There is something magic about
a fair…The smell of trampled grass, the flaring lights…
-Patrick O'Brian, The Yellow Admiral
There is a great quantity of eating and drinking, making love
and jilting, laughing
and the contrary, smoking, cheating,
fighting, dancing, and fiddling: there are
about, bucks ogling the women, knaves picking pockets, policemen
on the look-out, quacks (other quacks, plague take them!)
bawling in front of their
booths, and yokels looking up at
the tinselled dancers and poor old rouged
the light-fingered folk are operating upon their pockets behind.
-William Thackeray, Vanity Fair
The county fair carnival, in time and space, occupies an important
place in the imaginations and reactions of audiences. The
fair broadcasts itself, sending out forerunners. Before the
time it arrives, there are advance men with posters and arrows,
newspaper ads, and prepared promises. On the way to the place
it occupies and creates, audiences begin to experience sights
— the rides, the lights, a tethered balloon, and the
streams of traffic — and sounds — music, shouting,
crying children, screams of riders, and the amplified talk
of the pitchmen — as well as smells — animals
and their excrement, dust, roasting meat, sugar, and hot fat.
The entrance to the fair is guarded; there are gates and ticket
takers, and these limits establish a zone, a space of changed
rules, and different expectations. All the sensations which
are broadcast into the surroundings are, inside the zone of
the fair itself, intense, invasive, and uplifting. There is
risk and possibility, fun and danger, the confirmation of
what is mundane and allowed, as well as the challenge and
violation of these same established norms and perceptions.
There is also, at the fair, a performer whose natural environment
this is. There is a performer who, by the nature of his art,
most particularly represents and belongs to this environment.
Standing on a small raised platform, wearing a microphone
on a harness around his chest, the
pitchman begins his spiel. “Step right up” or
“Give it a try before you buy” (or even, for other
types of pitchmen, “dearly beloved” or “once
upon a time”). A crowd gathers, with one or two people,
together, joining to start, and others, seeing them standing,
joining them as well. In serried ranks, the crowd, the “tip,”
begins to form — some close, some on the fringes, to
be, if the pitch is successful, drawn in. The pitchman engages
them, together and individually, and the nervous laughs give
way to more involvement as the audience gives their attention
and enters the constructed physical space of the performance.
The audience may buy or they may walk on, but for a moment
or more they are entertained, involved, engaged in the performance.
Since 1993, I have visited more than twenty different fairs
and have been part of the audience for over two hundred performances.
I have photographed and recorded (audio and video) performances
and performers and interviewed pitchmen and their audiences.
As a literary scholar, I am interested in the goals and techniques
of literary artists who translate the pitchman’s oral
performance art into their written, literary art. As a folklorist,
I am interested in the social and aesthetic dimensions of
the pitchman’s specific contemporary, popular, oral
The fairs I observed, whether held in a street, a fairground,
or a gymnasium, are set up to walk through. They are constructed
as a pathway (or set of pathways), a passage to be traversed.
There is no one place which may be identified as "the
fair," because the experience of the fair requires movement
through time and space.
The booths are arranged along the sides of aisles, so that
stopping to look closely, to touch, or to talk requires moving
to one side, out of the flow of the crowd. This arrangement
passageway with walls of booths promotes a certain pace, which
I observed in myself at the first fair I attended. This pace
is an even stroll, slower than normal walking speed, yet constant.
The booths on one side flow by and are observed, but to stop
and engage with any one booth requires a conscious effort.
There is an observation of each booth, but very little involvement
or real connection.
Another element of the fair as a setting is one which is contained
in the description by Thackeray which I quoted above. The
diversity of the fair, the great number and variety of activities,
purposes, and moods — along with the conflicts this
type of diversity inevitably causes — are present as
clearly at the fairs I observed as at Thackeray's fictional
It is the conflicts inherent in this diversity, however, which
I think are most significant. Between the crowds and the people
working the booths (as well as within the crowds themselves),
even in the friendliest exchanges, there was an undertone
of distrust, a question of whether the deal at the fair was
really fair, or the merchandise worthwhile, which would only
rarely be found in other commercial exchanges.
