David Markham is a variety artist whose specialties include sword swallowing, magic, ventriloquism, knife throwing and whip stunts. Before his performance as a part of Arabian Nights with the Mirage BellyDance Duo at Khoury's in Long Beach, he spoke about combining comedy and sword swallowing, discovering the "barriers" of sword swallowing, and what he recommends for someone who may want to swallow swords.
I’m interested to know how you combine comedy and sword swallowing.
Sword swallowing is a good gag. [drums the table] Usually I make different jokes and do different stunts with it. It creates a situation for comedy. A guy cramming a sword down his throat can be funny.
What was it about sword swallowing that made you think, “That’s something I want to do.”
I was increasing my repertoire. When I was a kid, I started doing magic and ventriloquism, and then I just kept increasing my repertoire to fire-eating. I thought what could I do that has the same sort of vibe to it? Sword swallowing. It turned out to be very difficult and unpleasant. It’s much more dangerous than I ever thought.
You can’t really sneeze or cough or anything.
That’s true. I performed one time for the whole season at Knott’s Scary Farm. It was four shows, no five or six, shows a night. They had me right next to this fog machine. The kind that heats up oil and blasts it out. I got so much of it in my lungs, I was coughing all the time. That was a bummer. But yes, you can’t cough. Or you should try to avoid doing it.
What’s more horrifying, your first time performing comedy onstage, or your first time trying to swallow a sword?
I did structured comedy things in grade school. I would make up these routines. I had these imaginary adventures. That didn’t feel nervous. As an adult, magic was much more traumatic. There’s always the thought, “They’re going to see how I do it.” My hands would shake really bad. I would get so adrenalined up. I was trying to be cool with manipulation routines with coins and cards. [shakes his hands like Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles] I’d drop it. I have kind of sweaty hands anyway. I’d do the billiard balls between my fingers and it would fall out and go BANG on the stage. That was pretty bad. For a long time, too. I would say definitely doing magic, because you always have the potential to look like a complete idiot.
Describe for me the first time you tried swallowing a sword.
It is a horrible process. In all these books on fire-eating, they always have a paragraph about sword swallowing. If you can learn to overcome the gag reflex, you can swallow a sword. So you go poking around. After a while you can control the gag reflex. You go poking around and there’s no opening. Your throat is still closed off. They never mention that because they obviously never did it. For a long time, I would get to that gag reflex stage, get over it so I could control it and couldn’t find the opening. I saw one guy do it, and I thought, “I know it can be done.” I wasn’t gagging. But I would get to that point and quit. Finally, I started to get it down a little ways. Then the true fun of sword swallowing begins because your throat seizes on it with astonishing vigor, and makes you retch and gag to the power of ten. It was bad enough trying to overcome the gag reflex, try it now. There are two barriers. You get to those barriers and it’s very painful. Then you get to the second one, solid barrier, right about there. [points to an area a few inches below the throat] It does the same thing of grabbing onto the sword. Sometimes when I was performing, I would have what I called epiglottis busters. Once you get past that, I have one that just barely reaches my stomach. A doctor called it the gastro-esophageal juncture. Then you encounter and magnificent function doctors call the heave reflex. You heave the sword up. So there’s all these pleasantries going on.
I wouldn’t call it fun, but it’s been a good hook when I get out my sales kit. Other things I do are comedy variety acts. I do a variety of variety acts. I do magic, also plate spinning. I’ve found no other sword swallower who does plate spinning. One of the jokes I used to use, I let someone look at the sword before I swallow it. It comes out with all this saliva and mucus on it. And I would go, “Would you like to examine it now?” Too many people said yes.
One year I was doing a spook show at MGM Grand. After I swallowed the sword, I was supposed to menace this girl. Right outside the theater was this employee area where they had hot chocolate, coffee, and cookies. After that, it would come out with this brown film, crumbs. This girl I was supposed to be menacing said, under her breath, “That’s unsavory.”
What would you recommend to someone who wants to take up sword swallowing?
I would say seriously, don’t do it. Everyone I know has had an accident, including myself. Just this year, one guy I know had a very serious accident. He punctured his esophagus and almost died. I take it real easy. This guy was supposed to be my replacement with certain groups. I would say find something else. That would be my real serious advice. I should think of a glib answer for that question. How about, “Don’t sneeze.”
David Marham can also be seen in the independent film Carnies.