When was the last time you experienced a helpless, hysterical fit of laughter? I’m talking about the kind you could barely control, that left you snorting and panting. If you’re like me, those moments happened more often during childhood. I still remember discovering Deep Thoughts at age 12, when my parents were reading Jack Handey’s bizarre and hilarious musings to their friends at a party. To me, it was like discovering alchemy. I was in pain. The cliché ‘I laughed so hard it hurt’ has been wildly overused, and it’s true about as often as someone who types ‘lol’ is actually laughing out loud. But the laughter became so violent and unstoppable that I literally felt my stomach seizing up. That was the power of Handey’s humor. When I read sentences like, “Whether they ever find life there or not, I think Jupiter should be considered an enemy planet,” it felt like I was on a different planet, one in which connections were drawn down from the ether to construct perfect comedic jewels.
Other works that inspired those gasping moments of hilarity have become cliché, some have faded from memory, and others still are obscure. There was the night I saw Saturday Night Live’s Blue Oyster Cult sketch as it originally aired, when the interplay between Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken was so funny it left me shocked. The greatness of that scene has been diluted by the prevalence of the ‘more cowbell’ meme, but it was raw and brilliant at the time. Certain Far Side comics have done the trick. Ditto for Achewood and the Perry Bible Fellowship. A few novels, too, like Catch-22 and A Confederacy of Dunces and Terry Southern’s lesser-known The Magic Christian. The book Letters from a Nut, by a man named Ted L. Nancy—possibly a pseudonym used by Larry David—has reduced me to tears. So have Arrested Development (Gob making the boat disappear) and Airplane and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (“The Gang Gives Back”).
But for one reason or another, as I grew older, I thought I was beyond being reduced to hysterics. After I’d consumed enough comedy and written some of my own, I tended to start enjoying it more quietly. Even the very satisfying moments, when I could tell something was perfectly constructed and just surprising enough to add that critical twist, left me nodding happily or laughing in a more civilized manner. It’s not that I enjoyed it any less; it’s just that with time, everything seemed more familiar, and I wasn’t impacted in a way that left me gasping for air. Those days, I thought, were gone.
I was wrong. Enter, into my life, one Mark Proksch, a comedian who now plays the small role of Nate the handyman on The Office. In the spring of 2010, before he moved to Los Angeles, Proksch made seven appearances on morning news shows in Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri. But he didn’t go as himself; instead, he was Kenny Strasser. Or K-Strass. Or, once, Karl Strassberg. No matter the name, he appeared in character as a “yo-yo artist.” He wore brown shoes, rumpled socks, green shorts, dark blue suspenders, a light shirt with the words “Zim Zam!” written on the front, and a plain yellow baseball cap. Strasser was short and hunched, always standing with both hands in his pockets. He spoke in a nasal Midwestern accent, with a halting cadence that was both awkward and deliberate.
Someone posing as his agent (likely Proksch himself or his writing partner Joe Pickett) booked him on these shows via email. They wrote that Strasser represented Zim-Zam Yo-Yos (a company that combined yo-yos with environmental causes) and went around entertaining kids in schools with his “zany sense of humor.” The email went on to claim that Strasser “was runner-up for Rookie of the Year in 1995, grand champion at the Pensacola Regional, and was nominated for the Walt Greenberg Award in 2000.” Reading these fake honors now, I have to laugh at the modesty. Making him a runner-up for one prize, and only a nominee for another, is a stroke of genius. Not only is it harder to verify, but it also humanizes a fictional character.
Four of Strasser’s seven performances survive online, and they are some of the most incredible comedic bits of live television ever recorded. I hesitate to recap them, since they’re available if you have slightly above-average Internet searching skills, but visual comedy can have a strange way of coming to life in a different way in print. With the hope that Kenny Strasser’s brilliance is no exception, let’s revisit the four appearances.