No one lives at a fair, and for the people who do live or
run a business in the place where a fair occurs, the conflict
and hostility (at least the inconvenience) may be even more
powerful than for the crowd at the fair (see Kate Walter's
Kate Walter, representing her Greenwich Village neighborhood,
explored this in her New York Times piece, "Who
Needs Street Fairs?"). Fairs occur in a space that is
made into a different place specifically and uniquely for
the fair. The space is fenced and gated, with an admission
charge and a ticket required for entrance. The fair is, physically
and psychically, a separate zone. Everyone in the crowd who
visits this place is a newcomer (a "yokel," according
to Thackeray, or a “mark” in traditional carnival
language). As newcomers, no one in the crowd, even someone
those who lives right on the same street, is really at home.
This fact is especially apparent at the county fairgrounds.
Here, space — the fairgrounds — is set aside for
these fairs. This space is usually on the edge of towns, on
the margins. While it is set aside for the fairs, marking
them as valued visitors, it is still space set aside for visitors
also space set off as as separate from the “hometown”
region. Most of the spaces sit empty and unused during the
off-season. Even when the livestock and crafts contests are
considered, we must remember that these are exhibitions of
the talents and achievements of people (and animals) who are
local to the counties, but not to the specific localities
of the fairs themselves. The traveling, independent carnival
operators (such as Reithoffer's Amusements or Amusements of
America) who inhabit the space during the time of the fair
are not locals. However, on the fairgrounds, even the locals
are not locals, but the "carnies," in a sense, are.
Connected to this outsider status, to the fact that no one
lives at the fair, is the fact that communities, in a way,
and to an extent, welcome the fair. Even when this welcome
is contested, there is some perceived advantage, financial,
nostalgic, or otherwise, in having the fair visit. The fair
and the performance that belongs to it are familiar in form,
although different at each instance; fairgoers know what to
expect. At the same time, they expect to be surprised. The
fairs return to communities, and the communities return to
the fairs. "You know where the animals are," I heard
one woman tell her child, "you've been here every year
I have, and a couple I haven't."
In addition, the fair is a zone of excess, and more particularly,
of display of excess. From the grand flashing lights and blaring
music to the sights and smells of huge amounts of tasty and
aromatic food, the fair is where there is much of everything,
and everything is too much for the senses. People stand and
stare at this excess, watching huge roasts of beef and whole
pigs turning on spits, giant Viking ships turning screaming
teenagers upside down, and row after row of massive hogs,
cucumbers. More than watching, though, people join and become
part of this display, buying and wearing large, garish hats,
and carrying giant purple Chihuahuas, four-foot-long fluorescent
pink inflated plastic bones, or clusters of three orange-headed
wonder mops — "buy two, get a third one absolutely
free!" All of this excess, its display, and the participation
and inclusion of its audience, are elements of the fair as
setting in which the oral performance art of the pitchman,
with his display of verbal virtuosity, is inextricably intertwined.
Many of the features of the fair as setting connect directly
to features of the pitchman as performer. The job of a pitchman
as a performer is an intense and challenging one. Many performances
have to be presented over the course of a fair, and there
is often no clear demarcation of the ending of one performance
and the beginning of another. A pitchman has to catch the
attention of his audience, hold it long enough for them to
hear the pitch, and then close the deal. The appreciation
for this type of performance may be expressed by laughter
or even applause, but for the performer, the only really valuable
appreciation is when the audience hands over some money.
The pitchmen I observed were a diverse group of performers.
They had varying degrees of skill and success in obtaining
their audience's attention and appreciation, and varying degrees
of engagement with their tasks. It became clear, as the research
went on, that as in so many other artistic endeavors, there
are far more pitchmen than there are talented pitchmen.
I spoke at some length with several of the pitchmen I observed.
