I was nine years old when I realized that I wasn’t funny.
It was July 2001. The winter of my discontent made a glorious, air-conditioned summer by Nintendo 64, and the complete absence of parentally enforced obligations: A stretch of time with no summer camp and absolutely no homework whose beginning created such an utterly complete vacuum of responsibility you could practically hear the rapidly evacuated shhhhhhhh-pppp of busyness when school let out that year. Freedom was mine, I thought—until the day my parents told me that I was going to clown camp.
“Why did you sign me up for clown camp?” I asked my parents.
“You seem so serious all the time. We think it will be good for you,” my father said, belying the disarming earnestness that was and still is the defining trademark of my parents’ parenting style. (Years later, my father was more frank: “We thought it would be good for your social skills.”)
It was true that I was rather serious for my age. I found the silliness of my peers to be an undesirable quality—certain acronyms, “O.J.” (orange juice), for instance, struck me as a bit too casual, too loose—although I did enjoy a good laugh every now and then. Unlike my peers, however, I was not one to play pranks on others or to deploy my wit in appropriate scenarios; instead, I preferred to recount memorized jokes. I had several books on my shelf that served as source material when the time was right—this, I recall, was less satisfying in the long run than spontaneous funniness, but altogether more reliable. I might have been appropriately described as “risk-averse.”
Clown camp took place over the course of a week: five six-hour sessions from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. in the boxy, gray confines of the Y.M.C.A. located in nearby Somerville, N.J. There were about 10 of us, ranging from as young as 7 to as old as 12 or 13. Our teacher was Andy the Clown—a towering figure to us in his classic oversized shoes and incomprehensibly expansive red clown hair—whose true identity was impossible to discern behind variegated layers of red, white, and blue makeup.
He was assisted by The Lovely Princess Rainbow, a slightly overweight, tired woman who helped apply face-paint and make-up, and who tended to grimace in a kindly way rather than actually smile at us. She and Andy seemed to be involved in some way, although this did not occur to me at the time; she also always smelled of heavy musk and vaguely burnt, which I realized later was the smell of cigarettes. This explains the periodic breaks she and Andy would take to “get some fresh air,” and why our clown master seemed to cough so much all the time.
At camp, I learned the fundamentals of clowning, like the uproarious and, frankly, exhausting laugh that came from deep in the belly, with a 30 degrees backwards tilt of the head for emphasis. I learned how to juggle—sort of—and how to do exaggerated facial expressions like opening my eyes as widely as possible while simultaneously doing the same with the opening of my mouth (surprise, astonishment, etc.), or opening my eyes as widely as possible while doing the same with the opening of my mouth with my mouth’s corners upturned (amusement, pleasure, etc.). And, to tell the truth, I was actually pretty good at most of it.
It felt good to do these weird things. Andy was making all of us try as a group, like laughing so obnoxiously that passersby in the Y.M.C.A. would solicitously stick their heads into the gym where we were practicing. I wasn’t a prodigy or anything, though: The second or third day, Andy demonstrated the classic “spitting-water-in-surprise” move, taking a generous sip of water from a cup, turning so that his profile was in clear view, and emitting a voluminous cloud of vapor that sounded like a five-second recording of ambient Niagara-Falls-inspired noise.
I volunteered to be the first to try after Andy explained the technique: sip generously, purse lips, and fffffppp.
“You can try it on me!” Andy said with a big, doughy smile.
I took the generous sip and pursed the lips, but when it came time for the fffffppp, I did more of a fffuhhh, which resulted in my 2-oz. intake of water erupting in generously portioned globules of liquid all over Andy, my clown sensei, on his big, white face.
He took the watery assault pretty well—I guess you could say he was professional about the whole thing—and laughed off the liquid and the makeup dribbling down his face.
“It’s more of a mist,” Andy offered. He encouraged the other students to practice with generous amounts of space between each other, and left us momentarily to find Princess Rainbow.
I went home that night feeling like a sack of potatoes. In the shower, I tried again and again, but for some reason, I just couldn’t do the fffffppp thing. But I didn’t get out of the shower: I was either going to figure out how to fffffppp or turn into a child-sized shower-prune.