1. On Action News 12 in Joplin, Missouri, Strasser began his live interview by asking the host which camera he should focus on. Once he was directed to the one in the middle, he began to speak about the death of his friend, Eric Stringer. “He was the Garth Brooks of yo-yoing,” Strasser said. The host tried his best not to laugh. After requesting a moment of silence, Strasser removed his hat and whispered, “it was a jet ski accident,” to the befuddled interviewer. He went on to talk about how it was becoming difficult for him to get into schools to interact with kids, though he didn’t elaborate. Instead, he discussed his charity work, like going to inner cities and giving out yo-yos to the homeless in a program called “yo-yos for hobos.” “If just one of them ends up on the pro circuit,” he said, “then my job is done.”
As the host tried in vain to push the interview forward, Kenny began recounting his personal history. He spent his twenties working at a restaurant, and then began selling shrimp. He told the host he’d just come from Omaha, Nebraska, and was heading down to Arkansas (absurdly far) for another show the next day. “There are about a dozen official yo-yo masters,” he said. “And I am not one of them, because I don’t compete.” Finally, he talked about the environmental lessons he teaches the kids in school, such as “switching out traditional light bulbs for non-traditional light bulbs,” and “you don’t have to flush if you just pee.”
Somehow, he lasted to the second segment, where he came out with four yo-yos in each hand to perform a trick called “The Blue Flying Angel.” He started with a rap: “Hey there, up in the sky, it’s K-Strass, the yo-yo guy!” followed by an odd bout of high-pitched scatting. The host moved out of the way, and Strasser spoke into a fake headset as he let all eight yo-yos fall and began twirling them in swooping circles. “Let’s take it down and we’ll get into a huey!” he yelled, as he began whirring the yo-yos around and above his head. They quickly became tangled. With an alarmed expression, he whispered, “What should I do?” to the host. Receiving no answer, he spun around in a circle until he fell over. The host asked if he was okay, and Strasser told him he’d become dizzy. “Honestly,” he said, disheartened, “I think I’m going to give up some of the yo-yo stuff. I don’t have the muscle memory.”
The host closed the segment as best he could.
2. KQTV in St. Joseph was Strasser’s next stop. As the segment began, the two hosts asked him about his experience working with kids. “I’ve only been in one school so far,” he said, “and I’ll be honest—it didn’t go so hot.” He went on to describe the misbehavior of the students, and told the story of his own father, who used to spank him with a switch or a belt. “I am literally terrified to this day,” he said. As he reached the end of that story, the hosts quickly tried to push him onto the theme of going green. “I kind of have breaking news,” he said. It appeared that Zim-Zam YoYos had decided to go in a different direction and fire Straser. “Am I angry about this? Yes I am,” Strasser said rhetorically. The hosts, beginning to sense disaster, asked to see his tricks. He told them he had invented one named after the station. Unfortunately, it never got that far.
“You have the up and down,” he said, doing the easiest yo-yo trick possible, “and then….” He flipped the yo-yo forward and let it boomerang back around his arm, where it flew up and hit him in the face. He turned away in shock. “How long have you been practicing yo-yo?” the female host asked. “When did Schubert Dip come out?” Strasser answered, referencing, for some reason, an album by the band EMF. Then, urged on by the hosts, he tried the same trick. This time, the yo-yo hit him in the groin. “Do you have a clip?” he whispered. “Did Joe send over a clip?”
3. On WISC in Madison, Strasser again met with co-hosts. Again, they began by asking him how he taught kids about going green. “We teach them about recycling batteries,” he said, before describing how difficult it is to get into schools. He spent 20 seconds describing the annoying process of having to visit the main office and get a badge and interact with security guards before he was led to the auditorium to perform. The hosts cut him off as the story continued, and asked how he got started with yo-yos. “You want to hear a scary story?” Strasser said. He went on to enumerate the problems he’d undergone in life. “It was gambling, drugs, women, lotto…well, that’s basically gambling,” he noted. “But I was looking the Grim Reaper in his eyes.” Yo-yoing saved him. Finally, the hosts asked for a trick. “When I’m with students,” Strasser began, by way of set-up, “what I say is that life has a lot of ups…and downs.” He released the yo-yo, which promptly detached from the string and rolled away on the floor. The confused hosts tried not to laugh as they ended the segment.
