Happy had a fever and was worried he might pass out onstage. He was the final act in Tomas Medina’s Son of the Superfantabulous Variety Show at the Lakeshore Theater, and he didn’t want to let the audience down. Happy (ne Dave Haskell) can handle pain–in fact, he thrives on it–but a human pincushion must be in the best of health to stay focused.

Happy looks exactly like one of those adult babies in cartoons: he’s stout and pink, with a tuft of cotton-candy hair sprouting out of his otherwise bald head. I’d met him and Medina two weeks earlier at Master Nowhere’s Lost Carnival, put on by the local art collective House of Payne in the basement of the Zhou B. Center in Bridgeport. Happy and Medina were performing in the Freak Tent.

On the elevator ride to the basement, a hobo clown in a tinsel wig announced, “Ladies and germs, children of all ages: we will be going down.” I took a deep breath, expecting some sort of hellish Great Glass Elevator-style ride, but our car just chugged slowly downward, then the doors opened to reveal an elaborate production: skill-testing games with Victorian-era prizes like masks, little optical illusions on paper, and fake goldfish in baggies full of water; acrobats performing graceful feats on a floor mat; a pair of women dressed like ghoulish ventriloquist dummies with their wrists tied together, dancing sensually to aggro industrial music; a mermaid wriggling around in a boat while another woman played a homemade harp.

The show started, and a dotty magician with a scarred face announced he’d need a volunteer. “Ooh!” I squealed, waving my hand. “Pick me! Pick me!” An older woman behind me started mimicking me in a high-pitched, nasal voice, but like I give a shit. I kept it up till he pulled me out of the audience. I helped him perform some lame card tricks, then a guy in a black mask came onstage and announced his Punch-and-Judy show in a hearty cockney accent: “This is a rayah version wif a Belgian endin’!”

Mouse, his cute, ditzy assistant, came out in a corset and not much else. “You’re not wearing your mask!” the man, Alain Jens (aka Art Institute instructor Nicholas Lowe), cried. “I didn’t like it,” Mouse stage-whispered. “But look! I’m wearing a bow!”

The entertainment wasn’t the puppet show but the banter between the two as they pretended they didn’t quite have the kinks worked out.

“This is art!” exclaimed Jens. “And this girl from Iowa is turning it into vaudeville!”

Later they performed a shadow-puppet skit in which they pretended to extract teeth from the mouths of willing audience members. It looked pretty amazing.

The Freak Tent opened every hour. Inside was a small stage covered in plastic–holding the tantalizing promise that things would get messy. For five bucks a pop we watched Medina, who strongly resembles Rick Moranis, warm up the stage for Happy with his gross-out routine. He ate lit cigarettes wrapped in napkins and a long inflated balloon. He slid an arm of his glasses way up his nose, pulled it out, and licked it. He shoved a white Tic-Tac into each tear duct, sucked another into his nose, and swallowed a fourth; we watched him squirm and gag as he spit them all out his mouth.

Happy came out and Medina threw darts at his back. Every time one stuck, Happy turned to face the audience and deadpanned, “Ow,” only adding to our discomfort. He ran a spear through his cheek, laced a little mesh bag onto it, then pushed on the spear till it poked out the other cheek. Medina filled the bag with 16 billiard balls, and Happy took it with nary a drop of blood.

Happy had a heart attack four years ago but doesn’t know why. He’s been clean and sober for the past 20 years, though he told me most pain sluts are “drunks and whores.” He, on the other hand, uses pain “as a medium to show strength and dignity.”

At the Lakeshore Theater last Friday night Medina opened the show with a card trick, then a pretty bob-haired brunette with sparkly red lips–whom we later learned was no less a luminary than Miss Exotic World 2005 herself, Michelle “Toots” L’Amour–danced like a hussy in a Warrant video.

The next act, the spiky-haired KC, came out in a gold bikini and furry spats that made her look like a pony. She twirled and slithered and climbed into and out of a gold-and-pink hula hoop to a sexy Middle Eastern snake-charming tune. It was one of the hottest things I’ve ever seen.

We also saw beefy jock Kevin Burke, a Ringling Bros. clown turned stand-up comedian (he’s currently touring with Defending the Caveman), play the theme song to Gilligan’s Island on a kazoo; a man named Dr. Kilovolt dance to a cream puff easy-listening tune called “Party Shaker” in a silver fireman’s suit, flipping the lights strapped to his body on and off in time to the music; and a fan-and-scarf dance performed by L’Amour.

Finally the lights changed from red to blue. The Residents’ “Blue Rosebuds” came blasting on and a voluptuous woman in a corset, her magenta hair tied back with a scrap of black lace, carried out a tray of medical instruments like the kind some sick fuck would use to torture someone in a movie. She lit a bundle of sage, waved it around, assumed a coy position at the edge of the stage, and sat very still.

Happy strutted onstage in a black leather thong. He snapped on latex gloves and swabbed his chest with alcohol swipes. A middle-aged couple got up and left. Without a word Happy sat down and pierced each breast, fastened on a couple of hooks, and attached a giant cinder block. He stood up, lifting the block, and swung it back and forth. Then he spun around really fast. If his flesh had ripped, the thing would’ve gone flying out into the audience. The crowd shouted in amazement.

Then he hooked on a long trapeze-style bar to his chest and walked over to the woman at the edge of the stage. She sat on it and he dragged her ass along the floor, carrying her offstage, then came out into the audience, arms in the air, yelling, “No pain, no gain!” We all chanted along with him, applauding wildly.

After the show people came up to congratulate and hug him. “Ow,” he deadpanned every time someone embraced him, then he’d smile as the person jumped back in horror.

When I was a troubled teen I used to sew little hearts and stars into my fingertips with embroidery thread. I pierced my knees a few times and my collarbone once; during the boring movies in class I’d pierce my ears over and over again. But that was small stuff, and it was totally self-indulgent. Happy has a mission. He sees his act as helping the world get in touch with its inner humanity, something he thinks is missing these days.

“Our society has become weak,” he says. “We’re emotionally and morally bankrupt. The Internet, fast food, microwaves–all the convenience has taken our souls. Society is a self-centered pile of mush.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.