I, Clown: An Interview From the Front Lines of Happiness

Clown Care

“I’m a traveling fool. A mountebank. A clown.” Some days, we may all describe our jobs that way, but for David Engel, those words are true. A family entertainer for 25 years, with 10 different acts on exciting themes (pirate, wizard, Jedi, etc.), Engel performs around 250 shows annually at theaters, festivals, libraries, museums, hospitals, and corporate and private events nationwide. Continuing our coverage of the Big Apple Circus, we talked to Engel about a very meaningful gig: his work with hospitalized kids through the Clown Care program. 

Give us the 411 on Clown Care.
The Big Apple Circus Clown Care outreach program brings therapeutic mirth and laughter to children, families and staff at top pediatric hospitals across the U.S. Two professional “clown doctors” are paired for scheduled “clown rounds” to ply their craft on visits to hospital rooms, clinics, burn units, emergency departments, oncology and psych floors—anywhere children are being treated, the clowns will come help alleviate the stress and fear. Teams work five-hour shifts and pay thousands of visits to hundreds of thousands of patients every year.

These may be professional clowns trained in music, magic or puppetry, or may be magicians or musicians trained in clowning. All are hired for their sensitivity and receive additional training on hygiene protocols, cultural and psychological awareness, and heightened privacy and procedural issues for this often tense, challenging milieu. The primary aim is to empower patients and change the tone of their environment.

Clown CareWhat drew you to clowning, and how did you get involved with Clown Care?
The acting bug bit me early on. I was inspired by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and romantic notions of the Renaissance jester, and my family supported my creativity and urge to travel. I followed a dual path of classical actor and theatrical clown. There are several styles of clown, and mine is what’s known as “eccentric” or “theatrical”—think Mr. Bean or Monty Python. I’m not a circus-style clown, nor did I go to Clown College. I cut my teeth performing on the streets of Europe and learned by observing, playing festivals and doing street theater, taking master classes, etc. I first heard of hospital clowning through a Life magazine article featuring Michael Christensen, Clown Care’s founder and the cofounder of Big Apple. In 1999 the circus started a satellite program in Chicago, where I was asked to audition and got hired. It was a dream come true.

Were you nervous the first time you went into the field?
I may have been nervous, but it was so immersive, I didn’t have time to think. My first patient was a severely burned young boy; I’d never encountered that before, and I was sort of a deer in the headlights. But that’s a perfect emotional place for a clown: struck dumb, just breathing, eyes wide, and vibrating in the spotlight. This boy started to chuckle, then laugh, as I fidgeted in confusion, and the tension was broken with a simple glance. We don’t go in with stereotypical horns honking or silly walks (though we can be large and silly if it serves the moment), but we change the energy of the space by simply offering nonsense and low-status behavior in an extremely regimented place full of high-status people, i.e., physicians.

ClownCareWillyWonkaWhat were your most rewarding experiences with Clown Care?
It’s hands-down the best job I’ve ever had. Over 13 years of performances, there were so many incredible moments—we’d call them “turnarounds”—when we’d have breakthroughs ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous: singing to comatose patients and seeing their vital signs respond; spending the last hours with a terminal patient, blowing thousands of bubbles that transformed the bed into an otherworldly landscape; helping soothe frantic families in a trauma room; conversing with a patient, then finding out later that he hadn’t spoken in months; watching the amazing work of nurses and doctors in action and feeling I had a little something to add; being approached at an unrelated performance by a mom and an older girl who recognized me as Dr. Dork from years earlier.

The most harrowing?
Finding out patients I was close with had passed away. Seeing doctors weep.

What have you learned through this type of outreach, both about the art of clowning and humans in general?

That laughter is good medicine. That we are all so fragile and should be more kind and forgiving. That the mainstream American doesn’t understand that clowning is an art. That Santa can appear in August.


What skills or mind-sets can we all borrow from clowning to improve our and others’ happiness?

Listen. Breathe. Support your partner, and he or she will support you. Be situational, not conversational. Don’t force a situation, and be open, willing and flexible in the moment. Feature failure—don’t try to hide it.

How do people usually react when you tell them what you do?

I find internet dating can be more challenging for a clown. But seriously, most people are fascinated and are respectfully bemused when they glimpse the backstage workaday logistics: the PR savvy, the networking, the prop and costume sourcing. People are also amazed that I make a (low) six-figure living being a fool, and actually I’ve noticed that more women on OkCupid are charmed and attracted by what I do. I found the love of my life there.

The whole “I’m scared of clowns” response is a funny, dismaying one born from media hype, lazy comedy tropes and, yes, actual scary clowns. Humans are naturally freaked out by the unknown, the person behind the makeup, but unfortunately Hollywood has helped blow this out of proportion. If folks are surprised or put off, I simply say, “It beats working for a living.”

Learn more about David Engel at www.davidengel.biz and www.mypirateschool.com.

Photos: Courtesy of David Engel