Time is money for these performers, and time spent talking
to a researcher is time not spent performing. I did briefly
introduce myself and ask a few questions of all the pitchmen,
although more than this was often impossible. Interestingly,
the ones I spoke to longest — the ones who were willing,
even eager, to take the most time away from their work —
were also the ones who seemed to me to be the most skilled
One woman, who was pitching chamois cloths at the Long Island
Hunting and Fishing Expo, told me that she traveled and sold
at fairs and expositions throughout the region and throughout
the year. She was her own boss, buying the cloths wholesale,
and had twelve people working for her, covering fairs that
she was unable to attend. She was very aware of her own work
as performance, and defined the main skills required. "You
can't be afraid to talk in front of people. You have to be
aggressive and be able to close. There are lots of people
who can make the pitch, but you have to know just when to
push for the sale. You have to be able to close." This
ability to close, she said, was something that had to be sensed,
a kind of intuitive performative skill. She was unable to
train people in this skill, and when I asked her how she did
train her employees, she told me that she really just gave
them "certain information, the facts about the product"
and let them develop the pitches themselves.
As we were talking, she kept the microphone she was wearing
switched on, but no one stopped walking by, no one paused
to listen. After the interview was over, without noticeably
changing her volume or tone of voice, she looked up and said,
"Makes cleaning a breeze, you know." The difference
between conversation (or interview) and performance was made
completely clear: a man walking by with three children slowed
and smiled. "C'mon over and take a look," she said.
"Care for a demonstration?" The man came to a complete
stop, glanced the other way, and walked over to stand in front
of her booth. She began her pitch, and ended up with a crowd
of eight or nine people, and closed it by selling four packages
(at ten dollars each).
I observed another example, a negative example, of the principle
of sensing the moment to close in a young man with blue sunglasses
pitching chamois cloth mops at the Chelsea fair. He gathered
large crowds and had them laughing and responding positively
to his pitch, but would perform for long periods (four to
six minutes) without mentioning the price or asking for the
sale. At one point, I saw a woman with money in her hand give
up and walk away. The pitchman had missed the moment, failed
to close, and the balance of the performance tilted away from
At the opposite end of the spectrum, I observed and spoke
briefly with a man pitching PermaSeal Shampoo at the Lower
Columbus Avenue Festival. He told me he had only been to two
previous fairs and was about to quit because, he said, "There's
no money here."
This pitchman was more aggressive than any of the others I
observed — "Come over here, don't miss this one.
You gotta see this. Best bargain at the fair. Special price
today." His pitch drew larger crowds for the beginnings
of his pitches. As he continued his pitch, however, and some
people began to drift away (as I noticed happening with every
pitch I observed, at every fair, to greater or lesser degrees),
he challenged them with direct questions, "Hey, don't
you want to see? All right, your loss." These questions
never actually brought people back, and while he was challenging
the drifters, more people, who had seemed involved, turned
and left. On several occasions, he lost an entire crowd in
this way. He had pushed the moment too hard and too soon,
and, again, the balance of the performance tilted away from
Part of the nature of oral performance art, its direct approach
to a present audience that must be attracted and convinced
to stay, requires an aggressive, almost hostile attraction.
Audiences must be forced, and the force may be aggressive,
but it cannot be aggravating. The pitchman must control an
audience that is not necessarily amenable to being controlled.
This presents difficulties for the performer and defines the
performer's character and how he or she is perceived.
All the pitchmen kept themselves, in some way, separate from
their audiences. This separation was connected to the fact,
which I discussed above, that no one lives at the fair, that
the pitchmen are always and automatically outsiders to the
community they visit, and only insiders to the zone of the
outside, the fair. In Verbal Art as Performance,
Richard Bauman notes "the persistent association between
performers and marginality or deviance," and how performers
are separate, "away from the center of…conventionality,
on the margins of society."
The pitchmen's separation was frequently physically marked.
The pitchmen I observed were marked in some way, generally
by their position behind a counter or on a podium or stage.
