Setting your face on fire and jumping from telephone polls…for laughs

Warning some of Ralph Zavadil’s ridiculous stunts may be disturbing to some viewers.

“I don’t want to kill myself. I just want to make people laugh,” Ralph Zavadil is quoted as saying. The 47-year-old is misunderstood then, because many would equate setting one’s face on fire or leaping from a telephone pole as life-threatening behaviour. But Zavadil performed such stunts on his own cable television show in the early ’90s, the Cap’n Video Show. The St. Catharines, Ont., resident who now runs a bicycle assembly company is the subject of a new documentary, Beauty Day, by 32-year-old director Jay Cheel. I spoke to the local folk hero and the filmmaker for the Post about life as art.

Q Where did the idea for the documentary come from?
Cheel: I came to him as a fan of the Cap’n Video Show. I used to watch it when I was a kid. I grew up in St. Catharines and I was interested in doing a short to showcase his work to people who didn’t know that there was a show that predated Jackass and Tom Green.

Q What was the most ridiculous stunt that you have pulled?
Zavadil: Setting my face on fire. [Laughs.] It was a solution that I made up — aftershave and a bit of rubbing alcohol. I tried it on my arm and it burned nice and cool. But I forgot about the law of gravity. As the flames went up, they started to crisp my eyebrows. That stunt really knocked me for a loop.

Q What moments in your life truly scared you?
Zavadil: Meeting my daughter for the very first time. It was exhilarating and scary at the same time. She was 12 years old, she was already a human being and probably smarter than me. When I was diagnosed with cancer as a kid, just seeing the fear in my parents eyes and my brother’s. I was in Grade 6. I had cancer of the lymph glands.

Q What was your favourite Cap’n Video stunt, Jay?
Cheel: Rooftop tobogganing was one that stood out for me because as a kid, it’s something you always want to do. I remember riding by his house on our bikes and it’s very clear which house is Ralph’s.
Zavadil: [Laughs.] The one with the egs on the windows.
Cheel: It’s almost like Pee Wee’s Playhouse or something. Seeing that on TV and recognizing the location as a kid, it made me realize that there are people around here who are making things; it inspired me to get a camera.

Q Are there any outtakes? Something too crazy to include in the documentary?
Cheel: If it’s too crazy, it would end up in the doc. Well, one thing. Ralph would leave the camera going whenever he filmed his stunts. After doing a skit, there’s about 30 to 45 minutes of Ralph cleaning up.
Zavadil: I put a TV set on the barbecue then smashed it. I had to clean that whole mess up.
Cheel: I watched a half hour of Ralph sweeping glass up. This is oddly hypnotizing.

Q: It could be a DVD extra. So what are the differences between Ralph Zavadil and Cap’n Video?
Zavadil: I plan things out meticulously for my business. I have to. I have to keep my clients and my employees happy. Cap’n Video gets an idea in his head and goes with it. Spontaneity. Other than the goggles and the voice, we’re pretty much twins.

Check out my review of Beauty Day in the Post, published June 10: 3 stars.

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