Those Crazy Carnies

The Travel Channel books a freak show.

Rubber Boy, twisted and on tour

Whatever happened to those new primitives from a decade or so ago—the pierced, tattooed kids who had Iggy Pop’s body type and a taste for olden-time burlesque?

Some may have turned to yoga or jobs. But the most tenacious have landed in the Jim Rose Circus, where, together with their razor-blade-gulping ringleader, they tour the country as freaks. And now they have their own travelogue show, the Jim Rose Twisted Tour (Travel Channel, Mondays, 10 p.m. ET). Since these circus folk—with their bygone style—are in their 30s and 40s, the Travel Channel has missed the mark if it intends to reach youth. It has, however, done a nice job microtargeting nostalgic post-punks, who may make up more of the television-watching public than we know.

The king of the bus is Rose himself, a formerly cross-eyed outcast who created the circus in 1990. Bebe, his cute French wife, eats scorpions. Rupert runs a bit into his nose with a power drill. Lifto lifts weights strung to his nipples and earlobes. Rubber Boy does contortions. Cappy does yo-yo art.

The group’s behind-the-scenes program is a harmlessly raunchy travelogue set to hurdy-gurdy music. In principle, each night ends with the circus in a different city. In fact, the circus itself is often canceled or sidelined, and what’s on the air is just the group—weathered boozers, many of them—moseying around America’s camp landmarks, hitting strip clubs, trippy cemeteries, voodoo shops, the Grand Tetons, a museum for exotic dancers, a corn maze. In New Orleans, they eat beignets. In Texas, they wear cowboy hats. In Las Vegas, Jim and Bebe renew their vows in a drive-through chapel presided over by two old ladies, one on keyboards.

Lifto finds a freakish friend

Offstage, the group is fractious—that’s the reality-show component here—and a chief bone of contention is Cappy’s laziness. At more than 400 pounds, he disdains activity, and the others resent him. Logistics also frustrate the troupe: how to maintain the bus, how to get publicity, which opening band to hire. An early frontman proves to be a detestable stage hog; he and his band are quickly fired. Then, when Rose brings on Rupert, whose stunts are largely rhinolaryngological, the circus has to design his set list. For this, Rose’s long experience in the business comes in handy. Reading down Rupert’s program, Rose explains his principle of organization: “That’s a nose stunt, that’s not, that’s a nose stunt, that’s not, that’s a nose stunt, that’s not.”

The hitch with nose and even no-nose stunts, though, is that you only want to see them once. The particular combination of amazement and disgust that freak shows induce comes largely in the anticipation, the frantic hype generated by the pitchman about how horrifying, revolting, and potentially fatal the next stunt will be. On the Jim Rose Twisted Tour, we’re in on the gang’s tricks; we know, for instance, that Lifto’s ears (remarkably) won’t fall off and that Rubber Boy can always cram himself into an unstrung tennis racket. Each freak becomes a living one-liner.

For drama, therefore, we have to rely on the tension on the bus and the stagey romps through demimonde America. In these scenes, we learn something about the minds of the players. Many are depressed; one is extremely disturbed and knows it. Alcoholism and anguish are untreated in this circus, though; each is assumed to be a side effect of the freak life. Lifto’s and Rubber Boy’s close friendship, for example, seems to depend on Lifto not complaining about Rubber’s perpetual hangover, while Rubber doesn’t blame Lifto for cutting up his own arms.

How are the outlaws going to grow up? If it’s not the greatest show on earth, the Jim Rose Twisted Tour does investigate, in a light and ambling way, the allure of freakhood, as well as the strange forces that might make a person want to leave it behind.