Frequently, this marker of separation was embodied in a microphone,
sometimes a large one with a colorful foam head, sometimes
worn around the neck and positioned upright in the middle
of the chest, and sometimes worn over the head and floating
directly in front of the mouth. Other times, I noticed that
the pitchmen I observed had some article of clothing or other
personal accessory — cowboy boots, a bolo tie, an unusual
hat or a heavy silver bracelet, for example — which
was unusual and flamboyant when compared to the general appearance
of the audience, and of the community in which the fair was
taking place. This kind of physical marking was an embodied
sign of a difference in status and regard which was noticeable
Pitchmen as performers, as someone on display in a contest
for control, sometimes needed to present themselves as inferiors,
asking for attention from a subordinate position, even setting
themselves up as a figure of fun. At other times, even during
the same performance, they set themselves up as superiors,
with more knowledge and ability than their audience, even
condescending to them.
John, a water-race pitchman at the Dutchess County and Bloomsburg
fairs, told me that he enjoyed working the water-race game
particularly (he had worked several others) because of the
numbers of children who played. "I especially like the
little kids. I wanna pick 'em up sometimes, help them shoot.
Parents don't really like it when I touch them." I had
noticed this myself, in observing his and other games. Parents
prevented children from coming too close to performers, showing
a distinct uneasiness about even direct verbal contact. There
is a sense that these performers, even those working the games
most explicitly directed to small children (a game with floating
plastic ducks, in which "every one's a winner,"
for example), are not really to be trusted with children.
These performers have a need to balance aggressiveness and
pleasantness, sensing the moods of their audiences. The different
phases of their task – the drawing in, the holding of
attention, and the close – must receive a delicately
balanced rationing of time and skill. This balancing, along
with its connected interaction with the audience, lies at
the core of the successful practice of their performances,
and it is a talent which may be separate from the actual content
of the performances.
These performers' need for control of their audience is a
direct result of the live, oral nature of their art. This
control is practiced with varying degrees, varying balances
of aggression and flattery, by all oral performance artists.
It has consequences and effects for the audiences and for
the performances themselves.
The performance of pitchmen at fairs, like other oral performance
art, is characterized by particular textual features, most
noticeably including repetition, rhythmically structured catalogues,
rhyme, and alliteration. Pitchmen also use a kind of exaggerated
language and emphatic overstatement. These features exemplify
the pitchman's characteristic display of verbal virtuosity;
they convey information but also delight and maintain a hold
on the audience by the use of sound. All of these techniques
and features, all of this virtuosity, are used by the pitchman
to enable his successful control of the audience. "You
have to have an answer for everything," the man pitching
the Painless Hair Remover told me. As I observed, he had exactly
that. Even more significantly, his "answers for everything"
were generally neatly matched in sound with the audience's
questions or objections, or the next point he wanted his pitch
The use of stock answers to audience questions, challenges,
and responses, of repeated formulas strung together differently
and with the appropriate elements substituted into the appropriate
slots, is an essential feature of all oral performance art.
When an audience member interrupted a performance to ask,
for example, whether the PVA mop would scrub up scuff marks
from shoe heels, the pitchman's response to the challenge
included three euphonious formulas, the "thirty-pound
soaking-wet string-mop," "lefty-loosy, righty-tighty"
and the "ketchup sandwich," which the audience had
already heard several times before.
This way of using the performance to control the audience,
to allow for any of their responses, continued throughout
all the successful pitches. The repeated phrases: "just
like that," "make it damp, then you wipe,"
"thumb on top, that's where your power is," "one
hand on the top, other hand goes on your handle, all you do
is you turn it," and so on, are a familiar form to the
audiences. They become expected and anticipated (sometimes
even being mouthed or muttered along with the performer).
They allow the audience to feel at home and drawn into the
performance, as well as giving the pitchman a way to fill
in gaps and make transitions in the rhythm of the performance.
