This story is over 5 years old.


What Makes a Clown So Clowny?

Talking to clowns about clown stuff.

VICE: What did you do before you became a clown?
Gabooba: I worked at temp agencies. I was an assistant to a chef. I also worked for the City of New York Parks Department. But in high school I won class clown, which inspired me to try my hand at stand-up comedy for a few years. Life takes strange turns. One of my last “real” jobs was booking clowns and magicians—I was a clown salesman. Then the top guy suddenly left the agency and we were short a clown. The shows were already booked, so I was forced to step in. Some people at the agency showed me a few rudimentary things, but I only had three days to get ready. Then I went back and forth between the real world and clowning a bunch of times. By ’96 I was ready to become a full-time clown. Now I’ve been one for 13 years and counting. Your job is to basically be a fun machine for little kids and bored adults who don’t want to deal with them. What are some of the main obstacles?
Dealing with DJs. Some of the DJs who work in this city are literally mentally retarded. They play the music so loud that you think you’re going to lose your hearing. And the music they play is so disgusting—the most hardcore rap with lyrics that would make Martin Luther King cry, the kind of lyrics that are way worse than anything Don Imus ever said, and they’re at a four-year-old’s birthday party. Most don’t even have the hokey-pokey or the “Chicken Dance,” but they’ll play stuff that isn’t even allowed on the radio. Another thing about being a clown is that it hurts your social life because most people have the weekends off and those are our busiest times. I’ve lost girlfriends because of this job. Breaking up with someone because he’s a clown sounds pretty cold.
Yeah. If I found someone who was worth it I’d give it up, but I haven’t met anyone that amazing yet. There was one girl I had feelings for, but it wasn’t like, “I love you, my darling,” or whatever. The first year was really good because she had Tuesdays and Thursdays off, and those are two of the slowest days for me. But around our second year together she got a regular 9-to-5. And suddenly she wanted to do all this stuff on the weekends while I was working. I’d come home at 10 or 11 at night and was too exhausted to do much of anything. She once said to me, “The next time someone asks me out on a Saturday, I’m going to say yes.” I knew that was the beginning of the end, but I wasn’t ready to give up being a clown. Since then we’ve become really good friends. In fact, I’m watching her cat right now. Are you in this for the long haul?
I’ll be doing this until I’m dead—until I’m old and gray—but someday I might like to try teaching. I have a minor in education. Parts of my routine are educational. For instance, I try to teach kids some Spanish. I’ll say stuff like “conejo,” which means “rabbit.” Do you speak Spanish?
Yo hablo un poquito—I only speak a little and only when it’s appropriate. At a birthday I’ll say “feliz cumpleaños” instead of “happy birthday,” but only if the kids don’t already speak it. If it’s a Latino party I don’t do that. How do you ease the kids when they get scared?
It usually happens at least once an event. The more makeup and stuff you wear on your face, the more frightened they get. Sometimes I won’t wear the red nose until I see that they’re OK with me. I say something like, “Never tell a lie because if you tell a lie your nose will get bigger, and I’ve never told a lie in my life—never ever ever never ever ever never ever…” And then I turn around with the nose on. If one kid in particular is really freaking out I’ll tell them that I’m neither Democrat nor Republican, I’m a registered independent, and it’s a two-party system so my vote doesn’t really count. They just look at me like I’m nuts and it calms them down for some reason. I don’t know why. What happens when you just don’t feel like putting on the wig and funny pants and painting butterflies on kids’ faces? It’s not like you can just slump behind your desk and goof off on the internet all day. How do you pull through?
One of the reasons I continue to do this is because it’s therapeutic. So even when I’m having an off-day I just remind myself why I love it. I’ve fought depression from time to time—nothing clinical, but just some bad cases of the blues. I’ve never taken antidepressants because I don’t trust them. All I take now is coffee and St. John’s Wort. About ten years ago my grandparents died and I was very close to them. I actually considered getting a regular job because I was so down I thought it might be impossible to continue clowning. But I did a few shows and making the kids laugh made me feel so much better. Whenever I start to get depressed or angry or whatever, I do a show or two and it changes my attitude. What’s the weirdest gig you’ve ever worked as a clown?
One time I was hired for a bachelor party. The groom-to-be was very disappointed because he was expecting a stripper. I did some jokes, made some balloons, and after about ten minutes they practically demanded that I sit down. I was supposed to do 30. Immediately after I stopped, a stripper came out from the back. It was a setup. I might be the only clown in the world who can say he got $100 to watch a woman take her clothes off. I even got a free lap dance. VICE: How did you fall into this line of work?
