Professional clowns keep laughs going
CHARLESTON (AP) – Tom and Jessica King didn’t think much of the movie “The Guilt Trip.”
They weren’t the only ones. The 2012 Barbra Streisand-Seth Rogen comedy disappointed at the box office and even earned Streisand a Golden Raspberry Award nomination for worst actress. (Streisand “lost” to Kristen Stewart for “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2.”)
Just the same, Jessica said, even a so-so movie can still be fun – for the right people.
They’re both professional clowns; members in good standing with Clowns of America International, an arts organization that supports clowning and professional and amateur clowns.
Tom, a past president of the group, has been a performer for more than 25 years.
They know how to make each other laugh.
“Tom isn’t afraid to talk through a movie,” Jessica said and then looked over at her husband.
The 67-year-old nodded and grinned.
“We were at the theater in Huntington and he was making fun of some ladies sitting near us,” she said.
But then there was a lull in the jokes.
She said, “A little while later, I hear what sounds like he’s snoring.”
Fun was fun, but Jessica finally told him, “If you’re bored, we can go.”
Tom shook his head, uncommitted.
She asked him, “Yes or no?”
Tom said nothing. He just looked at her, bewildered.
“Say anything,” Jessica demanded.
But Tom couldn’t. In that darkened theater, he’d suffered a stroke.
“It was the weirdest feeling,” she said. “Being in the movie theater with all of those people and feeling all alone.”
Tom doesn’t remember the stroke and he doesn’t say much about it. Over a year since the stroke, Tom struggles with short phrases.
Rather than impairing his motor control or his memory, the stroke wreaked havoc with the part of Tom’s brain that controls communication. It’s unbalanced. He’s able to follow conversation, but has trouble joining in. The words don’t come – even writing them out can be a struggle.
The condition is called aphasia. It’s usually brought on by brain injury. Some form of aphasia occurs in 30 percent of all strokes. Types of aphasia include a loss of speech, the inability to understand spoken language and the loss of reading and/or writing skills.
“More people have aphasia than have Parkinson’s disease,” Jessica said.
“We don’t have Fox,” Tom said adamantly.
His wife translated.
“We just don’t have a Michael J. Fox to be the face of it.”
Her husband nodded.
Recovery for Tom has been steady and is ongoing. He was hospitalized for weeks. During that time, he and Jessica reconsidered where their relationship was. They’d worked, dated and then lived together for several years. The crisis put things into perspective.
They married in April.
“He’d just got home from the hospital,” Jessica said. “We came home on a Sunday. I bought the dress and planned the thing inside of a week. A friend of a friend married us and wrote the vows so Tom wouldn’t have to say anything.”
The ceremony took place in the gazebo at 14th Street in west Huntington. They invited all the friends they could rustle up on such short notice and kept the reception simple: just a cookout with cupcakes.
They’re very happy.
Tom is getting better, but returning to work has been slow going. It’s a lot to bounce back from.
The year before the stroke was, professionally, one of Tom’s best. For nine months, he’d been on the road for Cole Bros. Circus, acting as their ambassador.
“He’d come to towns they were going to play a week ahead of the show,” Jessica explained. “He’d visit schools and do little clowning jobs to let people know about the circus.”
Cole Bros., they said, was willing to renew the contract and bring him back out on the road again, but Tom couldn’t really do that sort of work anymore.
Still, he’s an entertainer. It’s a profession, and not a particularly forgiving one.
“You don’t get sick days when you do this,” she said.
So, for the last several months, he’s taken a more secondary role for clowning jobs. He’s handed out balloons and let his wife do most of the work – but the couple has a plan.
“He’s the funny one, I’m the pretty one,” she said. They both grinned. “We’re working on a whole new show.”
They’ll play to Tom’s strengths; not surprisingly, he doesn’t say much, but Tom doesn’t have to. The couple is also working on a clown-related program they can take nationally to aphasia support groups, to help others cope with the change in their lives.
“We think he can have an impact,” Jessica said.
Tom nodded seriously. He thought so too.
And while aphasia doesn’t have a celebrity like Michael J. Fox to promote awareness and act as a spokesman for the condition, they could have a clown.
Tom was recently named Clown of the Year by the members of the Clowns of American International, an organization that represents about 5,000 professional clowns across the country and around the world.
Jessica said Tom was nominated, but the nomination is almost the easy part. In order to be seriously considered, nominees have to submit a three-ring binder full of paperwork, including a rsum of trainings and jobs, copies of any and all awards; basically a detailed outline of a performer’s history in clowning.
The committee also requires 10 references.
“These aren’t just people who like you,” she said. “They have to be people who have some experience with your work in the clown arts.”
Still, many of them were friends. They called him an inspiration and a performer who has shared with them over the years.
Tom is still giving back.
“Even with the touring we hope to do, we want to do more locally for clowning,” Jessica said. “You have to encourage young people to do this. There just aren’t as many clowns as there used to be, and if we don’t support the kids who are interested, it will die out.”
They can do that together, they say.
Meanwhile, the couple is still adapting to the changes in their lives, and Tom is still recovering.
“There’s a certain amount of humility to the whole process,” Jessica acknowledged. “We have to work at it every day. We do homework every night, and he’s had to relearn how to read.
“I have to make him talk, when it used to be I had to tell him to shut up.”
“You don’t have to do that anymore.”
His wife groaned. No, she doesn’t have to, but sometimes she still might want to.