Saturday, February 8, 2014

New Week, New-ish Fair: Crackers, Giant Rats, and the Art of Patter

Well, the South Florida Fair has ended, and I'm now at the Florida State Fair in Tampa, some couple hundred miles northwest of where I was last week. 

I rode over in Benjamin's van, and really had the "deluxe traveling artist experience"--which includes very little sleep, driving behind a disassembled roller coaster on the highway, grooving to some Dave Matthews tunes, detouring to visit caricature pal Michael White, enjoying some alcoholic beverages, a hot tub, ooohing and aaahing over vintage comics, a few more alcoholic beverages, ending up sleeping at Michael White's, having coffee in a treehouse, going to a Waffle House in the same clothes I'd been wearing for 30+ hours, detouring to see sleeping manatees, then arriving in Tampa. 

Sarasota artist Michael White is the consummate host, by the way. His home and back yard are amazing, complete with expertly designed Koi pond and fire pit, and his cat is friendly and adorable (just like its owner). We had a fantastic time and he didn't roofie either one of us. 

Here in Tampa, we see many of the same names & faces, just in a different arrangement. Imagine someone upended your neighborhood, put all the buildings in a Yahtzee cup, shook them, and spilled them out in a new random pattern. There are a few new additions, and a few missing pieces, but it's familiar enough. 

We still have a tasty array of food on sticks:

TJ the Painter and Spencer (mentioned in my last post) are here, and I have spotted a few different funhouses with TJ's fine airbrush work adorning them. 

The Wacky Shack was a particularly fun find-a-caricature exercise. 

The West Palm fair has an old-timey space filled with trees and folks in antiquated garb, called Yesteryear Village; here in Tampa there's a similar place, it's just called Cracker Country. I'm not kidding about that. 
So if you're far enough down South, bear in mind that "cracker" is not the offensive term it is elsewhere in the country. Or maybe it is, except for the few history buffs manning their stations in Cracker Country.
It really is a beautiful area, with historic pine buildings and huge live oaks draped in Spanish moss. Little demonstrations on Cracker cookin', rope-makin', plowin', carvin' and other handicrafts missing the letter G take place all day.

Caricaturin' can be found closer to the midway, and (sadly), just like in West Palm we have loads of artists at this fair. Apparently the Florida fairs are always overpopulated by vendors because of the timing--no other shows are going on during January and February, so people try their luck down here knowing full well that there will be a load of redundancies.

For instance, we have two tornado-themed rides just steps from each other on the midway.

But wait . . . there are two rides called "The Enterprise" as well!
And then there's two rides called "Super Himalaya" (and you guessed it, we also have a plain old "Himalaya" too).
Bloody Hell, there are TWO different giant rat exhibits at this fair! On the same aisle even!
Just when you think you've hit on a specialized niche, right?

We are a bit unfortunate this year in that our neighbors are a couple of barkers trying to sign people up for time-share presentations. You know the sort. A word to the wise: If you are considering plopping money down to work a fair, FIND OUT IF TIME-SHARE ASSHOLES WILL BE NEXT TO YOU. And if so, avoid that spot at all costs. Your revenue will be cut in HALF because time-share barkers destroy neighboring businesses. By the time people walk past us they are doing the time-share hustle: shuffling quickly, avoiding eye contact, and saying "No thank you!" as the jerk with the clipboard pursues them with questions like "Are you part of a couple that lives together?" "Can I give you a free vacation?" "Are you two married?" 

I hate them. Almost as much as they hate themselves, I'm sure.

There is a more colorful brand of barking that I far prefer--not that the time-share people have the wit or showmanship to ever pull it off. Yet again, I have to mention my colleague Benjamin, who is a delight and a menace all in one package: he has the carny barker thing down. During slow days he cracks us up regularly with his patter. I have stolen a few lines from him, though I cannot deliver them with the same lilt or gusto. 
Here's a stream-of-consciousness paraphrasing of what spews out of Benjamin on a daily basis:

