Credit: Rob Klug

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Jeremy Manson—stage name Saymo Saymo—performs his cigar box juggling act shirtless. He wears neon Hammer pants and actual rose-colored sunglasses onstage. Before the juggling even begins, he toots on a kazoo, catches marshmallows in his mouth, or marches around in gigantic fuzzy yellow boots. He pretends to be a seal or a dinosaur. As performers do, he showboats.

But then he starts “boxing,” as he calls it. As Manson flips, balances, and pins colorful, sometimes illuminated, boxes together in the air, he’s an artist in a state of flow, as if everyone watching him has disappeared. It’s like seeing a performer in rehearsal, especially because his act is not flawless. 

See, sometimes Manson drops his boxes—even a couple times in one set. Game over for a juggler, right? After all, if a comedian botches a punchline, if a singer cracks a high note, audiences cringe. The performers themselves might be too thrown off to recover.

Not so with Manson. On a dropped box or missed trick, he appears unbothered. When he’s performed for arts events like the DC Weirdo Show or Little Salon, audience members have clapped in encouragement, let out an “aww” of friendly disappointment, and gone wild with excitement when he made the next one.  

“It kind of confuses me sometimes, because I’m like ‘Oh man, they’re cheering for me,’” Manson says. “It’s really off-putting, [like] I didn’t expect you to keep rooting for me.” 

The oddball showman persona is endearing, not arrogant, and Manson is also exceedingly humble, a sensibility that radiates from the stage (or the Metro car, where he’s been known to practice on the go).

“I still don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know when my next show is,” he says with a laugh. Manson explains that he feels he’s only at 35 percent of his potential as a performer, and that he started an Instagram account (@saymo_saymojam) to be critiqued and to get help on his act. 

“I’m an audience member too, if that makes sense,” he says. “If I hear the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs,’ I’m doing it too. I’m like ‘Yeah, I got that!’ or ‘I wanna laugh here with you but I can’t because there’s a wall I can’t breach, but sometimes I breach the wall anyway!’” 

Michelle Carnes, lead producer of The DC Weirdo Show, which offers a variety of acts, from sideshow to vaudeville to burlesque and performance art, says she first met Manson when he was an audience member. A mutual friend introduced them, and when Manson showed her Instagram clips of his juggling, she cast him on the spot for the next show, which was in January 2018 at the Bier Baron Tavern. 

“It’s typical for performers who can achieve amazing physical feats onstage to adopt a posture of, ‘look what I can do,’” Carnes says. “Especially, men tend to be the heroes of their own acts. That story is simple and tends to elevate the performer above the audience.”

“By contrast, I deeply appreciate that Saymo invites his audience into what he’s doing, whether he fails or succeeds,” she continues. “The audience is rooting for him and we’re all in it together.” 

Manson has been cigar box juggling since 2015, when he learned a few tricks from a friend who owned boxes. He started watching videos of juggling greats like Eric Bates and Kris Kremo, and has since amassed 50 cigar boxes of his own. 

The International Jugglers’ Association recently wrote that cigar box juggling “is believed to have its origins in Japanese wooden block tricks” dating back to 1868. Gintaro Mizuhara, a Japanese juggler, performed balancing feats with such blocks, but performers like Jim Harrigan and W.C. Fields popularized using actual cigar boxes in vaudeville acts in the U.S. during the early 1900s.

In D.C., when it comes to cigar box juggling, Manson feels like it’s pretty much just him—he sometimes calls himself “The Token Block Guy.” 

Chris Maier is the founder and producer of Little Salon, a recurring multidisciplinary arts event at which Manson performed in December 2019. Maier met Manson through Carnes. Maier says Manson’s juggling art itself is unique, but he’s also just a straight-up talented performer, drops or not. 

“I will acknowledge that I did watch the crowd [at Little Salon] to see how they were reacting when he was dropping cigar boxes,” Maier says. “When he did drop a prop, because he’s really good at what he does, he’s able to pick it up and keep it moving. There was never a moment where it felt like, ‘That wasn’t supposed to happen.’” 

Some of his misses, Manson says, are intentional, but others are because cigar box juggling is difficult.

“There are planned drops that I do to just set the tone of, ‘Yes, he’s human and yes, this is comical,’” he explains. 

Right now, he juggles around three times a week, but the physical nature of his job keeps him from practicing as much as he wants. He says there’s a lot of wear and tear on his body.

Cigar box juggling is “definitely cardio-based,” he says. “It’s a lot of core activity going on in certain moves. I would love to juggle every day but it’s just not doable for me at this moment.” 

And yet, he’ll keep performing and thinking about how to tinker with and expand the offerings of his act. He’s always looking for ways to improve: While discussing his need to perform shirtless—“You just get super sweaty!”—he pauses in consideration. 

“Maybe it’s the pacing of the show … like I’m overheating,” he says. “Maybe I need to figure out some things.”

He also explains that he’d love to do a kids’ show, to convey to them the “no one’s perfect” message, though he acknowledges he’d probably have to wear a shirt. 

“I just like to be a moving picture,” he says. “I want people to just wonder again, to see something they haven’t seen before.”

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