The Joke’s On You

The Joke’s On You — who should be the butt of your jokes?

This article was prompted by something I heard about the performance of a magician at a child’s birthday party. Now, granted, this wasn’t done by a clown, but I’ve seen clowns doing similar things. As one of his tricks, he has a young girl holding two handkerchiefs knotted together. He pulls her hands apart, and instead of a third handkerchief appearing he has a pair of ladies’ panties appear. The magician received the reaction he wanted: the audience laughed loud and long at the discomfiture of the young girl. She was on the verge of tears, having been publicly humiliated. For having done nothing more than helping on stage when asked.

As I say, this prompted some thought on my part. The first thought I honestly had was about the insensitivity of this particular magician. My next thought was empathy and sympathy for the little girl. And my third thought was about how differently a clown would (or should) have handled that entire routine.

People think that a clown is someone who dresses foolishly and does foolish things. This is correct, as far as it goes. It’s also been said that a clown is a living cartoon, a Looney Tunes come to life, who sees and thinks differently for the ‘normal’ people. This, too, is true as far as it goes. But there’s something deeper about being a clown.

What clowns should do

As Floyd Schaffer puts it in his wonderful book, “If I Were a Clown“, a clown is someone who lowers himself, in order to lift someone else up. This is not limited to any sort of theological context. David Ginn, one of my favorite authors, and a wonderful kid’s magician, uses the same premise over and over in his book “Clown Magic” with his ‘clown-in-trouble’ routine. In short, when a trick doesn’t work, it’s never the fault of the child — it’s the clown who looks foolish. The child is the one who makes the rabbit appear, makes the ropes repair themselves, etc. We are the foolish ones, who should have pie in our faces, who are the ones humiliated, who are ‘brought low.’ It is our audience, children or adult, who should be empowered, triumphant, lifted up.

For example, when I perform at birthday parties, I’ll typically do a very old routine, making spring flowers appear inside a chick pan. As part of that, I’ll have several assistants from the audience at various stages, including one where I hand a child a breakaway wand. For the uninitiated, that’s a wand that, unless it’s held the proper way, seemingly breaks in the child’s hand. Since we’re the ones who should bear the blame for this, I take the blame myself — “Oh no, I must have handed it to you too hard! I broke it! Did you hurt your hand?” Depending on time and audience size, I can go off on that, bandaging his hand up to his elbow, etc — who broke the prop? Me! Who looks foolish? Me, not the volunteer. He’s there to enjoy the birthday party, not to be a scapegoat.

What should happen

In short, if only that magician had pulled the ‘underwear out of thin air’ when he was holding the scarfs, what would have been different? The child volunteer would have laughed as well (assuming that he’d previously had the trick work in her hands), the audience would have laughed as well, and the magician would have been remembered a little bit fonder than he was.

As Benjamin Franklin said, we have to learn from the mistakes of others; we won’t live long enough to make them all ourselves. So, let’s learn to make ourselves the butt of the joke, not our audience. After all, we’re being paid to be foolish; the audience’s job is to enjoy it. Remember, the joke’s on you — as it should be.


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