When an audience member asks a question or expresses doubt
— "What if it breaks?" or "Seven dollars
each?" — the pitchman can respond immediately with
a phrase that the audience has already heard and is already
prompted to accept — "That's not a ninety-day,
not a sixty-day, that's a lifetime guarantee," or "It's
not a matter of cheapness, ma'am, it's a matter of true, priceless
Another feature of the pitchmen's performances, which is also
a recognized quintessential feature of oral poetry, as noted
by Walter J. Ong in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing
of the Word and Franz Boas in “Stylistic Aspects
of Primitive Literature,” among others, is the catalogue,
a long list of items, linked together sometimes without connecting
conjunctions, sometimes with repeated, not strictly necessary
conjunctions. These catalogues work without logical coordinations,
using a paratactic rather than a hypotactic structure. Oral
catalogues derive their accumulated power and effect from
their sound, the oral virtuosity they demonstrate, rather
than from any logical, narrative or emotional sense. The PermaSeal
salesman at the Bloomsburg Fair made extensive use of these
catalogues, often drawing a smile or chuckle, and an extended
stay, from an audience which was about to desert him.
"It cleans Dacron," he began in one such instance,
"also nylon, herculon, linoleum. Wool, wood, cotton,
canvas, muslin. Rattan and bamboo, and Scotchguard and concrete...."
The list went on even longer, although I could not write fast
enough to record it all. When I asked him about this listing
(he used others — types of stains, products you might
try which wouldn't work, and so on), he said, "I just
try to make it as long as possible. Sometimes I don't even
know what I'll say next, but I try not to repeat myself."
The elements in these oral catalogues often rhyme or alliterate,
or are similarly aurally connected, presenting and emphasizing
the pitchman's skill and verbal virtuosity. In addition, further
emphasizing the catalogue as a virtuosic performance rather
than a mere list, pitchmen frequently insert incongruous,
unexpected and humorous elements, which emphasize, by interrupting,
the aural flow of the catalogue. The EZ Chopper pitchman opens
his bowl and puts in "cabbage, carrots, parsnip, potato,
tomato, rutabaga, lemon and lime, and obviously I could put
more but no one's gonna eat it anyway." These humorous
elements are frequently hostile and insulting (at least mildly)
or refer to the body and its functions in ways that are not
generally considered appropriate or polite in public. The
PVA mop, for example “picks up sand, salt, dog hair,
cat hair, fish scales, toe nails…."
Often the humorous elements of the pitchman's performance
represent thinly veiled attacks on children, wives, husbands,
parents, and, particularly, in-laws. With the Sportsman's
Dream (a knife set) "you get the utility knife —
you can use for PVC and carpeting or radiator hose and still
slice that nice tomato — or my wife…. She uses
it for bagels." The implication, that the utility knife
can slice a wife as well as a nice tomato, cannot be left
standing. The moment of hesitation, though, before the bagels
are mentioned, and the pitchman's smile and the audience's
chuckles, emphasize both the veil (the bagels) and the attack
These performances may skirt the boundaries, through humor
and innuendo, of what is acceptable. The control the pitchman
exercises is threatening to audiences, but some of this threat
is simultaneously strengthened and diluted by redirecting
it with humor. "Just checking if you're listening"
is the way in which pitchmen often respond to audience's laughter
at this type of humor, and this kind of response aptly emblematizes
the way in which the pitchman's humor simultaneously diffuses
and emphasizes the uneasiness provoked by this type of performance.
Pitchmen also use, sometimes separately from these catalogues
and sometimes simultaneously with them, other displays of
verbal virtuosity. They use polysyllabic synonyms, rattling
them off with mellifluous ease. They recite, with relish,
drawn out chants and convoluted constructions that roll off
the tongue. Their own pleasure in their artistic invention
and enjoyment of it, of the creation of impressive sound,
is one of the most definitive elements of their performance.
