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Mastering simplicity since 1981! Galumphing through life with an understanding wife since 1974! Making people laugh since birth (except for a humorless vice-principal in middle school who didn't think I was very funny at all.)

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Clown Education Part 1     Laugh‑Makers vol. 13 #6

When Iwas 12 years old, I stumbled across a mandolin among my father's collection of musical instruments. I showed a little interest so my dad taught me three chords, probably D, C, and G. Wow! All of a sudden I was a musician! When is my first gig?

I now know that most simple tunes are based on a 3 chord progression. My father had taught me what was necessary for me to feel initially successful. His intent was for me to continue on from there. I didn't.

Incredibly though, a couple of weeks later, with three chords masterfully in hand I began teaching another kid my three chords in exchange for a paperback book on early baseball heroes. I did not then know the word "pretentious", nor would I have thought that the word applied to me.

I bring up this embarrassing little episode to open the topic of quickie clown schools and the overall teaching of clowning.

The exploding interest in clowning in recent years has resulted in a tremendous number of clown classes. It seems as though every continuing education curriculum has a clowning class stuck in there somewhere in between basic auto care, bridge lessons, beginning basket weaving and square dance.

No self respecting educational administrator would insinuate that these courses are anything more than introductory pieces that could spur a further interest. They do basically what my dad did for me with the mandolin, get me interested through some easy initial success. In most cases, at the completion of the course, the students feel like they know where to begin if they decide that they want to pursue competence.

Clown "graduates" however, with clip art diplomas in hand; quite often hit the streets immediately with zeal. With a "ten week course" under their belt (one hour a week for 10 weeks, half the time spent on makeup) by golly they are ready for action or maybe even to teach a course of their own!

In a column in Clowning Around, Bill Lozon took a look at his early days teaching clowning and couldn't believe he imagined himself qualified to teach. He concluded he probably didn't do any permanent damage. Part of the today's problem, he went on to say, is teachers with inadequate personal clowning experience.

Soren Peterson, in a letter to The New Calliopeurged COAI to take a stand about the assembly line clown business. If not, clown bashing will continue and rightfully so. Clowns are committing professional suicide by pumping out cheap, inferior clowns.

I think Bill and Soren are optimists. They seem to hope for a way to fix the problem. What they see is the tip of the iceberg. Quite a number of fundamental basics are at play, all combining to create a massive problem that basically cannot be fixed through any kind of organized effort. Kinda sounds like the deficit, doesn't it?

Lets start with an ominous assertion by none other than Steve Smith, Dean of the Ringling Clown College. He has said many times, and his lieutenants in the field have repeated it, that he cannot teach someone to be a clown. Either you are or you aren't. All he says he can do is help you develop whatis already there.

The whathe is talking about is not desire or kindness or basic goodness. He is talking about God given talent and ability. In a national advertising campaign the nursing profession used the slogan, "if caring were enough, anyone could be a nurse." The same can be applied to clowning or any profession requiring knowledge and talent.

We're not talking about brain surgery here. We're talking about clowning, but don't deceive yourself about its simplicity. It still takes more talent than desire to do it well.

What is the essence of the clown art? What do we end up teaching instead?

Is the art of painting simply putting oils on a canvas in a recognizable semblance of something else? Is the art of theater memorizing the words and repeating them in proper order? Is the art of clowning putting on makeup and a costume and handing out balloons? While there is no doubt craftsmanship is involved, I've never met anyone who answers "yes" to these questions.

The essence of the clown art is an ability to turn any situation, any activity into a comic activity. Magic is for magicians, juggling is for jugglers, puppets are for puppeteers, makeup is for cosmetologists, costuming is for fashion designers. The clown can absorb and appropriate any and all of these activities and more as long as it is transformed into a clown art through some comic means. I am conveniently leaving out pathos as a clown tool. It is a legitimate but highly advanced tool we can discuss later.

Who teaches this? Before you raise your hand, keep in mind saying it is not teaching it. When you teach juggling, do you say "throw the ball up here and catch it here" or do you go through a repetitious routine and teach it, catching and correcting flaws along the way. How about puppetry and magic? What we most often end up teaching is carnival skill craftsmanship.

Craftsmanship certainly has a place in arts education, and in many, if not most, cases masterful technique can replace artistry and go almost unnoticed. In teaching clowning, I tell those who do not yet feel that inner pull of the artist in them to learn and practice technique until the outward form is flawless.

Getting back to Bill's point that too many people don't have enough clowning experience to teach, I agree, but think that the problem is deeper than that.

Teaching is an art of its own. I would be willing to bet that few of the quickie clown school instructors have ever studied educational methodology, or worse yet, feel the need to do so. Just about everybody on the streets believes that give them a book and a class and they too can teach.

In our own domain, this means that quite often the blind (teachers who have no earthly idea how to design a comprehensive program for arts education, much less how to effectively carry out that program) are leading the blind (students with a faddish interest in the lowest common denominating aspects of a performance art). As Bill put it, "mediocrity is breeding mediocrity."

To further complicate matters, personal proficiency in one area does not mean an ability to teach others in that area. Mickey Mantle once confessed that he would make a terrible batting instructor because he has no idea why he was so good, he just was. Looking through the history of baseball shows that some of the finest coaches were mediocre talents on the field because they were extremely limited in their own natural ability. They did, however make an exhaustive study of the game and honed their ability to teach skills and manage events.

Some of the best clowning instructors in this country are not the most personally skilled performers. Some of our country's best directors are rotten actors. We are talking about a whole different set of skills and abilities, yet we often assume they are one and the same. Have you ever been to a "famous" clown's lecture on "how I do it" and thought "that's great for her, but how do I do it?" You came away informed but not taught!

I do believe that there are natural teachers out there and that a degree in education is not an indication of competence. As I would tell student teachers who came to me when I was a classroom teacher, the skills necessary to be a successful student are not the same skills necessary to be a successful teacher.

As for Soren's call for our national organizations to take a stand, it would be an attempt doomed to failure from the beginning. Truly effective supervisory and enforcement procedures would bog down any club. I also fear the heavy hand of organizational rigidity and just plain politics. The people who write the guidelines and make the judgments will almost certainly look in the mirror for their model programs.

Realistically speaking, what good is the imprimatur of a national clown club in a dog-eat-dog world that barely recognizes clowning as an art or even a skill. Maybe you can convince somebody out there that it really means something that your clown class is officially sanctioned, but for the most part, people won't really care.

Clowning as an art form has the same problem with capricious public standards as any other art form. It is literally true that one man's junk is another man's treasure.

 

There is no quality control on an art. It can only succeed or fail in terms of its own goals. No matter what you do, junior high schools will keep trying to do West Side Story and crazy Aunt Martha will keep painting murals to give away for Christmas. Within their own goals they are extremely successful.

What should we do about the quickie clown schools and the proliferation of low quality clowns? Those of us who care must continue to advance professionally and artistically and get out there into the public and show what the clown art can be! The public is perfectly capable of separating the wheat from the chaff.

The fact that our public schools educate millions upon millions of students with band, chorus, and visual art classes each year doesn't put a dent into the overall appreciation of these art forms.

I'm more concerned about the number of excellent clowns who drop out of costume and assume other "regular person" entertainment characters in order to broaden their base economically. I totally understand why they do it, but each time one does, it is a surrender in the battle to get clowning accepted as a legitimate entertainment art form for all ages.

