Acting like a clown

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Photo by Troy Freund

Clown nose adhesive smells like rubbing alcohol.

“It kind of burns the face a little,” says Andy Netzel, holding the red cap as it dries onto his skin.

It takes Netzel up to an hour of gluing his nose, applying make-up and lacing up his floppy shoes to dress for work. When he’s done, he becomes Tatters the hobo clown.

“When you put on your make-up,” he says, “you’re another person.”

This is how I cease being Tim for a while and become, um, Mr. Tim. Hey, it was the best I came up with on the spur of the moment.

Netzel streaks my jawline with brown paint, dabs my jowls with whiteface and draws black liner on my lips. I throw on a frayed jacket, take a toilet plunger and slip into beat up Chuck Taylors two sizes too big.

We look ridiculous.

“Looking really silly is the essence of being a clown,” Netzel assures me. “That and having fun.”

Some turn this silliness into a career. Netzel, who works full time with autistic children for Milwaukee Public Schools, conjures his goofy altar ego for parades and special events. He earns a measly $7.50 per outing — the remaining fees go to his clown club — but can make some extra bucks playing superheroes for birthday parties.

“I don’t do it for the money,” says Netzel, who has been involved with theater and Comedy Sportz and has played Tatters since he was 11.

Today he and I wander the grounds of the Greenfield Avenue car show in West Allis. Our mission: Be jolly, coax some smiles and avoid getting sucker punched by clown-haters. This last order may be the most difficult due to some people’s fear or disdain for clowns.

“It’s pretty easy to make fun of clowns,” Netzel says. “What are they going to do? Complain? There’s no clown anti-defamation league.”

I am initially lost as to how I should act as a clown. Netzel reminds me that there are no rules to what you do as a clown, which I guess is why they call it “clowning around.” It’s mostly improv.

Netzel’s spiel consists of wandering around with a big paint brush asking onlookers if they want their face painted. It’s a visual gag that garners lukewarm responses. But Netzel sticks with it.

“Some people act too cool for clowns,” he says. “But you have to keep your spirits up.”

My first run-in with someone less than amused comes from a tattooed owner of a black Camero. He asks me, not unreasonably, to stand clear of his car so I don’t accidentally whack it with my plunger. Although I am a mute clown, I shake his hand vigorously to show my good intentions. I take my shtick elsewhere just to avoid a face-punching.

Shuffling alongside passersby like a basketball defender with excellent fundamentals, I smack high fives with everyone from dogs to grandmas to tattooed guys in leather jackets. Unfortunately, the physical effort, hot sun and stuffy suit force me to switch tactics.

“You have pace yourself,” Netzel warns.

I channel my inner Groucho Marx and create new routines I like to call the Extended Awkward Handshake and the, um, Pretending to Hide Behind Tree Saplings. For the former, I pump someone’s arm in an exaggerated motion way longer than what’s considered appropriate. Then I make my hand go limp and sprint away. This works well except for the lady with the weak handshake whose wrist cracks.

I also bust out the fake handshake whenever I encounter a mullet. I extend my hand to get them to bite before I pull back and smooth my hair back. Pretty soon I nearly have my own party in the back.

Being a clown lets me do all the idiotic things I’d never do while sober. Where else can you sprint down a city block with a toilet plunger, hug an old lady and then psyche out a stranger with a mullet? Netzel is right about the costume. You become another person.

Mr. Tim is having a blast, but plain old Tim is worn out after an hour of rampant physical comedy. It’s time to hang up the big shoes and wash off the make-up.

“You’re a natural clown,” Netzel says as I leave.

I think he means that as a compliment.

I wrote this article in October 2006 for the now-defunct MKE publication

Written by

Educator. Podcast addict. Wrote a book about creativity: http://bit.ly/thecreativejourney

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