzman, juggling his options, "have you ever been at a bus station late at night?"
The AIB Street Performance World Championships takes place from tomorrow until Sun in Merrion Square between noon and 7pm. Admission is free. www.spwc.ie