I’d always wondered, how can I open a bottle with my eye socket? I mean, is it even safe? Surely, it’s impossible ... right? Not according to master trickster Sam Bartlett, artist, traveling musician, father of three, and writer of the about-to-be-released book The Best of Stuntology. “I tour, draw, and I take care of kids,” Bartlett says by phone from his Bloomington, Indiana, home, while his 14-month-old twins and 6-year-old son yell in the background.
The Best of Stuntology is filled with more than 300 pages of pranks, tricks, and challenges detailed with eye-popping illustrations and hilarious quips. It’s easy to make a fool of yourself attempting to pull off the stunts in the book. I managed to embarrass myself with the psychedelic mouth trick, which involved using tape to extend my mouth into the promised “very unnatural and disturbing gape.” And I’m sure the “trick” The Human Table would make for a fantastic sex position (my editor and I agreed it’s possibly taking a page from the Kama Sutra). If the trick comes with the warning, “You must have good knees and solid backs,” you know you’re in for something good.
Back to the book’s origins ... according to Bartlett, stuntology dates to the 1980s, while he was in college in Burlington, Vermont. “I had this group of friends and we’d call ourselves the Burlington Mutual Amusement Society, and our perimeters were we had to entertain ourselves using only things that were in the room, and any games we played, we had to make them up,” says Bartlett. He calls the group “an anarchist entertainment society,” where inventing games was part of the fun.
“It started to dawn upon me that there was this repertoire of things that you could do to entertain yourself using everyday objects and there were pranks associated with that, but not pranks in the traditional sense — it was always very gentle and kind of absurdist.” A friend subsequently introduced Bartlett to Dadaism, and he associated the stunts with the anti-establishment artist movement. Bartlett, who also splits his time as a fiddlin’ folksy performer, is heavily influenced by everything in which he dabbles. He’s been known to break into a stuntology workshop while performing at a music event. “I will gather up 50 to 100 people and I’ll run through a repertoire of stunts,” says Bartlett. Oddly enough, when it comes to performing the stunts he’d rather not prank other people. “It’s just not in my way of thinking,” says Bartlett. He would be the ideal model for that clever T-shirt that states, “I do all my own stunts,” but his stunts don’t involve jumping through hoops on fire.
“I’ve found that stuntology is completely universal. It stretches completely across age groups,” says Bartlett. “You have to let your guard down a little bit, to be a little bit uninhibited.” The tricks and pranks in the book definitely span the spectrum, from the mundane Salami Stunt to the tricky Pre-sliced Banana Stunt (which features a collapsible banana that leaves the peel “essentially intact”). Whatever odd trick you could possibly dream up, it’s in the book.
Add to that Bartlett’s illustrations, which resemble those of an extremely talented fourth-grader. “I never stop drawing, and I’ve never really learned to draw, but I didn’t let that stop me,” says Bartlett. “Drawing is very central to the stuntology process.” He says that the illustrations in the book have been made in every single state in the country “on every single mode of transportation — I’ve made drawings on planes in incredible turbulence, I’ve made drawings on buses, under umbrellas in the rain, and at gigs.”
“Stuntology is a way of life — it’s a philosophy,” says Bartlett. “It’s kind of absurdist, it doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s absurd pranks, pointless techniques, to amuse yourself, to amaze your friends, and to annoy everybody else.” •