Sometimes you don’t have to leave your own country to find a culture that is different from your own. Michael Sean Comerford talks about the unique language, lifestyle, and attitudes of the carnies, the people who work on the traveling carnivals.
Michael Sean Comerford is an award-winning journalist and travel writer. His latest book is American OZ: An Astonishing Year Inside Traveling Carnivals.
- The differences between carnivals in different countries
- The unique languages of carnies
- Attractions and difficulties of the carnival life
- The sense of belonging — and how that’s hard to leave behind
- Darker side of carnival life
- Recommended travel books
You can find Michael Sean Comerford at MichaelSeanComerford.com
Transcript of the interview
Jo: Michael Sean Comerford is an award-winning journalist and travel writer. His latest book is American OZ: An Astonishing Year Inside Traveling Carnivals. Welcome, Michael.
Michael: Thank you very much.
Jo: I’m really interested to talk about this topic.
What drew you to carnivals in particular and where did the idea for the book come from?
Michael: I had graduated from college here in the United States and I had no idea what I wanted to do and I did something completely nonsensical, which is I decided to bicycle ride to Seattle, which is about a couple thousand miles and from Chicago. On my way, I stopped to work at a carnival for a weekend on the Fourth of July in Cody, Wyoming, interestingly enough, founded by Buffalo Bill Cody, who was the first showman in the Showmen’s League, the official association of traveling carnivals.
I stopped there. I worked the weekend in the carnival, and I met these incredible people that had their own language, their own history, they were living on the road, they were characters, and I go, ‘I don’t know what I want to do with my life but if I ever write books I think this is really where the stories are.’ So it was in my mind.
I went off to become a journalist for almost 40 years, 30-some years and I decided I wanted to come back and write books. And I remembered that vow to myself all those years ago in the Cody, Wyoming Carnival, maybe this is where the stories are.
Jo: That’s so interesting. So for 40 years, this idea lay dormant. What do you think brought the idea back?
Michael: The newspaper industry is kind of drying up and I was looking for something else to do and I was, once again, at almost the same crossroads, ‘What do I want to do with the rest of my life?’ Because I wasn’t going to make a good living anymore as a newspaper reporter.
So I thought of books and I thought, ‘Well, this is my first book. Why not start with American OZ and go to a lot of carnivals and tell a lot of stories?’
Jo: We have listeners from 177 countries on the show. So I actually wanted to start by asking about the carnivals in the USA because you’re in the USA, I’m in the UK, and our carnivals we really call them fairs, I guess. And they’re quite different, I think, to the USA.
What are the carnivals like and what sets them apart from those other people might have seen in other countries?
Michael: When you see a fair versus a traveling carnival, you will think they’re pretty similar because of the rides and so forth but they have very different histories. And I think one of the biggest things that sets them apart is language.
There’s something called carny lingo on the internet by Wayne Kaiser, and he goes through the lingo of U.S. carnivals versus Canadian carnivals versus British fairs. And he doesn’t touch on Australia but Australia has its very own also traditions. And they have a different language.
Here in the United States, it’s kind of faded away, and I believe it has so in Britain too, but Ciazarn is what they call it here in the United States is a carny language. And I think it’s called parlari there in Britain. I may be massacring it.
One thing that Wayne Kaiser said about the difference between carnivals in the U.S. and carnivals abroad is that you better get the differences right, otherwise you’re going to hear it from the aficionados in that country.
He did something on BBC and got deluged by people objecting to what he had said about the differences between U.S. and British carnivals. But they do have different slangs. A galloper is a carousel, a roundabout, a merry-go-round are all different. A gaff is a fairground.
In the British lingo, they will marry a lot of Romani which is obviously from Gypsy background actually and a lot of people over there don’t like the Gypsy and heritage to that to their language. But here, American carnival worker will say, ‘Yeah, I am part Gypsy,’ and be very proud of it.
There’s the penny gaff, which is a slang for penny show or a cheap show. And these things are all very different. There’s a strong bond in Britain it says here on the lingo site that dates back to 1884. Then George Smith when there was a law passed in Parliament about movable dwellings bill, and they formed something called the United Kingdom’s Van Dwellers Association. And they have a strong bond for these people who move town to town and they look out for their rights.
Jo: Just coming back on the word Gypsy here in the UK now and that is kind of considered an offensive term and we use the term Roma for the Roma people. But it’s not necessarily about carnival. It’s also about people living in types of caravan, in types of social groups, and then we have Roma across Europe as well.