So, how do you go about teaching an art form and what should a comprehensive program include? How do you stimulate creativity and develop an understanding, appreciation and tolerance for the artistic expression of others even when it conflicts with your personal standards? Excellent questions. If I had obvious answers I would nominate myself for the Clown Hall of Fame.

I'm working on an answer though. Stay tuned for Part 2.

 

 

 

 

PostScript As I was putting this book together, I saw the following message posted in one of the internet newsletters. I'll withhold the e‑mail response address “In trouble, teaching a clown school and need a copy of the clown manual. If you can help, let me know. "

It seems to me that he's in trouble, the poor students in that "school" are in trouble, and the art of clowning is in trouble. All I can think of right now are the immortal words of Captain Binghampton on McHales Navy , "I could scream, I could just scream. "

 

 

 

Clown Education Pt. 2: The Convention  Laugh‑Makers vol. 14 #2

Prologue #1

To a man who sells hammers, all of your problems will be nails.

Prologue #2

Money is the root of all evil. For further information send $19.95 to

1427 Acadia St., Durham NC 27701.

 

Regional weekend conventions are increasingly the primary source for continuing education of the variety arts family clown. One of the standard opening events at any convention is the dealer show where every dealer gets 3 to 5 minutes (wink, wink) to show the entire assembly what they are featuring at their tables. Then the classes begin.

The dealers also have a tendency to be the majority of the convention instructors. No problem, these people are professionals in their field and certainly are worthy.

Increasingly, however, lectures from many instructors are no more than personal dealer shows under the guise of instruction. Everything taught or shown is intended to translate into back of the room sales. This technique is extremely effective, check out the TV infomercials sometime.

I am not implying that this is illegal or unethical in any way, shape or form. In this situation, however, you may not be getting what you really need from an educational standpoint. First, try to understand all that is going on.

 

Look at things from the organizer's point of view. Unless you are an independently wealthy philanthropist you are probably looking to make a little money. You do this by attracting the maximum number of people at the least possible expense to you. You attract people by having an impressive lineup of speakers and/or organizing a competition. You also sell dealer space. You keep your costs down by inviting speakers who are also dealers. They often agree to come for a dealer space or dealer space with a small honorarium. There are a few headliners who command and get the big bucks, but they are the names that attract the numbers.

The dealer‑instructor is also probably not independently wealthy. They are there to make money through the sales of their products. The best way to sell their products is to give a lecture that boosts their products, an infomercial of sorts.

Since their income is directly related to sales, there is a lot of pressure for dealers to push their products. I have put together a table of eclectic stuff to sell at conventions because I am usually given a dealer space as part of my remuneration for lecturing. It is an eye opening experience.

I am forced to reduce my focus to pushing my merchandise, not concentrating fully on the real educational needs of the attendees. I am selling hammers and suddenly it is in my best interest to convince everybody that their problem is a nail.

My most personally satisfying conventions are ones where I am not trying to sell things. I get out into the lobby and get into more of those individual or small group discussions that pick up on threads that were left hanging from the large group lectures. Free from the need to push commercial objects, I find I can really focus in on individual needs. Of course I don't make any money this way! (Note: I found an editor this way!)

I am not trying to indict anyone. I am simply illustrating the system. It may help explain why you have a closet full of props and gimmicks gathering dust (reminders of conventions past) and your act is still desperately in need of something. You're being sold more than you're being taught.

The educational programs of most conventions are driven by a number of considerations, not the least of which is the dealers' need to feature their products. I can't help but feel, however, that the biggest problem with conventions as an educational arena lies more in the attitudes and perceptions of the attendees.

Let me digress a moment. As a lifelong fat person I can tell you that I secretly believe that there is a quick, easy painless weight loss method out there waiting to be discovered. A pill, a plan, a piece of equipment that will melt off pounds and inches while I sleep.

My brain says it doesn't exist and what I really need is regular exercise and a lifelong change of habits and attitudes (are you the type who sees the words "all you can eat" and take it as an offer or a personal challenge? I am undeniably the latter.) But my heart leaps at every new diet gimmick that hits the market. You need Deal-a-Meal cards? Call me!

Too often convention attendees arrive literally demanding to be sold on products. Show me a trick, show me a new balloon, show me a funny prop. Sell me something that will save my act!

Ask any successful professional in the field, even the dealers (especially the dealers), what you basically need to become successful yourself and you will hear answers like improvisational skills, acting technique, knowledge of comedic structure, psychological understanding of your audience, enough ego to keep going and not so much ego that you feel you can't learn anything new, a historical knowledge of your profession, public relations skill, business acumen and salesmanship, etc ....

What a wonderful world it would be if you could just buy these. You can try. Did you buy Bruce Johnson's book Comedy Technique For Entertainers? It's a great book but it may be gathering dust on your shelves because it is not full of quick one liners. The book will do you no good unless you commit yourself to learning something from it, not lifting something out of it.

I've talked with numerous dealers‑lecturers who all have a similar story to share. It goes something like this, "I prepared a great lecture on Character Development and 4 people showed up. I did a class on balloons and the room overflowed with people." The dealers can and will talk about the important topics in clowning. It remains for the attendees to realize the importance of these classes, demand them, and attend them.

Conventioneers often pigeonhole their instructors, and in doing so, miss out on a lot of expertise. Peachy Keene knows a heck of a lot more about clowning than just foam products. Priscilla Mooseburger knows about a whole lot more than costumes. Anyone who does not pick their brains at conventions on a wide variety of matters is doing themselves a severe disservice. In the case of Steve and Trisha, and the majority of convention dealers, all you really have to do is just ask and make yourself available when they are not busy working their tables.

Convention organizers need to take advantage of people with multiple expertise and find a way to provide adequate compensation to them for lecturing on necessary but non-commercial topics. In the absence of this, you can take them to lunch yourself and pick their brains there. They probably don't eat much, (excluding Steve of course), and it may be the most effective expenditure of 10 bucks over the whole weekend.

Things are infinitely better than years ago when American clowning nearly died through the lack of dealers and lecturers willing to share necessary information. There still are some easy improvements to be made. Keep in mind that in the free market economy, if the conventioneers demanded it, the promoters would schedule it and the market would produce it.

Conventioneers need to honestly evaluate what their strengths and weaknesses are as entertainers and find a convention that will address those needs. Come to learn, not to be sold. Your specific problem may not be a nail.

 

Post Script: Forewarned is forearmed.

 

 

 

Clown Education Pt. 3: Coach Rainbow Laugh‑Makers vol. 14 #3

In case there were any late arrivers to class let me quickly sum up where we are. Clown Education Part 1 dealt with local clown classes, the proliferation of inexperienced clowns with only basic orientation instruction, and the problems inherent in teaching clowning as a performance art. There was a whole lot more and I may have oversimplified but you get the general picture.

Part 2 dealt with the realities of the convention system and reasons why conventions may not be completely adequate in providing continuing education. Some of the flaws are due to the financial structure of clown conventions, and some are due to the attitudes of the convention attendees.

We now resume part 3, already in progress

The vast majority of clowns in North America are First of Mays and always will be. I say that as a simple fact and without any implied negative connotation. They dress up occasionally for special community and/or religious events. They help raise needed money for charitable causes. For some, the anonymity of the disguise provides some sort of personal release and may help add a missing dimension to their lives. God knows, with the world as deadly serious as it is and psychological survival in our society increasingly more difficult, it is essential to have something in our lives that is pure fun!