Cappy da Clown: I was going to college up in Rochester and left for New York to become an actor. Before I left school I stole a clown costume from my theater department. I figured I might as well do some fun stuff with it. A friend of mine wanted me to be a clown for her daughter’s fifth birthday. I had no idea what I was doing—I just kind of ran around acting silly. Then I worked for a greeting-cards store in midtown, handing out flyers and pulling in people off the street. Anyway, I had a friend who did kids’ parties for extra money. One of the shows was a “half and half” routine where he’d come out dressed as some sort of costumed character for 30 minutes, then do a clown for the remainder of the hour. He hated wearing the costumes so he’d throw me a few bucks to put on a fur suit and lead the hokey-pokey. All of that led me to work at Zack’s Funhouse as a booking agent. I started out doing Yosemite Sam when they needed one for a party and kind of just fell into clowning from there. But that’s only half the story because a lot of my shtick came from my professional-wrestling days. Were you some sort of wrestling clown who would squirt people with seltzer after giving them a Frankensteiner?
No. I was the Captain, which has been a recurring theme with most of my characters in one form or another. I collected comic books for years and Captain America was always my favorite. I even have a tattoo of Captain America on my arm. Mostly I was a manager, but when they needed someone they’d throw a mask on me and put me in the ring. I always had either a Captain America shirt or button on and people just started calling me Cap. I became a photographer and started selling pictures and giving them to the promoters and wrestlers. So I bought a stamp for the back that said “Photos by Cap.” I also had a stint in the Caribbean and got pretty big down there. Once I even went for the heavyweight title in the Dominican Republic. This was all part-time, on vacations from my job as a court clerk. Are you clowning for a living now?
Being a clerk still pays the rent. There are exactly 2,041 days left until my retirement, after which I will continue to clown. But I’m very active and have created a variety of characters: Cap’n Dandy, Louis Lo’ser, the Kanarsie Kid, and a hobo clown of sorts named Mugglesworth “Muggsy” Aloisius McGuirk. I’ve been clowning for close to 30 years so it’s not like I’m going to stop anytime soon. How do you decide which costume to put on?
A few years ago we had contracts with the baseball stadiums that host a couple of New York’s minor league teams—the Staten Island Yankees and the Brooklyn Cyclones. As a clown you can’t really be a fan of both because they play each other a lot, so I started going to the Yankees games as Cap’n Dandy. He wears a suit and has a little fancier mouth and is a little bit more conservative, almost like a “Don’t talk to me” type of guy. In Brooklyn I was Cappy. People would see me at the two ballparks in the different costumes with the different faces and they would ask, “Aren’t you the guy from the other stadium?” and I would answer, “No, that’s my evil brother from Staten Island,” or “That’s my idiot brother in Brooklyn.” So, I had this rivalry going between the two. I knew it worked when I was in Staten Island one day painting this little girl’s face and she looked at our promotional cards and asked, “Oh, is that him?” Her friend said, “No, that’s his brother from Brooklyn. They look almost alike.” Muggsy doesn’t do that much party work. Any time Muggsy goes out it’s usually promoting The King Henry Show. Do you follow a clowning framework?
Probably more so than some of my peers. In the clown world’s scheme of things the whiteface throws the pie at the auguste, the auguste ducks, and the pie hits the hobo. My first clown was a whiteface, but it just got to be so much putting all that makeup on all the time. Like so many others I’ve switched to an auguste character. Actually what I do as Cappy is more of a light auguste, but the rules and regulations from the different clown organizations are pretty strict and technically I can’t be a light auguste because I wear a jacket and put glitter on my face. Light augustes are supposed to wear a vest and not use glitter. Seriously? There are rules to clowning?
Oh yeah. The main clown associations hold competitions and publish the rules every year in their magazines. I belong to both of the major ones—Clowns of America and the World Clown Association. But I don’t like the competitions because to me it is not about competing. A clown is out there to make people laugh—to have fun and help other people have fun. Maybe you can improve yourself and learn by being judged by your peers, but I do not need to be judged by them. If the kids don’t laugh then I’ll be judged. What does your family think about your clowndom?
