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12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Professional Clowns

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They made Egyptian pharaohs laugh as early as 2500 BCE. In ancient Rome, they were known as the stupidus, or fool. In the 20th century, they became synonymous with the red-nosed archetypes pushed by Bozo and the omnipresent Ronald McDonald. They’re professional clowns, full-time jesters who forgo subtlety in pursuit of making the audiences at birthday parties, parades, and hospitals forget their troubles.

Lately clowns have been frowning more than usual, thanks to the negative press around the creepy clown scare of 2016. For thousands of painted faces, however, clowning is an art. Mental Floss spoke with several professional fools—and we mean that in the most affectionate way possible—about their trade language, finding the right pair of giant shoes, and why some of them opt for insurance.

1. CLOWN SHOES ARE EXPENSIVE.

A clown shows off a pair of oversized shoes

Don’t be fooled by the cheap, flimsy clown shoes you find in Halloween costume shops. A proper pair of oversized shoes needs to withstand hours of walking, jumping, and performing, all while maintaining a snug fit around the entertainer’s human-sized feet. “A pair of clown shoes costs anywhere from $200 to $500,” says Bebop the Clown, a performer based in San Antonio, Texas and former education director of the World Clown Association (WCA). “In order for you to clown properly in them, they need to fit. If not, they can really hurt your back.”

2. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN TRADE LANGUAGE.

Like the carnival workers they sometimes collaborate with, clowns have developed their own industry shorthand. “It’s all hidden terminology you can’t really find in books,” says Benjamin Domask, a clown based in New York City. “A ‘Joey’ is a term for a clown named after Joseph Grimaldi, one of the first clowns to dress up in face paint.” There’s also the blow-off (punchline), the clown stop (a short performance), and “bump a nose” (a.k.a. “break a leg”). A cluster of clowns is known as a “giggle.”

3. THEY HAVE CLOWN CONVENTIONS.

A giggle of clowns convene for a professional gathering

As with any trade, clowns like to congregate to exchange tips and look at the newest in clown industry advancements. “We have conferences with exhibitors and vendor rooms,” Bebop says. “There are often a lot of magicians there offering tricks [for sale].” Conventions are also home to courses in clowning, from balloon-tying to training as a “caring clown” for hospital visits. At night, clown parties feature clown socializing, complete with a red (nose) carpet.

4. YOU CAN THANK THE CIRCUS FOR CLOWN PHOBIAS.

As a student and teacher of clown history, Domask has an idea of what initially brought on bouts of coulrophobia, or fear of clowns, in the general public. “In the 1800s, as circuses got bigger and bigger, clowns needed to up their game,” he says. “They needed bigger movements, and thicker face paint, so audiences in seats further up could see them. But it’s like when a stage actor appears and is still wearing all that make-up. Up close, it’s really creepy-looking to have all of that caked on.” Clowns playing private engagements use fewer layers of paint, but the apprehension over unsettling circus clowns remains.

5. THERE ARE SEVERAL SUB-CATEGORIES OF CLOWN.

One of the first things students attending classes hosted by the WCA find out is that there is no one required clown uniform. According to Bebop, there are a few different ways for a person's "clown character" to manifest: “The Harlequin, or white-faced clown, is the classic and the highest,” she says. “There’s also the Auguste, or the buffoon type. Then there’s the hobo or tramp, and then a character-type clown.” The Auguste might wear pink as a face paint base instead of white and is more bumbling than the Harlequin; the character-type clown might be an existing persona, such as a baseball player or referee, but inside a clown suit. The differences become apparent, Bebop says, when clown duos work together. “One might be the whiteface and one might be the buffoon, taking the pie in the face.”

6. THEY KNOW HOW TO READ EACH OTHER.

A clown sports a sad expression

According to Domask, veteran clowns can develop a certain expression in their eyes that becomes immediately recognizable to other clowns. “It’s a kind of look we develop,” he says of the non-verbal cue. “You can read a clown’s comfort or emotional state." In addition to expressing mood, Domask says, the look can reveal whether the clown is up for some dual clown-performance. "If two clowns meet, you can tell if the other wants to play around.”

