Tears of a Clown
I bomb as a kids' birthday party entertainer.
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.
At Zucchini's recommendation, we went to Barry's Magic Shop in Wheaton, Md. I explained to the salesman that I was performing at a 3-year-old's party, and he showed me a bunch of tricks that required virtually no skill. I couldn't resist the silk scarf that changed color when passed from hand to hand, or the D'Lites—a pair of small red lights the salesman demonstrated by having them seemingly enter one ear and come out the other. I also got a bag of balloons and a pump (after realizing I didn't have the lung power to blow up even a single balloon). It all cost $59, a small price to pay for being boffo.
In the week before the show, I obsessively worked on my routine. I was inspired one day to run to the drug store and buy a pile of baby things: a bottle, pacifiers, a teething ring. I would use these as visual gags.
The party was on a Sunday morning, and as I double-checked to make sure we had all our props, my daughter asked, "Are you nervous, Mom?"
"Yes," I replied. "Are you?"
"No, Mom. They're 3!"
We arrived at David and Hanna's and I was distressed to see that, because it was a beautiful day, the party had been moved to the park across the street. This setting was the opposite of the distraction-free zone Zucchini demands. There were trees and caterpillars and swings and balloons and tables laden with food. There was, however, no electricity. Zucchini had told me if things started faltering to make sure I had a CD player and to get them to do a freeze dance—that always worked. I frantically sent my husband to get batteries for the CD player.
Then the parents gathered about a dozen children on a blanket in a clearing, and the Amazing Macaroni and Cheese began. I opened by saying we'd forgotten our hats, and we pulled out some underwear and put it on our heads. Silence. I put a diaper on my head. More silence. I realized I'd better move to audience participation, so I called up the birthday boy.
By this time Jacob had concluded I was an abomination. He refused to have anything to do with me and wandered off to play happily with his bubble gun. His 5-year-old sister, Noa, sweetly came to my aid and agreed to hold out two fingers as instructed. I put a roll of toilet paper on them. When Broccoli did that, the kids almost needed to be sedated. When I did it, it seemed as if they had been.
I tried to rescue this by ripping off some toilet paper and shoving it into my mouth. The children were nonplussed, but there were a few barks of laughter from the parents watching from the side. As I went though each disastrous bit, the adults' laughter grew. It wasn't amusement, exactly, but the kind of caustic snickers you hear from Republicans when John Kerry puts on his windsurfing outfit or from Democrats when George Bush calls himself "the decider."
Desperate, I moved on to my magic tricks, passing the lights through Noa's ears. I couldn't tell if she was more mortified for herself or me. The color-changing scarf, which had even impressed my husband, left them cold. My assistant, Cheese, quickly tried to distance herself from me. We had practiced a routine in which we each put pacifiers in our mouths, then simultaneously pulled them out. I went to the bag and handed Cheese hers. "I'm not doing it, Mom," she said sotto voce.
"But it won't be funny if you don't do it," I begged.
She looked at me stonily. "I'm not doing it, Mom."
I put the pacifier in my mouth and fell down. Silence. I said I needed a water break and pulled out a baby bottle and drank from it. More silence.
I realized I had to dump half my act. I was planning to give the children a list of things not to do, a la Zucchini. But I knew if I said, "Whatever you do, don't jump up and down," they would not jump up and down. The rest of the act I forgot under the pressure. I went to my fail-safe, the freeze dance. I turned on Bobby Darin singing "Splish Splash," got the kids to their feet, and said, "Let's dance!" I turned off the music and said "Freeze!" I repeated this half a dozen times. Later, Jacob's grandmother told me this was her favorite part of the act. "It was so funny because you couldn't get them to dance, so whenever you yelled 'Freeze,' they were already frozen."
Our planned ending was balloon animals: My daughter has a gift for making them. So there wouldn't be hard-to-fill requests for bunnies or kitties, we decided to tell the kids they could have a schnoogle or a floogle. And to save time, we arrived with the balloons already blown up. Thinking the guests would be mostly boys, we had an array of black, purple, and blue balloons. But there were more girls and now they were crying, "I don't want a black schnoogle!" I finally found the balloon pump, blew up some pink ones, and my daughter calmed the girls by twisting up pink floogles. I wanted to help her, but all my attempts at balloon art resulted in what looked like enormous, deformed genitals.
The act was over—it had taken about seven and half minutes. (It only felt like a lifetime.) Immediately one mother came up to me trying to deconstruct the fiasco. "Why was it so bad?" she almost demanded to know. David tried to buck me up, but as he searched for a compliment, it was like listening to someone trying to come up with a tribute to Porter Goss' tenure at the CIA.
My daughter went over to get some birthday cake, and her psyche seemed blessedly untouched by the experience. I was shaken. I had always considered myself to be "good with kids." But it turns out the kids saw me as one of those weird ladies who sadly think she's good with them and they just wish she would go away.