All the First of Mays I've ever met intend for their clowning to be a small part of a larger event. They basically intend to be seen, say "hello," and possibly give out stuff. A local clown class gets them started. Some classes end by inviting the First of Mays into a group. At virtually any convention they can work on makeup, costumes, a few new balloons, pick up some handouts, share fun and companionship and see a good evening show aimed specifically at them. The educational system we have today fits their needs perfectly.

At some point, the First of May gets drawn, nudged or in some cases pushed toward the next level to becoming an entertainer. Some resist the move, some move cautiously and some move quickly with a wide open wallet and the firm belief that it is the props, tricks and other stuff that makes the entertainment. Peachy Keene tells the story about the guy who picked up one of his giant foam props and asked "What does it do?" Peachy replied " If you soak it in soapy water it will help you clean your car."

We have real problems taking people past the costume and makeup stage into the area of performance. Yes, there are lectures at conventions on very important topics such as comedic structure, character development, stage presence, etc. all very necessary to the development of a dynamic clown performer. People need to attend these classes but it is not enough.

Think about it terms of another art form, creative writing. You can sit through many classes and lectures on creative writing and you can read the great works of literature, but that does not mean that you can automatically write creative and interesting stories.

In creative writing classes though, at some point you actually have to write something. It is a brave, daring, sweat inducing act of courage to create something new of your own but you've got to do it. By seeing what you accomplished and what you may have overlooked, the teacher coaches you along with suggestions and pointers. You then go back and rewrite with the suggested adjustments in mind.

I've taught many classes at many conventions and people get to see a lot of what I do and hear about what I think and general principles I follow in creating my act. I rarely ever get the chance to see what the people in the class actually do on their own. Suppose, in the creative writing class the teacher only let the students read the teacher's writings? That just wouldn't work!

In my own defense, open classes at conventions are not the place to let everyone show their stuff. Open classes are for general discussions and not for specific individual help. In reality, once a general class gets too specific for one person, the class gets lost. Have you ever been to a lecture where everybody just had to get their war story in once someone got to tell theirs?

Competition proponents say getting people to actually perform something is what skit competition is good for in an educational sense. In theory yes, but it is not really working in actual practice.

The narrow definition of what classifies as a skit for competition purposes rarely includes the type of performances clowns are most often asked to do in the real world. I don't think I've ever done anything professionally that would actually qualify for a skit competition.

The feedback for your skit usually consists of a numerical evaluation based on organizational criteria. Occasionally you get a judge who truly wants to write out full evaluations but is constrained by time limitations. Most of the time you get what amounts to a sterile impersonal report card.

Competition proponents say this system helps you to get better. How? It may raise your desire to get better but it really doesn't show you any path to get there. What went right or wrong specifically? What specifically can be done to improve? You can't assume people will learn anything from a grade and a quick comment. I remember watching people pick up their skit evaluation forms after the Orlando WCA convention.One lady was complaining vehemently and loudly that her 7s were too low. I saw the skit and thought the 7s were about 6 too high. What did she learn to make her better? Nothing.

What would happen if the creative writing teacher simply collected work and gave grades. What would the aspiring writers learn? Not much.

Maybe we can learn something from the actual process involved in the teaching of creative writing. What we seem to lack in our field is people who watch, suggest, polish, encourage and nurture. We need some clown coaches.

Clown coaching is the next logical step in clown education after the local classes and the lectures. People need to have coaches they trust help them with their acts much the same as the writing instructor helps the fledgling writer polish their prose. It involves a little direction, a little encouragement, a little pushing, a little constructive criticism, a little devils advocacy, and a lot of patience.

The clown coach needs to be open to the idea that even he or she doesn't have all the answers. Some will see the lack of firm solid answers as a vulnerability. I see it as an asset in a clown coach in that it means that the coaching will revolve around your strengths and not around the coach's strengths. I've done a bit of clown coaching over the years and I think I've been of greater service to many doing this than in teaching group classes.

Unfortunately, it is a rarely offered service. At the old Laugh-Makers conferences, instructors were assigned times in their classrooms without a specific lecture listed as time for anyone to go back for individual discussion. This came close to clown coaching. At the Clowns Canada convention I was asked to help judge open performances at a mall. I declined the judging part but offered to watch all the performers and talk to them individually about what they did and how they might improve. The funny thing was that once they knew I wasn't judging them or officially evaluating them, they visibly relaxed and listened to what I had to offer. Only at Advanced Studies was I specifically assigned coaching duties.

Clown coaching is a concept that people have to get used to though. Many are indoctrinated into clowning by strong willed characters who have all the answers and write all the rules. If you are looking for one right answer and clown coaching comes up with four or five possibilities, you may be confused or dissatisfied. To get the most out of clown coaching, both coach and student need to check egos at the door and understand the difference between critique and criticism.

Maybe clown coaching is a concept whose time has come. Maybe the clubs will take up this idea and identify and train clown coaches capable of working with and molding other clown performers. Maybe alleys could bring in a clown coach for a full day of hands on work with their members. Maybe conventions will offer coaching as well as lectures for those who have reached that level of need in their clowning.

It wouldn't be cheap. It wouldn't be easy. But it may be what is needed to complete every clown's education.

Post Script: If I could, I would spend all my remaining days as a clown educator doing individual and small group coaching. The need is there and the results are fantastic.

 

 

 

Closer Than You Think             Clowning Around vol. 12 #2

A lot is made of conventions and lectures as our primary source of continuing education in clowning. They do serve a very useful purpose, but the down side is the cost, the travel, and the time. Often I hear the wish that something were close for once.

What if I told you that the best educational opportunity to advance the quality of your clowning exists on a continuing basis near your home! What if I told you that this fabulous educational opportunity near your home is free! What if, even better, occasionally you are paid for your participation!

What is the down side? It takes lots of time, a serious commitment, and a lot of hard work and sweat. It rarely conflicts with job or clowning because it is most often after work, evening time, so you can pretty much kiss prime time TV good-bye for a couple of months.

Still interested? What if I guarantee that prolonged exposure to this opportunity, even in a peripheral position, will have a significant positive impact on the quality of your clowning. Have I got you yet? Good!

Find out where your local community theater is and volunteer to do something, anything, for their next production. Try out for a part, do the spotlight, collect and control props, pull the curtains, anything they will let you do.

Once you begin to admit that costume and makeup do not make you a clown, then you will see that clowning is essentially a small scale theatrical venture incorporating all aspects of any theater production. How can you create a dynamic theatrical production around your clown character if you know nothing about theatrical productions, even if the entirety of your theatrical production revolves around a five minute version of Hippity Hop Rabbits? I'm not saying that you even have to get on stage to learn. For years I urged a fellow clown in my area who I work with occasionally to get involved in one of our local theaters. Finally he did, and has become a valued member of the theater community. He has never set foot on stage. He does lights, sets, sound, etc. While he has not been on stage yet (the competition for parts in this area is sometimes cutthroat and at all times highly competitive) he has been close enough to learn many aspects of the theater.

Now, when we meet for lunch, we discuss shows we've seen and he very incisively dissects performances of the actors. He has developed a keen understanding of on stage theater craft by being off stage and watching, listening and learning.

Even better, he has incorporated many aspects of theater into his own clowning around. He was a very good, very accomplished clown before (and I hope he doesn't take this as any sort of criticism of his previous level), but he now shows intuitive understanding of technical aspects such as audience perspective, vocal and physical variety, and, of key importance to clowning, comic timing. Working with him on stage when we skit together, I can feel it.