Another technique used by pitchmen, like other oral artists,
is storytelling. Many pitches I observed included long narrative
segments, formulaically structured, with sequential plots,
characters, actions and resolutions. Stories beginning with
"I had a customer last year..." or "The other
day a guy told me..." ended with "and he came back
and bought a whole case this time" or "and after
all that, he's still using the same drill bit." What
came between these beginnings and endings, the narrative of
past experiences, worked as good stories often do, to keep
audiences listening and involved, to connect them to experiences
and events. Often, the stories were brief, and the descriptions
they included were presented in a kind of shorthand, with
a small detail standing in for a lengthier passage. The descriptions
and the stories, though, were extremely evocative, for reasons
that are specific to oral performance art and its familiarity
These stories, and much of the pitchman's performances, contain
specific references to places, events, dates, and people,
all of which serve as referential pegs for the audiences.
This technique is part of oral performance art's familiarity
of form. When a pitchman says to the audience, "Let me
tell you what happened just across the river in New Paltz"
or "Right there in New York City, in Mount Sinai, they're
ordering fifteen cases a week," he or she makes the performance
seem more real and accurate and trustworthy, and gives the
audience a feeling that the performance is tailored specifically
to them. There is meaning immanent in these descriptions —
they call to mind the entire constellation of connections
the audience carries from previous stories and previous descriptions
— and they can be adjusted by both the performer and
the audience to each audience member. The audience knows that
their life is part of the performance and the performance
is part of their life — as real places they know and
identify from experience are called to mind.
When a pitchman's performance is at its best, there is an
engagement, a working together of the performer and the audience,
and the structured orally composed formulas of the pitch only
strengthen and confirm this engagement. This case was eminently
apparent in the performance of the chamois cloth pitch at
the Long Island Hunting and Fishing Expo, where the woman
told me, "When I'm really on, I know just what they're
gonna ask, but I can't answer until they do ask it, so I'll
just pause and wait for them to come in with the question."
Without "them to come in with the question" the
performance cannot work. The performance is co-constructed.
While the pitchman is the performer, this role is, in the
best pitches, actually shared with the audience, and both
parties are active and essential.
The key feature of the audiences for pitchmen's performances
is one that I have already peripherally discussed in the contexts
of the setting, the performers and the performances. The audience
for a pitch is mobile, shifting, and far from guaranteed.
The strolling pace, the browsing mode of fairgoers means that
they must be stopped, their pace must be interrupted, in order
for them to become an audience.
I noticed on many occasions, every one that I observed, in
fact, that the initial approach of a fairgoer to a pitch is
tentative and punctuated by pauses. Sometimes people make
the actual step (really a stop), and other times they pause
only momentarily before continuing their stroll. Sometimes
people stay for the whole pitch, sometimes they walk away
before the close.
One important aspect of this mobility is that the pitches'
audiences almost always consult in some way before making
the actual step into the role of audience. Two people will
glance at one another, or a single person will look away,
towards other people, as they approach the pitch. Joining
an audience for this type of oral performance is a negotiated
communal decision, which is undertaken in common with another
person, not individually.
Several of the pitchmen with whom I spoke expressed an explicit
awareness of this to me. "Sometimes one is enough,"
one woman told me. "It depends on the flow of people,
but you've got to get someone to break the ice. Once there's
a few people listening, more will come."
This communality is involved not only in the beginning of
the pitch, but throughout its performance. In watching audiences,
even when the pitch seemed most successful and engaging, I
frequently observed a glance, away from the performer and
toward other audience members. A person would look away from
the pitchman, and briefly check, seeming to gauge the response
of the person standing nearest.
At first I noticed this in myself, and thought it was because
I was there as a researcher, but as my observations continued
I realized it was almost universal, occurring even when the
person standing nearest appeared to be a stranger to the glancer.
Being a part of an audience for a pitch, it would appear,
involves being a part of a group, and being involved and concerned
about measuring the behavior of the other members of that
This glance is, I believe, subtly related to the outsider
status of fairgoers which I discussed above. To be at a fair
and to be in the audience of a pitch is to be engaged in an
activity which, however familiar it may be, is not quite comfortable.
