I already had pre-purchased tickets for three shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, which felt like plenty to me, but when we arrived, to our surprise we saw posters that Puddles would be performing! I first became aware of him like many people did, through his youtube video of Royals. I’ve always been interested in clowns and clowning, and Puddles seemed to have a special magic about him, and the idea of seeing him live at the Fringe was too good to pass up. And the show did not disappoint! As much as I was moved by 4x4 Ephemeral Architectures, the most memorable experience of our trip was attending Puddles Pity Party. I’ve had to think a lot about what it is that makes his show so powerful. Let me try to break it down.
- I hear many people say, “I don’t like clowns, but I like Puddles,” or “Puddles is a singer who wears a clown costume,” or “Puddles is not a traditional clown.” All of these are wrong. Puddles is not just a clown, he is an excellent clown. People who don’t like clowns have never seen a good one, and this is understandable because good clowning is really hard. It isn’t about being silly or trying to get laughs, it is about being a character that is a genuine side of yourself that has all the unnecessary trappings of reality stripped away so that the audience is confronted with nothing but the raw experience of a primal part of the human psyche. Clowns are complex because they are both genuine, because without tapping into something genuine within themselves, their performance is meaningless, but also unreal, because obviously no one could exist like that. They are a pure facet of humanity, with all the aspects that might dilute that purity, their skin, their hair, their voice, boiled away. Doing this properly and well is incredibly difficult. It requires bravery, cleverness, commitment, and ultimately, purpose. Clowns exist to show us something, something about humanity, something about ourselves. All comedy is like this, clowning is just purer, requiring more bravery, more cleverness, more commitment, and more purpose if it is to succeed. It is no wonder that most clowns fail, to the point that clowning has a bad name.
- Some people say Puddles is not a real clown, because he talks. But he doesn’t talk – he only sings. Further, he only sings songs you already know. He never uses his voice to tell you anything you don't already know. This is certainly a twist on traditional clowning, but all successful clowns do something unique. In many ways, there is an obvious parallel between Puddles and Harpo Marx. They are both clearly clowns, but both breaking away from the workaday clown mold. They both confront people pointedly, aggressively, and directly, and they both have musical performance at the heart of their identity.
- Puddles as a character is surprisingly deep. He isn’t just a “sad clown.” He is clearly wounded, not just emotionally, but physically. He seems to be in physical discomfort for much of the show, constantly adjusting his costume as if it hurts him, as if it is binding him in some way. Even simple things, like removing a piece of gum from his mouth, seem to be a painful ordeal. When he moves his little stool around the stage, he does it in a way that obviously is the most effort. His character doesn’t seems to be doing this to amuse us, or because he is too foolish to do it an easier way, but almost as if to intentionally show us that this is what we all do. He knows he could do it differently, but he knows that he must show us, and he knows that this is the only way to show us.
- His singing is incredible. Allan Sherman used to describe his own act as “a fancy window display at Tiffany’s, with a spotlight, and a velvet pillow, and there on the pillow, is an onion.” Puddles is the opposite of this. His voice is an angel in a junkyard. It simply doesn’t make sense that so much powerful emotion could come from a big, grotesque, sloppy clown. But there it is. If he were an ordinary singer, he’d hold our attention, but as Puddles, both in appearance and in affect, we are powerless to look away.
- Like Mister Rogers, we aren’t there for him, he is there for us. He isn’t there to show off. He is there because we need help. Helping us isn’t easy – we don’t even believe we need help, and we certainly didn’t come here seeking it. But Puddles helps us, showing us that not only is it possible to love through pain, but as the New Testament points out, there is no other kind of love. Puddles stalks the stage like a wounded animal, practically limping, but never taking his eyes off of us, and occasionally entering the audience to select someone to bring to the stage. I was one of those he selected, and while I was slightly nervous at first, I’ve done enough audience participation work to feel somewhat comfortable in a situation like this. And, after all, I’d seen what happened to the last “volunteer” – puddles sang happy birthday to him, embarrassed him a little, gave him a balloon and a party hat, and sent him off the stage. I figured I could handle that. But I was not counting on what happened next – Puddles set up a microphone in front of me, and sat down on his stool on the other side of the stage. The opening bars of a Beatles song started up, and Puddles pointed at me, with that “go” look. I am not a comfortable singer. Sure, I do lots of stage stuff, I’m a very comfortable talker – but I’ve never felt good about my singing voice. I do lots of singing privately, I like music and songs. But to suddenly be on stage in front of 200 people and be expected to carry a whole song solo was paralyzing. I cannot remember having been that scared in a long time. But a show is a show, and I respect a show, so I jumped in, heart pounding, and gave it my best, thanking God it was a song in my key. I was really afraid that Puddles and the audience would make faces at my singing – but that didn’t happen! Instead, they both seemed quite impressed by my bravery! It was going so well that Puddles started reading a magazine, which made me break out laughing and miss a line. At Puddles’ prompting, the audience sang the choruses with me, and in the end, I finished it, he presented me with a crown, and we took a bow together. I know it sounds silly, but this was a really meaningful moment for me. I’ve always wanted to sing, but I can’t remember anyone ever complimenting my singing. Instead I remember what it felt like to be the only boy to try out for chorus in the 7th grade, as all the girls snickered, and the music teacher suggesting that “maybe it would be better if I did something else,” or being rejected as a candidate to do singing telegrams in high school drama club, or people making faces at my singing at a party, or in church. I never even tried karaoke, I was too self-conscious. But here was a situation where I sang, and it was okay. It wasn’t great, or anything, but it was okay. And Puddles knew what he was doing, the whole time. He knows what it is to sing in front of people, how vulnerable it makes you. And so he created this trust fall exercise. And it worked – something broke through in me, and I see a path forward now – I think I am actually going to take some singing lessons, and do more to build my confidence as a singer. I doubt everyone who has sung on Puddles’ stage has had the same experience, but I’m sure it must be a powerful experience for almost everyone. I would have been terrified just to watch it!
So, anyway, there is my oversharing about Puddles Pity Party. The show affected me another way. I’ve done some minor clowning over the years, recently developing a character I call Bottlecap, who primarily perform as when working my harmonium. I’ve done some stage work as Bottlecap as a silent character, and I really enjoyed that (here’s a video much hampered by lack of a stage microphone to capture the music). But when I work the street, I’ve never been brave enough to stay silent. People come up and ask me questions about the harmonium, and it feels rude not to answer. But after seeing Puddles’ show, I see the opposite is true – it is irresponsible of me to speak. A clown can’t do his good work if he speaks, any more than a mirror could. When people ask about the harmonium, I should do what I do on stage – show them how to play it, which gives me a chance to become their co-performer where I juggle and dance to the music they make. I’m looking forward to trying this.
So, anyway – perhaps I’m making too much of this, but I don’t think so. I think there must be many people for whom Puddles’ message of pain and love has come at just the right time. Thanks for doing this, Puddles – your good work is helping us all.