I used to wonder if I was an actor who clowned or a clown who acted. I came to the conclusion that the two are different sides of the same coin. Sometimes I'm a clown using theatrical skills at a five year old birthday party and sometimes I am an actor using clowning skills in a Neil Simon comedy at a local dinner theater.

Honestly, it is the first bit of advice I give to anyone who wants to become a clown. Discover what it is all about at your local theater.

 

 

 

You'll get an idea how old I am in the opening paragraph. Long after this article was printed, Bill Cosby did his TV show Kids Say The Darndest Thing . I close the article with a familiar theme you will see a couple of times in this compilation.

 

Out Of The Mouths Of Babes          Laugh•Makers vol. 9 #4

When I was growing up, I used to watch a TV show called House Party, hosted by Art Linkletter. I think anyone who ever watched that show really looked forward to the segment where Linkletter simply talked to children. Today I can't even remember if there were any other regular segments on the show. There would be (if memory serves) four children selected from area schools. Linkletter would ask seemingly innocent, but craftily constructed, questions. From that point on, it was sheer unrehearsed mayhem.

Linkletter became famous for his way with kids, and a number of successful books followed, including Kids Say The Darndest Things, The Secret World of Kids,Kids Still Say The Darndest Things, Kids Sure Rite Funny and A Child's Garden of Misinformation. Thumb through these books and you will soon realize they are a virtual gold mine of ideas. Funny mistakes in fact and mispronunciations may sound good coming out of your character's mouth. Nothing pleases a small child more than to realize that they have grasped one of life's little complexities faster than you.

For ventriloquism, the question-answer format of some to the books allows you to use lines virtually unchanged. You can simply set up the punch lines yourself. Look closely at the questions themselves as well as at the follow-up questions. None of them can be answered by a simple "yes" or "no". How many times have you seen an entertainer unable to get a child to give anything greater than a one word answer? Giving a child room and opportunity to explain something can be hilarious, but the questions you ask must help lead to that end.

That is not to say that a "yes" or "no" answer from a child cannot be funny but it takes the right kind of question to work. Ask a question like, "Can you put four frogs in your mouth at one time?" If "yes", your follow‑up could be, "Oh, goodie, will you keep my pet frogs wet while I do my next trick?" Your response to a "no" could be "What's the matter, do you keep swallowing them?" Now, the child has to clear up the misconceptions that he has ever tried to put 4 frogs in his mouth. This is a false premise question such as, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" Any "yes" or "no" answer includes admission of the false premise.

The best thing to be gleaned from the Linkletter books is how to talk to a child. You can't argue with success and nobody has been more successful than Linkletter. The introduction to Kids Still Say The Darndest Things gives wonderful advice about talking to children: "The next time you talk to a child, look deeply into his eyes. Don't just glance at him, or over his head, or through him. Look straight through those wide open, unguarded 'eye portals' into his mind. You'll feel an answering, almost forgotten stirring in your own mind. You'll be in touch with innocence and the long ago. Do it, for its one of the best things in life. "

I believe that there is nothing you can put in your pocket or pull out of a bag that can entertain a child as much as a friendly, funny, personal chat. The conversation needs to take place on the child's level, or better yet, with the child in the superior position. Beautiful memories depend more on atmosphere than on specific action. Long after the magic tricks are forgotten and the balloons break, the memory of the atmosphere set by having a real clown around will linger. That atmosphere comes out of the heart and the mind and not out of a balloon or magic bag.

Another author to look for is Dick Van Dyke, who got into the act with two books of his own with Faith, Hope, and Hilarity, and Those Funny Kids. Others appear from time to time so keep an eye out. These books are probably in your local library, and the library is free!

 

Post Script: These days you may have an easier time looking for these books in thrift stores. Also, there are two categories which can easily draw a child into a fluid conversation. First is in correcting you when you do things wrong. Next is in explaining things that you just don't understand, like the whole tooth fairy thing.

 

 

 

Critique vs. Criticism                         Clowning Around vol. 12 #4

I do a lot of theatrical work. My forte is musical comedy and light comedy, but I have also done Shakespeare, Moliere and Arthur Miller. One of the more interesting times during the run of any show is when the reviews start coming in. I thought I'd share with you my all time best and worst reviews.

The worst is the kind that makes people wince when I tell them about it. Its about as bad as you can ever have in your nightmares. It went like this, "chances of the show's success diminished the moment David Bartlett was cast in the leading role. " As you can see, I wasn't exaggerating.

Now to the best, and its about as good as I have ever seen anyone get, starting with the headline, "David Bartlett Excels In 'Stop The World...' ". It went on to say that the play "is as much of a one man show as has ever appeared on Broadway ..any group attempting to do it had better have someone capable of carrying the whole show... fortunately they have such a multi‑talented performer in David Bartlett. "

Needless to say, I sent the second review home to Mom and the first hit the bottom of the round file. They do show, however, the peaks and valleys you will face in the eyes of others as a public performer.

I need to add just one more thing to this story, Both reviews were for the same show!

Fortunately for me, the positive review was published two days before the negative review. Instead of two days of agony before some degree of vindication, I had two days of triumph before the ice was unceremoniously dumped on my swelled head.

Many years ago, I adopted the philosophy that if I totally believed them when they were good, then I must also totally believe them when they are bad. In order to stay on an even keel, I take them all with a grain of salt. I've learned to trust my own inner voice which has occasionally been too critical, but over time has become my truest professional compass.

Recently I had the honor of serving on the teaching staff of Advanced Studies 2. One of the duties I was assigned was doing critiques for people who had skits and routines they wanted help with. The experience was quite interesting.

I found that the fine line separating critique and criticism is usually not in the intent of the person providing the critique, but in the attitude of the person getting critiqued. Suggestions were occasionally taken as personal criticisms and I'm afraid feelings were hurt.

One very talented duo tried out a skit and the three of us doing the critiques had a field day brainstorming alternative movements, motivations, and blow-offs. Our panel of three came up with six or seven opinions.

The duo looked visibly upset. To them, critique became criticism, not through any intent on our part. I found out later the pair had tried out the skit on others throughout the week and got opinions that contradicted some of the advice we had given.

This caused some dissatisfaction, but should it? Isn't it the nature of art itself to refused to be pinned down? So much in our business depends on the inconclusiveness of personal preference. I, for one, happen to think it is one of the strengths of clowning and not one of the weaknesses.

So, when should you ask for advice, and how should you take it? As one saying goes, be careful what you ask for, you just might get it. Of course, if you're like me, you get a lot of advice you never solicited. With advice, critiques and criticisms, you can never control what you are going to get. All you can control is your reaction to it.

When considering advice from someone about your act or character, you might consider what you think about the credentials of the person giving the advice. Everybody has preferences and blind spots. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of the person giving the advice.

If the person doing the advising is one of the types for whom there are inviolable rules for everything, you will get strong definitive advice that fits within their own codes and rules. If the person doing the advising is someone who abhors strict rules, you will get a very different kind of advice.

Assuming you are looking for advice from someone, consider why you want that person's advice. What do you hope to do with it? Of what good is this advice to you?

For example, if you hope to win some kind of club competition, it may be counter productive to your goals to ask my advice. I don't compete. That may be a good thing to ask at the very beginning before you seek someone's advice. At camp we were going over one lady's single skit when it became obvious that a second voice was needed from off stage to make it a tight, well done skit. That was fine with us, but not satisfactory to the lady. She wanted to enter it in a single skit competition (Karen Hoyer, the mime instructor, looked quizzically at me and said "competition?").