There is a discomfort about being a "yokel," which
is related to an awareness of the possibility of being cheated
or taken advantage of. The pitchman's audience carries an
air of caution, of guardedness, and seeks solidarity with
other audience members to provide confirmation that it really
is safe (and even that it is really morally acceptable) to
listen and engage with the pitch.
On one occasion, when a woman had just bought a Kitchen Magic
at the Lower Columbus Avenue Festival, she turned to the stranger
next to her and said, "You should buy one, too. It's
a good deal, isn't it?" This remark brought about another
sale for the pitchman and a satisfied smile from the first
buyer. She had received the confirmation she needed to be
comfortable with her purchase, and the stranger she addressed
had received the confirmation she needed to make a purchase.
Again and again at the fair, I saw and participated in interactions
of this type, sometimes supporting the performer, sometimes
banding together against him.
In pitches where there is real cause for distrust (not, presumably,
the ones included in this study), such as sidewalk three-card
Monte games, it is common practice to hire a "shill,"
a confederate who poses as an audience member and provides
this confirmation. I do not believe that anything of this
type occurred at the pitches I observed, but it was certainly
clear that the confirmation was needed, and that in successful
pitches it did come.
The undertone of distrust, of caution and awareness of dangers
in the pitches' audiences was sometimes more than an undertone.
As I have mentioned, questions and even direct challenges
from the audience are not uncommon, and pitchmen must handle
them. At times, these challenges went beyond subtle distrust
into outright hostility. One well-dressed woman yelled furiously
at the Kitchen Magic pitchman with his pile of sliced and
diced vegetables and cheese, "You should give all that
food to the homeless!" "Lady," he answered,
"I haven't got the time. I'm tryin' to work for a living."
While this was perhaps not the most effective response to
audience heckling, it did get a laugh from the rest of his
audience, and it did not allow the heckler to stop the pitch.
It also exemplified the pitchman's most common style of response
to outright hostility. He used a familiar (almost proverbial)
phrase, returned her hostility by belittling her, and answered
her directly. He did not insult her directly, which could
have led to an escalation of the exchange. He continued the
contest for control, using the heckler and his contest with
her to engage the rest of the audience further, and redirected
the audience's attention to himself. As Amanda Dargan and
Steven Zeitlin note in "Turning the Tip: The Art of the
Sideshow Carnival Talker," this type of response to hecklers
is common — for example, talkers might respond with
comments like "I remember my first beer."
In one game in particular, "Soak the Bloke," this
kind of hostility is thoroughly used to the “Bloke’s”
advantage. In this game, the "bloke" sits behind
a protective netting, above a tank of water, and taunts and
insults his audience (sometimes, as the evening grows later,
quite obscenely) to provoke their anger. The angrier they
get, the more they want to spend money to soak him in water
by throwing a baseball at a target, which, when struck, releases
a trap door under his seat. While this game is atypical in
the amount of anger, of insult, which is not just tolerated
but desired, it does typify the ways in which this kind of
response is provoked and then used to the performer's advantage.
The audiences know they are being fooled, they know they are
being provoked, but because it's "all in fun," they
can be hostile and aggressive in a sanctioned forum. The expressions
of people throwing baseballs at this "bloke's" target
included some anger, but more a kind of embarrassed humor.
Some of the roughest jibes (for example, a joke at the expense
of a teenaged boy's overweight mother — “Whoooeee,
thar she blows!”) provoked derisive laughter from the
audience, as well as maniacal cackles from the "bloke,"
but no active hostility, beyond the sanctioned attempt to
The pitchmen's audiences, although they share in the performance
of the pitch, both among themselves and with the performer,
are nevertheless engaged in a contest for their attention
and appreciation. The control of the audience ultimately does
belong to each audience member, but in joining together to
become an audience, they share some of this control with one
another, and more importantly, it is the pitchman's task to
take it over for a while. They give up this control when they
stay and listen, when they give their attention, their acceptance
and ultimately their money, but it is never a complete surrender.
