How does a guy grow up to hammer nails into his head for a living?
"What you're about to see here is real," Todd Robbins warns the audience in the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village on a balmy Monday night in August. "And also dangerous."
The six-foot tall, nylon purple suit-wearing 54-year-old twists a 60-watt light bulb onto the end of a power cord, plugs it into an outlet, and flips the switch on the wall on and off. Having proven the bulb is real, he unscrews it. "It's warm, which is great because there's nothin' like a hot meal," he says. "HA! Hot meal! It's just like comedy." Robbins laughs at his own joke for a moment before, with the expertise of a sculptor, he contorts his smile into an expression of mock-disgust at his own cheesiness.
After teasing the audience with a false start—a moment in which he positions the light bulb as if he were to eat it, only to change his mind and share a few more facts about the stunt—Robbins bites into the bulb as though it were an apple. He removes the metal parts and carefully crunches the shards in his mouth. This time, the disgust on his face is all too genuine.
Robbins is performing as part of The Players Theatre's Monday Night Magic, New York's longest running magic show, but he's not showing off illusions in the vein of a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. He swallows swords, eats fire, and hammers nails into his nose—all real stunts that just seem impossible. In the age of YouTube do-try-this-at-home injury reels, Robbins is among of the last in a dying breed: a spectacle-creating live performer who aspires not to the Vegas-style stardom parodied in Jim Carrey's new sendup The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, but rather to attaining a middle-class income and carrying on the waning tradition of the Great American Sideshow.