I once had the opportunity to work in Paris. The fact that I spoke no French was not a problem, as laughter has no accent.
Working with the clowns at Le Rire Medecin, I learned that they had a different approach to hospital clowning. Where we used magic, they used music. The clowns over there could make and perform all types of music–they could play or sing everything from Mozart to the Spice Girls. When the clowns decided to play music for a young patient, they would shut off the TV upon entering the room so that the youngster could hear it clearly and enjoy it.
Another difference between the American and French styles of compassionate clowning was that the Parisian clowns tended to do more verbal improv than circus-type routines. For them, time was no factor and they would take as long as it took to do their work. The French clowns also used more buffoonery, assuming roles of high and low status. They tended to sort themselves into kings and commoners or bosses and workers instead of the doctor theme some of us use here.
The French clowns were also very open about sharing or using their props. They allowed the smaller children to hit or squirt them with squirt guns. The use of sexuality becomes a good distraction as is a powerful magic trick with adolescent children. The use of a squeaker in a bra of a female clown is very funny and shocking!
The way they entertained babies was interesting. I observed the clowns performing in the nursery of the hospital. In the hospitals where I have worked in the U.S., we typically heard, “They’re too small for clowns, they don’t understand.”
On the day I observed the clowns working the nursery, there were 8-10 crying babies. The staff and the clowns didn’t seem to mind at all and just went about their business.
One of the French clowns who had an accordion would start by playing one high note, then one low note — just to see if he could get a response. Once curiosity kicked in, another clown would start with bubbles. Then they’d do a little dance to make it more visual. They took the time to thoroughly entertain the babies, and one knew they succeeded because the crying would stop and the babies would signal that they didn’t want the clowns to leave.
They used few or no props, as opposed to some of us who haul bags, pull carts, golf carts, trailer trucks, wagons, etc.
I was able to show them that the classic circus clown skits still work. In a little dance routine, three of us got into a “butt kicking contest” with the same clown getting kicked no matter in what order we stood. It wasn’t violent, and it played well with children big and small.
Just as it is in children’s hospitals here, reality was never far away. One day, we asked a teenage boy what grade he was in school, and his startling reply was, “I chose to get cancer instead of working hard at school.”
Now I know why I do this work.
Grock, the great master clown, once said, “In order to know humor, one must know life. Good and bad.”