7. THEY HARDLY EVER BREAK CHARACTER.

A clown takes public transportation

Once a clown is suited up for a performance, it can be difficult to relate to people as a “regular” person. As a result, Bebop says that clowns tend to turn even the most mundane daily activities into a mini-performance. “Once you put the nose on, you lose the luxury of being a person,” she says. “You can’t walk up to a group of people waiting for an elevator and go, ‘Gosh, travel sure was awful.’” Instead, Bebop will do something like passing out “tickets” for the elevator, then “collecting” them as people board.

8. THEY DO WEDDINGS.

It’s true: Some couples enjoy the presence of a clown during their nuptials. “I’ve done a couple of weddings, including one same-sex couple that had a Mardi Gras wedding theme,” Domask says. “They hired me to perform during the reception.”

9. PARADE CLOWNS NEED SPECIAL SKILLS.

A clown performs during a parade

While clowns can engage in mischief pretty much anywhere, performers who elect to join street parades need to put a little more thought into their act. “We call it ‘paradability,’” Bebop says of clowns best suited for that kind of engagement. “Someone might have the idea to carry a steering wheel around. How heavy is the steering wheel? Is it going to be hot out? Is the gag feasible when the parade is three miles long?”

10. THERE’S CLOWN INSURANCE.

Although he’s never had to make use of it, Domask does have variety performers' insurance in the event that he has a clowning mishap. “A lot of companies offer it,” he says. The World Clown Association provides it as a perk for members, offering up to a million dollars in coverage in the event a child has an allergic reaction to face paint or property damage occurs, among other potential misadventures.

11. THERE’S AN AUDIENCE AGE CAP.

A young audience member is dressed as a clown

Clowns can be found just about anywhere, from children’s hospitals to nursing homes. But for your average birthday booking, Bebop says that particularly juvenile clowns can spare themselves a lot of grief by limiting their audiences to ages seven and under. “Bebop as a character is five years old and my market is seven and under,” she says. “When I get calls that ask me to go perform for a bunch of 12-year-old Boy Scouts, I say, ‘Okay, here’s another number to call.’ A 12-year-old will eat Bebop alive.”

12. THERE’S A WAY TO GET A GUARANTEED LAUGH.

Sometimes, audiences will resist the charms of a clown, and no amount of balloon-tying, face-painting, or pratfalls will cut it. In that instance, Domask says he keeps one go-to move in his arsenal. “I just stick my finger up my nose and pretend to pick it,” he says.

All images courtesy of Getty Images.

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11 Secrets of Matchmakers
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In an age of dating apps and casual hookups, matchmakers may seem like a relic from another era. But although they've been bringing people together since long before we were swiping right, matchmaking as a profession is still alive and well. We spoke to several matchmakers to get a glimpse at how their job really works, from their sixth sense for making matches to how they deal with picky clients.

1. THEY’RE ALWAYS ON THE CLOCK.

Whether they’re shopping for groceries, waiting in a doctor’s office, or traveling on vacation, matchmakers always have their eyes peeled for ideal partners for their clients. “Being a matchmaker is not a 9 to 5 job,” matchmaker and dating coach Bonnie Winston tells Mental Floss. “24 hours, seven days a week is more like it. My employees go home, but I never close!”

Winston, who often works on weekends and evenings, also gives her clients dating advice before, during, and after dates. “It is not unusual that clients call me with inquiries about what they should wear before certain dates,” she says. “Or, I’ll get calls in whispered hush tones—secretly from bathrooms in dining establishments—to ask me questions on etiquette, or if they can hook up with their date because they have great chemistry,” Winston says.

2. THEY HAVE A SIXTH SENSE.

A young man and a woman sitting on park benches near each other
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Romance is mysterious—no one can predict whether two strangers will meet and fall in love. But successful matchmakers possess a high level of emotional intelligence and intuition that guides them in their work. Winston, who made her first successful match when she was 16 years old, says she just has a natural sense of which people would be good together. “Matchmaking isn’t something that can be bought or taught,” she says. “I will meet someone and just know when they are a good match for one of my clients.”