In America, is it people from this ethnic group or is it a term that’s been adopted?
Michael: It’s a generic term that’s been adopted. Some gypsies are in carnivals, especially at mitt shows. A mitt show is a hand reading show. But, I never met a Gypsy on the road. And so it’s not a strong tradition. It just made its way into the language.
Like the palari which, again, sorry for the mispronunciation all I know is that what I read is part Shelta and Gammon, which is a camp from the Irish tinkers and part Yiddish, part Cockney, and part Romani and part Lingua Franca. So it has a long varied history there.
The traveling shows that morphed into circuses, that morphed into carnivals. Carnivals are an offspring of circuses which started in Britain.
Jo: You mentioned that on first look, there might be some similar rides, so the roundabouts and whirlers and things like that. But what makes an actual carnival?
For example, you talk about showmen and the Showmen’s League before. Is it a proper carnival?
Does a carnival have humans displaying their strength or something like that?
Michael: They have some things like that. But basically, the difference between a circus and a carnival is a circus is usually under a tent and has more animals. And a traveling carnival is a moveable feast.
The carnival like in Venice and in Old Europe and around the world was connected to religious ceremonies. But after the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where the TriCity was introduced to a midway concept and people started bringing this midway concept and movable rides and the food and entertainment on the road town to town, like these traveling minstrel shows but with rides and not a lot of animal acts. Mostly some sideshows, quite a few sideshows.
So they are related, but they’re strongly different in that a circus will be under a tent and usually will show elephants and lions and acrobatics and a traveling show is rides and games and sideshows.
Jo: In terms of the characters in the book, you talk about “carnies, showmen, and sideshow freaks.” I think that brings up certain images in people’s mind.
Tell us about some of the people who stick in your mind, in particular.
Michael: I want to back up because you were talking about the difference between the different countries. A bally in the United States is a commodity and that is something to bring people into your sideshow. So I have the bally of American OZ.
“From Alaska to Mexico, New York to Cali from Dallas to Chi-town, hear my bally, change your life. It was meant to be win big money free, free, free, be shocked, be amazed on every page, be younger, be smarter in a tech age, say no to the square life, say no to the blogs, say yes to the wonders of American OZ.”
That bally is made up and it’s not really what they do on the road. But one of the greatest bally talkers and some people call barkers was Ward Hall. He was in his ’80s when I met him, and he had run away when he was a young kid which is very common and gone to sideshows and he started out as an incredible talker on the road. I have an interview with him and he speaks about all the people he’s worked with in his life.
He said he had worked with “giants, midgets, alligator men, bearded ladies, the monkey girl, pinheads, dwarfs, armless girls, the living half man.” All these people he’s worked with in the past and he worked in Madison Square Garden, the Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall.
He was inducted into every American circus and carnival hall of fame. He was quite a character and knew a lot of the history but he was electric. There’s a real sense of history that goes with carnivals all over the world.
They love the fact that they have a history of show business, and people feel part of something greater than themselves.
Jo: It’s so interesting, because I feel like almost in my mind that there’s the sawdust and the sweat because it’s really hard work doing all these tents, and it feels far removed from the places in America with people in their office blocks and things like this. Do these traveling carnivals visit the bigger cities or is it more of a smaller town thing?
Michael: They were everywhere. I was in the big city here in Chicago. I’m now in L.A. But when I started out, I was in Chicago and I was at the Puerto Rican fest. I was at Midway Plaisance at the University of Chicago. There were gang members all around me. And we were in the toughest of the toughest neighborhoods.
There was violence sometimes on the midway. But then we were in a lot of small towns where we were the biggest event of the year. And then, of course, I went to several carnival state fairs. And they’re the biggest event of the year in most states, most rural states anyway. We were the carnival part.
We’d go into the Minnesota State Fair or the State Fair of Texas, which is 21 days and gets a couple million people to come. And so carnivals are very alive inside of other things. Like they show up inside your small town annual festival.
And then the carnival will come and add the carousels and the roundabouts and the ferris wheels. And then your state fair that the traveling carnival will show up from the next state over and work your state fair and then work the next state fair. So it’s funny that they’re sort of an invisible group.
That was one of the things that attracted me to them because they’re sort of invisible, and they’re a different caste. There was a great book that was just written this year by Isabel Wilkerson called Caste and nominated for a Pulitzer. It talked about how a caste system isn’t only in places like India, it’s here in America.
