Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!
4:48 am
Sat June 8, 2013

High-Wire Artist Nik Wallenda Plays A Game Called 'Whoops'

Originally published on Sat June 8, 2013 10:58 am

In June 2012, Nik Wallenda — of the great Wallenda Family circus dynasty — walked across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. On June 23, he plans to cross the Grand Canyon the same way. Wallenda has also recently written a memoir called Balance: Christian Faith and Miraculous Results.

Wallenda's job requires great precision and care. Other people's jobs? Not so much. We've invited Wallenda to play a game called "Whoops!" Three examples of extreme clumsiness, stupidity or both, taken from an annual compilation of odd workers' comp claims put together by lawyer Thomas Robinson.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

PETER SAGAL, HOST:

And now the game where we ask people with extraordinary talents do something that makes no use of those talents whatsoever. So almost exactly one year ago, Nik Wallenda, part of the great Wallenda family circus dynasty, walked across Niagra Falls on a tightrope on Live TV. He must have missed the ferry, I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: He has a new memoir out called "Balance," and in just two weeks or so he will attempt to cross the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. Nik Wallenda, welcome to WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: You know, there are easier ways to get places, Nik.

NIK WALLENDA: I was thinking there were easier ways to get a round of applause.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: So let's do a little bit of your background, and then we really want to talk to you about this Grand Canyon thing you're planning. So you are the great-grandson of Karl Wallenda, the famous aerialist, the head of the Flying Wallendas, right?

WALLENDA: That's correct. Actually my family started performing back in the 1780s, so over 200 years now we've been performing, and I'm now the seventh generation carrying on that illustrious industry.

SAGAL: Right, yeah, of circus work. And you...

WALLENDA: Of wearing spangles.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Actually I noticed this, that at least in the recent videos of you I've seen, including your great Niagara Falls walk, the first man ever to walk across the whole falls on a tightrope, right?

WALLENDA: That's correct.

SAGAL: Right. You didn't wear a spangly suit.

WALLENDA: I don't. Actually, the last time I wore a spangly suit, I think I was 12 years old.

SAGAL: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

WALLENDA: I wear jeans and a T-shirt for most of my events.

TOM BODETT: Twelve is a painful age for spangles.

(LAUGHTER)

WALLENDA: It is, trust me.

SAGAL: Because, honestly, we've seen some of your videos, and you're doing these amazing things, but you're dressed like an entirely normal person. So it looks like you're not so much a trained acrobat and aerialist but some drunk guy who happened to have found this tightrope and is like, oh, this is a way to get to Canada, we'll try that out.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: So getting back to you growing up, I've read your memoir, and one of the things you talk about is growing up, how incredibly difficult it is and was to make your living in the circus. And you had to work hard. You, like, bussed tables in a restaurant for years to support yourself.

WALLENDA: That's right. I did a little bit of everything: bussing tables, waited tables, you know, everything you can imagine.

BODETT: Could you hold a lot of trays and plates?

(LAUGHTER)

WALLENDA: Oh, absolutely.

SAGAL: Now you did this stunt, you were the first person ever to do it. You walked across Niagara Falls on live TV, and you have a tether on holding you to the wire. And we were told that you really didn't want to do that.

WALLENDA: I didn't. You know, for generations, it's been passed on to our family that a safety device - a net, a tether - is a false sense of security. One of my great-grandfather's older brothers actually fell into a net and bounced out, and because of that he was adamantly against them. And his thought process was, and what he's passed on, is that if you have a safety device, your mindset is you're at ease, and your thought is, it's OK, we can use it.

SAGAL: Right.

WALLENDA: And to answer that question, my network partner came in two weeks prior to that event, about two and a half weeks prior, and said we're not going to air this unless you wear a tether. It was a surprise to all of us. We really don't know why it came on. And I had to wear a tether, which was extremely nerve-wracking because I'd never worn one up until then. And I was more nervous that it was going to get caught on something as I was walking and that it was going to cause me to fall.

SAGAL: Right, because that would be scary.

(LAUGHTER)

WALLENDA: It would be.

SAGAL: Now what's interesting to me is, as you say, there was a famous tragedy in your family in the early '60s where they were doing I guess the seven-person pyramid, and they fell. And as you say, an uncle of yours hit the net. And if I was watching somebody on a tightrope and I watched him fall into the net and then he bounced out of the net and hit the ground, I would not think the problem with that scenario was the net.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: I would think you shouldn't be up there in the first place.

WALLENDA: You know, it is hard for people, and I do try to look at it from the other side. I started walking a wire at the age of two. And I think my great-grandfather Karl Wallenda said it best. He said, life is on the wire, and everything else is just waiting. And for our family, that really is true. This is really the life that I know.

SAGAL: Well, you're out there, I mean, you're not working in circuses. You're doing stuff in buildings and across Niagara Falls and pretty soon across the Grand Canyon. So what are the dangers? I mean, do you worry about a bird flying up and getting in your face? What's the weirdest thing that's happened?

WALLENDA: You know, I have had birds land on my balancing pole. I have been stung by a bee while performing. All of that really, it really comes down to training and preparation. Actually when I was younger, my parents, as I was training, would sneak up behind me and shake the wire - of course I was down low - but just so that they knew - they'd throw a pinecone at me so I was distracted - that they knew that I would have enough focus to be able to stay on the wire no matter what would come at me.

SAGAL: So your parents' parenting skills were...

