A wonderful profile of the late Harry Anderson, by David Hill:
One of Anderson’s signature pieces was a trick called the Needle Through the Arm. It was a simple feat; he stuck a long hat pin through his arm. But like most of Anderson’s act, he drew out the trick into a 10-minute soliloquy about the history of circus geeks and how the sublime and profane was entertaining. “It’s not like when you put the girl in the box and you cut the box in half,” he would explain to the audience. “Because when you see that, you know that it couldn’t be happening. But when you see the Needle Through the Arm, you know that it could be happening. It ain’t. But it could.” After one performance at the Magic Castle in 1977, an executive from CBS who had come to see the show left in disgust. “Who the hell is that guy and why do you let him do that?” the executive said to Milt Larsen, the club’s founder. “I would never hire that guy.”
In 1980, Anderson finally got his break when a talent manager saw his show at the Magic Castle and asked him to open up for Kenny Rogers in Las Vegas for $1,500 a week. From there, Anderson was booked on The Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and Saturday Night Live. On his third guest spot on SNL, he performed the Needle Through the Arm on live television for millions of people. The audience roared in revulsion and disgust, even though he constantly repeated throughout the act that it was just a trick, “a gag.” It didn’t matter. This was the genius of Harry Anderson’s act, the thing he took from the con men and street hustlers of his youth. If you’re going to take their money, make sure they’re happy, lest you wind up with a broken jaw. Most magicians told the audience they were doing something magical, and the audience didn’t want to believe it. Harry the Hat told the audience he was lying to them, but the audience wanted to believe it was real.
Here’s Harry performing that routine on his 1986 special, “Hello, Sucker”…