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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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Christine Colby
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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of TV Meteorologists
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The first weather forecast to hit national network television was given in 1949 by legendary weatherman Clint Youle. To illustrate weather systems, Youle covered a paper map of the U.S. in plexiglass and drew on it with a marker. A lot has changed in the world of meteorology since then, but every day, millions of families invite their local weatherman or weatherwoman into their living room to hear the forecast. Here are a few things you might not know about being a TV meteorologist.

1. SOME PEOPLE JUST NEVER MASTER THE GREEN SCREEN.

A view of a meteorologist as seen on-screen and in the studio against a green screen
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On-camera meteorologists might look as if they’re standing in front of a moving weather map, but in reality, there’s nothing except a blank green wall behind them. Thanks to the wonders of special effects, a digital map can be superimposed onto the green screen for viewers at home. TV monitors situated just off-camera show the meteorologist what viewers at home are seeing, which is how he or she knows where to stand and point. It’s harder than it looks, and for some rookie meteorologists, the learning curve can be steep.

“Some people never learn it,” says Gary England, legendary weatherman and former chief meteorologist for Oklahoma’s KWTV (England was also the first person to use Doppler radar to warn viewers about incoming systems). “For some it comes easily, but I’ve seen people never get used to it.”

Stephanie Abrams, meteorologist and co-host of The Weather Channel’s AMHQ, credits her green screen skills to long hours spent playing Nintendo and tennis as a kid. “You’ve gotta have good hand-eye coordination,” she says.

2. THEY HAVE A STRICT DRESS CODE.

Green is out of the question for on-air meteorologists, unless they want to blend into the map, but the list of prohibited wardrobe items doesn’t stop there. “Distracting prints are a no-no,” Jennifer Myers, Dallas-based meteorologist for KDFW FOX 4 writes on Reddit. “Cleavage angers viewers over 40 something fierce, so we stay away from that. There's no length rule on skirts/dresses but if you wouldn't wear it to a family event, you probably shouldn't wear it on TV. Nothing reflective. Nothing that makes sound.”

Myers says she has enough dresses to go five weeks without having to wear a dress twice. But all the limitations can make it difficult to find work attire that’s fashionable, looks good on-screen, and affordable. This is especially true for women, which is why when they find a garment that works, word spreads quickly. For example, this dress, which sold for $23 on Amazon, was shared in a private Facebook group for female meteorologists and quickly sold out in every color but green.

3. BUT IT’S CASUAL BELOW THE KNEE.

Since their feet rarely appear on camera, some meteorologists take to wearing casual, comfortable footwear, especially on long days. For example, England told the New York Times that during storm season, he was often on his feet for 12 straight hours. So, “he wears Mizuno running shoes, which look ridiculous with his suit and tie but provide a bit of extra cushioning,” Sam Anderson writes.

And occasionally female meteorologists will strap their mic pack to their calves or thighs rather than the more unpleasant option of stuffing it into their waistband or strapping it onto their bra.

4. THERE ARE TRICKS TO STAYING WARM IN A SNOWSTORM.

A young TV weatherperson in a snowy scene
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“In the field when I’m covering snow storms, I go to any pharmacy and get those back patches people wear, those heat wraps, and stick them all over my body,” explains Abrams. “Then I put on a wet suit. When you’re out for as long as we are, that helps you stay dry. I have to be really hot when I go out for winter storms.”

5. THERE’S NO SCRIPT.

Your local TV weather forecaster is ad-libbing from start to finish. “Our scripts are the graphics we create,” says Jacob Wycoff, a meteorologist with Western Mass News. “Generally speaking we’re using the graphics to talk through our stories, but everything we say is ad-libbed. Sometimes you can fumble the words you want to say, and sometimes you may miss a beat, but I think what that allows you to do is have a little off-the-cuff moment, which I think the viewers enjoy.”

6. MOM’S THE AUDIENCE.

Part of a meteorologist’s job is to break down very complicated scientific terminology and phenomena into something the general public can not only stomach, but crave. “The trick is … to approach the weather as if you're telling a story: Who are the main actors? Where is the conflict? What happens next?” explains Bob Henson, a Weather Underground meteorologist. “Along the way, you have the opportunity to do a bit of teaching. Weathercasters are often the only scientists that a member of the public will encounter on a regular basis on TV.”

Wycoff’s method for keeping it simple is to pretend like he’s having a conversation with his mom. “I’d pretend like I was giving her the forecast,” he says. “If my mom could understand it, I felt confident the general audience could as well. Part of that is also not using completely science-y terms that go over your audience’s head.”

7. SOCIAL MEDIA HAS MADE THEIR JOBS MORE DIFFICULT.

Professional meteorologists spend a lot of time debunking bogus forecasts spreading like wildfire across Twitter. “We have a lot of social media meteorologists that don’t have necessarily the background or training to create great forecasts,” Wycoff says. “We have to educate our viewers that they should know the source they’re getting information from.”

“People think it’s as easy as reading a chart,” says Scott Sistek, a meteorologist and weather blogger for KOMO TV in Seattle. “A lot of armchair meteorologists at home can look at a chart and go ok, half an inch of rain. But we take the public front when it’s wrong.”

8. THEY MAKE LIFE-OR-DEATH DECISIONS.

A meteorologist forecasting a hurricane
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People plan their lives around the weather forecast, and when a storm rolls in, locals look to their meteorologist for guidance on what to do. If he or she gets the path of a tornado wrong, or downplays its severity, people’s lives are in danger. “If you miss a severe weather forecast and someone’s out on the ball field and gets stuck, someone could get injured,” says Wycoff. “It is a great responsibility that we have.”

Conversely, England says when things get dangerous, some people are reluctant to listen to a forecaster’s advice because they don’t like being told what to do. He relies on a little bit of psychological maneuvering to get people to take cover. “You suggest, you don’t tell,” he says. “You issue instructions but in a way where they feel like they’re making up their own minds.”

9. DON’T BANK ON THOSE SEVEN-DAY FORECASTS.

“I would say that within three days, meteorologists are about 90 percent accurate,” Wycoff says. “Then at five days we’re at about 60 percent to 75 percent and then after seven days it becomes a bit more wishy-washy.”

10. THEY’RE FRENEMIES.

The competition for viewers is fierce, and local meteorologists are all rivals in the same race. “When you’re in TV, all meteorologists at other competitors are the enemy,” England says. “You’re not good friends with them. They try to steal the shoes off your children and food off your plate. If they get higher ratings, they get more money.”

11. THEY’RE TIRED OF HEARING THE SAME JOKE OVER AND OVER.

“There’s always the running joke: ‘I wish I could be paid a million dollars to be wrong 80 percent of the time,’” Sistek says. “I wanted to have a contest for who can come up with the best weatherman insult, because we need something new! Let’s get creative here.”

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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