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Grandma The Clown Is Leaving The Tent


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.


SIMON: When the bright lights beam under the Big Top of the Big Apple Circus, Grandma shuffles in. She's got a silver hair, a slow walk, a sly smile, and a purse so huge you think she might have New Jersey somewhere in there. I mean Grandma the Clown.

For the past 25 years, Grandma has headlined the Big Apple Circus. But this year's show, the "Dream Big Tour," will be her last with that circus. Grandma and Barry Lubin, the clown who created her, are moving on. Mr. Lubin is already a member of the International Clown Hall of Fame. He'll be inducted into the 2012 into the Circus Ring of Fame.

Over the past 25 years, the Big Apple Circus estimates that Grandma has made about nine million people laugh in-person.

Barry Lubin joins us from New York. Thanks for much for being with us.

BARRY LUBIN: What a pleasure. What an introduction I can't follow myself.


SIMON: How did Grandma come about?

LUBIN: Grandma was one of the many characters when I first started clowning that I tried. And the audience seemed to respond right away to it, possibly because most of the audience looked like grandma. I was in Venice, Florida with Ringling Brothers. And the effect was that this little old lady had accidentally left the stands and ended up on the hippodrome tracks. So I got a lot of attention for that.

SIMON: Either of your grandmothers implicated in this grandma?

LUBIN: Well, I would say this is a compilation of lots of senior citizens. I grew up in Atlantic City. And in the winters, and this is well before gambling, lots of senior citizens would walk up and down the boardwalk. And I love people watching, it's something that I've just always done. And it's a combination of the people that I've observed, as well as my own beloved grandmothers who I knew very well.

SIMON: How much of you is in there?

LUBIN: One of the wonderful things when I first started to clown, I was told it's really an inside job. It's not an acting job where I'm climbing into a role. It's about finding out who you are and bringing out the best or the better parts of your own personality.

Early in my career, I do remember trying to do what a normal senior citizen would do. And then I realized, really, I'm in the laugh business. So I would rather break out of the norm and use the element of surprise, and find a way to get a laugh that way.

SIMON: So, is there a surefire laugh?

LUBIN: You know, there are bits that I use quite a bit. I would say the head stand on the whoopee cushion...


LUBIN: ...with the whoopee cushion placed right by a microphone is a relatively surefire laugh.


LUBIN: Except, and I swear to you this is true, in Taiwan. I did a show at the International Clown Festival of Taiwan. And I did this bit and people just stared at me. There must be a psychology behind it. I didn't really delve that deep. But I do have some things that I've done over the years that just tend to make people happy. I'm not sure why. But in a way, sometimes my job is to just stay out of the way of the why and go for the laugh.

SIMON: You know, one of the great pleasures of watching you perform is to be able to look at the faces of children, as they watch you. And I wonder if that's something you can do when you're performing as Grandma.

LUBIN: It's a wonderful question. When I first started working, I just was so shy that I really couldn't. But now, I look at the audience all the time and I connect with them as much as possible. And at the Big Apple Circus it's a very intimate setting, no one is more than 50 feet away from the ring. And on the same side of that, I'm never more than four seconds away from sitting in somebody's lap in the front row.

I think that intimacy allows it to be a very easy communication. I try to pay as much attention as possible to the entire audience, and not so much to the people who are relatively easy to look at; because the people in back like to laugh just as much as the people sitting in the front row.

The audience, when you're in the round, is not only looking at the ring but is looking at the other people who are also responding. And I think that's a neat experience. There's something ritualistic about it and kind of spiritual.

SIMON: You have - is it two daughters you have?

LUBIN: I have Danielle who is 26. And I have Emily who is 21 in about a week.

SIMON: Well, happy birthday.


SIMON: Do they think you're funny?

LUBIN: They think I'm funny, thank God for that. And, of course, they've grown up with their dad as the clown. But there came a point in their teenage years where that was a little bit of an embarrassment. And, you know, I think that happens to a lot of kids. So, not only did they have their dad as a clown, but their dad also wears a dress.


LUBIN: So, ultimately rough.


LUBIN: And whenever they would act up - and I really did this - if they really were acting up, I would say you know what? I'm going to show up at school tomorrow dressed like you-know-what. So, do you really want me to do that?


LUBIN: And they always got in line at that point. Now that they're in their 20's, I think they're much more interested in it, and they've both performed in the circus at various times with me.

SIMON: I sent out the word that we'd be speaking with you to people on Twitter. Can I share a few questions with you?

LUBIN: I love that idea.

SIMON: Lex Koon asks: For those who suffer a fear of clowns, what from your career can you share to reassure them and get them to enjoy your work?

LUBIN: When I run into that, essentially my job is to stop being a clown and just talk to them in my own voice.

SIMON: Lance Gina asks: In this age of snarky Facebook comments, has people's sense of humor changed in 25 years?

LUBIN: The world has changed and when I'm trying to find new material I'll try to look at what's very, very present; what's really, really happening at this moment and to be able to make fun of it in a physical way. So it's possible that the sense of humor has changed but it's likely that the things that they that have absolutely changed.

I did a routine and I still do a routine occasionally on the treadmill, because they are just filled with comedy potential. And essentially I was it was bits in which I would fall off the treadmill. And also, that's really a fall, which is slapstick. I would turn on the radio and try to exercise to the radio and I would end up lip-synching. And that's something that's been done, you know, since vaudeville, really. So in the end it's really basically the audience and the personality that makes a show - and the same with a clown.

SIMON: Have you thought about your last show with Big Apple?

LUBIN: Yeah, I have and I'm trying not to. And honestly, on a daily basis, people are coming up to me to say goodbye.

SIMON: Yeah.

LUBIN: I didn't really anticipate that it would be a daily thing because the next day I show up and I want to put on the grease paint and I'm going to put on the dress and I'm going to do two more Big Apple Circus shows. But to them, that's their chance to say goodbye so it's going to be tough.

SIMON: I mean you're a clown. You make people laugh. I think a lot of people will have tears in their eyes.


LUBIN: Yeah, me too.

SIMON: Barry Lubin, Grandma the Clown, speaking with us from New York. The New York run of the Big Apple Circus with Grandma closes on January 8. The circus will go on tour until July. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.