She talked a bit about how African Americans are a different caste. But I would argue also that carnival people are. They’re the working poor, and often looked down upon because they don’t have health care and they may have bad teeth or they are poor. When they get drunk, they get drunk outside.You don’t see that middle class person getting drunk at home. You see them walking around on the carnival.
They’re looked down on and yet they are hardworking people with families. The people I knew were good, loving people and they had lots of scoundrels too just like in every other walk of life.
Jo: In terms of the hard-working, I’ve seen the result of these carnivals, but it always looks like so much work to move all these big things around and put up stuff and try and bring everything in and it looks kind of crazy work.
What kinds of work did you do? And how did it give you an insight into the way that the carnival works and hides all of that from the customer?
Michael: No one’s supposed to see how hard it is to do. Even in book writing, people aren’t supposed to see how hard it is to get to that smooth line or that clear insight. And that’s the way it is in carnivals.
One day, it’s an open field and the next day, you have an entire fantasy city that has been raised up. I would work 24 hours a day sometimes, sometimes longer, 28 hours, no sleep and no breaks to set up a carnival and then get a few hours to sleep and then work the carnival when it opened and I worked the rides and the games.
I like to say I was “pushing plush and slinging iron” across the USA. I worked in 10 states and in 10 carnivals and in Florida, the last state, I worked in a freak show but they didn’t let me up on stage because they didn’t see the inner freak in me.
So, yes, it’s extremely hard work. And like I say in this unfair world, these people work their butts off. At the end of the year they have to struggle to find a home because the home is the road. There are no strict hours.
I write in the book that even when you go to sleep, carnivals run through your dreams. If you were on a traveling carnival you’re potentially always at work.
You are working a lot and it’s a hard job and it’s low pay. And the thanks you get is almost none. The thanks you get is the lifestyle because people love it.
Jo: Why do they love it?
Michael: That’s a big question. When I first started on it, I was going, ‘I can’t understand this. Really, this is below minimum wages if you look at the hours and you are separated from your family.’
I had a daughter back in Chicago, and I was traveling around the United States. It was heartbreaking for both of us. And these are people that do this for a living their whole lives. Their dad did it and their mom did it. But it’s addicting and it’s show business and it is outdoor life.
There are alternatives. Sometimes there are factory work and drudgery. And this is exciting and adventuresome. And they travel. There is a solidarity and a friendship and the camaraderie that comes from working in a carnival.
They always talk about your carnival family. I met so many people that had run away from home or had been orphans. One guy said to me, ‘I’ve had foster homes, but this is my real family.’ He looked around the Minnesota State Fair and he was talking about the couple thousand people that were working the state fair.
Jo: I was thinking about that, this sense of belonging. When you work really hard together and you’re sharing collective food, and you’re just working super, super hard, it breaks down a lot of barriers.
I guess it’s almost like the military; people go and serve a tour with other people in the military. And then they come back and they were away from that life, and it just feels more empty. It sounds like that’s almost similar. There’s really, really hard work. If you step away from it, where’s your family gone?
Michael: Right. Absolutely. When I left these carnivals, another shocking thing is that I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t you?’ But I had to leave. I had to leave in order to get a lot of carnivals in from Alaska to Mexico and New York to California.
But they saw me as quitting and going back to…they didn’t know I was doing that. I worked without telling people what I was doing, that I was writing a book. I had to because I got fired from the first place that I told them the truth. So I had to keep doing that. I call it being a spy.
When I left, everybody said, ‘I’m sorry that you have to leave,’ that I was giving up on the good life. I was giving up on the good life and leaving and one guy said to me and it’s not in the book. He said, ‘I’ve talked to a lot of people. When I get off oddest carnivals,’ he says, ‘I go back to work in the factory,’ and he was going back to work in the factory. He had a girlfriend who is pregnant and he’d have to go back. But he said, ‘Everybody I talked to has ever been in a carnival always talks about how shitty their life is now and how great their life was.’
Jo: It’s interesting that I think a lot about freedom and what does freedom mean?
Michael: That’s right.
Jo: Like you said, you were sometimes working 24 hours a day. That’s not freedom. That is working really hard for minimum wages, as you said. But then I guess that’s like this climax of the event. And then you’re pulling everything down again and you’re on the road to the next place.