3. THEY’RE PART THERAPIST/LIFE COACH.

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Matchmakers meet with clients, interview potential matches, dispense dating advice, and attend networking events. But some also perform background checks, administer personality testing, and build psychological profiles of their clients. The best combine a therapist’s listening skills and objective perspective with a life coach’s ability to motivate. Matchmakers may also interview their clients to determine why past relationships have failed, and help them formulate a strategy to achieve their relationship goals.

4. THEY’RE MASTERS AT NETWORKING.

The most successful matchmakers love people. Meeting people, listening and talking to them, and ultimately pairing them together excites and inspires them. In a Reddit AMA, three matchmakers at Three Day Rule explained that successful matchmakers are extroverts, and highly confident when approaching new people. “You really have to be able to walk up to anyone. We go up to people on the street all the time and say ‘Hey, are you single?’ so you have to be ok embarrassing yourself a bit,” they write.

Besides speaking with people they encounter in daily life, matchmakers may also rely on their networks of family and friends. “My mother is one of eight siblings and I have literally dozens of cousins who are well aware that there is a ‘yenta’ in the family. I tap into those resources, too!” Winston says.

5. THEY WISH PEOPLE WOULD BE WARY OF PHONY MATCHMAKERS.

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Although some reputable organizations offer courses and certifications in matchmaking, matchmakers don’t need any formal training to do their job. “Some [of these organizations] are legit, but others are just about the revenue,” says Jamie Rose, the founder and CEO of Rose Matchmaking. Similarly, some matchmaking companies are more about maximizing profit than helping people find love. Scammers who start these matchmaking businesses take advantage of desperate, lonely people looking for love.

So how to tell which businesses are legitimate? Watch for these red flags: matchmakers who won’t meet you in person, companies that have recently changed their name (perhaps to evade detection or create distance from angry former clients), sites that don’t have testimonials (or where the testimonials seem fake), and companies that have many negative user reviews.

6. OVERLY PICKY PEOPLE FRUSTRATE THEM.

Matchmakers get frustrated when clients have unrealistic expectations about love. “There is no such thing as a perfect match, and some people come in thinking that there may be,” Rose explains. Clients may also have emotional blocks that get in the way of finding love. “Some people say they want to get married but they don’t really want to,” Winston says. “They turn down every potential date for a ridiculous amount of petty and inconsequential reasons.”

Jennifer Hayes, the Director of Operations for South Carolina Matchmakers, adds that because bad relationships tend to harden people, matchmakers must encourage clients to keep their hearts and minds open to love. “One of the biggest hurdles we have as a matchmakers is encouraging clients to stay open to the possibilities of finding love,” she tells Mental Floss.

7. SOMETIMES THEY HAVE TO BE BLUNT.

A man and a woman, each on a bicycle on a rural road, holding hands
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When a date goes poorly, matchmakers must walk a fine line between being honest and being tactful. “My least favorite part would be telling one client that another client wasn’t interested in them,” Rose says. Although most people don’t enjoy getting rejected and hearing about their off-putting habits, it’s essential that matchmakers be blunt with their clients. By speaking the truth in a kind yet firm way, matchmakers can build a trusting, productive relationship with their clients.

8. DATING APPS CAN MAKE THEIR JOB HARDER …

Dating apps give people a huge number of potential matches at their fingertips, but most apps don't vet matches—and good results are not guaranteed. “[Dating apps] make things so impersonal,” Winston says. “[Users] are deleting really good people forever so easily in seconds with their fingertips. And scratching their heads [about] why they can’t meet anyone.”

In addition, many dating apps are free, while matchmakers charge for their services. Matchmakers say that free apps propagate the view that finding love shouldn't cost anything, and thus threaten matchmakers’ livelihood.

9. … BUT APPS CAN ALSO DRIVE CLIENTS TO THEM.

An older man and a woman looking bored and each on their phones
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While apps may be many people’s initial foray into the dating world, a disappointing experience can lead unsuccessful daters to a matchmaker. “Honestly I think [dating apps] impact [our industry] positively,” Rose says. “People who try those apps or sites see that they are about quantity not quality, and then they research better options and find me.” Winston adds that matchmakers slow down the online dating process. “People who come to me are sick of swiping, scrolling, sexting and texting, getting poked, and being ghosted. They are burnt out,” she says. “I bring back old-fashioned courtship and romance.”

