How is Vegas treating jugglers?
A few months back The Long Run blog’s founder Brett Spurr was in Vegas and observed an interesting economic phenomenon: while hotel room prices were at all-time lows, food was now pricier. So a hotel room at a major hotel might run you $50 a night but the Coke machine on your floor is now charging double. The old “if you can’t make it in popcorn, make it in peanuts” strategy.
Brett cautioned his observations were purely anecdotal. I thought I’d follow up on Brett’s intriguing observation by wrangling my connection1 with Vegas local Michael Goudeau (former co-host of the Penn Jillette Radio Show and an occasional panelist for the yearly The Amazing Meeting) and get his observations about how the down economy is affecting what is surely one of the most interesting local economies on earth.
Karl: Let’s start with Brett’s observation. Being a Vegas local have you noticed food in the touristy areas getting pricier?
Michael: I haven’t noticed that. If I’m in that little room near a Coke machine in the hallway of a hotel it’s because I’m hiding from security.
Actually, when I came to Vegas in 1983 there were a million super cheap dining options. Steak and lobster was a buck and most of the buffets were incredibly inexpensive BUT you couldn’t easily get great food here. The food sucked. Super sucked. Now Vegas has almost all of the big names in the chef industry here with their own restaurants. Even the buffets at many hotels are now great. The food is now incredibly good but expensive.
The tickets prices for shows have also gone way up.
The original intent was that a show or inexpensive food would draw people into your hotel and they would gamble. It wasn’t important to the hotel that Sinatra cover his costs. He drew people into the casino, they gambled while there, and, since this is the land of bad math, they lost. Those losses were the reason tickets and food used to be inexpensive. Hotels don’t seem to operate that way any longer. The food and the shows must make more than the costs to run them and so prices reflect that. I don’t know if that’s a better way to run things or not but it is how things are currently done.
Karl: Your day job is working as a staff juggler for a magician at a major casino?
Michael: Actually, it’s a night job. I’m the featured act in the Lance Burton, Master Magician show. We have shows Tuesday through Saturday night at 7 PM at the Monte Carlo Hotel.
Karl: Gambling, of course, is what Vegas is known for and I guess the town will always have its core constituents: people trying to save the family business at the roulette table. But it strikes me that the big shows like Lance Burton, Penn & Teller, Mac King, and Carrot Top are shows that depend on tourists leaving the slots and being a bit more free with their money. How have crowds been since the downturn last year?
Michael: There has been a definite slowdown in ticket sales. Vegas has busy and slow seasons. During the busy season, because the show regularly sells out, things are still pretty close to normal. During the slow times there is a noticeable drop in show attendance. This week it seems a little busier, but since we’ve done only one show so far this week that is incredibly optimistic. By 8:30 PM tonight my financial prediction may be crushed beyond recognition.
Karl: You don’t have to name names, but you circulate with some of the richest show people in Vegas. You made a funny observation once that your children’s friends all have parents who have their images on big billboards that line the road to the airport. Have you noticed the down economy affecting them (the rich parents, not the little kids) at all?
Michael: Many of the “big” acts make a reasonable part of their money performing for corporate functions. Everyone takes off and performs for annual “We Are Giants, Inc.” business meetings. Those meetings, because of stupid comments made by many sources, have been scaled back and that affects everyone who performs at those shows.
I should explain my “stupid comments” stupid comment; we need people to spend money to have an economy. Someone said the rich should stop flying jets and having parties because it looks bad. That idea is INCREDIBLY stupid. That means that everyone in the jet, party, hotel, restaurant, entertainment, and every other industry that supports those things, and everywhere the people who work those things spend money get screwed. If the people who have money to spend are made to feel embarrassed about spending, then they don’t. Who the hell does that help?
Karl: Several years ago when you were co-host of the Penn Radio Show, you and Penn noted an interesting disparity between jugglers and comedians. Stand-up comedy for most comedians is low pay and it’s hard to get a regular job. But if you make it, top comedians are among the richest entertainers in the world. Jugglers on the other hand can usually find gainful employment but there are no rich jugglers. Is that an accurate assessment of your line of work?
Michael: That’s pretty accurate financially. If you were to star on a sit-com you might make great money for a year or two but then, well, does anyone know what Balki is making these days? Many jugglers make a pretty good salary every year. I don’t know how the math works out in the end. It seems like it might be a push.
Comedy juggling is a really fun job. Many jugglers make a comfortable living AND they do it doing something they love. I make a good salary and I have very short actual required work hours. I say “actual required” because juggling practice or writing are things that I can do anytime I feel like it. If I want to spend the day playing with my kids instead of practicing I can usually do that. I have a great deal of freedom to spend my day how I want. Right now my kids are on a “track break” at their school and they’re off for a month. I’m going to spend a lot time every day doing things with them. I have projects I could and should work on but none of them are time restricted. I hope none of the people waiting on me read this.
