Health

In hospitals throughout Australia a dedicated troupe of clown doctors dispenses therapeutic comic relief. By Andrew McMillen.

The clown doctors of Lady Cilento

Doctor Wobble connects with a patient on the children’s ward.
Credit: JODIE RICHTER

In a quiet and unassuming corner of Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in South Brisbane, a transformation is taking place. Inside a nondescript room are two women who seek to make people laugh so that they might forget their surroundings, if only for a few moments.

Standing before a mirror in a small room, Jenny Wynter applies eyeliner to complement the bright red circles painted onto her cheeks, before picking up a watermelon-adorned ukulele to tweak its tuning. Louise Brehmer secures a series of rainbow-coloured hair ties into her pigtailed locks, dons a purple bucket hat, and fills the pockets of her white lab coat with an array of props. The final touch? Bright red noses, naturally, for a clown can feel only naked without one.

Affixed to the lockers that occupy the back wall are photographs of six clown doctors, who work in pairs to prowl the bright-green building while spreading mirth. For a few hours at a time, these women dress up to stand out. They seek to become the lowest-status person in every room they enter; they aim for nothing more than to become the butt of their own jokes. When the red noses are on, they’re professional goofs. They act as outrageously as possible to make everyone around them feel better about themselves. “There’s not many jobs where walking down a corridor elicits a smile,” says Brehmer of their eye-catching costumes. “We’re here for the entire hospital, to bring an element of lightness to a serious place.”

Brehmer has been doing this work for 16 years, and considers it a valuable addition to her career as a freelance actor. “I’m still learning,” she says. “Some days, I have no idea what to do in a situation.” Wynter is a comparative newbie: her background is in stand-up comedy, and she has been a qualified clown doctor since June 2016, having completed her “clownternship” after making 50 appearances in the role. “It’s so much about reading the room, and being willing to change at any point,” she says. “You’ve got to show up with an open heart.”

On leaving the change room, they switch from friendly colleagues to partners in comedic crime. In the hallway outside, near an immunisation centre, they embrace and address each other by their stage names for the first time today. “Hello, Wobble!” says Wynter, who is now known as Doctor Angelina Jolly.

As soon as they round the corner, they join the general population of the public hospital’s bustling second floor, and the improvised routine begins in earnest. Within the first five minutes of finding an audience, Doctor Jolly blows bubbles and distributes squares of toilet paper to some bemused boys, Doctor Wobble uses her stethoscope to check the heart rate of a visitor’s stuffed panda, and the pair of them launch into an enthusiastic rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, accompanied by Doctor Jolly’s ukulele.

“A lot of the day is just spent cracking each other up,” says Wobble, while they ride an elevator up to the sixth floor. Jolly is wearing a pink onesie with a skeleton design, as well as silver high-top sneakers with LED lights embedded at the outer edges. The batteries are playing up, yet this malfunction adds another layer to the comedy: the lights on one boot flick on and off intermittently while she walks, drawing plenty of comments from passers-by.

On level six, they expect to find loads of families waiting for appointments on this Friday morning. Instead, there’s only a bored middle-aged couple whose eyes are focused on their phones. Without missing a beat, the pair leap in to give back rubs. “We came here just for you!” says Wobble. “We’ve been saving lives. It’s hard, but someone’s got to do it!” Jolly moseys over to a reception desk, where she plays around with a few staff she has encountered on previous rounds. She extracts some toilet paper from a pocket and writes “Clown Pit Stop” in messy letters, before enlisting a staffer to help hang it in a prominent spot on the wall.

A short walk away is a better crowd: about a dozen people of all ages, occupying a range of seats and keeping politely to themselves. Wobble pushes open the door and sits between two young women and a small boy. “Thanks for waiting,” she says, while they silently clock her ridiculous outfit. “I hear there’s going to be a concert.” Jolly follows soon after, and loudly announces to the room, “Are you guys all waiting for the concert?” They then join forces in the centre of the room and break into a raucous reading of “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift. Medical staff are drawn from their offices by the commotion; when they see the clowns, some of them pull out their phones to snap photos.

As soon as they finish, one girl loudly requests “Fireworks” by Katy Perry. Her embarrassed mother attempts to shush her, but in the spirit of improvisation, the performers gladly indulge the suggestion. A small boy offers percussion from his squeaky toy pig, while an overweight Pacific Islander boy bops from foot to foot while beaming. The two young women are loving it, and laughing so hard that only on the fourth attempt do they catch their name being called for an appointment. Wobble and Jolly high-five “the fine young man playing the pig” and pose for photos with parents and children. “Thank you, doctors,” says a receptionist as the tornado of noise leaves the room.

And so it goes, for the few hours they’re on shift today. Both women are employees of The Humour Foundation, a non-government organisation based at “Clown Central” in Sydney. This year, the foundation is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the national program, with clown doctors visiting 24 hospitals in every Australian state and territory since 1997. During that time, they’ve amassed more than two million interactions with patients, staff and parents. 

In yet another colourfully painted space, the two performers brighten the days of three bored children by launching into a haircut routine, which ends with a teenage girl wrapping toilet paper around Wobble’s head. “It really brings out your nose!” says Jolly. When they encounter a hospital staffer pushing a mail cart down a hallway, Wobble wisecracks, “Congratulations, that’s a beautiful baby!”

Their only moments of downtime are when they bend over to drink from water bubblers, or briefly wring their hands while using one of the many sanitiser dispensers located throughout the building. A whiteboard in the change room notes where the other clown doctors have visited in recent days and weeks, and so, today, Wobble and Jolly know that they’re due to visit inpatients in Ward 5D, which is for surgical and burns patients.

With multiple beds to each room, there is little privacy but for white curtains. Yet their noisy entrance into these wards tends to bring together children and families who might not otherwise interact much. Suddenly, the clowns and their inherent silliness become a social object and a story worth retelling; something to break up the monotony of the bed-bound hours that slowly tick by.

In a light-filled corner room of the same ward is a five-year-old boy who was badly burned when a boat exploded near South Stradbroke Island. Near the window, his sleeve-tattooed mother nurses a sleeping baby; a forest of shiny helium balloons is anchored to the foot of his bed. He’s shirtless and extremely talkative, having met a range of clown doctors during his weeks of calling this place home. Wobble sits on a whoopee cushion while he cackles gleefully. “That was not healthy,” says Jolly, holding her nose. 

At the end of their shift, they return to the change room to debrief. While Jolly removes her make-up to become Jenny Wynter once again, Wobble stays in costume a while longer to fill out a brief activity log and questionnaire. This will be returned to The Humour Foundation’s head office, and flow into its regular reviews of clown doctor programs at children’s hospitals around the country.

After removing her red nose, Wynter says that her highlights include the Swift and Perry “concert”, while Wobble smiles at the memory of a mother on the burns ward who told her, “You got him to laugh, and it didn’t hurt.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 11, 2017 as "Schlock therapy". Subscribe here.

Andrew McMillen
is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist, author and host of the podcast Penmanship.

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