Alan Carl Nicoll as “Dimples,” circa 2005
For a better-formatted version, with proper footnotes, see the PDF
I got into clowning for a number of reasons, none of which are perverted. (Though the dick has its reasons, which reason does not know. [footnote: “Your dick is objectively the worst thing about you.” Samantha Bee, “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” TBS, 10/12/17.]) It saddens me to see what has happened to the culture’s view of clowns in recent decades. People seeing a clown now are first likely to think “killer.” The closing of circuses is, on the whole, probably a good thing, because they were hell on large animals, which includes employees.
I like children, I like clowns, and I once had visions of being a professional magician [footnote: I know that “shy” Johnny Carson started as a magician, but this would have been the worst possible job for me—or the best.]. In junior high for some “careers” thing, Caesar and I did a presentation, a dialogue, about being a professional magician. I knew nothing about it. The presentation was notable only because I used a magician’s gimmick called the Jar of Tantalus. This ridiculous little red plastic pear-shaped jug allows you to pour out all the water, seemingly, then pour out all the rest, and then some more, and so on. Cute then, painful to contemplate now. I can’t imagine how lame our dialogue was, but I know we didn’t, by design, talk about the trick I was doing. The jug impressed the audience, however.
Around 1987 I was docenting at Eaton Canyon Nature Center in Pasadena (my boss was flexible and forgiving for one season, but “coworkers complained”) and Halloween was approaching. Each year the Center hosted a “Halloween Hike” at dusk, and I decided to go as a clown. I bought good stuff, and later even got contact lenses so I wouldn’t have to wear glasses. I had a classic getup, with red-and-white striped long-sleeved shirt and socks, wild blue “surfer pants” several sizes too large, and a white feather wig that I dyed yellow. My aim was to look friendly and non-threatening, even pretty, if possible, while looking very much the clown. Shoes were a problem, but eventually I found yellow duck feet that went over your shoes, though the gimmick was actually a poor job. I did the full white face with red mouth, blue high-arched eyebrows, and red “dimples.” I also took the name Dimples the Clown and made a little pin-on badge to show it. I studied the art from books—the approach I always take when getting into a new interest. What I didn’t do was practice.
One reason I was going all out for this was because I was involved with a female docent I’ll call Victoria. We casually dated a bit before she revealed that she was another married woman whose husband approved (he had given up sex, a position I can now sympathize with). She had done this with at least one other guy, and I was to be the latest. She told me what had attracted her was that I looked so sad that she wanted to put some joy in my life (or my face, I guess). Interestingly, I turned down sex with her despite her middle-aged good looks and good figure—I really don’t understand it because I had nothing else going. Maybe it was that she wanted to keep both me and her husband, and that sort of creeped me out, or maybe I was just sick of that kind of thing. I’ve always wanted to marry women I loved, and I might have ended up loving Victoria. Anyway, I turned her down without ever having gotten more than a single passionless kiss, almost like kissing Ann-Andromeda. She surprised me by kissing as though sampling a fine wine—it always comes as a surprise if a woman shows any attraction to me.
On Halloween evening I went to the Nature Center in my costume. On top of my head I put a head-sized inflated jack-o’-lantern with a light inside, making me seven feet tall. I didn’t wear my glasses, but soon realized that this was a mistake—you need to see the people you’re hopefully interacting with.
The first thing that happened was that a two-year-old boy burst into tears, terrified of me. The male adult with him said, “He’s a clown. You’re supposed to laugh!” I retreated. There was a wait before the hike started, and I had nothing to offer the people, though I had some props in my pockets (when you’re wearing gloves, everything in your pocket feels like everything else). No practice, no ideas.
The “hike” is just a shortish walk following a dirt road, and I brought up the rear, unofficially. We stopped to hear Victoria telling a story. She was well dressed as a witch. I stayed at the back of the crowd, wanting to give others a chance to hear. But I couldn’t hear, so it seemed endless. After the parade, when she asked what I thought of her performance, I had the lack of good taste to apologetically tell her the truth. She didn’t like that and my attempts at backpedalling elicited eye rolling.
The hike moved along. Other docents did various scary things in the near distance, hooting in sheets and the like. Towards the end, they fired guns at us, loaded with blanks, naturally. I love hearing little kids scream [footnote: I don’t mean scream-scream, in real terror, but in fun or “safe” terror. It’s a pure, lovely, “ultrasonic” sound.], and I was prepared. I whipped out my cap pistol and fired back, causing consternation. Some guy said, “It would be the clown!” I considered this a success, but learned a lesson: if you’re going to be dressed as a clown, people will expect you to do something funny. This evening, I never made an attempt. Another lesson was that my hollow plastic nose collected condensation inside and tended to drip. The light stick in the jack-o’-lantern was out by the end of the hike.