One person may not be able to completely help you. Bob Ammons and Carol Crooks came to Advanced Studies with a fantastic, energetic slapstick painting routine that just blew me away. They asked for my advice. I noticed some unclear intentions in the skit and asked what they were mime painting. One said "a wall" and simultaneously the other said "a flagpole." That kind of thing I could help them with. When it came to slapstick, I was worthless. That was where Earl Chaney stepped in and pointed out some redundancies in the physicality of the routine. In this case they had to go to two different sources to get a full and complete critique.

When considering the advice you have just gotten, you need to try the advice on for size and not expect anyone's opinion to custom fit your style and personality. What works for me may not work for you. What works for others may not work for me.

I was showing Bob and Carol how Calvin Klown and I do the skit "That's Not Funny." Leon McBryde watched, disagreed with the presentation, and completely redid the skit with he and I doing it. It came out completely different and very funny with Leon in the driving role. I also realized that when Calvin and I do it, neither one of us is Leon! I hoped that what Bob and Carol realized was that when they do the skit neither one of them will be Leon, Calvin or Mr. Rainbow. They will be Bobo and CLaroL and will need to find their own dynamics.

While I was standing there with Leon ripping my skit to shreds, I admit I did start to feel a bit defensive and hurt that my skit was being summarily dismantled before my very eyes. I'm human too. I'm also grown up enough to know that I'll never learn anything new if all I ever listen to is praise and reflections of my own opinions. You don't have to follow advice, but listen. Considering and choosing makes whatever you decide a stronger decision.

Get as much help and advice as you can handle as you go along in your clowning. But don't blindly follow and let others do your thinking for you. Check your ego at the door, listen politely, and then decide what is best for you.

If you are in the position of giving advice, don't get upset if someone chooses riot to follow your advice. It may not be right for them. Accept their right to make up their own minds.

Finally, keep in mind, even when you are doing your best and receiving some measure of praise and support for your efforts, there is probably someone out there with an opposite opinion. For your sake I hope that other someone doesn't have his own newspaper column.

 

Post Script: One of the ladies I provided a critique to at Advances Studies 2 was very upset with me and thought I should have been more tactful with my advice and my opinion of her skit. I felt terrible because I didn't mean to offend or hurt her, but the skit was fatally flawed and I said so. When I wrote this column I hoped she would see it and take it as another apology of sorts. A couple of months later, she called me to tell me that she was performing the skit for a group of kids when one boy jumped up, said "This is boring!" and left, taking a number of other kids with him. She said right then she realized everything I had told her was true and she was calling to apologize to me. We've kept up with each other ever since.

 

 

So much for distinguishing between critique and criticism. Now, how about those times when somebody really is unconstructively criticizing you and your clowning.

 

No Offense                                          Laugh‑Makers vol. 13 #5

A while back, I did a library show that went extremely well and was covered by the local paper. The story used some lines from my show in the photo captions. Later, I got a phone call from an older lady who read the story and wanted to complain because I used the word "underwear." She wasn't even there and I got a complaint!

As family entertainers we all probably go way out of our way to avoid offending anyone or using offensive material. The big question is how do you know if you are being offensive. I have come up with a few quick checks for you to use in determining if you are offending anyone.

First, with your eyes open and looking forward, put your hand 6" in front of your face. Do you see anything? Second, put your right fingertips firmly upon your left wrist. Do you feel a pulse? And finally, (mimes are excused from this part of the test) recite the alphabet aloud. Do you hear anything?

If you answered "yes" to any or all of these questions, there is a good chance you are offending someone. If you are there, alive, and communicating, someone will find some aspect of you or what you do objectionable. It cannot be avoided.

It was with some bemusement that I watched even the Disney Corporation go through rounds of accusations of objectionable material over their last three cartoon movies. Disney is known for bending over backward to avoid offending anyone. They put out as saccharine a product as anyone can stand. Could they avoid controversy?

The Little Mermaid offended many people who did not like the submissive nature of the mermaid who gave up all she knew for her man. Why couldn't the man have become a sea creature for her instead? Aladdin offendedmany people who thought the movie portrayed Arabic society as barbaric. It says just that in the lyrics of the opening number.

Now, The Lion King faces charges of racial stereotyping even though there are no people in the movie. Welcome to the age of political correctness, watch your step.

In our own venues as variety artists and local entertainers, we are going to offend people whether we intend to or not. If you work as a restaurant entertainer, someone is going to complain that you didn't get to their table fast enough, or that you intentionally ignored them.

If you are in a situation where you need to take a break, or stop and go home, someone is going to take it personally that you didn't service them before you left.

Sometimes it gets ugly. Restaurant entertainers will tell you it is par for the course. My good friend, Calvin Klown, even goes as far as to discuss this ahead of time with all the managers so they know what's coming.

I'm not saying that you should ignore complaints. By all means, do a little critical self examination of the situation just as you should do whenever a performance goes notably good or bad. Just don't go into a crippling angst.

We are in the humor business and that requires a sense of humor on the part of the performer and the audience. Not everybody has a sense of humor and not everybody has the same sense of humor. Watch stand up comedians on TV, and pay close attention when they pan the audience. Invariably, a few people are not laughing.

You can try to completely rid your act of anything that anyone might in the wildest stretch of the imagination find unfunny or objectionable. In the process you are going to rid yourself of an incredible amount of great material that will give you a broad based appeal.

When we call ourselves family entertainers we should be committed to entertaining all ages and levels of sophistication. I'm afraid what that really means to a large segment is serving up the entertainment equivalent of pabulum and hope that the older members quietly suffer through it. One complaint I hear a lot from less experienced family entertainers is that the adults talk through their shows and, as they raise their voices to be heard, the adults raise the level of their conversations.

The problem here is that the adults have determined that there is nothing in the act for them! For the most part, adults like their comedy a little more on the edgy side. Teens like their humor over the edge. You need not pander to the more prurient tastes of your audience to use material that is clean but clever and aimed completely over children's heads.

In my hospital work, I have had to develop material that would appeal to and entertain small children, middle aged children, teens, young adults, middle aged adults and geriatrics. Some of the material is edgy, but no more edgy and a heck of a lot more clever than the old standard whoopee cushion. The material works well and gets laughs from people in very unfunny situations who greatly appreciate the temporary diversion from their troubles. I am very satisfied with the material.

At a series of recent conventions, I performed some of this material to overwhelmingly adult audiences. Audience response ranged from good to beyond my wildest expectation. Unfortunately, at the last convention, I offended someone who said I seem to have a "problem."

Possibly, but my problem is not an inability to entertain all ages. I just can't please all people. It's a problem I can live with.

 

 

 


 

Cause Clowning         Laugh‑Makers vol. 12 #2

Oneof the recent developments in clowning is the exploding number of Cause Clowns. Cause clowning itself isn't all that new. The Shriners have always clowned for good causes. Clowning has also been used to help teach and promote causes whether it be dental health, bus safety or just plain good manners.

As open minded as I am about clowning and the potential of the clown character to perform for any age at any number of various functions, I am very concerned that clowning in general is suffering under the excessively heavy hand of causes. Let me give you a few examples.

Back in the mid-80's I went to a library to watch a clown show. Of course I wasn't in costume and simply wanted to see another clown work the crowd and maybe pick up a few pointers.