Karl: Lately you’ve taken to helping train a new generation of jugglers at UNLV. What’s the deal there?
Michael: I met a juggler/magician/college student (Jacob Jax) at a skeptic convention here in Vegas and he was just starting at UNLV. He asked if there were a juggling meeting in town. Jugglers often practice together to share tricks and hang out. My wife takes classes at UNLV so we decided to set up a juggling group. Now, every Tuesday at 10 AM (The time and day are for this semester. It will probably change next semester) a bunch of jugglers meet outside the student union and juggle for an hour and a half. I’m teaching them to pass clubs. Before a hang glider injury forced me into a solo act I was part of a juggling “team.” I’m a pretty lousy solo juggler but a very good club passer. I’m having a blast juggling with other people.
Karl: You’ve been with the Lance Burton show for more than a decade and in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, it was looking like Lance might retire. You quipped at one point that you’d be back in the job market for the first time in a decade. Was that a frightening prospect?
Michael: Before I was in Lance’s show unemployment meant a vacation until someone called me and asked if I’d work again. I would get in a van and go on a rock climbing expedition to Yosemite or to an island in Caribbean and live like a monkey until I had to go back to work. Since Lance hired me I’ve had gainful employment for 18 years. I’ve been lulled into the sense that juggling is a regular job. I forgot that comedy jugglers are an ethereal, non-essential part of everyone’s life. Now I have kids, and a wife, and a house. I now fear unemployment. My family doesn’t see the appeal of living out of the back of a van or hunting and gathering on a hot and humid island.
Since there was a chance the show would close, suddenly I needed a good web site with videos and photos of myself. I might even have needed an agent. I haven’t had those things in 18 years. I’ve been booked solid so I didn’t need them. I’ve got them now. (Except the agent. Anyone know a good agent? For those of you unfamiliar with agents, insert your favorite lawyer joke and replace the word “lawyer” with agent.)
Under the best circumstances I’d get jobs on cruise ships and at comedy clubs and state fairs. That meant that rather than this cushy life of watching kids on track break I’d be on the road. I honestly love working cruise ships and comedy clubs and state fairs but I don’t love being away from my family. I was really scared that I’d miss my kids growing up. Fortunately Lance signed a contract extension. It looks like I’ll get at least a couple more years of enjoying my family life. Once again I’m free to take any of those jobs as a temporary break from my routine and see them as positively delightful experiences.
Karl: You didn’t plan to be a juggler, you actually went to university to be a forest ranger. When was the last time you worked what many would consider a “regular” job?
Michael: I think the answer is never. I started doing shows on the street in San Francisco and at Renaissance Fairs when I was 16. I’ve done shows continually since then. For a short time I did run a movie theater. I was 18, but even then it was a family owned movie theater and there was no one else there. I sold tickets, made popcorn and sold candy, then ran upstairs to start the projector. It was old carbon arc projectors so I had to run up and change projectors every 20 minutes. It was the closest I’ve come to a “regular” job. I quit because I needed to be free to book juggling gigs whenever they came up.
Karl: Besides juggling for Lance, you do a really wide range of things. You’re head writer for Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! Showtime series. Sometimes you’re in Europe juggling on French TV. Sometimes you’re on a Japanese cruise ship performing your act in actual spoken Japanese. What else do you do? And why do you do it?
Michael: Part of the joy of a steady juggling job is that I’ve got the time to do crazy things. I’ve been stupid lucky to hook up with Penn and Teller. They’ve allowed me to write for them on a TV show that really means something to me.
I do a reasonable number of trade show gigs. I juggle on a trade show floor and talk about someone’s product or software. If you’ve got an “unsexy” product like a new protective metal box or something complex like nutritional analysis software you can hire me to juggle at your booth. I do a show and explain the product while keeping people laughing and entertained.
I perform at corporate events when a meeting needs something to wake people up or just to get them laughing.
I sometimes do shows like the Japanese cruise you mentioned when it sounds like something fun to do. Like most people I love to break the regular pattern of my life temporarily. I often do shows that are more work and don’t pay as well as my “regular” job just because they sound like fun. I think part of what makes me a successful comedian is my very serious commitment to fun.
I’ve done shows in Japanese, Spanish, French and Hungarian because it seemed like a fun challenge. I’ve stood on stage and tried to seem casual as I read lines in other languages that I’ve written on my arm with a Sharpie.
As long as we’re talking about the crazy stuff I do, somehow I also write speeches for people who want something more exciting than the usual. Thanks to a friend’s recommendation I am now the speech writer of choice for transplant surgeons. I do other professions too but for whatever reason the transplant surgeons have been my most regular customers. I think they’re busy saving lives so writing speeches is something they’d rather pawn of on a monkey. I am that monkey. I have always been a cheerleader for science and so I am SO excited to get to do something that makes me feel like I’m on “The Team.”
– Karl Mamer
1Disclosure: I develop Michael’s web site.
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