By Patrick Hueller
During the last three or four years of elementary school, I wanted to be a professional clown.
You read that right: professional.
My red nose was made of foam, not plastic; it came with a special adhesive. My wig wasn’t one of those cheapo rainbow deals; it was a special type of rubber that blended perfectly with my skin and made me look bald but for the red hair sprouting out the sides. The little hat that fastened on top was yellow and had been molded like a cast; it had a bird perched precariously on the brim.
I don’t really know why I wanted to be a clown, but I know there was some sort of freedom in becoming somebody else. The personal anonymity of clowns made their purpose, to entertain huge crowds of people, somehow more pure. Or something.
In any case, I took clowning around seriously. I was willing to work for it.
I spent an entire Christmas Break learning to juggle (behind the back, between the legs).
I spent an entire Spring Break learning basic magic tricks (vanishing handkerchief, string stratagems, etc.).
One of my favorite “jokes” was to say something deserved a round of applause, then to clap frantically in a circular motion.
If my parents were alarmed by my choice of career, they didn’t show it. In fact, they encouraged me. Maybe this had to do with their faith that this was just a phase—a long phase, to be sure, but in the long run still temporary.
Or maybe their support was founded, at least in part, on pride. After all, as impractical as my career goals were—I fully planned on going to clown college!—I went about achieving them in an altogether practical way. I fully planned on going to clown college! In the meantime, all of my allowance money—for three-plus years—was spent at Twin Cities Magic and Costume Company. For birthdays and Christmases, I asked exclusively for clowning-related items. These gifts were not meant to be extras, add-ons to a “normal” gift list. They were the list.
And for the most part, I was able to check each and every item off said list.
Camera and flower squirters?
Slightly oversize white gloves (but not too oversize because I still needed to be able to juggle)?
Check, check, and check.
The only thing they wouldn’t buy me, or allow me to buy myself, were the leather oversize shoes. Again their reasons had to do with practicality. The shoes cost hundreds of dollars, and I’d grow out of them in a matter of months. Maybe they’d get them for me as a clown college graduation present, I reasoned. By then, my feet would have stopped growing. In any case, I had to make peace with Wal-Mart-bought, one-size-fits-all plastic shoes, which looked cheap and inauthentic to me but which my parents correctly pointed out looked plenty official to my classmates.
At this point you might be thinking that this is a story about childhood social suicide. That kids greeted my round of applause “joke” with insults and the wrong kind of laughter.
But it’s not and they didn’t.
Don’t get me wrong—I don’t think kids were particularly amused by me. To say they accepted my clowning ambitions would be an overstatement.
If anything, they didn’t really care one way or the other.
For one thing, I didn’t actually put on the clown gear all that much. For Halloween, of course, and for a few school sponsored raffle-ticket type events. But that was pretty much it.
Besides, I think adults sometimes forget how weird all kids are—and how unimpressed they can therefore be with other kids’ weirdness. This isn’t always the case, I realize. Some kids have it rough right from the get-go. But many others don’t. And—maybe because I was fairly good at sports, which never in the history of humankind hurt anyone’s social standing—I was one of the kids who had something goofy about them but don’t get called out for it.
Another way of saying this is that kids are often totally indifferent about differences and weirdnesses . . . until they aren’t. At some point, usually when kids stop being kids and start being teenagers, differences become everything.
Which is what I discovered when I wore the clown suit again.
In high school.
The day after Halloween.
Which, believe it or not, was intentional. I was a junior, I think, and got the idea to don the costume as I strolled the halls on Halloween. By then, I and most of my classmates didn’t wear Halloween costumes anymore, but there were a handful of kids who did. I remember in particular a guy showing up as former quarterback and current NFL analyst Terry Bradshaw. Along with wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey, he had shaved a giant bald spot onto his head. The costume was a hit, and got me thinking about my bald clown wig. That night, I excavated the entire costume from some dusty boxes in the crawl space.
What I didn’t yet fully appreciate, I realize now, is the difference between a class clown and a real clown.
When I showed up the next day at school, I was under the impression that I was making the same joke as the Terry Bradshaw guy. The fact that it was the day after Halloween, or that the suit itself was way too small and gave me a giant wedgie, just made the punch line that much funnier. Right?
This time, unlike in my childhood, I was razzed and ridiculed. I was avoided and ostracized. Even people who knew me—I wasn’t popular, but I wasn’t unpopular—didn’t know what to do with me. They said I looked weird, freaky, even creepy. This reaction had something to do with clown phobia, but it was also a product of my authenticity: there were no visible strings or staples. No matter how poorly they fit, I was dressed head-to-toe in a real clown clothes. The cast-mold had, the rubber bald spot, the foam nose, the oversize-but-not-too-oversize white gloves—they all added up, apparently, to: creeper.
Of course, I wasn’t actually dressed head-to-toe in professional duds. My oversize shoes were made of the same plastic as a party cup. I couldn’t make it two steps without someone “accidentally” stomping on them.
“Sorry, man. By the way, Halloween was yesterday.”
Every time my shoes got crushed, I’d take them off and carefully un-crush them with my hand. Seconds later, someone else would stomp on them all over again.
I don’t know why I kept un-crushing them, exactly. For some reason, it felt like a point of pride. I hadn’t brought a change of clothes, so I was stuck as a clown. Fixing those shoes made me feel like I was something more than the butt of the joke—like I was still telling my own joke, even if no one else got the punch line.
Truthfully, I don’t think I got the punch line myself.
Luckily, others did. The guy who wore the Terry Steinbach costume, for instance: I later learned that he thought I and my costume were a laugh riot. It wasn’t just the costume, either. The fact that I had a wedgie, and that I kept fixing those crushed shoes, and that I was doing this the day after Halloween: it was all comedy gold, according to him and his friends. I was introduced to Andy Kaufman’s comedic cons, and Orson Welles’ War of the World radio hoax, and mockumentaries like This Is Spinal Tap. On the day of the premiere of Best in Show, Christopher Guest’s first mockumentary since Waiting for Guffman, I and my new group of friends showed up at school dressed as Guffman characters, and everyone else at school seemed to agree that we were hilarious.
I’m almost thirty now, and while I no longer have any interest in being a literal clown, a couple days a week I do stand-up comedy. Often, I play a character on stage who’s entirely different from me. He wears glasses—not oversize ones but they are missing their lenses. He’s nervous in a way that I’m not and often breathes heavily into the microphone. Audiences frequently don’t know what to do with this character, but that’s okay.
Someday, I’m certain I’ll get a round of applause.
Patrick Hueller has an MFA from the University of Minnesota. His short fiction has appeared in such publications as Midwestern Gothic and Blink Again: Sudden Fiction from the Upper Midwest. Some of his humor pieces have been published by Feathertale and The Yellow Ham. Under the pen name Paul Hoblin, he’s written several acclaimed YA books, including Foul, a YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, and The Beast, a Junior Library Guild Selection (Darby Creek). He’s against instant replay in sports.