Matchmakers also lend a human element that’s often lacking in online dating. "We know as matchmakers that setting people up requires knowing them to some extent, and knowing people requires time. Unlike online apps we get to know our clients and build relationships with them so we can effectively match them," Hayes says.

10. THEY MAKE CLIENTS LOOK THEIR BEST.

Visuals and first impressions play a huge role in dating, and good matchmakers help their clients improve their image. “You’d be surprised how many people come to me with terrible selfies to find love!” Winston exclaims. Because she owned a fashion photography agency, Winston stays connected to top photographers and hair and make-up artists, and she provides her clients with professional photo shoots. “I want my clients look their best while showing their authentic selves,” she says.

11. THEY LOVE HELPING PEOPLE FIND TRUE LOVE.

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When matchmakers succeed in bringing two people together, they’re ecstatic. “I am joyful when my clients find joy in love. Especially when they immediately 'click'—I feel like I hit it out of the ballpark ... a homerun!” Winston says.

Rose adds that she enjoys changing people’s minds about each other. “I like when two people originally say no to one another, but you remind them of why they came to you. When that match works out you feel really good about it."

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12 Secrets of Roller Coaster Designers
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Back in the early 20th century, engineers attempting to push the limits of roller coaster thrills subjected riders to risky upside-down turns and bloody noses. A century later, coaster designers rely on computer software, physics, and psychology to push the limits of the roughly 4400 rides in operation worldwide. To get a sense of what their job entails, Mental Floss spoke with several roller coaster specialists about everything from testing rides with water-filled dummies to how something as simple as paint can influence a coaster experience. Here’s what we learned.

1. GETTING STRAPPED IN MIGHT BE THE MOST EXCITING PART OF THE RIDE.

Roller coaster passengers prepare for a drop
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Known as a “thrill engineer,” UK-based Brendan Walker consults with coaster manufacturers and parks on the psychology of riding the rails. In his experience, riders getting secured into their seats are at the peak of their excitement—even more so than during the ride itself. “The moment the lap bar is being locked down and you have that feeling of things being inescapable, that you have to suffer the effects of the ride, is the highest moment of arousal,” Walker says. “The actual ride might only achieve 80 percent of that excitement.”

2. THEY TEST COASTERS WITH WATER-FILLED DUMMIES.

Bill Kitchen, founder of U.S. Thrill Rides, says it can take anywhere from two to five years for a coaster to go from idea to execution. Part of that process is devoted to the logistics of securing patents and permits for local site construction—the rest is extensive safety testing. “We’re subject to ASTM [American Society for Testing Materials] standards,” Kitchen says. “It covers every aspect of coasters. The rides are tested with what we call water dummies, or sometimes sandbags.”

The inanimate patrons allow designers to figure out how a coaster will react to the constant use and rider weight of a highly-trafficked ride. The water dummies—which look a bit like crash test dummies, but filled with water—can be emptied or filled to simulate different weight capacities. Designers also sometimes use the kind of crash-test dummies found in the auto industry to observe any potential issues prior to actual humans climbing aboard.

3. EVERY FOOT OF TRACK COSTS A LOT OF MONEY.

A roller coaster track is ready for passengers
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There is absolutely nothing random about the length of a coaster’s track. In addition to designing a ride based on the topography of a park site, designers take into account exactly how much space they’ll need to terrorize you and not an inch more. When England’s Alton Towers park was preparing to build a ride named TH13TEEN for a 2010 opening, they asked Walker exactly how much of a drop was needed to scare someone in the dark. “It was a practical question,” Walker says. “For every extra foot of steelwork, it would have cost them £30,000 [roughly $40,000].”

4. ROLLERCOASTER TYCOON BROUGHT A LOT OF PEOPLE INTO THE BUSINESS.

The popular PC game, first released in 1999, allowed users to methodically construct their own amusement parks, including the rides. As a proving ground for aspiring engineers and designers, it worked pretty well. Jeff Pike, President of Skyline Attractions, says he’s seen several people grow passionate about the industry as a direct result of the game. “I remember when the game first got popular, I would go to trade shows and there would be kids looking to get into it using screen shots of rides they designed. The game definitely brought a lot of people into the fold.”

