Joy of the Jest

Clowns on campus and in Boston play for pleasure and goodwill

Melissa C. Wong

“It was the looks on my blockmates’ faces as they saw me, because they did not know,” says Catherine D. Cook ’12. “I hadn’t told them. They walked up to me and just burst out laughing because I had a bandana on my head, face paint on, [and was] making balloons.” Cook, who ends every statement with a laugh, was no closet clown; she simply had never mentioned her pastime to friends.

Fortunately for Cook, her friends’ laughter was borne out of affection. “I think you just don’t expect your roommate [to sculpt with] balloons … They all grabbed each other and were like, ‘Come look! You have to see this!’”

Embarrassment or no, clowns cannot help but spread happiness. On campus, members of the Class Clowns like Cook twist balloon animals and paint faces for charity. Though professional clowns around Boston work for pay, the philosophical justification for their clowning is equally the delight it may bring about in a viewer. This commitment to entertainment is also a burden, however, as it governs the logistical and business interactions that make up much of a clown’s job. Regardless of the different forms clowning takes, its goal remains constant—to produce a smile.

BALLOON ECOLOGY

For Julie M. Zauzmer ’13, a Crimson news writer and blog exec, the process of clowning is joyful in its means and ends. She is the founder and head of Class Clowns, which practices clowning as a charitable service. Zauzmer says the she started making balloon animals when she was eight years old. “I can definitely remember the first time I got a balloon animal,” Zauzmer says, “coming home and taking it apart, and trying and trying to put it back together again until it popped.”

“I’ve always loved balloons. I think on a very tactile, little-kid level, I’ve never got past it,” she says. “Every single time I make the balloon, even if I’ve made the same animal hundreds and hundreds of times before, I’ll still be sort of, ‘how’d it turn into that?’” For Zauzmer, whose clown moniker is Zippy, clowning is an end in itself. Her production of balloon animals conjures in her the very feelings of wonderment she seeks to produce in others. Zauzmer remembers standing in line at carnivals—twice the age of everyone else—still fascinated by how clowns would produce their squeaky creations.

Balloon animals are a large part of Class Clowns’ output and the majority of their expenses. The array of configurations that Class Clown members can construct is massive—teddy bears, bicycles, and functioning dresses comprised of 50 different balloons. “I really like making the ladybugs because you can wear them as bracelets,” says Cook. Penguins, on the other hand, can be frustrating. “There are three balloons involved, and so when one pops you have to start all over again.”

However, the Class Clowns see their appreciation for balloons as fundamentally connected to a sentimental basis. This past Valentine’s Day, they received requests for 170 balloongrams—personally delivered balloon animals—the profits of which they used to buy more supplies. “It’s not an ordinary Valentine’s Day gift, but it’s something that says that someone put a lot of thought into you as a person, and they knew that you would like something quirky like a balloon,” Cook says. The very peculiarity of clowning products, then, is itself a tool in its appeal, as the unexpected nature of a balloon animal gift contributes to its charm.

As such, Zauzmer and Cook see clowning as an interactive practice. “You can’t clown in a room on your own,” Zauzmer says. Instead, the point is the effect clowning produces on others. “The entire purpose is to make people happy,” offers Zauzmer. In visiting children with behavioral issues or special needs, Class Clowns intends to bring this happiness to the people who need it most. “When you know what you’re doing is sort of making people smile you sort of think ‘okay, who needs smiles?’ and it’s obvious that there are a bunch of groups out there that you can go to,” Zauzmer says. “And it’s not just little kids, elderly people really love clowning too.”

In their charitable conception of clowning, Class Clowns believes that it is not a niche form but a practice that offers the opportunity to cheer the world. Most surprising about this notion is the idea that clowning does not present any restrictions on age. “The people in the middle crowd [of age] think they’re too cool for balloons, and they’re not. And it’s the best feeling when you get them to recognize that they’re not,” Zauzmer says. This recognition confirms for Class Clowns the universal appeal of clowning, which represents the form’s highest level of potential.

Fittingly, Cook talks about the positive effect of clowning in universal terms: “I have never seen someone’s face light up like when you ask them if they want a balloon hat.”

CLOWNING “THE HARD WAY”

For many professional clowns, the wide appeal of clowning and the happiness it brings are also fundamental to their appreciation of their work. However, professional clowning presents financial and organizational challenges that the Class Clowns does not have to confront. For Jack Lepiarz, a traveling performer during his childhood and a former student at Emerson College, the idea that clowning can break down barriers comes from family tradition. “I think part of that is originally what made my father want to be a clown,” Lepiarz recalls. “He said he wanted to be able to entertain anyone. He wanted to be able to entertain a peasant in Colombia or, you know, the New York elite. He wanted to have a show that was translatable, that could entertain anyone.”

Though professional clown David Holzman, who has been in the game for nearly 20 years under the title Davey the Clown, says that “99% of my work is for children,” he also has worked at a handful of completely unexpected events—including a bachelor party. “I specifically told the guy what I did, and that I thought it might not be to interesting for some people at the bachelor party, but he said his brother … didn’t want adult entertainment … It actually worked out really well. They were all doctors, mostly working at [Massachusetts General Hospital] and some from out of town, but they were all, you know, very wholesome people.”

While these cross-cutting cleavages appear intrinsic to all forms of clowning, professional clowns confront business roadblocks unknown to charity organizations. “I think maybe a lot of people think that I do this on the side,” Holzman says. “That maybe I have another job and I just fill in a little bit on weekends by doing this. I practice every day, about one skill or another, four hours. And I wouldn’t have this kind of time if I had another job.” Clowning for Holzman is not the hobby it is for Zauzmer but rather a serious and consuming enterprise.

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