In the middle of the show the clown played a game of guess what is in the mystery box. The kids worked it down to a vegetable of some kind and were making all the guesses they could. Kids are great at going along with almost anything. Everything they guessed, the answer was "no."

Finally, the clown pulled out a packet of catsup like you get for your fries at a fast food joint and began telling the kids "The Reagan administration says that catsup is a vegetable and satisfies the requirement for vegetables in school lunches!"

The kids all had that "what the heck are you talking about" look on their faces, the parents were looking back and forth at one another, and I whispered to myself "Oh my God!"

The particular politics of it didn't bother me. After all, 1 had worked for the McGovern campaign in Alabama back in '72. What shocked me was the heavy handed inappropriateness of it. There is a time and a place for everything and this just wasn't it!

I've seen this same clown in a number of places and his politics is always at his fingertips and at the fingertips of those who work for him. Another event had him and his partners working a corporate event for a pharmaceutical company. Afterward a few of them began handing out brochures against the use of laboratory tests on animals. They were then escorted off the premises.

This may be an extreme case but, unfortunately, it reinforces negative perceptions about all clowns.

I have no objections whatsoever to cause clowning. I do think however it is wrong to sell yourself generally and then use the opportunity to address your own personal or political agenda. Doing these types of things at a political rally is one thing, doing them at events where nothing but entertainment has been booked is another.

I was discussing this topic with Dale Bothun and he pointed out to me his observation that many of those who get into clowning specifically to promote a social or religious cause often think of the cause first and the clowning last. This mirrors my own experience. Somehow they reason that the righteousness of their cause absolve them from the need to be good at the actual work of clowning. Thankfully, doctors and airline pilots don't think the same way.

One common problem among many cause clowns is that they try to tack overwhelming significance to everything they do, and the overall effect is that the message sinks of its own incredible weight. This leads to the mortal sin of clowning, being boring.

I once watched a First of May try to order a costume with a tremendous amount of detail work on it, explaining what each different detail was going to symbolize. Of course, by the end of it all the man had personally designed an awful looking costume. The makeup design he had on looked more like a complex quilt pattern. "The red stripe symbolizes ...the black stripe symbolizes ...etc...", you get the point.

To the everlasting credit of the costumer (no doubt this would have been an incredibly lucrative costume to make) the man was talked out of the design and was told if he returned first thing next morning they would work on both a makeup and costume design that would be more aesthetic and effective.

 

Are there great cause clowns out there? You bet! I've seen them and been entertained and influenced personally and professionally by them. I am at times awed by their mastery of both form and substance.

First and foremost they are quality clowns. They know that, if the message is to arrive alive, the means by which the message gets there must be effective. They entertain first and at the right moment put in a clear uncluttered message for maximum effect. They don't try for too much. They design routines where the lesson is self-evident and they don't have to spend time didactically pointing out what is obvious.

I will never forget an incredibly moving puppet routine done by Tupper (Steve Smith) at one of the Laugh Makers conferences. I laughed till it hurt, then I cried at the significance and meaning of its clear simple uncluttered Christian message.

If you are going to deliver important messages through your clowning, you need to make sure your clowning skills are capable of effectively delivering important messages. A heart of gold and a roomful of good intentions are not enough.

 

 

 

In the Professionalism section of this book, you are going to find an article called Clowning 101. It is about teaching clowning classes to kids. In it, I write about teaching formula humor techniques but don't explain what techniques I teach. This article is about the most accessible and most basic formula techniques I know. These are great techniques to get you started in the field of humor.

 

Primary Colors                            The New Calliope vol. 15 #1

I have always been a naturally funny guy. That was the niche left in my family when I came along. I have three older brothers and the oldest, the handsomest, and the most athletic were taken. Funny was left and I took it.

Now I am in the comedy business. As a clown, comedy is the first thing people expect of me and failure to deliver comedy is the only way I can disappoint my audience and cause them to question the authenticity of my claim to be a clown.

I use different vehicles to deliver comedy. Sometimes the delivery vehicle is music, sometimes it is storytelling, sometimes it is magic, sometimes it is balloons, sometimes it is skits and sometimes it is simple conversation. Do not mistake the vehicle for what it is intended to deliver, which is comedy.

The big difference now is that I can no longer afford to depend on natural ability. Comedy is now my business. In any business, if you don't know what you are doing and are not intimately familiar with the intricate functions of your business, you are dependent on luck, and luck has two distinct sides, good and bad. I had to learn how comedy worked.

There are plenty of humor texts out there not the least of which is Comedy Technique  For Entertainers by clowning's own Bruce "Charlie" Johnson which I highly recommend but is usually only available through clown and magic dealers. Another is a two part series by the ubiquitous Steve Allen, How To Be Funy and Make 'Em Laugh which you can probably order at a normal bookstore. In a previous article many years ago I pointed out that these books are most helpful if you are committed to learning something from them, not lifting something out of them.

Learning comedy technique can be an arduous, studious and strangely unfunny task. There is an old axiom about humor that says studying humor is like dissecting a frog. You can rip it apart it to see how it works, but you must also understand that, when you do, you kill the frog. Among the many things about me that drives my family nuts is the fact that I rarely laugh at their jokes. Its not that I don't like them or think of them as unfunny. I tend to see the mechanisms at work.

In my teaching at conventions and seminars it is impossible to encompass all the fine techniques listed in all the books. I have, however, distilled most 'of their essence into three categories which I call the primary colors of humor. Long ago in art class we learned that the primary colors are red, yellow and blue, and that all other colors are mixtures of these three. The three primary colors of humor are Surprise, Exaggeration, and Wrong. I think most humor stems from three sources and/or combinations of them.

When I say surprise, most people automatically think of someone jumping around a corner screaming BOO! That works, but it has limited application. For our purposes let me redefine what a surprise is. A surprise is anything that the audience doesn't expect. That's all. Its that simple.

Think of a joke. A joke is simply a story with an unexpected surprise ending. If the ending doesn't surprise you, you don't laugh. The worst thing you can do to yourself is to "telegraph" the punchline to a story, joke, skit or routine. The unexpected punchline gets the laugh. The telegraphed punchline gets a polite smile (if that much).

Knowing this, you can plan better comic routines simply by asking at each step along the way "what is the audience expecting now?" If you know what they are expecting, do something else! For example, at the end of a disappearing coin routine, I "suddenly remember" having seen a magician one time doing the trick and pulling the coin out of the helper's ear. I reach out for the helper's ear. Everybody expects the coin. I come out with a red thimble! Laughs!

Those of you who remember some of the old Steve Martin routines may remember him playing one familiar song on his banjo and when it comes time to sing, sings a different song. He led you to believe he would be singing one song and he sang a totally different one. Laughs! I use the same premise all the time.

As clowns, I shouldn't have to do much explaining about exaggeration. It is the base of our makeup and costume designs. It should also be the base of our vocal characterizations, facial expression, movement, stories and routines.

Sometimes I call it the Rule of Too. Pick an activity, an action, costume piece, prop or item and make it Too (fill in the blank) . For example take the act of talking. You can choose too fast, too slow, too high, too low, or too deliberate by enunciating too much. Talk with your mouth too wide or too small or too far over to the side. How about walking. Try walking with each step going 10 inches too far, or with steps too short, or too far over the center line or too far to the outside, or walk too indirectly by weaving a long way toward something close by, or with knees too high.

Options are almost limitless; both of things to exaggerate and ways to exaggerate. Your choices will depend on what feels comfortable to you and what you can actually do. One of my favorites is holding a musical note too long. Way too long! I have used it in clowning as well as in regular theatrical shows. It is always good for a laugh.

In my musical clowning, I combine both surprise and exaggeration for a good laugh. I very nicely play an extended musical intro rather softly on my Omnichord. This unconsciously leads the audience to expect that when I do sing, it will match the volume of the musical instrument. I surprise the audience by exaggerating the volume of my singing, doubling or tripling the volume of the musical instrument. Laughs!

Finally comes wrong. Simply do things wrong. Let me rephrase that a little. Do things WRONG! ! ! Really, really W‑R‑O‑N‑G! ! ! That in itself becomes an exaggeration and if done well catches people by surprise so you are combining techniques for big laughs.

This technique is especially effective with the very skittish 3‑4 year old kids. The more you can convince them that they are intellectually superior to you, it mitigates your frightening size differences and they warm up to you. I often tell the story that the greatest compliment I've ever gotten was from a 2 1/2 year old who came right up to me and flatly stated "Gosh clown, you're stupid."

What do I screw up? Everything I can think of. Old McDonald, the alphabet, my shoes, anything. Especially effective is the mispronunciation of words that little kids have occasional trouble with like refrigerator, yellow, spaghetti, and elephant. Once they learn the proper pronunciation they are proud of themselves and are very aware of those who haven't caught on yet, especially big people. They will try to correct you. You can choose to be corrected by them or not, but more importantly, you've won the battle over fear!

I don't wish to insinuate this is all the comedy technique you need, but it is the most accessible way to start. It is only a start. You don't just paint with pure red, yellow and blue. Experiment and combine them. In time you will start creating some hilarious moments, and that's what clowning is all about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think that the biggest fault with inexperienced actors, whether it is kids doingschool shows or clowns doing skits is that they think the words are enough. Far from it, the words are just the skeleton of communication. There is so much more to it, but it is difficult to convince inexperienced people of that. And even when convinced, it isn't easy to do something about it. It takes, (gasp), work! In another article in the Character Development section called "The Mighty Adverb" there is a whole article on the use of vocal inflection in communication. Maybe it should follow this article but individual vocal characterization is an essential part of character development so I put it there.

 

Unspoken Communication       Clowning Around vol. 11 #11

A few years back, I was directing The Boyfriend for a junior high school. At one point in the rehearsal period I directed the female romantic lead to turn and look lovingly at the lead romantic male. At the correct time she turned. Her nostrils flared, her head tossed back, her mouth gaped open and her lips quivered as she began panting heavily. I nearly fell off my chair laughing.

She was doing the best job she could having never really experienced the proper emotion at the tender age of 14. The feelings she thought she was expressing however looked more like the transformation scene in I Was A Teenage Werewolf.

I have had similar but not so remarkable problems with adult actors as well. The emotional signals they thought they were sending were not what I was receiving.

I thought about this problem again at Leon McBryde andFrosty Little's Advanced Studies Camp. I was there teaching a series of classes on theater. Frosty was doing a class on physical comedy and he asked me to watch the expressions on people's faces after they finished a bit such as walking into a pole to see if the emotion carried.

Occasionally I would say "no," and the person would look at me strangely as if to ask what was wrong with me. After all, they had done what Frosty asked. It must be my problem!

The next day I incorporated into my theater class the problem of communicating emotions through body language and expression. If there was a miscommunication between the actor and audience, it is almost always the actor's fault. It is the job of the actor to effectively communicate their messages to the audience in a manner the audience can understand. This is not easy.

For example, one clown's look of pain carried across to the audience as constipation. Another clown's makeup design completely hid all emotion. I couldn't tell what was going on. This is something we as clown entertainers have to really work on in the advancement of our art. It is difficult to do it alone but it can start there.

Write down the list of emotions you try to express as your clown character. It should be a pretty long list. Next, go to a mirror, without makeup, and make the appropriate expressions.

Once you are happy that you indeed are able to make the appropriate expressions in a way that audiences will readily understand, put on your makeup and do it again. Check carefully to see if your makeup design hides your expression and, if so, decide how you need to change either the makeup design or the physical expression to get the precise emotion.

For example, when on stage as an actor I can effectively use an Oliver Hardy type take to the audience. Unfortunately, in clown makeup the effect is lost. To get the same effect, I have to do something totally different to the physicality of my face to overcome the makeup.

Get your alley to dedicate a meeting to playing a game of Charades or Body Language where the important things to look for and guess is not a title of a book but a recognition of complex and specific emotions. If your alley can't guess what you are trying to communicate, how will your audience be able to?

 

 

 

This ought to be a very interesting little exercise. I'm going to try to combine two different columns on the same topic into one better column.

 

Something For Everybody         Abridged and Revised    
Laugh‑Makers vol. 9 #3

Multi‑Level Entertaining           Abridged and Revised    
Clowning Around vol. 12 #5

One of the most overused and least fulfilled clichés in clowning is that we entertain all ages. Very often we scare the hell out of tiny kids and bore adults to death. To really, truly entertain all ages requires an extremely high level of skill and understanding.

Different ages need different approaches. The younger ages respond to a more subdued non-threatening approach (Barney and Mr. Rogers serve as excellent examples.) They also love color and soothing music. A little older, they like surprises, noise and a faster pace. Even older they love complication and shock. Teens and adults respond to verbal wit.

One of the hardest situations you can ever face is to entertain a mixed group with all these different ages. For situations like this you need to develop a multi-layered approach that incorporates as many different ages at possible. It is difficult but, it can be done successfully. I recommend for your study the movie Aladdin.

I enjoyed it, my 14 year old daughter enjoyed it, my 10 year old niece enjoyed it and judging by the number of Aladdin parties I've done lately, the little kids enjoyed it too.

The initial layer of the show is color, uplifting music and fantasy. Next, you have the faster paced and somewhat sinister elements that cause the three year old to hide their eyes but catch the imagination of older children.

Teens love the off-the-wall unpredictable characterizations that Genie goes through. My middle schooler and all her friends have memorized almost every shift in characterization and break into the lines at just about any time of day. Finally, what went right over her head and hit me square in the face like a cream pie was the fact that the character shifts were, in fact, imitations of real people. It did not interfere with her enjoyment of the movie and significantly enhanced mine.

One thing to note about multi-layering the entertainment is that the older the audience member, the less it took to keep their attention. Once I knew that there was going to be something in the movie aimed specifically at me, I paid attention in order to catch the fleeting references. I knew they would come quick and without warning and I didn't want to miss them when they came. The same applied for the other levels of children and the entire base of the movie was in a format pleasing to the young child from beginning to end.

Disney genius at work here? Not really. This has always been the format for most Warner Brothers cartoons as well as The Bullwinkle and Rocky Show and many others. One of my favorites is the old Popeye cartoons. I'm talking about the ones where Popeye does a lot of mumbling to himself. As a child, I enjoyed the cartoon at face value and the mumbling went right over my head. As an adult, I began listening to what he was mumbling and laughed even harder than I did as a child. They are full of puns, jokes and non-sequiturs. It didn't slow down the cartoon one bit and it didn't distract.

In my act I try to incorporate something for everybody. While aiming at the 6 year old I will throw in stuff that only the adults will catch. In pulling out a magic wand, I'll pull out a toy stethoscope. I'll have trouble understanding what it is. They don't usually know the word stethoscope so they say it is a "doctor thing." I respond, "Oh you mean its a golf club," and swing at an imaginary golf ball. The way off‑base nature of the conclusion entertains the children while the inside joke of doctors playing golf always gets a giggle from the parents.

