NYU Alumni Magazine Spring 2008

alumni profile

Step Right Up!

Tyler Fleet / TSOA ’99

by Renée Alfuso / CAS ’06

Tyler Fleet remembers the first time he saw the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth in Atlanta in 1982. Like many 6-year-olds, he went home that day with dreams of running away with the circus. For years thereafter, he entertained family and friends by any means—from reading gypsy fortune-telling cards to shooting spaghetti and meatballs out of his nose. But it wasn’t until Fleet took a circus class as an elective, while studying dramatic writing at the Tisch School of the Arts, that he learned the arts of juggling, trapeze, and tightrope walking. It was in this class that the Amazing Blazing Tyler Fyre was born.

Today Fleet is a veritable sideshow superstar—defying death and dazzling audiences by swallowing swords, escaping straitjackets, and eating fire. He’s racked up 15,000 shows in less than 15 years, including an appearance on Late Show With David Letterman, performing at P. Diddy’s infamous White Party, and sharing the stage with rock legends such as the Who and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Now the 33-year-old tours the country with his wife, Thrill Kill Jill, in the Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow, for which they won a Candlelight Award—the Oscar of the circus world. The show transforms the classic carnival sideshow act to the level of a glitzy, high-energy Las Vegas production, complete with music, costume changes, and a theatrical narrative arc.

The road to daredevil fame required a good deal of practice in both physical skills and stage persona. After graduating from NYU, Fleet found a job at Coney Island’s Sideshows by the Seashore as an “outside talker,” whose lofty task is to draw people away from the games and attractions of the midway. “That experience shaped me more than any other because I had 12-hour days on the microphone where all you have to work with is words to put on a show,” he says.

But Fleet wasn’t content to just bring in the crowds—he wanted to entertain them on stage, too. His roommate, Frank Hartman, was a Coney Island sword swallower but refused to share his technique; carnie tradition is to teach one person your act only upon retiring. Not willing to wait, Fleet spent months painfully teaching himself and throwing up in the kitchen sink while his roommate tried to keep him alive. As he recalls: “I would try to swallow a sword and not be able to do it and Frank would holler from the sofa, ‘Oh, God no, not like that! You’ll kill yourself!’ ”

Sword swallowing has been around for 4,000 years, but there are only a few dozen people in the world who still practice it today. Accidents are often fatal, so Fleet, who can swallow swords as long as 27.5 inches, considers himself lucky to have had only one injury in more than a decade. On a Sunday at Coney Island, with just eight people in the audience, he swallowed a brand-new glass sword and heard a crack, which, he says, felt akin to hitting your teeth with a hammer. As he pulled the sword back up, the broken glass dragged along both sides of his throat. It took him weeks of drinking aloe vera juice and whiskey on ice to recover.

The incident didn’t hinder Fleet; he simply replaced the glass sword with a steel one that has a flaming torch on the end. His wife, Jill, also swallows swords—Fleet taught her all the stunts in their act, including lying on a bed of nails while he carves a watermelon in half on her stomach using a chainsaw. “The show is so therapeutic for our marriage,” says Jill, who is also a snake charmer. “If we’re arguing about something beforehand, as soon as we hit the stage we forget what we were even talking about.”

Funny how fire and chainsaws can put things like whose turn it is to take out the trash into perspective. Jill was working as a talent scout for an oddities museum/vaudeville venue when she met Fleet at a show in 2006. A year later they were married on Valentine’s Day by an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas. Today they winter in the mountains of West Virginia, and spend the other eight months touring in a vintage 1974 Airstream trailer, along with their Doberman, two Burmese pythons, and a red-tailed boa.

They’re planning to start their own circus family soon, which will require a pregnant Jill to swallow a much shorter sword, topped with a baby rattle. “We’re hoping they don’t grow up to be doctors and lawyers,” says Jill, laughing. “But of course, that’ll be what happens with our kids.”

photo © John Ulaszek

Jill and Tyler Fleet, husband-and-wife performers, tour with the Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow.