There’s a kind of entertainment that’s simply mesmerizing in its awfulness. You know it’s a train wreck, but you can’t keep from looking.
I’m not talking about reality shows, where entertainment seems indistinguishable from public humiliation. I don’t watch those shows. In reality shows – like the early rounds of American Idol – untalented people, oblivious to their lack of ability, seem happy just to be on television. And the audience watches these shows – I have to be careful here, for fear of offending these shows’ regular viewers – to be honest, I don’t know why they watch them. They seem to take pleasure in seeing people making fools of themselves.
But I’m not talking about that today, or maybe ever, because when I do, I sound incredibly old. What I’m talking about is entertainment delivered by people who’ve practiced and practiced, honed their skills to the point where they’re ready to present themselves to the public.
And they’re terrible.
Years ago, on a trip, Dr. M and I bought tickets to a small traveling circus, performing in a Northern Italian town, called Como. We love small circuses, our favorite being The Pickle Family Circus, based in San Francisco. This one was called The Togni Brothers Circus. (The “gn” is pronounced like “ny.”) We saw flyers everywhere; we had to go.
It was a stormy night. Hardly anybody in attendance. The threadbare circus tent had numerous holes in it. There were buckets placed under each of them to collect the downpour. This was not a fancy circus.
Almost as soon as we were seated, I was startled by an unexpected arrival that jumped into my lap. It was a chimpanzee. Wearing a costume, I can’t remember what, because I was in massive shock. When I declined to have my picture taken with it, the chimp abruptly departed. Though his distinct aroma remained on my clothing.
Here’s what we didn’t know, and found out later. Some days before this performance, the Togni Brothers had had a huge fight, leading to an acrimonious parting of the ways. The problem was, the departing Togni brother had taken with him the most talented of the circus’s performers, forming what could not inaccurately be called “The Better Togni Brothers Circus.”
Leaving us with the worse one. No amateurs. They had all practiced. But, as would shortly be evident, they had not practiced enough.
The jugglers dropped everything they juggled. The horses would not rear up on their hind legs. The bear refused to dance. And you know that stunt where the guy jumps on one end of the teeter-totter, sending the guy on the other end of the teeter-totter backflipping into the air, and winding up seated in a chair on the end of a tall pole? Not even close.
It was a never-ending series of debacles. You kept thinking – make that “hoping”, make that “praying” – that the next act would be better. And they weren’t. After a while, your eyes are begging you to close them, so as to erase this excruciating carnage from their sight. But you can’t. You have to watch. Why? Because you may never see anything like this again.
And then you do. A decade or so later. Before you’ve entirely recovered from the last time.
Two weekends ago, we attended a rodeo in Palm Springs. I love going to rodeos. It gives me permission (I shall omit from whom) to wear my cowboy hat outdoors, on an occasion other than Halloween. Even on Halloween, there has to be a party involved. I can’t wear it making a Halloween-day run to the Convenience Store for milk. Which I would. If there were not these restrictions.
Cowboy boots are another matter. I like the idea of cowboy boots, but they hurt my feet when I wear them. As a result, on our trip to Palm Springs, I did not pack my cowboy boots. I told them we were going to a wedding in Chicago. I hate lying to my footwear, but the alternative was a permanent crippling.
I had been to other rodeos. One was on an Indian reservation in Escondido, just east of San Diego. The participants in that rodeo had been very skillful. Though my fondest memory was not of the action in the ring. It was of a brown Labrador Retriever appearing out of nowhere, and sitting at my feet.
The Palm Springs rodeo was not like the Escondido rodeo. It resembled The Togni Brothers Circus. And I don’t mean the good one.
The first event was Bronc Riding. In Bronco Riding, the rider must remain on a bucking bronco for eight seconds. The rider’s score is determined from a combination of staying on the bronc and the degree of difficulty involved in so doing.
If memory serves, nobody won the Bronc Riding competition. The riders were either bucked off before eight seconds – and therefore scoring no points – or they were disqualified for some rules-breaking infraction – and therefore scoring no points. In the Bronc Riding competition, every participant scored no points.
The big excitement in the Bronc Riding event came after the ride. After each ride, the bucking broncos had to be rounded up before the next ride could begin. Sadly, the two cowboys assigned to this task had a really hard time doing it. The audience was thus treated to eight seconds, or less, of bronc riding, followed by twenty minutes of trying to catch the horse.
The next event, Steer Wrestling, went a little better. Somebody actually won it.
It wasn’t because they had the fastest time. It was because the other contestants were either unable to catch up to the steer, or, if they did, they were unable to wrestle it to the ground. The only one who succeeded was declared the winner.
We didn’t stay at the rodeo that long. There’s only so much failure I can handle. I would like to have seen the final event, the Bull Riding, but the bulls seemed so unconcerned by the upcoming encounter, they were leafing through magazines in the corral. Having witnessed the earlier events, I had little difficulty believing they were correct.
We left just after the Cowboy Mounted Shooting, where riders race through a course, shooting balloons from horseback.
They actually did that one pretty well.