4. Central Wisconsin’s WSAW Amy Pflugshaupt erred by calling Kenny “Jason Strasser.” Strasser informed her of the mistake. “Should we do that again?” he asked twice, seeming to misunderstand the nature of live television. Finally, he detailed his personal history, which had changed since the last show. “Honestly,” he said, “I am just a 35-year-old kid at heart, you know. Twice divorced. I have no kids. I don’t have a girlfriend. Don’t want one. My parents live in Denver. They just got divorced. I have a brother who I don’t get along with well because of his wife.” At that moment, his cell phone rang and Pflugshaupt sent it back to the main desk, where we learned that Strasser was dealing with personal issues and was allowed to have the phone turned on.
At the beginning of the second segment, Strasser talked about his training under “the Garth Brooks of yo-yo, Eric Stringer.”
‘Wow,’ said Pflugshaupt.
Then we learned more about Strasser’s family history. “It started with my grandpa,” he said, “who did a lot of yo-yo’ing in the South.” His dad didn’t yo-yo professionally, but he got his kids involved. Things took a dark turn when Strasser admitted that he wasn’t getting into many schools anymore. Then he turned once more to his tricks. “It gets a little wild and wooly,” he said. “This one I like to start off with because it gets the kids going. I say something like, “what do Jon Bon Jovi and Plymouth Rock have in common?’” He paused dramatically as the host admitted her ignorance. “A little bit of rock and roll. This one’s called Plymouth Rock.” As he began to twirl his yo-yo, his cell phone went off again. He ignored it, but as he swung the yo-yo back and forth, it hit the floor and shattered.
As he took his cell phone out of his pocket, he continued to speak. “It’s really high energy,” he said. “The kids love it, and sometimes we’ll get laughing so hard that we don’t even get to the environmental stuff.”
Only brief clips survive from the other three appearances. On WFRV in Green Bay, he told the host he forgot the string to his yo-yos (but not the yo-yos themselves). He continued to show how the tricks would hypothetically work using just his hands. “Let me do one more for you,” he told her. “I do one where it’s all my fingers…and I’m not yo-yo’ing, but I’m whirling. And it gets going, and it literally feels like you are in the cockpit of a Blue Flying Angel.”
At WMTV, another Madison station, he told the host that, “you want to break the ice, so you start with a rap or whatever.”
“A rap?” asked the host.
“Yeah,” said Strasser. “It works really well with the young kids…not so much with the older kids.”
WREX, the lone Illinois station he visited, has a short story without video informing us that, “Strasser has turned out to be a fraud and no one is sure where he is right now.” A news article about Strasser notes that he showed up for one interview with his right arm in a sling, and we can infer that it was at WREX.
The saga of Kenny Strasser continued to fascinate the local news stations he’d duped, and many ran follow-up investigations to take advantage of the huge traffic generated by the initial videos. Strasser made one last appearance on WGN’s morning show, wearing a head bandage, a neck brace, an arm sling, and sitting in a wheelchair. He told the interviewers that he felt like ‘He’d just killed an animal.’ The story was that he’d hurt himself in a yo-yo accident by falling out of a tree. This time, though, the hosts were in on the joke, and the sting of the initial segments had worn off. Still, it was buoyed by the appearance of an actual yo-yo expert who identified himself as the mysterious Eric Stringer, “the Garth Brooks of yo-yos.” As he did impressive tricks next to Strasser, he told the hosts that he was really into jet-skiing (the cause of his death in an earlier Strasser appearance), and was semi-competitive. The interview ended with Strasser falling asleep and Stringer blithely continuing to perform his tricks as the hosts talked amongst themselves.
After that, Strasser disappeared. One station was finally able to identify Proksch and his writing partner Joe Pickett in mid-May, but the two gave no official comment. The partners were later flown out to Los Angeles by writers from The Office who had loved the segments. By October, Proksch had moved permanently, and has appeared on eight episodes of the hit NBC sitcom to date.
This, as far as I’m aware, is the most comprehensive account of the great Midwestern yo-yo prank, and it’s the very least I could do. The persona of Kenny Strasser may be soon forgotten—another extinct meme in the vast Internet wasteland—but the experience of watching his clips will stay with me permanently. His brilliance proved that I’d been mistaken; that the age of desperate, breathless laughter had not yet ended.