I guess there must be a sense of freedom in the lifestyle. And also, as you say, you’re opting out of what most people do with their days as in living in the same place and working the same job.
I can see how it would have a kind of freedom.
Michael: They think of it as free. That’s for sure. And they think their lives are free. They think they got it made and we’re the suckers, we’re the marks. And they are with it, is the phrase. They’re with it. Once you’re not with it anymore, what is there?
There is a lack of meaning out there. Because life seems to make sense in that insular world in there. You’re setting up a fantasy in all new towns everywhere you go, and everything is new, and there’s new people every day.
If you feel free, you are. They feel free. I take that back because some do burn out on it and then leave. There is dissatisfaction with every kind of life. I don’t want to over-romanticize it.
Jo: Yes. That’s important.
In the book, you say, “Where you find the greatest happiness, you find the most pain.” What was that darker side of the carnival life and what were some of the difficulties?
Michael: There’s addictions, there’s violence, there’s misbehavior. Some people go to carnivals to fully live another life. Some people are on the run. There are some criminals in there. There’s abuse and there’s homelessness after the year, the caste system, like I say, and most people by the end of the year are broke.
By the end of the year, some carnivals will save your money for you if you stay there for the whole year. They’ll give you a week or two of pay that you would have spent but they ended up saving for you. A couple carnivals will do that and oftentimes at the end of the season, you’re broke again and you’ve got to wait through the winter season, and they call winter quarters, and you go back to your family’s home or you do whatever.
Some people went back to jail. Some people who were used to the “three hots and a cot” to go back to jail. But most people go back to their family and live with them and do nothing. The Mexican carnies, which make up in some cases, half or more of the big carnivals, they go back to their homes in Mexico and there’s no work for them for the next two to three months, until they come back to the United States.
This is that dormant period of nothing to do and your savings going away to nothing. And every year you’re not advancing, you’re not building on something. That has to wear on a person because really, unless you’re an owner of a ride or of a carnival, things aren’t getting better for you every year. That’s painful.
Jo: It’s that living for the next high of the next performance and the lights and the smells and the action and the new people. Those of us who go into carnivals we enjoy going because it’s like this escape from real life. It’s just pure entertainment and sugar high.
I can see how sort of being part of that it’s like, well, it’s bad today, but there’ll be another carnival and there’ll be another high. This is so interesting because it’s unrecognizable to most people’s life.
I wanted to come back to something you talked earlier on about the history being connected to religious ceremonies. One of my favorite TV shows that actually got canceled was HBOs ‘Carnivale’, which was very much the supernatural and mythological aspects of carnival, and I just loved that show. It was about a traveling carnival and the people who worked that too.
Did you glimpse that side of things or religious or supernatural or the superstitions and customs and nonphysical sense?
Michael: Absolutely. Ward Hall talked about that when I interviewed him. The Vatican, they appoint a priest to traveling carnivals in the United States and they call them a carny priest, and their most recent one just died of COVID. I don’t know who the next one is going to be.
At different state fairs they have Protestant preachers that come by our tents. And when I was down in Mexico, I went to an evangelical gathering where people were speaking in tongues and fainting. The preacher was talking about Exodus and about the traveling Jewish experience in the Bible to these traveling carnival people down in Mexico. There’s a town in Mexico where all the men leave once a year – it’s called Tlapacoyen – to work up in carnivals in the United States.
And when they would go back home, there’s nothing to do. In this case, I went down there to see them, and they went to an evangelical gathering and so there’s this yearning, in general through humanity to find something transcendent. And that’s not absent in carnivals either.
They have their priests and they have their preachers and they have their own beliefs. The priest doesn’t travel with your carnival. Usually there isn’t time enough to go to church on Sunday. But almost everybody is religious.
I had to cover that part because that’s something in people’s lives. They’re figuring out who they are in this world, where they fit in, and carnival people aren’t any different. They’re just doing it on the move.
Jo: That’s the Christian side. Absolutely. What about things like Tarot or palm reading and the occult side that people often expect at a carnival?
Michael: There is some belief in that and I didn’t see a ton of it. I saw some belief in Juggalos, which are the Insane Clown Posse. They had a rock band and still do. They believe in a Dark Carnival where there’s a murder carousel and people dress up in clown masks and people show up at carnivals that way and some carnival people like wearing their shirts, but I didn’t see a ton of occult or any of that. But I also didn’t partake in the drugs and alcohol either. So I missed some of the experience.
