Last year, the classically inspired circus sideshow known as the Venice Beach Freakshow made the leap into reality TV. As reality shows are, essentially, modern-day freak shows, AMC's Freakshow is a concept squared. But unlike the surgically enhanced Real Housewives, say, or the insane pageant moms of Toddlers & Tiaras, the cast members of this unscripted series have made their peace with the term "freak."
The performer known as Morgue, for one, is used to those sorts of insults. Morgue is a "shock artist": His act involves stunts such as drilling himself in the face with power tools.
Clad in head-to-toe black, Morgue, who declines to share his age, has luminous pale skin and long, white-blond hair. Nobody pays him much attention here on the Venice boardwalk, where the atmosphere is right out of a carnival.
Morgue, who grew up in Montana, says people there would drive by and yell out, "Freak! Vampire!" Raised in a conservative Christian household, he says, "I felt like I was broken or defective, because everyone else was doing this thing, but I had no interest in it whatsoever."
These days, he takes it as a compliment when anyone is jostled by his existence. Being a freak is something to be proud of.
He's a philosophical sort, and what shocks people is sometimes shocking. Often, it's the little things that freak people out. "For example, I do a thing where I hammer a nail into my face?" he says. The audience all but yawns. "Then I pull it out and lick it. And that shocks them. They'll gag and scream." He shakes his head. "It's like, are you serious? Really? That? It's very confusing to me as to why that is."
At a time when political correctness and diversity training are the name of the game, a classic freak show can seem like an anachronism. Or, at the very least, redundant. The Internet, after all, is basically one big freak show.
But Todd Ray, the founder and driving force of the Venice Beach Freakshow, rejects the idea that there is nothing left in the world to marvel or wonder at. "Listen, you Googlemaniacs," he says to kids, "I Google all day long, too. But there's things inside here that you can't Google. There's things inside here that you'll talk about until the day you die. So if you've got $5, you can get a gallon of gas. Or you can come in and get yourself a memory of a lifetime."
Ray is sitting inside the theater, a rented unit in a large commercial building, right at the heart of the boardwalk's insanity. It's not much bigger than the souvenir shops that line Ocean Front Walk, but it's still sizable enough to fit a couple of small stages, a bunch of odd animals and vintage sideshow ephemera. It's dark and moody, like a carnival at night, with velvet curtains and curious stuff in every corner — two-headed mice in jars of formaldehyde, taxidermy, voodoo dolls, skulls and skeletons, antique circus paintings.
It was Ray who recruited Morgue to the show. The Montana native had been working as a street performer on the Venice boardwalk. He'd started to learn sword swallowing because his other acts were scaring people away, "which is good," he notes, "but not good if you're trying to make money." Sword swallowing seemed "more traditional, more family-friendly."
Ray was instantly intrigued. "When I heard he was swallowing swords, I thought, 'This guy, he keeps taking it next level,' " he says. "I told him, 'You gotta come in. This is where you belong.' "
Ray turns to Gabriel Pimentel, who is America's shortest male. Pimentel was riding his bike around Venice when Ray's daughter spotted him. Now he's a freak show star — and a star of Freakshow, too.
"When you meet Gabriel," Ray says, "he's 2½ feet tall. You'd never imagine someone this little could be so big."
See also: Meet the Fabulous Morgans: The Castle-Dwelling, High-Flying, Coolest, Quirkiest Family in L.A.
Pimentel is fully independent. He drives. He acts. He has a young son. But growing up in "rough" Pacoima, little kids tried to bully him.
Pimentel, however, had tall friends who'd take care of him. "They were my bodyguards," he says with a grin.
Wee Matt McCarthy takes an alternate approach. Ray brought in the 4-foot-2-inch McCarthy to be the freak show's "hype man," whose job is to warm up the audience. He also brought in McCarthy's wife, Ali. The two are billed as "the littlest married couple." By McCarthy's own account, he "was always a crazy, wild, tough little dude."
Occasionally someone harasses him, but, like Morgue, McCarthy refuses to let it bother him. Where Morgue takes the high ground, McCarthy takes the low: "I say, 'Say it to my face!' Then, bam! Punch them in the balls. What's up! You just got nailed by a little dude. Dwarf power, mother f-er."
He was, unsurprisingly, popular in junior high school.
Pretty and demure Sunshine English, the show's fire eater, grew up in the sideshow community. For her, "freak" is a way of life. The term does not offend her in the slightest.
"We have a freak philosophy," Ray says. To his cast of performers, "freak" has come to mean something unique, out of the ordinary. "We don't want to be the next Real Housewives of New Jersey, or whatever," he continues. "We don't want to be anybody but ourselves. For us, 'normal' is the bad word. It puts people in a box. It causes people to struggle with their identity. Because none of us are the same."
He points to Wee Matt. "This guy, he's a party animal." McCarthy growls.
"Sunshine, she's such a beautiful young woman," Ray adds. "But you see her eating flaming torches the way you'd eat an ice cream cone. Or sitting on an electric chair taking 100,000 volts of electricity through her body, to the point where she lights up light bulbs with her fingertips."
He waves his arm at Morgue, who likes to swallow a metal billiard ball, then follow it with a sword, then upchuck the ball again. "I mean, every time he does it, I feel like he's an alien," Ray says; Morgue smirks.