Just clownin' around

Summertime is sundae time, and in this video, Children’s Hospital Boston and Big Apple Circus Clown Care clowns Dr. Gonzo and Dr. Gon Golfin show you how to make the perfect ice cream treat. Watch out for the whipped cream!

One clown’s story: Robb Preskins, aka Dr. Gonzo, on what it’s like to be a clown at a hospital for kids.

I remember my first time on rounds here at Children’s Hospital Boston in November of 1995. I had never performed clown rounds and Children’s had never had clowns on rounds. I kept checking my doctor’s bag to see if I had everything I needed to perform my job. I had juggling clubs, a fake skunk, a pack of playing cards and my sense of humor. I glanced at the mirror to check my make-up and made sure my red nose was on straight. I had a brand new pair of size 18 clown shoes. The white doctor’s coat was crisp. I had forgotten my whoopee cushion and that was going to throw my game off a little. No matter, I would just improvise. I was ready.

To see the wide-eyed nurses and patients look on as we played music and juggled clubs in the intensive care unit seemed surreal. I remember walking over to a bedside and asking a nurse to check on the patient’s P.U. levels. I could tell by the look on her face that she wasn’t sure what I was asking for, so I took out a stethoscope, placed it under my nose and sniffed at the patient’s feet. This got a laugh from the little boy, and the nurse just smiled shaking her head. The clowns had arrived.

Today, there are nine clowns at Children’s and we entertain patients, families and staff in nearly every corner of the hospital. Despite our names (Dr. Gonzo, Nurse BB, Dr. Gon Golfin, etc.), we’re not actually doctors and nurses who dress up as clowns. Instead, we’re all professional performers who have been trained to perform in a hospital. In fact, we’re part of an organization called Big Apple Circus Clown Care, which has clown teams at 17 hospitals around the country.

There are, of course, a lot of challenges to being a clown in a hospital. Seeing children who are very sick is incredibly hard, especially because I’m a dad myself. But knowing that they’re in a place that can help them get well lets me focus on the funny.

And who knew being funny would be such hard work? I’ve done stand-up comedy before, and the first 10 minutes of any routine are the hardest because you have to warm the crowd up and get them ready to laugh. Our job as hospital clowns is like doing the first 10 minutes of a stand-up routine 20 times a day. Just as you’re getting people laughing, it’s time to move on and start all over again in the next room. It’s exhausting but exhilarating, especially because not everyone laughs at the same thing. What works for a 5-year-old isn’t going to impress a 17-year-old. It’s fast-paced and we have to switch gears quickly, but it keeps me on my toes. To be juggling in one room, performing a card trick in another and then asking a 16-year-old if I fit in with the latest fashion trends can make my nose spin. But that’s what I like about performing here: the wide range of ages, backgrounds and cultures. It’s a challenge to quickly pick a direction of entertainment based on the audience that’s suddenly in front of you.

I also enjoy being the comic relief for the staff because they understand what we’re trying to do. One moment that will always stick out for me was visiting a patient in one of the outpatient clinics. We were told that he was really nervous, so we popped in and told him we would be his doctors and we had some questions and tests. He had this completely surprised smile on his face and that made his parents laugh. We created a loud ruckus in the exam room and many staff stopped by to see what was going on because we were all laughing so loudly.

I caught a glimpse of a doctor standing in the hallway holding medical charts and X-rays. I quickly jumped out of the room and asked if he was waiting to see this patient. He told me yes, but he didn’t want me to stop. “Your work is just as important as mine,” he said.

Read more about Clown Care at Children’s.

Read a Cape Cod Times article about the clowns.