In the Juggler Vein | How Berkeley performer Jeremy Shafer keeps all his balls in the air.
Jugglers who eat fire and ride unicycles are fairly common. But doing all that and throwing in a little large-scale origami demo action as well? That, mein friend, would be the sole province of B-town’s own Jeremy (Shafer) the Juggler. Jeremy caught the juggling bug as a youngster and at the tender age of 14, became a mentee of the art form’s Babe Ruth, Berkeley legend Frank Oliver, and began honing his chops at the Solano Stroll and other local venues. Soon he was in demand for birthday parties (something he still does) and the lucrative summer fair circuit. Today he’s also a fixture on the international juggling scene and a TV regular. Not bad for a kid from the ‘hood. I tracked down the multitalented globe-trotter after a recent gig in Italy to find out just how he keeps everything aloft. (Did I mention that he’s also a world-class hand whistler?)
Paul Kilduff: Was Wavy Gravy an influence? Did you go to Camp Winnarainbow?
Jeremy the Juggler: Yeah, I started when I was 14 and then finished when I was about 28.
PK: What kind of relationship do you have with [Wavy Gravy] now?
JTJ: Nice, I mean he calls me every once in a while to see if I’m available for a gig.
PK: Do you follow his politics?
JTJ: I’m maybe not quite as liberal. I wear a lot of tie-dyes, I followed his footsteps there. Camp Winnarainbow is a rainbow of colors and my dress is that way.
PK: It sounds like you actually are able to pay the bills with juggling, etc.
JTJ: I make a living with juggling and origami. Mostly juggling. But probably 60-40. I have the two origami books. One I started selling via my YouTube channel, which has over 9,000 subscribers.
PK: Your origami book?
JTJ: It’s my original design of how to fold the origami. My first book was [published by] St. Martin’s Press and I ended up getting $1 per $20 book. I did all the work; that doesn’t seem fair getting five percent of the profits. So then the next book I was like, OK, I’m going to try to take other publishing routes and so I built this YouTube channel.
PK: So you’re somebody who’s making money off of YouTube?
PK: That’s pretty good. If I think about somebody who is a juggler, I think, oh, Pier 39, maybe the guy lives in a halfway house. I hope they find gainful employment sometime.
JTJ: I feel very fortunate to [have] found a little niche [for] paying the bills—I have a mortgage.
PK: You have a mortgage and you’re married. Are you going to have kids? You’re 39.
JTJ: We really should. I’m not in a hurry for some reason. I mean, I have so many kids that I perform for. I get my dose of kids daily.
PK: It does cramp your style. I’ll be honest with you.
JTJ: Those are definitely considerations for me but in terms of the bigger picture I see a kid kind of slowing me down.
PK: When you got married at 28, you moved out of your parents’ house and across the street.
JTJ: And I moved in with my next-door neighbors. We bought this property together.
PK: It must be great because you can just go over there [to your parents]. “Hey Mom, can you mend this for me?”
JTJ: Well, I do a lot of my own sewing. Sometimes I go over [and say], “I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?”
PK: I see a guy juggling, oftentimes there’s fire involved and I know you do that. Rarely there’s origami. I think you cornered the market on that. But one thing that seems to be inseparable is the juggler and the unicycle. Why is that?
JTJ: One thing about unicycling is that it’s pretty much a lower-body balance, so it just intrinsically lends itself well to juggling because juggling [requires] an upper-body balance and so the two are really nice hand-in-hand. And it’s just the circus thing that goes way back.
PK: So there’s no law about this?
JTJ: A law that says what?
PK: The law of, “If you’re going to juggle you have to be on a unicycle.”
JTJ: No. There are plenty of jugglers out there who don’t use a unicycle.
PK: Is the unicycle your main mode of transportation?
JTJ: Within Berkeley. Also, I’m really into unicycle basketball, so it’s my main form of exercise during the week.
PK: Is there a league?
JTJ: There is well, a world league. It’s called Berkeley Revolution. They placed third in the world and in Italy just this summer. I didn’t actually go for that.
PK: But you’re on the team.
JTJ: Sort of. I don’t like to compete. I go for exercise. I love riding circles around everybody and trying to steal the ball but when it comes to shooting I’m pretty lame.
PK: It sounds incredibly dangerous.
JTJ: Yeah, we end up having a few domino crashes a night.
PK: Do you wear helmets?
JTJ: One person wears a helmet. Everybody else doesn’t wear a helmet. The thing is that we’re not going 20 miles an hour. It’s like we’re going 12 miles an hour and if we fall down, almost 98 percent of the time [we] fall on [our] feet. It’s dangerous. When we do downhill unicycling then, yes, helmets are definitely in order.
PK: How do you even do that?
JTJ: Well, the cranks and pedals are attached to the wheels, so if you don’t let the cranks and the pedals move then the wheel doesn’t move. That’s the brake.
PK: So how you break is by pedaling backwards?
JTJ: Yeah, you pedal backwards. If you’re going downhill and you reach terminal velocity then there’s no going back. You’re go-ing to either fly forward or fly off the unicycle because you can’t slow yourself down when you get to a certain speed.
PK: And you die.
JTJ: Basically. And that puts a damper on things.
Astrological sign: Taurus
Motto: Origami is in creasing peace fully all ways.
Book on Nightstand: Lonely Planet Italian Phrasebook
Passions: Origami, juggling, unicycling, handwhistling, beatbox singing, languages, piano improv, partner dancing.