AUBURN, Maine — It was just like Matt, always irreverent, joking, making light of the situation. Only this time, it wasn’t as funny.
He asked his brother, Jason, if he wanted the good news or bad news first. Jason had just picked Matt up at an airport in New York. The pair, professional juggling partners since their teens, were headed off to do another show.
Jason chose the good news first.
“They had sushi at the airport and I had some,” Matt said. “Bad news is, I probably have cancer.”
His doctors had called him right before he boarded the plane.
It turned out to be a rare, aggressive, inoperable form of thyroid cancer. The prognosis was not good. Since finding out in October, the disease has progressed and left Matt unable to perform or make a living for his family.
Matt and Jason Tardy have hurled fire, axes and bowling pins at each other as a living for 26 years. They’ve never had day jobs. Thousands of people have watched them perform all across the United States, on national television and three times at the White House. Now, they’re facing their biggest challenge yet — and they’re doing it the same way they’ve done everything else: together.
“When we do shows, people always think we’re twins,” Jason, 40, said. “We’re not twins but we have that kind of relationship. We’re as close as we could be without being twins.”
“It’s a blast. We just get each other in a way nobody else can,” Matt, 38, said.
“We’re throwing knives at each other. We’ve gotta get along,” Jason said.
Stepping up to help his brother, Jason is producing a benefit show in Lewiston next month to raise money for Matt. He sent the word out through Maine’s small community of nationally known variety acts and nobody said no.
“When I heard about Matt’s predicament, I was moved,” Ng said. “When they asked me, I agreed — without hesitation. I’d do anything to be there for them.”
The show will also feature the Tardy brothers’ original mentor, Mike Miclon.
The brothers’ life in show business started at the 1994 town variety show in Buckfield, where they grew up. They’d put together a comedy lip sync routine with a friend set to a “Weird” Al Yancovic song. Matt was 13, and Jason was 15.
Miclon, a comedian, juggler and new-vaudevillian, saw them and was impressed with their energy and poise. They became his apprentices. Miclon shaped their raw energy, teaching them physical comedy skills. Within six months, they were performing at local birthday parties.
“I think what he really saw in us was that we were not afraid to look stupid in front of a lot of people,” Jason said. “I think that’s what he admired.”
“I was so inspired when I met Mike Miclon that I never doubted I could make a living on stage,” Matt said.
The brothers refined and expanded their performing skills as they got older. They took juggling to rarely seen, athletic heights including keeping balls in the air while hanging upside down from each others shoulders. Matt learned to be a contortionist, crawling through folding chairs and even a tennis racket. They made music, too, developing an electronic show called Audiobody based on dancing and drumming akin to the Blue Man Group or Stomp.
“They’re very creative, especially within their genre,” Ng said. “With juggling, you throw stuff, you catch stuff. But they’re always adding new presentations — with technology, music, special effects. That’s what makes them stand out. They have my greatest respect.”
The Tardys’ talents and innovations brought them television performances on CBS’ “Sunday Morning” and David Letterman, along with thousands of corporate, resort and school shows across North America. Along the way, they helped Miclon run the influential Oddfellow Theater in Buckfield and operated their own Freeport Theater of Awesome.
But that’s all over now. Matt is too sick from the cancer and its treatments.
“I feel like crap in every way possible. I’ve had to cancel all of the shows for the rest of — my life, I guess. Basically, I got cancer and lost my job on the same day,” Matt said. “Between the cancer and the medication it’s impossible for me to work. I spend all day feeling nauseated, tired, with body pain, headaches, itchy skin — dizzy.”
Both brothers are still in shock, but agree that they’ve had an amazing life together. It’s meant more than just entertaining strangers.
“I can’t think of anything more significant in life than sharing joy with someone,” Matt said. “My job was to share joy with my audience.”
“It’s an honorable thing. It’s cool,” Jason said.
Matt plans on attending the benefit show. If there’s any way he can manage it, he might even perform a little. In their showbiz life, both brothers performed at countless good-cause fundraisers. Matt said it feels strange to now be on the other side of the stage.
“I’m endlessly grateful — and it’s also sort of uncomfortable. Some of it is pride. I want to be able to do it myself,” Matt said. “I’ve had to come to terms with the idea that it’s my turn to receive. It’s harder than I thought it would be.”
The Tardy brothers’ final show together was at Sugarloaf Mountain on New Year’s Eve. Before taking the stage, they looked at each other and said the same thing they say every night, before the curtain rises: “Have fun.”
And they did.
The Matt Tardy benefit Variety Show will be at 1 p.m. April 5 at the Lewiston Middle School. A silent auction is included. Tickets are $10 and available at matthewtardy.com.
Related: The Freeport Theater of Awesome opens this weekend