“I’m going to come right out and say it,” Rob Cole divulges. “Carrot Top is my hero.”
Like his hero, Cole dreams of headlining his own show on the Strip. But his ambition is hindered by a problem: Cole is too weird for showbiz. See, he is the kind of performer who creates oddball balloon characters as part of a comic act that has no precedent. (Well, maybe the prop comedy of Carrot Top is the closest comparison.) There’s the dog with wheels for hind legs, for example, that is eating out an Asian chick with hooks for hands. There’s Corny The Ear of Corn who has a piece of his own poop attached to him with a corn kernel sticking out from it: “Proving once and for all,” Cole explains as he pulls the balloon from his giant bag, “that even corn can’t digest corn.”
Cole, who is better known as The Balloon Master, came to Vegas in ’97 for a two-week-turned-two-year gig at the now-defunct Showboat. But when he auditioned for a variety show at the Hard Rock Hotel in 2004, his weirdness held him back. “They told me I would never get work doing my act. So far they are pretty much correct,” Cole jokes about an act that consists of releasing garbage bags of giant balloon penises upon the audience.
Cole, 38, took the advice of a friend and started performing at open-mic comedy nights. While his act is hilarious, it didn’t fit people’s idea of a proper comedy show. There was a time when a promoter was setting up a gig in California and refused a spot for Cole because “it’s for comics only.”
“I was not really taken seriously as a comic,” he says.
Perhaps it was the giant green cape, his signature accessory?
But, he also didn’t fit in with the balloon-twisting community, a group of craftsmen who take their balloon creations extremely seriously. As Cole explains, “Twisters are the annoying people at restaurants and parties that make crap for your kids for a tip. I did that for 17 years and loved it for about 16 of those years. Twisters must and usually do have a quirky personality, and for the most part are giant nerds, myself included.”
For a while the balloon-twisting community did respect Cole’s twisting accomplishments. Cole, who has been twisting for 20 years, achieved “master twister” status and won competitions. At the Summer Balloon Camp, conducted in Las Vegas annually, he won Best in Show in the No Time Limit competition for “a crazy ass creature with an AR-15 [gun] in front of an American flag and the word ‘hero’ in big letters.” But Cole stopped competing when he noticed that the judges didn’t appreciate the more outrageous elements of his balloon art. For all his skills, the father of six had yet to find a stage to call his own. His day jobs—as an anesthesia tech and “working with mosquitoes, looking for West Nile Virus”—were stable, but he needed a creative outlet.
One day, Cole tackled the now-defunct Jungle Josh’s After the Show variety show at the Harmon Theater and he finally got the respect he had been seeking. “I was the only one out there trying to get them to laugh,” he says of the show’s format. “And it was a blast.” Since then, Cole quit open-mic nights and started focusing on variety shows. He’d message anybody on Facebook who was organizing a strange show and ask for stage time. He’s since worked with burlesque acts, magicians and sideshow freaks.
After three years of building his variety show name, Cole’s wish finally came true. He got his own show, The Balloon Master Show, at the Onyx Theatre. The show features novelty and variety acts, an announcer and comic sidekick, and bits and games that Cole has created. (He’s seeking acrobats to staff a game where, “two dudes balance on each other and the audience throws Wiffle balls at them. The first member to get the dudes to fall wins.”).
“It’s the first time I’ve been able to be completely creative,” Cole says of the July 29 opening night. “I can come up with an idea driving down the freeway, and know I can do it. I don’t have to pitch it or convince somebody else it will be funny.”