Kolleen blows bubbles in Lesvos

What Difference Does a Clown Make?

Welcome to a new blog series, with contributions by CWB – USA’s wonderful board members!

Board member Tim Cunningham is a graduate of the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre (’01) and has performed with CWB in 11 countries outside of the United States. Within the borders of the US, Cunningham has performed, lectured and facilitated workshops about CWB’s mission and work at universities and high schools. He received his doctoral degree from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Board president David Rosenthal is currently an Associate Professor and the Director of Management Programs in Health Policy and Management in the Mailman School of Public Health and a behavioral faculty member in the Center for Family and Community Medicine, Columbia University.

CWB – USA often fields questions about the effectiveness of our work. Are we making any difference in peoples lives? Isn’t it frivolous to bring clowns into disaster situations when people are in need of food, water, and shelter? Years ago, a CWB donor lambasted us for “only” bringing clowns. This person asked us, “Why can’t you bring shoes as well? Or other clothing items to give away?” We explained that with just clowns, there is an entire realm of intangible, yet essential, healing that can take place.

And yes, the donor decided to continue contributing!

As you follow this blog, consider reading the footnotes and references. We (Tim and David) are recovering academics and it’s hard for us to write anything that doesn’t include citations. They’re here to support our work and to help answer the question: “Why Clowns Without Borders?”

Living Without Laughter

First, imagine that you’re 10 years old. You’ve been forced to leave your home, possibly your country, and face an uncertain future. Each day, you scrape for food and make sure your shelter doesn’t collapse. You worry that someone in your family might get sick, and medical care isn’t easily accessible. You might wonder, “Do I have a school to go to? A place to hang out with my friends? Or even a safe place to play, to laugh?”

Now, ask yourself, “What would my life be like without laughter?”

Sabine in Lesvos with hoops

Since its founding, Clowns Without Borders USA has focused on a basic idea: Go where you’re invited and go when you’re invited. The purpose of an invitation is to create relationships within the communities we visit, and to avoid imposition. We don’t show up with the first responders. We wait until people have the most basic necessities, like shelter and access to food and water, before we arrive. Once those needs are addressed, people can think about inviting us. So while we don’t bring shoes, we bring smiles for people who might not have much to smile about. Our goal is to provide a degree of normality and play in the lives of children, through laughter.

But do those moments make any difference? We see the impact of our work during every project, and we hear from parents, children and community members. But all the anecdotal evidence and testimonies in the world might not convince someone who’s skeptical about “just clowns.”

The Supporting Research

While the research in this area is far from conclusive, many believe that laughter can make a difference. For example, humor and laughter may help create environments that encourage learning. Educational experts suggest that laughter in a class setting can reduce anxiety, build relationships and improve student performance.1 One of our performing volunteers, Clay, reminds us, “We all laugh in the same language.”2 He points out the ability for laughter to communicate across linguistic and cultural barriers.

We also know that humor and laughter improve physical health.3 Laughter can decrease inflammation in the body (inflammation can make you sick, weak, and have a decreased immune response to fight back against disease and infection)4; it can make pain feel less painful5; and it’s good for the young and old alike!6

So when people say to us, “You need to bring more than just clowns,” we tell them that we are also bringing—rather, sharing—health through laughter.

1 Savage, Brandon M., Heidi L. Lujan, Raghavendar R. Thipparthi, and Stephen E. DiCarlo. “Humor, laughter, learning, and health! A brief review.” Advances in physiology education41, no. 3 (2017): 341-347.
2 From Al Jazeera, 2018, available at: http://share.ajplus.net/shared/9442
3 Foot, Hugh. Humor and laughter: Theory, research and applications Routledge, 2017.
4 Bains, Gurinder, Lee Berk, Everett Lohman, Noha Daher, and Belinda Miranda. “Decrease in Inflammation (CRP) and Heart Rate Through Mirthful Laughter.” The FASEB Journal 31, no. 1
5 Elmali, Hülya, and Reva Balci Akpinar. “The effect of watching funny and unfunny videos on post-surgical pain levels.” Complementary therapies in clinical practice 26 (2017): 36-41.
6 Ellis, Julie M., Ros Ben ‘Cambria Math’, Moshe, and Karen Teshuva. “Laughter yoga activities for older people living in residential aged care homes: A feasibility study.” Australasian journal on ageing 36, no. 3 (2017).
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One thought on “What Difference Does a Clown Make?

  1. Bravo. There is no such thing as “just” clowns in my opinion. I have seen the effects with my own personal experiences clowning in hospitals. I have had mothers hug me and thank me profusely for making their family and child laugh. It is a moment I would never trade for a million gazillion dollars. Thanks to all the CWB clowns out there making a difference. NEVER let the skeptics deter you from the work/play!

    A proud supporter, Chip Daly

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