5. PAINT MAKES A BIG DIFFERENCE IN SPEED.

Cans of paint are arranged on the floor
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For all of their high-tech design—the software, fabrication, and precise measures of energy—a good coaster ride can often come down to whether it’s got too much paint on it. “The one thing that will slow down a steel coaster is a build-up of paint on the track rails,” Pike says. “It softens where the wheel is rolling and hitting the track, which increases the drag.” A good, worn-in track will have grey or silver streaks where the wheel has worn down the paint, making it move more quickly.

6. A COASTER’S SKYLINE IS KEY.

Brian Morrow, Corporate Vice President for Theme Park Experience at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, says that the looming curvature of coasters spotted as guests drive toward and enter the park is very purposeful. “It’s like a movie trailer in that we want you to see some iconic coaster elements, but not the whole thing,” he says. “You approach it with anticipation.”

7. SOME COASTERS ARRIVE AS GIANT MODEL KITS.

The loop of a roller coaster track
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Whether a coaster’s theme or design comes first is largely left up to the end user—the amusement park. But for some rides, manufacturers are able to offer pre-fabricated constructions that designers can treat like the world’s biggest Erector Set. “Sometimes I work on rides that have already been built,” Walker says. “They’re produced by a company and presented almost like a kit with parts, like a model train set. There’s a curve here, a straight bit here, and you can pick your own layout depending on the lay of the land.”

8. WOODEN COASTERS ARE WEATHER-SENSITIVE.

If you’ve ever been on a wooden coaster that seems a little shaky from one trip to the next, check the forecast: It might be because of the weather. Pike says that humidity and other factors can shrink the wood, affecting how bolts fit and leading to a slightly shakier experience. “The structure itself can flex back and forth,” he says. It’s still perfectly safe—it just takes more maintenance to make sure the wood and fasteners are in proper operating condition. A well-cared-for wooden coaster, Pike says, can usually outlast a steel model.

9. THE TIME OF DAY CAN AFFECT THE RIDE EXPERIENCE.

A roller coaster track at dusk
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“A coaster running in the morning could run slower when cooler,” Morrow says. “The wheels are not as warm, the bearings are warming up. That could be different by 2 p.m., with a slicked-up wheel chassis.” Coasters experiencing their first-ever test runs can also be slightly unpredictable, according to Pike. "Those first trial runs [during the testing phase] can be slow because everything is just so tight," he says. "A lot of coasters don't even make it around the track. It's not a failure. It's just super-slow."

10. DESIGNS CAN COME FROM UNUSUAL PLACES—LIKE JAY LENO’S CHIN.

The twisting, undulating tracks of coasters can often be the result of necessity: Pike says that trees, underground piping, and available real estate all inform designers when it comes to placing a ride in a specific park. But when they have more freedom, coasters can sometimes take on the distinctive shape of whatever happens to be around the designers at the time of conception. “We had a giant piece of land in Holland that just had no constraints, and we were sitting around talking," Pike says. “And we started talking about Jay Leno’s chin.” The ride was a “loose” representation of the comedian's jaw, but “it is there.”

11. RIDERS ARE REALLY PERFORMERS.

Roller coaster riders enjoy the end of the ride
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For Walker, the best advertising for a coaster is having spectators watch riders de-board after an exhilarating experience. “It’s all about that emotion,” he says. “A spectator basically asks, ‘What’s making them so aroused? What’s giving them such pleasure?’ The line for the ride is the audience. Imagining yourself on the structure becomes a very powerful thing."

12. THE FUTURE IS VERTICAL.

Biggest, fastest, longest—coasters are running out of superlatives. Because rides can only be designed with so many drips, rolls, or G forces, some companies are looking to the sky for their next big idea. Kitchen has been overseeing design of the Polercoaster for years: It’s a sprawling, skyscraper-esque ride that uses electromagnetic propulsion to carry riders upwards instead of across horizontal tracks. “We want to put it in places where land is very expensive, like the Vegas strip,” he says. “You can only do that if it takes up a lot less space.” Kitchen believes it’ll be another two years before ground is broken on the project, which is set to exceed the 456 feet of the current tallest ride, Kinga Ka at Six Flags in New Jersey. “It’ll be the world’s tallest—and hopefully the most fun.”

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