Next time, I was better prepared, though I still didn’t practice; this time it didn’t matter much. The occasion was one of the festival days in Frazier Park, the mountain town where I lived with my family, and there was a parade. At the time, my son was in daycare with a local woman, Birdie, and she had a truck for her charges to ride in the parade. Fortuitously, she also was dressed as a clown. I accompanied the truck and stored on it a piece of carpet for a gag I had planned.
As I walked the route, I handed out stickers and did shtick with a broom. I used it to sweep the street and people’s shoes, used it as a “canoe paddle” to help me uphill, used it as a drum major’s baton, and so on. Rather, I thought of using it as a drum major’s baton, but my nerve failed me—I expected that I would make a mess of it. There, practice would have made a difference.
Once after sweeping the street a bit during a rare pause in the parade, I laid down the carpet, lifted one edge, and swept the (invisible) dust under it and stamped it flat, then picked it up and continued along. It got a laugh. Dirt under the carpet is a cliché, but I think the carrying of a piece of carpet for the purpose is original with me. Which means that it shouldn’t be in this “book of humiliations,” but I can’t help myself here.
I also had loose suspenders hanging down from my waist in back; I’m not sure how that happened, but I discovered that bending over and “finding” them hanging there between your legs can get a laugh. Not getting a laugh were my “duck feet,” which tended to float over the shoes underneath. As I walked along a kid said, “Your shoes are falling apart.” This is not the impression I’d aimed for.
I know I intended or wanted to use Red Skelton’s bouncing handkerchief gag, but since I don’t remember using it, I guess I never made the prop.
The parade was fast-moving, too fast for most of my shtick (like sweeping the tops of people’s shoes), and near the end I was fagged out. Mostly, it was all I could do to keep up. I sat down in an empty chair next to a man and asked him how he liked the parade. He seemed amused. Then up again, the last long stretch uphill. I exaggerated my fatigue, a bit of miming that I was up to at this point, and Birdie hauled me uphill by tugging on the broom. I had visions of a clowning partner, but never mentioned it.
Having had a positive experience, I felt overconfident enough to volunteer to appear at the large birthday party of a friend of my son’s. The boy was turning four, just to give you an idea of the scene.
I had some great ideas (I have additional material on my web site, Clowning web page) for clowning, and I attempted most of those I’d prepared for. One that I borrowed and tweaked was to color pingpong balls with a simulation of my makeup (official storage of clown makeup patterns is—or was?—done on blown eggs) and put my name and phone number on the back as a kind of calling card. After the show I found that the color wiped right off the balls. The pingpong balls. (Cheap laugh?)
So, following the suggestion of one of the books, when I arrived at the party, which was set up for me already, I wandered about saying, “Where’s the birthday boy?” When he spoke up, I “didn’t notice” him and continued asking. Unfortunately, I had no advice on how to stop this gag once it was started, and then some other of the boys started claiming to be the birthday boy. It seemed more tragic than funny.
Moving right along, I was standing in front of a semicircle of a dozen kids just out of toddler stage, not the best audience for a “stage” clown because they don’t get most of the jokes and I was too old for falling down. Also looking on were half a dozen parents. I did a few things that were received with blank looks, though some of them should have worked. I started to sweat.
I was wearing a tall “stovepipe” hat circled with garish color stripes. I said I’d pull a rabbit out of the hat. I reached in and came up empty. The gag was, the rabbit was sitting on my head. A great gag, but the little plastic rabbit had fallen over and so was invisible to the audience. I had to “find” it for them.
I cut the bottom out of one of my pants pockets so I could reach into it and all the way down my leg to have my hand come out at the bottom, a great sight gag that I stole from Red Skelton’s old TV show. Here it didn’t work, likely because I didn’t know how to “sell” it, or maybe I wasn’t able to get my hand down far enough, I can’t remember.
Eventually I passed out the pingpong balls, saying, “Try to balance it on your nose.” I demonstrated, tilting my head way back, causing my wig to flop loose of my head—the tape failed me—though thankfully it stayed attached to the back of my neck. Any costume failure is humiliating. Anyway, I “balanced” the ball on my nose (you apply rubber cement to nose and ball, let dry, and they will stick together). You’re supposed to mime the “difficult balancing feat,” which I didn’t. Then I straightened up, asking, “Can’t you do it?” while revealing that the ball is attached to the nose. I think that this got a laugh, finally, but I was also out of material, having “performed” for ten minutes of the anticipated twenty. I got the hell out of there, all overconfidence gone, and swearing to never try that again. I think the mother, graciously, thanked me for the show.
Despite the occasional laugh, that was my final and most humiliating appearance as “Dimples the Clown.” Now, of course, I can’t dress as a clown due to probation restrictions. But doing a stage show without having practiced is really, really stupid.