Making my debut as a children's entertainer at a 3-year-old's birthday party, I worried that the kids would writhe around like a bag of snakes because I couldn't keep their attention. But as I went through my routine—putting underwear on my head; sucking on a pacifier; opening a "dirty" diaper—they sat utterly transfixed. They had the same baffled, embarrassed expressions on their faces as the audience in Walk the Line sitting through Johnny Cash's onstage breakdown. Occasionally a child would glance over at a parent plaintively, as if to ask, "Why, Mommy, why?"
I had been thinking of performing at a children's birthday party for a long time but had trouble imagining what I would do, since I can't play an instrument or perform magic. Then I read Gene Weingarten's wonderful article in the Washington Post about D.C.'s most successful children's entertainer, the Great Zucchini, who makes $300 per birthday party by doing such things as pouring water on his head. I called Zucchini and another leading birthday party entertainer, Broccoli the Clown, and they agreed to let me watch them perform so I could steal their best bits for a single show.
Next, I had to find someone willing to donate their child's birthday for this latest installment of Human Guinea Pig, the column in which I do things you think you could do but would rather I did instead (and if you think you could be the entertainer at a child's birthday party, think again). To the rescue came my editor, David Plotz, and his wife, Hanna: I could be the attraction at the third birthday of their son, Jacob. It seemed like a good idea. I would get a perfect venue; they would get free entertainment. But as the date approached, entertaining at my editor's son's party started to sound like something one of those deluded alcoholics in a John Cheever short story thinks is a good idea.
To prepare, I took my 10-year-old daughter to see Broccoli perform at a party for 17 5-year-olds. Broccoli (actually Jake Stern) was in full clown regalia: green hair, green overalls, big shoes. He blew up a balloon, hit himself in the face with it, then let it loudly deflate. The kids screamed. He blew up another balloon, pretended it was a tail, and hit himself in the rear end with it. More screaming. He pulled underwear out of a hat and threw it at the kids. Screams again. He did a few magic tricks that mesmerized them, then he hit himself in the face with a balloon. Screams. He performed for about 40 minutes, keeping the children in control, and ended by making each child a balloon animal.
Afterward he gave me some tips: "Be on their level. They like toilet humor. Shake your bum-bum. Toilet paper is good. So is underwear. Hit yourself in the head. Tell them 'I'll cry' or 'I'm going to tell my mommy.' "
Then my daughter and I went to see Eric Knaus, the fabled Zucchini, at the third-birthday party of the daughter of friends. I knew from Weingarten's article that Zucchini demands an environment of sensory deprivation—no toys, games, or food in sight to distract his audience. Zucchini performs in street clothes, and within minutes of starting the show one member of the audience announced, "I can't stop laughing!"
He put a diaper on his head; he played with a roll of toilet paper. He gave them orders:
"Whatever you do, don't walk like a chicken." Chicken-walking ensued.
"Whatever you do, don't hug each other." It became a love-in.
The bits were nonstop. I realized I could never master enough material to perform at his pace. But I figured that putting together Broccoli and Zucchini's best shtick, and throwing in a couple of magic tricks, should add up to 20 minutes. I was thrilled when my daughter asked if she could act as my assistant. She suggested we call ourselves the Amazing Macaroni and her assistant, Cheese.