They’ve been resigned to the fact that I moved to New York to be an actor since I left, so performing is just what they expect of me. They have seen me do crazy things all my life and I’m still doing them. Once you get bitten you are hooked. There is a line that I always tell people from the musical Applause: “When I was eight, I was in a school play. I’ll never forget it, I had one line to say. My big moment came, I said, ‘What ho the prince.’ My sister applauded, I’ve been hooked ever since!” Once you get the spotlight in your eye it never goes away. VICE: What is your history with clowning?
Bubbly da Clown: I started when I was 17. My brother was really into learning magic tricks at the time and I was intrigued by it. So I went to Zack’s Funhouse to check out some magic tricks and some magicians. King Henry, who at the time was working as a different clown, came up to me and asked if I wanted to give it a shot. They were running a clown school so I signed up, and everything just went from there. At first it was full-time and then I left to take a job in the corporate world for about eight years. Then I started full-time again in 2005 because I decided it was what I really loved to do. Why did you leave clowning in the first place?
I had my daughter, Destiny, at 17. The money was good from clowning but after a few years I decided I needed health insurance. I started as a secretary, became an administrative assistant, and kept going up from there. I ended up being a computer information specialist. It was a very good job, but I was unhappy. Have you ever had any nightmare gigs as a clown?
Yeah, I’ve had some bad parties. Kids can get mean, especially when they’re trying to make their friends laugh. One time I had two eight-year-olds gang up on me. I was talking to a little girl and they came up from behind and pulled my wig and nose off at the same time. I felt completely naked because they broke my character. So I tried to laugh it off and be like, “OK, I am going to take that back now.” But the parents didn’t care. It’s the worst when the parents don’t do anything and are just laughing at you too, like, “My children are abusing you! Ha ha ha!” It’s rare but it does happen. Has anyone ever hit on you while you were dressed as a clown?
I try to be as unisex and androgynous as possible. It’s not about looking pretty. That’s why I wear big pants and a wig and makeup and a big red nose and big shoes. But still, some folks seem to be into that. Guys will ask, “Do you do private parties?” and I’ll just shrug it off by being playful and kicking them in the butt or something to that effect. Some of the older guys will say, “I can see it in your eyes. You are pretty under all that.” That’s a little odd. Another thing is when you make a heart balloon you have to squeeze the middle and kind of wedge the balloon in an up-and-down motion, and sometimes a guy will say, “Oh, you do that really well.” How did you come up with your name?
It was easy. Everyone all my life has told me I was bubbly so it just made sense to use it for my clown name. The name has to fit your personality. My daughter, Destiny, just started to clown and it was a bit trickier. I’m not a girly clown, but Destiny plays up the prissy angle. When she was first starting out I had her make herself up and put on the costume so we could come up with a name while she was in character. I was like, “I don’t know, you look like a Floopsy da Clown maybe,” because the character is so girlish and cute. She thought it was a cute name but liked Oopsy better. I said, “Well, you can be Floopsy and say stuff like, ‘Oopsy, Floopsy did a poopsy.’” She went with Oopsy instead. You and your daughter both use “da” in your names instead of “the.”
A lot of clowns use “da.” I use it because every time I come to a party I get all the boys’ and girls’ names and purposefully mix them up and goof around. Eventually I’ll say, “Let me tell you who I am. I am Bubbly daaaaaaaaaa Clown.” I extend the “da” for a really long time. I may say Bubbly is my first name, daaaaaaaaaa is my second name, and Clown is my last name. Kids love it when I extend the “da.” Did you have to push your daughter to become a clown or is it something she’s wanted to do for a while?
I would never push her if she didn’t want to do it. She is an artist within. You’ve got to be an artist to do it. Not anyone can be a clown. It’s got to be in your personality. I knew she had it in her, she was just a little afraid of the personality of her character. She tends to be a little quiet at times—nothing like me in that respect. She’s a little more reserved, but when you throw her in a costume, forget it. It’s just so different when you dress up and people approach you and children come up without even knowing you. They give you a hug and say, “I love you.” She got a taste of it and she likes it. Is there competition in the clown community?
No, because they know it’s my turf as soon as they come in… just kidding. Sometimes people will get irked with each other but we don’t let it go far. If I am doing a show with someone we will try to hook up beforehand and sort it out. You know, like, “What do you want? Balloons or face painting—which are you better at?” And we try to stand far apart from each other because one clown can easily steal the whole show. Sometimes it’s hard for entertainers to work together. You don’t know the other person’s personality or approach. Everyone is different. What did your husband say when he first learned you were a clown?