There are resistances and rebellions, discomforts and distrusts,
to varying degrees and with varying results.
Oral performance art, with its performers, audiences, and
performances, while it is often valorized and culturally sanctioned,
as with African griots or Baptist preachers, for example,
is also frequently marginalized and transgressive, as with
gangsta rappers and beat poets. When people come to the fair,
they are already coming to a site where this same contradiction
When oral performers and their audiences create their art
at the fair, they are participating in a tradition, a tradition
which has value to communities. This tradition includes elements
of celebration and nostalgia, of community pride and esteem.
In these elements, there are also negative sides. The community
is defined and identified against an Other. Attitudes about
the Other are reflected in the performers' attitudes about
their audiences and the audiences' about the performers. The
pitchmen who run children's games cannot be trusted with children,
and the audiences who pay pitchmen's wages cannot be trusted
with the products — "I only give them an empty
container if they want to check the label. No sense taking
chances," the Clenz-All pitchman, afraid of being robbed
by an audience which was similarly afraid of being robbed
by him, told me.
Leslie Prosterman’s “The County Fair Carnival”
recounts how people "lament" the "deterioration"
of the "nice old" county fairs caused by the carnivals
which ruin them. I would suggest, as her historical research
concludes, that it is not the carnivals that "ruin"
county fairs. The carnival is an integral part of the county
fair. It is for both what is transgressive and what is valorized
that people come to the fair. And it is both of these that
people find in oral performance art.
Oral performance at the fair provokes smiles and frowns, distrust
and acceptance, trust and fear, exploitation and enjoyment,
because that is exactly the function of the fair as a whole.
These performances both define and reflect their specific
nature and that of the culture and context within which they
In addition, oral performance art contains referential pegs,
a familiarity of form and accessibility which comes from the
fact that audiences simultaneously know what to expect, and
do not feel entirely confident that what they will expect
will occur (or will be pleasant or even acceptable). The past
which is referred to in oral performance art is one about
which the audience holds ambivalent feelings — nostalgic
longing as well as superiority and anxiety. Oral performance
art at the fair is a part of every contemporary landscape,
in post-capitalist, transnationalist America, and it is part
of the nostalgia for and rejection of what is "old-timey"
Because of the live human audience, there is also an interplay,
growing out of the pitchman's contested control of the audience,
which is always present in oral performance art. Richard Bauman
refers to “the inherent sociability of performance."
However, this sociability (like many other sociabilities)
is a striving sociability, competitive and cooperative. There
is a struggle for control — an unresolved, active striving
for mastery — with the audience and the performer negotiating
and together creating the performance. There is also, often,
an outright and explicit reference to this interplay —
“now I know you’re going to say…”
In this way, the interplay is pointed out and pointed up,
and the fact that the performer's authority is subject to
question is emphasized even as those questions are partially
and temporarily avoided or resolved.
The contest between the performer and the audience also includes
an emotional and moral charge. There is the fear of approaching
the performer, the fear of allowing children to come near.
There is the off-color or slightly risqué humor and
humorous, occasionally vicious, personal insult. There is
a tendency, variously expressed, toward violating or at least
teasing out the boundaries of morally acceptable behavior.
At the end of the day, sometimes late in the night, audiences
leave the fair. They rarely leave empty-handed, although they
often leave empty-pocketed. There is a certain type of exhaustion,
a certain type of satisfaction, as well as relief, at the
end of a day at the fair. Audiences head for their homes,
having been drawn together with strangers and now separated,
glad to have attended, and glad it has ended. There will be
another year, another fair. There will be another experience
of oral performance art, another experience of the pitchman
in his context. The pitchman in print, as well, will continue
to shock and amaze, delight, threaten, entertain, intrigue,
and educate, as long as audiences are willing, even half willing,
step up, step in
give it a try
give it a spin
we'll see who's the fool
or by golly you win.
From guest contributor Joseph Ugoretz