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Healing Laughter: Observing hospital clowns on their “clinical rounds.”

By Joe Guppy

The little girl is maybe a year old, sitting up in her hospital bed, eyes wide, transfixed by three brightly colored scarves swirling before her. A clown wearing a disheveled fake doctor’s coat, white, with tuxedo tails trailing behind, is juggling the scarves in graceful silence. The clown’s name is Dr. Hamsterfuzz.

I’m shadowing a pair of clowns from Room Circus Medical Clowning, who are “making their rounds” through a cancer ward at Seattle Children’s, the largest hospital for kids in the Pacific Northwest. I am a consultant for the non-profit group, having been tagged for the job because of my background as a comedic performer and a psychotherapist.

As I watch them work, I see that the clowns are both comedy professionals, cleverly drawing laughs from their audience, and therapeutic professionals, highly attuned to the delicate nature of their mission.

A few doors down from the one-year-old girl, the clowns face a challenge, a 15 year-old boy. They never enter a room without permission, so the clowns wave at him through the window. The boy nods them in, but doesn’t look too happy about it.

This time, instead of being graceful and silent, the clowns become self-effacing, noisy, and clumsy. They bang into each other as they enter the room. They hastily apologize for “how corny clowns are,” and morph into an elaborate physical routine—tripping over each other, always blaming the other. They end with a dopey, improvised rap song. At first, their efforts draw a reluctant smile from the teen, but this soon turns into genuine laughter. The clowns have earned the trust of another patient.

How do they do it? As Dr. La Foo, the other half of the clown duo and one of the group’s organizers, tells me: “We hire professional comedy performers with strong improvisational skills, and then give them further training in this kind of work. Seasoned actors know how to be sensitive to an audience. They know when to be silent, they know when it’s okay to go big.”

Clowns are something completely different in the hospital universe, Dr. La Foo explains:

“We are from the land of imagination—between a human and a mythical character. When an adult comes into the child’s hospital room, the adult is in charge, and the child rarely gets the chance to say ‘no.’ With us, the child can say ‘no’, or they can be of higher status and call the shots.”

And the clowns’ work has real medical benefits. As noted on the Mayo Clinic website, laughter improves the immune system, alleviates stress, and can even relieve pain by releasing the body’s natural painkillers.

In a room down the hall, there’s a 10 year-old Hispanic boy whom the clowns have visited before. This time, however, a group of family members are present. They look somber, and the clowns confer about whether to approach. But it’s too late—the young patient spots them and excitedly calls them in. He takes great pride in introducing “my clowns” to his family. The clowns make an adult connection with family members, while maintaining their “mythical character” connection with the child.

After a few magic tricks, the clowns—who each play at least one musical instrument—sing the song “Happy” to the boy. The whole family joins in on the chorus.

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