He didn’t really know for a while. One time I was trying to be romantic and made him a balloon heart with lovebirds in it. He asked how I learned to do that and I explained everything. When he saw me in full costume he just said, “Wow.” I asked, “You’re not embarrassed or anything, right honey?” “It’s great” was all he said. We’ve been together for almost 14 years now. I sneak him a couple of kisses here and there, but we have to be careful because the kids can’t see someone smooching the clown. VICE: How was it growing up with a mom who’s a clown?
Oopsy da Clown: It was awesome. She also did other characters, and it was great to have your mom come home dressed like Barbie or Barney. Sometimes she’d do a little private performance for me. I felt special. When did you begin to follow in her clown shoes?
I decided to do it a little while ago. I’m a teenager and you second-guess whether or not it’s the coolest thing in the world. But seeing her perform is inspiring. She recently needed some help at a party so I dressed up and came along. It was fun and I’ve just stuck with it. Plus I needed something to do during the summer and the money is pretty good. Sounds like it’s a good fit for your personality.
Yeah. I guess you could say I’m an odd person. I have pink hair and piercings. When people look at me on the street they stare, but when I’m a clown no one knows who I really am. It’s really great to see everyone smile at you. It’s like an alter ego. How did you come up with your name and character?
Well, I got the costume and I got the wig and everything. Then I had to decide what kind of makeup I wanted to do and what her personality should be like. Once I got into the character I started messing around with voices and it eventually became a girly thing. We started coming up with cute names like Curly because of my frizzy wig. Then my mom came up with Smooksy, but I thought that sounded strange and wanted it to be cuter. Oopsy just popped into my head because, you know, a ditzy girl will drop things and act like a klutz and make stupid mistakes that are funny. What do your friends say about this clown business?
A lot of them just laugh. They don’t make fun of me or anything. They actually think it’s pretty cool. They say stuff like, “I could never do that.” Do guys at school know you’re a clown?
That’s really funny because I go to an art school and there are hardly any guys there. I think guys find it weird because someone they’re attracted to does something that’s strange to them. They usually give an awkward laugh. This one boy came up to me when I was in my costume and asked me out. I was like, “What?” and he was like, “I know you’re really hot under there.” When guys see a girl clown I guess they wonder what they look like underneath. Another guy came up to me and asked if I was Jewish. I said, “Why? Is it the curls?” He was Jewish so I think it was a flirty thing. Has anything really creepy happened to you on the job?
One time I was in costume out on the ferry front. These older men came up to me and started flirting. You don’t know what to do because you’re dressed as a clown. One of them said something like, “What if I was a clown too?” And there was this really old guy who came up to me at some event and said, “How about we rub our noses together?” That was kind of weird. Have you ever gone somewhere after a show and forgot you were in costume?
I have. One time I went to a restaurant and took my wig off before we went inside, but I forgot I still had paint on my face. Everyone was looking at me and smiling, and I’m thinking, “Why are they all staring at me? Oh that’s right, I’m wearing makeup.” The flip side is you get so used to being in character that when you take everything off you have to remember not to go around smiling at everyone because they’ll think you’re nuts. Your mom said you were an artist. What are you into?
Right now I really like comic books so I draw stuff like that a lot. I’m also into tattoos. As an art student I do a range of things in school—painting, drawing, all of it. The funny thing is that it makes face painting harder. You want to be creative and put your own style into it, but you just don’t have time for that. It has to be a pretty simple version of what they ask for. Do you have other hobbies?
Yeah, I skateboard. I actually skateboarded in a clown costume recently. It was at the grand opening of an IKEA. I had been working at the ferry spot all day and out of nowhere these kids came along with skateboards. I asked one of them for his skateboard and ended up popping an ollie. They thought that was pretty cool. I also play guitar. Really? What sort of music are you into?
I like old punk, underground punk, and New York hardcore. It’s probably nothing you’ve ever heard of except for, like, the Ramones. Try me.
I like the Germs. The Subhumans are good. Agnostic Front is OK. Oi Polloi is another. There’s a really good band from Philadelphia called Witch Hunt. So you’re a clown who listens to Agnostic Front.
Yeah, I go to shows even though it clashes with my work as a clown. It can be a big dilemma sometimes. This weekend there’s a Circle Jerks show. I’m into all of that good stuff. How long do you see yourself doing this?