A good thing to do is incorporate sight gags. They don't slow down the show, don't distract the kids and get adult laughs. At a point when things go wrong in my magic act I pull out a Cliffs Notes study guide book that I have altered to read Cliffs Notes on MAGIC. This gets a good laugh from adults who, like me, got through high school English class with the familiar yellow and black striped Cliffs Notes.

Another throw-away that works well for me is to have a vote by the children on something. "If you say yes raise your hand if you say no raise your other hand."

Inevitably some child raises both hands and the set up is complete. "Hey, you voted twice, are you from Chicago?" With all apologies to the wonderful folks from Chicago, the stereotype of rigged elections is strong enough to get a good laugh from adults.

When adults catch on that I have something for them, they stop chatting and start paying attention for the next tidbit I may throw their way. It doesn't take many of them to keep them satisfied.

The emphasis is not to have the show hinge on the success of any of the adult gags. They should go rapidly enough that the children don't even notice them. The adults will and appreciate you for it. And in my experience, the adults do most of the hiring.

 

Post Script: The Cliff Notes idea has been seen in the acts of a number of professional magicians who saw me use it at a couple of different conventions. They asked if I minded if they used it in their acts. Hey, like all of the hints and bits I write about, its here to use!

 

 

 

Of all your potential audiences, this is the trickiest. One wrong move and you could end rip with a roomful of nobody, as parents chase down screaming, crying, fleeing children. And it ain't your breath!

 

The 3 Year Old                                 Laugh‑Makers vol. 16 #3

Eons ago in my first years of clowning I decided to take a firm stand and never do another birthday party for 3 year olds. I was into clowning for the laughs and the fun. All I was doing to 3 year olds was scaring the heck out of them. Terrified screams do not in any way compare to laughter.

I had one experience where I walked into a day care for a 3 year old party and, when one kid screamed, the whole room freaked out. I spent the rest of the time doing balloons around the corner and handing them into the room. The final straw was at a home birthday party. When I walked in, the birthday girl screamed and ran upstairs followed by all of the party kids except one. The one child who stayed spent the whole time looking at fish in an aquarium.

That was it! I had learned my lesson. I would never do another 3 year old party. Period. End of discussion. Or so I thought.

I politely told the next lady who called for a three year old party that I didn't do parties for 3 year olds anymore. She asked why. I told her that three year olds have a love‑hate relationship with costumed characters. They see them in pictures and on television and love them but when the small, flat, two dimensional figure becomes a great big three dimensional living breathing creature and it is moving toward them, they very justifiably get frightened. That's why so many react so badly to Santa Claus at age 3. They also don't have the attention span for a magic show and don't want to be singled out as helpers. It takes long, slow, concentrated effort to win them over. "That's why I don't do 3 year old parties anymore."

I thought I had explained it fairly well. The lady on the phone paused and then said "Well ...since you know what doesn't work, I'm sure you can figure out something that will."

Now I was at a loss for words. She was absolutely right. I was young and stupid and being very one dimensional in my clowning. If my minimally developed character didn't fit the specific situation I was, in essence, quitting. Her simple request was that I expand the dimensions of my character to include appropriate attitude and activity that would include very young children.

I did what I have learned to do make myself better. I accepted the booking and decided that I would not let this lady down. I forced myself into an uncomfortable position. Uncomfortable, but not beyond my capabilities. I wrote about doing things like this to yourself in Laugh Makers years ago in an article called "The Rainbow Force Method."

I started looking at different character features to add to Mr. Rainbow. I had to add a softer side and yet remain Mr. Rainbow. In other words I had to expand but not change my character.

I wish I knew who that lady was now. I'd like to shower her with praise and gifts. Over time I developed a birthday party for 3 year olds that works like a charm and now I absolutely love 3 year old parties! More importantly, they love me. I wish I had a dime for every time a parent has said "you are the only clown they aren't scared of." Come to think of it, I've got way more than a dime because most of these comments end up in a booking!

I'm not going to go into the specifics of the act because that would invite emulation and your success won't come from copying my specific act which is an outgrowth of my character. I will however, give some structural guidelines upon which you can be successful in dealing with this age group.

First off, don't ever do a "Surprise" party for a 3 year old. That is sure disaster. If the birthday child isn't scared, then quite a few of the guests will be, and when one starts screaming more will follow. Talk over your entrance with the parents. Let them know that some of the children may be frightened at the appearance of a costumed character. They need to quickly identify the scared kids, take them to the rear of the room where they can still see the activity but from a safe distance and let them hold on to the adult.

As for your part, make your entrance slowly and use a very subdued voice. Don't look directly at any of the scared kids for quite a while and as time goes on only look at them fleetingly. Do not make fixed eye contact with them. That will take you back a few steps each time. Don't move toward the scared kids and make sure the parents don't make the kids come closer if they don't want to. Try to diminish your size by sitting in a chair or sitting on the floor. Keep your tone soothing and low.

Don't try to do a "show." You will keep their attention span a lot longer by storylining your act in a progressive manner. For example, I talk about birthday parties and the stuff you are supposed to bring to a birthday party. I talk about the birthday card 1 brought for the party, I describe it and then ask if they want to see it. Out comes the double change bag and the "birthday card" (actually a silk) starts appearing and disappearing and the colors are not there, then they're there, then they're not there...yadda yadda yadda. Magic is happening, but as a part of my story about birthday parties. I move on to a "present" I bought for Mrs. Rainbow whose birthday just coincidentally happens to be next week, "Wanna see it?" This leads to more storylined magic. This naturally segues into one final magic trick. Almost all of the magic part of my birthday party for 3 year olds can be done while sitting down on the floor with the kids.

In walkarounds and restaurants where one-on-one frightening situations with 3 year olds can come at any time, I have a couple of tricks to share. One is to immediately back up. That reassures the child that you are not coming toward them and distance means safety to them.

Next are the magic words "Bye Bye." Children recognize this as a sign of safety also. Keep saying "bye bye" and throwing kisses. Little kids often will throw kisses in return even though they may still be quite frightened and tearful. It will take quite a while for them to figure out that although you said "bye bye" 10 times you haven't actually left yet.

Finally a very successful trick for me is to divert attention toward an inanimate personal object of the child like the shoes or socks. "Wow, nice shoes, those are really cool shoes...blah blah blah" This leads to a discussion of my shoes and the comparison of the two pairs of shoes. Mindless blather on the surface to be sure, but think of it as comforting, soothing, friend making conversation. Actually kids love their shoes and are very susceptible to compliments on their shoes.

Honor and respect their fear, don't challenge or confront it. Put your high power Auguste zaniness away for a short time. Let the child determine the amount of space they need between you and them and respect that space. It will decrease as time goes by and the comfort level increases. I could just strangle adults who pick up scared kids and force them forward saying things like "Look, he's not going to hurt you" or "Stop being such a baby." I swear sometimes adults are so stupid.

I even developed a non-birthday routine for the very young that has been very successful. It involves getting dressed in front of the kids (heresy to some but it works for me). I have standing bookings with a couple of day care centers to do it just before Halloween or just before the Circus comes to town. In fact, that routine got so successful that I have done it with daycares, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, and senior centers.

Doggone, I wish I remembered that lady's name. I owe her a lot!

 

 

 

 

 

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