The Ministry of Laughter

by David Mampel

When Phil Johnson asked me to write an article about clowning for Pietisten, I immediately said “yes” because it presented an opportunity to examine my life as a clown and celebrate all the joys it has given me over the years. Furthermore, I couldn’t wait to see what I would write and discover: perhaps I would find new gratitude for this strange vocation I’ve stumbled into; or maybe I would gain a new epiphany about my “craft” that would spur my progress. In any event, I hope I can convey something useful to you, the readers of Pietisten.

Some of you already know me. I am Reverend Art and Jackie Mampel’s son, David. I grew up as a pretty feisty preacher’s kid in the United Church of Christ, had dreams of being a wandering minstrel, poet, activist, and Bohemian artist type and became an ordained minister from 1988 to 1992. I was ordained in The United Church of Christ, served a 100-member parish in Idaho Falls, Idaho for four years, then left the parish ministry to become a Rock Star in Northern California.

Needless to say, the Rock Star thing didn’t work out, but I still play music and earn my living performing! I’ve been living here in Palo Alto for the past 13 years making my living as a professional children’s entertainer (i.e., clown) and loving it, as Garrison Keillor would say, “mostly.” There are times when a clown can get lonely or pine for a conventional life-style (at least this clown does!). But when I take stock, I see that I wouldn’t trade this life for anything—at least, for now. I may become an organic farmer and live in a cabin in Northern Minnesota. What can I say? I have strong Scandinavian blood! I already pursue storytelling and have published several children’s CDs and a Video, so I may shift more to the writer’s life over time.

But, for now, I am thankfully and gainfully employed as a local celebrity, mostly by wealthy families in the Bay Area. I am known in these parts as “Daffy Dave.” To my nieces and nephew in Seattle, I am known as “Uncle Daffy Dave.” Now, if you want to know more about how and why I became “Daffy Dave,” you can visit my website at daffydave.com and read some of the articles that feature my weird story of going from Reverend Dave to Daffy Dave.

They are pretty good articles and capture at least some of the truth. But, what I’d like to do here is tell you about the everyday life of a clown. First off, there’s almost no such thing as an “everyday life” of a clown! My daily schedule is never the same, but a few tasks are fairly predictable. I do 250 to 300 performances a year, about four shows per weekend and sometimes a couple during the week. For the past six or seven years, I have been booking my shows about two-months in advance. My clients pay me well, and I try to give back to the community by donating CDs for fund-raisers and the like.

I return calls constantly, make bookings, pitch my show, negotiate fees, reset magic tricks, prepare for shows, order magic and other supplies, maintain my magic and juggling props, practice magic and juggling when I can, update my website and other promo materials as necessary, teach a few classes, exercise, eat right, and take my Geritol. Well, the Geritol part is a lie!

Thank God, I now have an office assistant, Amy Shapas. She lightens my logistical load freeing me for more creative, fun stuff. For, you see, I have to spend a lot of time having fun! I mean, who wants an unhappy clown to show up at their parties?

But, sometimes I forget to have fun. I begin to brood about the world or take myself too seriously. Fortunately, I have a great buddy, Steve Koehler, my flatmate and fellow entertainer. We bounce ideas off of each other, complain about the occasional precocious six-year-old heckler, and watch lots of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, and many other heroes of our profession. We are also voracious readers and students of the theatre. Our current favorite read is the out of print books by the iconoclastic filmmaker, writer, director, David Mamet. Of course, my family and other friends are also important for maintaining my sanity and love of life, but Steve and I are involved in the same unusual profession, so our friendship is most helpful.

Everyday is different. Sometimes I’m on a magic kick; sometimes I travel to Europe for a month; sometimes I’m in the Recording Studio cranking out wacky children’s songs like “Psycho-chicken,” “Don’t Wake-up The Baby!,” or “That’s My Bike (uh huh, uh huh) I Ride It!” Sometimes I take a Yoga class or hike in the woods. I do a variety of things most everyday which includes meditating, journaling, exercising, making phone calls, watering my plants, feeding the birds, walking, hanging out in cafes, practicing guitar, writing stories, songs, etc. Occasionally I take a comedy improv class or, a mime, clowning, or theatre class. I go to shows done by the great clowns of our day like Bill Irwin, Geoff Hoyle, or (someday) Avner Eisenberg. What does all this lead to? It leads to those “peak moments” when I put on my costume, do a few acting warm ups, set up my prop box, sound equipment, ukulele, etc. and I’m performing the “Daffy Dave Comedy Magic and Juggling Show,” (also known as “The How To Clean Up Your Room Using Magic” clown infomercial!).

Suddenly, I’ve become a cartoonish exaggeration of all of my best character defects (some of the assets, too). I’m dressed in stripes and checks, reds and yellows, baggy pants with suspenders, a silly hat and silly shoes. I don’t wear make-up because I hate it and it scares the little kids. I’m more of a comic kid’s magician and juggler with a whole lot of clown thrown in for good measure. My voice changes, my arms flail to make a point, my body leaps back when a rainbow scarf “magically” turns into a flower bush or my laundry magically “backfires” and turns into dinosaur-sized underwear. My eyes are always trying to meet the eyes of those enthusiastic audience members, especially the five-year-olds! Sometimes, I have to start real gentle with the younger ones (threes and fours) and sometimes, I have to adjust for the older wisecrackers in the six-eight-year-old range.

So, there I am, trying to act like I know it all, trying to impress the kids and “teach” them something like how to clean their rooms while I’m mispronouncing words, ruining my laundry, accidentally losing my big clown pants, sox, hat—generally having a “bad clothes day,” etc. What’s the reaction from the kids? Outright, prolonged laughter! They either yell (with veins popping out of their necks) to try and correct one of my malaprops, or point out that, unbeknownst to me, my pants have fallen down with my starry underwear showing, or they are laughing so hard they have sometimes peed in their pants and an embarrassed parent has had to lead them to another room to change clothes.

That’s it! I get paid to make kids pee in their pants! But, on top of that, I get to see them become empowered because they know more than the “expert” clown adult trying to tell them the lowdown and all the while messing up. They get to “correct” me and that makes them feel smart! That’s what it all leads to. I have the privilege of becoming a conduit for laughs and a strange mini-empowerment for five-year-olds. I get to model the ultimate acceptance of being a human with all of our foibles. I get to show kids its okay to mess-up and laugh at the mistakes we make and show them how ridiculous it is to react with a big ego or with too much self-seriousness as I, myself, comically mock these attitudes in my own clown gestures and in other ways.

A clown is a man in trouble (a nod to Jerry Lewis who said “comedian is a man in trouble”) and that’s what makes us laugh at clowns. We see our own foolishness reflected back to us at a safe distance in the clown on stage. And, hopefully, we laugh at ourselves by laughing at the clown who exaggerates us. And, if we are really blessed, we can lighten up in our laughter-experience and maybe even tolerate, or better yet, accept with humor the troublesome realities of being human.

To some this may sound idealistic or farfetched. But I have had that experience laughing at other clowns and I hope people experience it in my clowning too.

If not, oh well. I’m still having fun, leading an interesting life, enjoying a flexible schedule, and making a decent living in a zany way that definitely and gracefully fits my personality. Thanks be to God!

David Mampel entertains children and adults in Palo Alto.

See all articles by David Mampel