I don’t know. I don’t feel like stopping anytime soon. It gets tiring and a lot of work is during the weekends, but it’s not something where you’ll be like, “Oh I don’t want to go in today.” The only time I’ve felt anything like that is when I’ve been really tired. It’s not something that drives you away. You don’t mind doing it if you are really into it. VICE: Please trace for me your path to clownhood.
King Henry: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, and while attending Kingsborough Community College I needed a part-time job. On the weekends my friend was working for a company that would hire anybody as a clown for $24 an hour. That was in 1989, and $24 an hour was great for a college student. Believe it or not, the company was called AAAAA Entertainment—five As. They put you through a one-hour “refresher” course on three different magic tricks, showed you how to make two or three balloon animals, stuck you in a costume that I found out later was probably worth about $15, and gave you tubes of white and blue water-based makeup. They sent me on three shows my first day. Scary.
On the way to my first show I was really nervous and antsy. I had that kicked-in-the-stomach feeling or butterflies or whatever. There were only two or three kids there and two of them were afraid of me. So I was miserable, like, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” But I’m a man of my word. I was going to do the three shows and be done with it. My second show was in Prospect Park. It was right around the time In Living Color first came out but I hadn’t seen the show yet. All these people in the park were going, “Hey, what’s up Homey?” and “Look, it’s Homey D. Clown!” I was wondering why all these people were abusing me. Then the third party was in Queens and they were island people—Jamaican or Trinidadian. They laughed at all of my bad jokes. The woman tipped me $10. Being a 20-year-old college student, I practically skipped to my car, laughing the whole way and thinking, “Maybe I’ll give this a try.” Over the years you transitioned away from a workingman’s clown to running one of the top agencies in New York for clowns and entertainers. Most people would never imagine there’s that kind of upward mobility in your industry.
I worked as a clown for a bunch of different agencies in the beginning, but my time at Zack’s Funhouse, which at the time was the William Morris Agency for entertainers like me, gave me my foundation. Eventually they went out of business and I bought their phone number at auction. I thought it would be a good idea to have a kind of mascot for the company, so after brainstorming with a few other people we came up with King Henry. It was a crazy time because I had just gotten married. So I went on my honeymoon, hired one of the people who worked for Zack’s to answer the phones and book parties, and came back to more work than I could handle. From there it just spun out of control. Now I have my own public-access television program—The King Henry Show—and work as an announcer for the Brooklyn Cyclones on the side. Did you look up to any particular pro clowns in your early days?
One of my mentors is Glen “Frosty” Little, who was the last living boss clown of Ringling Bros. Circus. In order to be made a boss clown, there are certain criteria: You have to have your pyro license, you have to have been teaching clowning for a certain number of years, and you have to write a certain number of skits for the circus. They have only given the title to about five people. Another great clown who I respect is Junior the Clown. He’s taught me things at conventions. That’s where you pick things up from this person or that person. Joe Barney is another great. He was head of the clown unit for Big Apple Circus. Is there some sort of clowning industry hierarchy?
In a way. It’s like there are four different levels. Joe Barney and Frosty Little are at the pinnacle. Then there are people like me who get respect from them, but in my opinion aren’t at their level. And then there are the people who run the lectures and the working clowns who look up to them. What’s the most memorable thing you’ve done as a clown?
There have been lots of notable gigs, but about 13 years ago, when I was still clowning full-time, I did a baby shower where I came dressed as a big baby in a diaper with a tutu and a bonnet. I came in looking for “Mommy.” After I found her I got on my back and made as if I were peeing with a squirt flower I had hooked up to my waist. It killed! I even got a $50 tip. Besides that I’ve done parties for some pretty big celebrities. Who?
Well, I’ll leave out the notorious ones because I may get a few phone calls. Just think of who would be the biggest possible name in wise guys. I did his parties year after year. I’ve also done stuff for Katie Couric, Puff Daddy, and LL Cool J. I did parties for Tommy Hilfiger’s children. He was a great customer and a great person. Surprisingly he was an average Joe kind of guy. He would show up in a limousine in his tan pants and blue blazer with oxford shoes. Then he would run upstairs, put on some ripped jeans and a t-shirt, and play with us all day. What is your secret? How did you become king of the clowns?
When I was younger—around 19 or 20—I could’ve easily gone down the wrong path. I found myself through Eastern philosophy and martial arts and tai chi and Buddhism and the Tao. That put me on the righteous path. I think that helps me in this business because I’ve been presented a lot of opportunities to be dishonest just to make a quick buck. I chose not to do things like that, and I think it’s why I’ve done so well.