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Put you up on high wire, and they'd stand there and throw pinecones at you. So tell us about - I'm really curious about this. You're going to be - you're going to cross the Grand Canyon.

WALLENDA: That's correct, on June 23rd, live on the Discovery Channel.

SAGAL: Right, live we hope. And you're going to...

WALLENDA: Well, it'll start out live, I guarantee you that much.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: You will be live at one end. And this is - how far across is it?

WALLENDA: It's approximately 1,400 feet across and about 1,500 feet high. It's actually higher than the Willis Tower or the Sears Tower.

SAGAL: Oh, yeah, what we used to call the Sears Tower here in Chicago. So that's pretty high. And you're going to be out there, and this time apparently you're not going to have a tether and certainly not a net.

WALLENDA: That's correct.

SAGAL: And you have not lined the Grand Canyon with pillows or anything like that.

WALLENDA: Not yet. I'm working on that sponsor.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: And what is your pre-walk ritual?

WALLENDA: It isn't anything you would expect. I'm not superstitious at all. I give my wife and kids a hug and a kiss and say see you in a few minutes, just like I do when I go out to get groceries at night.

SAGAL: I don't want to know how you get to the grocery store.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: But really, you just say OK, time to do the stunt?

WALLENDA: That's right, yeah. There's nothing, nothing exciting.

Nothing exciting of walking across the Grand Canyon.

(LAUGHTER)

BODETT: Yeah. Way to sell it, Nik.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: OK, Nik Wallenda, we have invited you here to play a game we're calling...

BILL KURTIS: Whoops.

(LAUGHTER)

WALLENDA: Not one you often want to use in my line of business.

SAGAL: No, no, no, last thing you want to hear somebody like you say. Your job requires precision, grace, care; other people's jobs not so much. We've got some examples of extreme clumsiness, stupidity or both, taken from an annual compilation of unusual Worker's Comp claims but together by lawyer Thomas Robinson. Answer two questions about these dumb moves correctly, and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners, Carl Kasell's voice on their home voicemail. So, Bill, who is aerialist Nik Wallenda playing for?

KURTIS: Cathie Lawler of Cary, North Carolina.

SAGAL: All right, ready to play?

WALLENDA: I'm ready.

SAGAL: All right, here is your first question: In 2012, a woman tried to sue for an injury she sustained at her job teaching at a high school when what happened: A, she got lead poisoning from constantly chewing her pencils, nervous habit; B, she had traumatic stress from, quote, "seeing how those kids dress these days"; or C, she turned and ran straight into a concrete wall when a co-worker showed her a snake.

(LAUGHTER)

WALLENDA: I'm going to say B.

SAGAL: You're going to say B, she had traumatic stress from, quote, "seeing how those kids dress these days"?

WALLENDA: That's my guess.

SAGAL: Yeah, you have teenage kids, don't you?

WALLENDA: I do.

SAGAL: Yeah, no actually it was C, the one with the wall in the snake. What happened was that the snake had been confiscated from a student, and the assistant principal stopped by this woman's school room and said hey, look at this. And she went ahh and immediately ran into the wall. Her claims of injuries and post-traumatic stress from the incident were denied.

However, even though that happened, a North Carolina office manager did get compensated for an injury she sustained when she did what: A, doing a classic face-palm gesture while holding a cream pie, sploosh; B, trying to ride down the escalator rail after a big employee dinner; or C, doing a trust fall with people, it turns out, she should not have trusted.

(LAUGHTER)

WALLENDA: I'm going to say B.

SAGAL: Trying to ride down the escalator. You're right.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: It was a big dinner at one of these conferences. She had had a lot to drink, and she, I guess, decided to make like a Wallenda. She thought it would be fun to slide down the escalator rail. It wasn't. She fell, hurt herself, but she got compensated.

All right, last question, if you get this right, you'll have made it to the other side successfully. In 2009, a young worker in Illinois received compensation for an injury he suffered in what the court referred to as an act of chivalry. What did he do: A, he chased down a co-worker who he thought had stolen his officemate's salad dressing.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: B, he was trying to dislodge a bag of Fritos from a vending machine with a, quote, "shoulder block"; or C, he was leaning out the window to release a spider the receptionist refused to let him squish.

WALLENDA: I'm going to say B.

SAGAL: You're going to say B, he was trying to dislodge the bag of Fritos from the vending machine?

WALLENDA: That's my guess.

SAGAL: You're right.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: That's what he was doing. You know how it is, the co-worker, you know, had put the money in to get the Fritos. They were hanging there on the little spiral, and he's like I'll take care of it, and he gives it a shoulder block, and he manages to fracture his own hip.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: No word on whether the co-worker got the Fritos. Bill, how did Nik Wallenda do on our quiz?

KURTIS: He got two out of three, that's a percentage that does not work in Nik's line of work.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: But he did win, though, didn't he?

KURTIS: He won. Everybody wins on this show.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: You're being funny.

KURTIS: Two out of three.

SAGAL: Nik Wallenda is the author of the new book, "Balance: A Story of Faith, Family and Life on the Line." And you can watch Nik walk across the Grand Canyon live on TV on "Skywire Live with Nik Wallenda" June 23rd on the Discovery Channel. Nik, before we let you go, I've got to ask. In the theater you say break a leg. What do you say to wire walkers?

WALLENDA: I'm good with break a leg.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: All right, break a leg, Nik. Nik Wallenda, thank you so much for joining us.

(APPLAUSE)

BODETT: Thanks, Nik.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.