Hanging Up the Torches

After 20 years of juggling fire and other foolery, the Flaming Idiots call it quits

Hanging Up the Torches
Photo By Bret Brookshire

Most of the time, people want you to stop being an idiot.

But not when you're Jon O'Connor, Kevin Hunt, and Rob Williams. For 20 years, people have wanted them to keep being idiots. And now that these three have embarked on their farewell tour as a comedy team, more people than ever are clamoring for them to remain idiots. But the three of them are resolute. Sometime next spring, after they complete a round of gigs in the Northeast -- possibly winding up with a final run on Broadway at the New Victory Theater -- O'Connor, Williams, and Hunt will bid adieu to their comic alter egos of Pyro, Gyro, and Walter and close the lid on their two-decade partnership as the Flaming Idiots.

And can you blame them? Twenty years is a long time to be juggling blazing torches and beanbag chairs and themselves, to be escaping from straitjackets and stuffing 2-foot-long balloons down one's gullet and making bologna sandwiches with one's feet. And some of those activities aren't as easy for these guys as they used to be; the physical stuff is more punishing than it was when they were in their 20s.

So the Idiots have decided to go out on top. This way, they can, as O'Connor says, go out while they're "still enjoying it, while it's still what you want it to be, stop playing the game while you can still play the game."

And it's been a good game: a long run on the Renaissance festival circuit followed by a successful transition to indoor theatres with several sold-out runs at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center; appearances on national television, including The Tonight Show; runs on Broadway at the New Victory Theater; and praise in The New York Times. (For a full profile on the Idiots, see the Chronicle story "Professors of Pleasure," austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2000-12-22/arts_feature.html .) As their farewell tour run at Zach draws to a close, the three "professors of pleasure" offered some reflections on the highs and lows of their long career.

Austin Chronicle: When did you first start talking about calling it quits?

Kevin Hunt: Two years ago. We're always in the process of negotiating contracts, and you can't say, "This is my last week." You can't even give two weeks notice; it's more like a year or more notice. So it's been in the works for two years.

AC: What kinds of reactions have you gotten?

Jon O'Connor: A lot of people really want to know when our last, last show is 'cause they want to be there. A lot of people want to try to talk you out of it. People don't understand why we would walk away. It's working. It's a great show. Why would you stop doing it? And it's a hard question. We want to do other things.

AC: Any moments stand out as highlights?

JO: We did a show in Waco. It was New Year's Eve. This has always been a great club for us, so the place was packed. We did our straitjacket routine [which involves the three escaping from a straitjacket in time to catch a blindfolded audience member falling backward], and we counted from 45 to zero instead of 25 to zero. About 30, we were out of the jackets, so we proceeded to get entirely naked. By 10, we're all standing there in our underwear, and the waitress shows up with three shots of tequila. We knocked those down, and I'm sure people thought that was the joke. Nope! Off they come. We catch the guy -- the crowd's going nuts -- and the only person in the club who doesn't know we're naked is the man we're touching. So we take off the blindfold, and he does a great double take.

KH: My parents always had a hard time with us doing this for a living. They were supportive to a degree, as far as a hobby that I would get over and then start doing something more productive, but I just kept doing this. I remember when my family came to see the show, and by the end of the show, my father was actually laughing so hard that tears were coming out of his eyes. And that made me feel really good, just to see him enjoy the show that much. But then I realized that a week earlier I had been at his house, and he'd had the same reaction to Police Academy 4. But it still means something to me.

And of course, being on Broadway. The last time we were up there, we were doing the show opening day, and Jon comes to the point where he says, "OK, you two guys, hug each other," indicating just two guys in the audience. Then, we all look to see these two guys, and it was Bill Irwin and Kevin Kline.

JO: That was spooky.

KH: It was a benefit, and there was a big party afterward, where we got to hobnob with the stars and talk with Kevin Kline and Bill Irwin.

Rob Williams: We did a fringe festival, and it was the first time we did the show in a theatre, in a proper space, two acts, and got a standing ovation. You know, it's great when you kick ass on an outdoor stage -- that energy is very hyped up and raw -- but doing it in a theatre where it's just you, and you gotta carry the whole thing, and you either carry it or you don't, when you carry it off, it's just like ... baby's first potty. It's really exciting.

JO: "Look what I made!"

KH: That first standing ovation was special. It choked me up a little bit, just to be able to get that reaction.

RW: It was just a fringe festival in Canada, it wasn't as prestigious as Broadway or The Tonight Show, but it meant something because it was a real milestone for a show and how much we had developed it.

AC: What about the disastrous shows?

RW: We were performing in New Jersey, and it was a huge cement amphitheatre that bad rock bands probably play. We had agreed to do it but just shouldn't have agreed to do it. Then forgot to book tickets for it, so we ended up losing money by hundreds and hundreds of dollars, so we're paying to be there. It's all kids -- busloads and busloads and busloads of at-risk high schoolers. Five thousand of them. Five thousand at-risk kids all together! We start doing our thing, and there's silence for a long time, then it starts: "Am I hearing what I think I'm hearing? Off to the left side of the audience? Is that booing? Is that 5,000 at-risk teenagers booing us?" And it was a really hot, hot, hot, humid day, so we're sweating, dropping things, we're all jet-lagged, and we're getting booed by 5,000 kids. You finish that, and you're just shaking. It drains something out of you.

JO: How about Lake Charles, Louisiana? We're doing a comedy tour early in our career, doing one-nighters, and we always go to the club to check it out 'cause we use a lot of space. It's a big prefab, sheet-metal warehouse space. We go in, and there's all this black-light stuff all over the walls, all these different rooms, and we realize this is a redneck mushroom bar. This is where all the trippin' kickers come! OK, they're havin' a comedy night. This is gonna be fun, right? So we go, and it's getting a little weirder and a little weirder -- it's kind of a small, ugly crowd -- and the guy shows us our space, this dance floor, and says, "Yeah, this is the first one of these we've ever done!"

RW: (in a high-pitched, backwoods voice) "Y'all git off the floor! Y'all git off the floor! All right then, it's comedy night! Now shut up! Shut! Up! Come on out, boys! Do your comedy!"

JO: There are shows where we'll go off on tangents, and whatever happens, we'll try to make it a fun show. Then there are shows where you walk out and you do the script beginning to end as fast as you can.

KH: Do not pause for laughter.

AC: Has the realization that you're leaving all that glamour behind sunk in yet? Any nostalgia so far?

KH: I don't know if that has really hit me yet. I'm sure the last week at Zach is going to be a little tougher, but we are still looking at three to five months of gigs in front of us.

JO: For me, it'll be at the end of this run. The other ones, they'll be a lot of weekends, one-nighters, not theatres we have a great history with like Zach, where we've done several long, long runs very successfully. It'll be the last show at Zach. I mean, we set it up, playing "Those Were the Days" at the end as we're changing clothes and walk out through the audience as opposed to backstage. It'll be hard not to get choked up. end story

The Flaming Idiots Farewell Tour runs through Jan. 4 at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside. For information, call 476-0541 or visit www.zachscott.com.

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Austin comedy, Flaming Idiots, Jon O'Connor, Rob Williams, Kevin Hunt, Zachary Scott Theatre Center, The Tonight Show, New Victory Theater, The New York Times

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