Here’s the first thing to know about clowns: even when they’re out of costume, the gags keep coming. Out of nowhere, a 7-foot foam rubber golf club could appear. Or the number one with a hole in it (Get it? A hole in one?).
A teddy bear clutching a heart made from balloons and a coloring book that appears blank but then magically reveals colored pictures aren’t out of the question. Nonsense jokes are slipped into serious conversation. And don’t be surprised if you’re handed a card with multiple male deer on it after being asked if you’d like five bucks. All of this and they’re not even wearing makeup.
Welcome to the everyday world of Eric and Susan Wald of Water Mill, also known as Waldo the Clown and Tulip. Ms. Wald (as Tulip) won a prestigious clown prize (it’s for real … no foam rubber trophy here!) at Clownfest held last summer in Seaside Heights, New Jersey.
The Dinkus Award is given to the best up-and-coming clown. One award is given out per year at
Clownfest, which brings together more than 100 clowns at the Jersey Shore each year. Ms. Wald also won third place in the character division of the makeup competition.
Clownfest and the awards are sponsored by the National Clown Arts Project, an organization that is dedicated to perpetuating the art of clowning. Because when you get right down to it, clowning is a serious business.
Clown conferences and clown colleges have sprung up around the nation in the last few decades to teach clowns what they need to know. Enjoying kids, comedy and lighthearted wacky antics is a given.
“If you don’t like kids, you’re in the wrong business,” Ms. Wald said.
For while adults might get a chuckle or two from watching clowns, making children laugh and providing family entertainment is where clowns are most likely to pop up. The Walds make their living from entertaining at children’s parties and family affairs, they explained. They also own and put out the Waldo Press, a newspaper for children that keeps them busy.
Appearing in circuses is another way clowns are part of mainstream entertainment. Waldo and Tulip have appeared as guest clowns for several years running at the Cole Brothers Circus that appears in Southampton on the Elks Lodge grounds. But attending Clownfest is one of the couple’s (yes, clowns get married too) favorite event.
One highlight of Clownfest for Ms. Wald is being part of the clown parade, in which nearly 100 clowns strut their stuff and entertain the crowds on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. Then there’s the kazoo parade, with clowns transforming the simple plastic instruments into over-the-top contraptions that make music. Add in some flags, floppy shoes, plenty of white faces and wild red hair, and, next thing you know, there’ll be plenty of unexpected antics and clowns spilling all over the place.
The couple started attending clown colleges and conferences to learn the art of clowning around 11 years ago. Mr. Wald became a clown first, moving from puppet shows to magic tricks and balloon sculptures to donning a full clown costume as his persona, Waldo the Clown. By then, the pair had married and clowning looked like fun to Ms. Wald.
“It looked like a lot of fun,” she said. “Waldo was into it. It’s like you get to be a kid again. There are these big props. You use exaggerated motions, so everything’s over the top.”
After picking up some pointers at a clown convention, she stuck a big floppy shoe into the clowning business. She was a volunteer clown for two years before she felt confident her character, Tulip, was ready for the big time. Ms. Wald spent another three years honing her clown skills before taking the stage as a solo act.
“There’s a lot that goes into clowning,” she explained. “There’s the four R’s–respect your craft, yourself, your audience and other performers.”
Then there are the skits. Clown conferences pass down classic skits that have made audiences laugh for decades. They also teach the components that make a skit a success (strong beginning, discernible middle, and a strong blow-off or surprise ending). Clownfest features a panel of judges reviewing clown skits played out in competition.
This year, the pair won a bronze medal for their skit, the Clown Golf Association Tournament. The skit had Tulip as announcer and Waldo as the wacky golfer who tosses out puns like golf balls flying off the line at a driving range.
Skits and incorporating storytelling into her act are Ms. Wald’s favorite parts of clowning. She enjoys having Tulip play off of Waldo. The pair have a similar sense of humor and have the timing down pat, she said. Improv comes naturally, if things should go awry on stage—like when a prop doesn’t actually land where it’s supposed to and the joke would fall flat without it.
With the skits, Ms. Wald enjoys making puns that make people groan yet bring a smile. Other elements that can make people laugh are mocking (themselves, never the audience), foolishness, surprise and classic gags. Word play is one of Ms. Wald’s favorite kinds of humor, right up there with writing and performing skits with audience participation.
Together, the pair has racked up a tabletop full of awards. Their Water Mill home is filled with clown paintings and posters depicting classic clowns. Another table features photographs of the pair in various clown costumes. Sometimes they are photographed together, other times they stand beside contemporary clowns they admire.
At the end of the day, it seems, there’s much joy to be had in devoting a life to making other people laugh, Ms. Wald said. The most satisfying part is seeing the smiles and watching faces light up with pleasure at the antics, magic and stories woven into the art of clowning.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Ms. Wald said. “Being a clown lets you be a kid and do wacky, fun things.”
For information on Waldo and Tulip and their traveling show, the Puppetime Players, visit www.waldotribune.com.