STEP right up get-cher CARICATURES here...Oooh look at that couple, they look like their Polyjuice potion is wearing off!...Right here folks, step right in we'll make ya look like a DRAWING!...Get-cher pitchers here, pitchers folks...Let us diagnose what is wrong with your face!...C'mon in folks, get yer pitcher draaaaaawn...Uh oh, that couple's in a hurry, there's a spaceship waiting for them in the parking lot!...Step right up folks, every face is a work of ART!...YES, ma'am, I CAN make you pregnant!...I can draw ya that way too, heh heh heh!...Get drawn today, we make ya look funny!...Who's ready who's next?...Come and let us show ya what you'd look like if ya weren't so gosh-darn ugly!...Who's ready who's next?...Look out, we'll do a number on you folks--a number two, heh heh heh!...Yessir yessir get-cher CARICATURES here--ya can't spell it but I know ya wannit!...Step right in, everyone's a winner!...We draw FACES, if you gotta face, this is the place! 

Delivering good patter is tough, and not everyone can do it. Not everyone should. Benjamin has been described as a three-year-old wearing a grown man costume: he just has a way about him that seems to deflect any actual ire from customers and passers-by. I once told Benjamin a line I FELT like using but would never have the guts to, when annoying helicopter moms tell you the list of flaws they want you to "fix" on their child. Sure enough, the next day he cheerfully delivered that line to a live customer: "Well there are a lot of other, more attractive children here at the fair today, ma'am--if you're not happy with how your child looks maybe you can borrow someone else's child and I can draw them instead?" And he got away with it, thanks to his baby blues and an impish tone. He describes this as a friendly verbal "fuck-you" and said some customers need it from time to time.

I have seen many caricaturists incorporate good, bad, or just plain dull patter into their business. I firmly believe that we are selling an experience, not just a drawing, and inside many caricature artists you will find a budding comedian. Judging from the caricaturists I've seen really be able to pull off good patter, it takes a high degree of intelligence, a quick-mindedness so as to always be ready with a comeback, fearlessness coupled with humility (so as to always be ready to be the butt of your own joke), and the ability to read people quickly and detect little behavior and facial cues. I'm talking about the type of person who, if less scrupulous, might do really well as a psychic giving cold readings.

My first boss in this business, Irv "Quickdraw" Finifter, was quite a showman--and he could talk anyone into the chair. And, true to his self-given moniker, he was fast. Whenever I would sheepishly try to call out and entice people to get a drawing, and they would walk on by, my coworkers would snicker "Irv would be putting it in a bag for them by now." Engaging the public (and the sitter) with good patter WILL actually influence how they like the drawing. Not just that day but permenantly. It ties the drawing to an experience, and every time they look at it they will recall the feelings you gave them as you drew their picture.   

Make it a fun experience, not a timeshare presentation! Learn a few lines from insult comics, carnival barkers, and improv comedians--and your friends and colleagues who are good at patter. You can stick with the safe, reassuring lines about the person having a nice smile . . . OR you can go out on a limb and see what you can get away with. Those can be memorable times, and you can be rewarded with belly laughs. And you are only spending ten minutes with people but some of them will remember you for the rest of their lives. How fucking cool is that?!

Sometimes what Benjamin does is tantamount to brainwashing on a small scale. Or therapy. Last year I heard him convince a guy that if he didn't like the drawing that meant it was actually more valuable. As he drew he explained, "Oh yeah, if it offends you then that's the best possible outcome--if we hit a nerve that means we have connected, we have produced a true caricature, and the ones that piss you off make the BEST conversation pieces, you can put it up and talk smack about the artist for decades to come, and ALL your friends are gonna have opinions on it." And on and on he went. By the end of it, Benjamin revealed the finished drawing and the guy loved it--but I think he was slightly disappointed that he loved it.

Last week, one couple in West Palm came at the end of the night, when the fairground was pretty empty, and remarked that Ben reminded them of Hunter S. Thompson (he does bear a weird sort of resemblance). Without missing a beat, he stuck a cigarrette in his mouth, dangled it just so, popped on his bucket hat, and proceeded to verbally berate the couple with abuse and obscenities as he drew them. 

They loved it. 

I hope the day will never come that Benjamin has to pitch time-shares, but if he ever does it sure would be fun to watch. 

Well, until next Tuesday, my crackers . . .

No comments:

Post a Comment