Jo: You might not have remembered it if you had partaken!
You talked about with the caste system and the opinion of certain groups who are associated with carnival. These stories rise up around these groups in order to further stigmatize them. So whether there’s a grain of truth or no truth at all, that becomes part of the mythology, almost certainly these sort of negative ideas have been associated with groups in Europe and then have been used as part of persecution. In the Second World War, Hitler sent a ton of Roma to the camps.
Michael: And carnival people. He stopped carnivals.
Jo: Exactly. So there’s definitely an aspect there of prejudice. I find that really interesting.
I want to change tack because we’re almost out of time. As you talked about, you’ve bicycled across the U.S., you’ve hitchhiked a lot. You’ve traveled to almost 100 countries. I want to ask about what does freedom mean to you and what does travel mean to you right now? Because obviously, we’re still in pandemic times and it’s kind of started but it’s still restricted.
What are your thoughts on travel and freedom in this world we live in now?
Michael: I recently am now finishing a book. Last year I took off in the winter and rode a bicycle on Route 66, which is in America, a road from Chicago to L.A., 2,500 miles all the way and much sung about and written about in The Grapes of Wrath and On the Road and in other books, and I bicycled that and asked people about COVID.
I had over 100 interviews, and I’m going to call it ‘The Beast of Main Street,’ I believe, and I asked people about their lives amid COVID. I think people are kind of quite focused on that.
What does freedom mean, even during these COVID times? I think that just like that belief in the transcendent, I think that people need it and want to do it and they can hardly wait to get back to it. But it is transcendent.
In my case, the word wanderlust doesn’t really say enough about it because I’m fixated on travel. If I could do it all the time, I would.
But I storytell along the way, and I did it through journalism and now I’m doing it through these books.
I think freedom is a fleeting feeling that comes in the doing and the same with travel. As you’re traveling, there are just times that you feel free and that is freedom and just like happiness. When I hitchhiked between these 10 carnivals and I wrote on my blog as I was going along, I had a blog called ‘Isolite Carnivals,’ and I wrote that some of the freest days, the days I felt the most free was on the back of a pickup truck.
I was going down the interstate at 65 miles an hour. A bump could push me right out of that pickup truck. But I just let the wind going through my hair and I was hitchhiking across the Hudson River and I was hitchhiking down through Florida. And I’d just go, ‘Man, I don’t know what freedom is. It’s indefinable. I think once you’re feeling it, it’s almost gone.’ But, man, this feels free.
There was a lot of that in the hitchhiking portion of this book. But the hitchhiking also helped with the connections because everybody wanted to talk about a carnival. I love this series because it tried to get at the deeper levels of what travel means to people.
Carnivals are a way of life and people are traveling constantly and they are looking for meaning in life on the road. They’re looking for love and family on the road. And it’s like a drug you can’t live inside it constantly. But when it shows up, it’s a real high.
Jo: Do you have any books that you could recommend about carnivals or about travel in general?
Michael: I thought a lot about this and I’m going to give you books that you might have thought of but Travels with Charlie with Steinbeck and On the Road with Kerouac and Studs Terkel’s Working because that isn’t a travel book but it’s about common people.
Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation is hilarious, and she does so many. But also Bill Bryson cannot be beat. He’s my favorite writer who writes about places and a variety of things, including In a Sunburned Country about Australia. And Paul Theroux and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi.
Jo: These are all very classic!
Michael: Susan Orlean, Orchid Thief and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.
All of these are fabulous. You just can’t lose if you catch a great writer writing about a road. And right now the greatest writing in the world is being done by one Paul Salopek, former Chicagoan at the ‘Chicago Tribune,’ two Pulitzer Prizes. He is walking around the world in a project called the ‘Out of Eden Walk,’ and he calls it slow journalism.
He is telling incredible stories as he goes along. And he meant to take it around, walk around the world for seven years. It’s seven years and now he’s just in China.
Jo: He might be there for a while.
Michael: COVID slowed him down but he’s a wonderful writer. And if you take one thing away from my recommendations, it’s get online and check out ‘Out of Eden Walk’ by Paul Salopek.
Where can people find you and your books online?
Michael: I’m at michaelseancomerford.com. You can find me anywhere if you just put in American Oz by Michael Sean Comerford, and then pretty soon it’ll be Beast of Main Street. That’s the way to find me and hopefully more books down the line.
Jo: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Michael. That was great.
Michael: All right. Thank you.