A Brief History Of The Classic Unicycle Volunteer Bit

This post offers a brief history of one of the classic unicycle audience volunteer bits. You know the one. The comedy juggler mounts the tall unicycle and has to retrieve some knives or torches from her audience volunteer. Hilarity ensues. This is perhaps one of the most lifted bits in the comedy juggling canon. From now on I’ll be calling it The Frank, named both after the guy who came up with the idea and the guy who mastered it. 

Here is Frank Olivier being the master of his domain

And here is Frank Miles, who gave the bit to Olivier, talking about doing just that. 

I started street performing in the SF Bay Area around 1978 as part of a concerted effort never to work a real job again for the rest of my life. I, Michael Goudeau, Robert Lind, and John Park did a pretty good imitation of the Flying Karamazov’s Younger Brothers for a few years in an act we called The Fly by Night Juggling Company. Eventually Robert and I (and later Michael and I) did a two man show with the same name that, apart from the requisite pass-around, featured some fun, new two man club passing bits.

Passing six torches on two six foot unicycles wasn’t one of them. It was just a good, standard piece of spectacle to close the set on. I’d seen Robert Nelson, the Butterfly Man, using an audience volunteer at Pier 39 to hold him up on a regular uni as he prepared to ride. He’d jerk the guy around violently and the piece always got great laughs. I got the idea to do something similar but a little different in our act.

We pretended to forget the torches down on the stage until after we street mounted the six foots. Then we asked someone from the audience to hand them up to us. When he tried to hand me my (unlit) torches, I would fall on this guy. If I could, I’d pick his pocket too. Fun because his back was to the audience and they saw it all happening.

This evolved into a more elaborate bit when we performed in review shows including the Follies Bergere in Las Vegas. We’d use a stage hand to give us the torches and in addition to picking his pocket we’d accidentally on purpose light his baseball cap on fire along with some other little bits of business.

Back when I was still doing the streets, Frank Olivier asked me if I minded if he did his own version of falling onto an audience member from the tall uni. I had recently switched one of his jokes, and even though it was a legit switch I thought that I’d feel a little better about that if I said “yes,” so I did. Besides he was and is one of my dearest friends. Frankie’s wild version of the bit (he’s a much better unicyclist than I am) turned out even better than the original. It became his signature piece and he did it on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, bringing lit torches within inches of Johnny’s head. Which tells you what a good sport Carson could be.

I understand the gag has become something of a standard now. It’s unfortunate how that happens. Someone “borrows” it. Someone else sees that and does the same. Pretty soon so many people are doing it that it gets labelled as a stock piece. But every stock gag was written by someone. It’s always better if you can take a basic concept, like physically messing with a volunteer, and do something to make it your own. Or at the very least, ask permission.

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