Chris Bliss has been a juggler for nearly 40 years, and during that time, he’s also become skilled at juggling various aspects of his career.
He’s a sharp-tongued comic with a knack for biting social commentary, yet he also knows how to tone down his anger for corporate audiences. He’s a Tonight Show fixture who also writes thoughtful, dead-serious political essays (many of them brutally attacking the Bush Administration’s challenges to First Amendment rights), but has learned to work across the partisan divide for his national campaign to build monuments celebrating the Bill of Rights.
From the beginning of his performing career, in the early 1970s, Bliss has defied traditional parameters. As a young juggler, he employed rock music to back up his routines, and thus became a favorite opening act for rock bands on the West Coast. In 1982, he toured with the band Asia, at a time when their debut album was at the top of the Billboard charts. That led to an impossibly surreal experience: Opening for the Jacksons’ 1984 Victory Tour, which he accurately, and somewhat self-mockingly calls “the biggest tour of all time, up to that time.” Facing 50,000 fans desperate to see Michael Jackson moonwalk his way through “Billie Jean,” Bliss took to the stage armed with nothing but three juggling balls. While he handled the experience with assurance (even dressing down a freezing Buffalo crowd that booed him when he hit the stage), the tour convinced him that he’d taken juggling as far as it could go.
“After that tour, the only thing that was going to happen was that I was going to get offers to be a Vegas specialty act,” Bliss says. “Creatively I was bored. I was a comparative-literature major in college.
I had people telling me for a solid five years that I should be doing standup, because it was a much better fit with my personality to just be sarcastic than to not say anything and throw balls in the air.”
After struggling with the standup form for at least five years, he developed a voice that combined Seinfeld’s obsessions with daily minutia with political agitation. Describing Bill Clinton’s handling of Kosovo, he observed, “Mr. Clinton makes war the same way he makes love: limited penetration, no real commitment.”
These days, Bliss is fed up with the Bush Administration and hopeful about Barack Obama, but he hesitates to explicitly take sides, partly because blatant political partisanship doesn’t play at his corporate gigs, but, more importantly, because he’s raising money for his non-profit mybillofrights.org, and he believes the cause transcends ideological differences.
While in San Antonio this week, Bliss will appear at the Courage in Editorial Cartooning Awards (Thursday, June 26, at the Hotel Contessa), an event that celebrates the work of international cartoonists who fearlessly challenge their political leaders. And his organization is working with the Texas Legislature to have the nation’s first-ever Bill of Rights monument built on the grounds of the state capitol.
“I don’t have the kind of platform that Bill Maher, Lewis Black, or Jon Stewart have for my comedic stuff,” Bliss says. “So most of the stuff that I’m doing in this area winds up more in non-profit work or in my private writings at this point.” •
w. Jay Lafarr and Joseph Hicks
8:30 & 10:45pm Fri, Jun 27-Sun, Jun 29
Rivercenter Comedy Club
849 E. Commerce