Christians Clown Around

It’s not often you meet a professional clown, let alone two. For twins Peter and David Bissell, clowning is just a part of their extraordinary lives. Each diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis at birth, they’ve had more than their fair share of challenges to overcome.  Read on to learn about finding humour in the little things.

Recently, Peter and David sat down with PRAC to share some of what they’ve learnt about life and the importance of laughter.

Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and the work you do?
Peter: I’ve been married to Shirelle for 16 years and together we have a beautiful daughter who will turn three in November. I have been a professional clown entertaining kids and adults alike for 15 years. The majority of our work is performing at children’s parties at the weekends. The adults enjoy us so much at their kids’ parties that we get invited to clown at their parties as well. We also perform at corporate gigs, schools, fetes and donate our clowning to help charities such as Cerebral Palsy League and the Royal Children’s Hospital.
David: I am married to Ilona Bissell and my occupation is a professional clown. Like Peter, I have been performing shows and entertaining children and adults for the last 15 years. My clown name is Dagwood and together we are Peebo and Dagwood.

You’ve both faced significant issues with your health over the years. Tell us a bit about what you’ve had to overcome.
Peter: Both David and I were diagnosed at birth with the life threatening illness Cystic Fibrosis (CF). Living with this illness has certainly had its challenges. Over the past 20 years I have had nearly 100 admissions into hospital with the average stay in hospital lasting anywhere from 10 days to 3 weeks. As you get older, CF leads to damaged lungs through repeat chest infections and the only option becomes a double lung transplant. In early 2005 I was listed on the lung transplant list as my total lung capacity was below 20%. I was only on the list for 6 months when I got the phone call saying they had found a match for me. The operation to transplant the new lungs went well, but in recovery things started to go wrong. I had major setbacks post transplant that landed me in intensive care with a small chance of survival. After 14 weeks and a weight loss of 22 kilograms, I was finally discharged from hospital to commence my new life with my new lungs.
David: We turn 38 this year and that is a milestone in itself. We were born 8 weeks premature and the doctors didn’t expect us to survive our first year – the first of many hurdles. Thirty-eight years ago not a lot was known about CF except that life expectancy was only 3 to 4 years. Doctors told our parents that there was a good chance we wouldn’t live past childhood, but we did and we are still here today. In recent years we faced another huge hurdle as we got to the point when we needed a transplant to continue on in life. Yet another hurdle we had to face. But we had no other choice other than to keep going. In 2005, we both received lung transplants – first me in February and then Peebo in October. The greatest gift a person can receive is life and, for us, a second chance.

Your profession seems to contradict your health predicament. How do you make others laugh whilst facing such adversity?
Peter: You have to put your own predicament to one side when focusing on making others laugh. I believe you need to make each day count. For someone like me, living with an illness only reminds me of the importance of this each and every day. The motto we choose to live by is “Live Life, Love Life and Laugh.” With this in mind, letting others forget their worries and problems through laughter is priceless. As we get older we tend to lose the child in us that laughs all the time. Clowning allows us the licence to make others laugh through our humour.
David: We find that laughter is the best medicine and making others laugh is a gift we both share. It’s a win/win: we gain so much out of it and others do as well. As Peter said, our motto is to Live Life, Love Life & Laugh and we chose to do this every day of our lives. We believe having a positive attitude and zest for living not only helps us in our journey, but everybody around us. We know we live with a limited life expectancy every day. We don’t know how long we have or what challenges may just be around the corner so we chose to make the most out of life and enjoy the time we do have, Life is not measured by quantity but rather by quality.

What are your observations about the effect of humour on people?
Peter: Humour and laughter leaves you feeling a positive experience, a natural high without the help of any substance. When you laugh or know how to make others laugh, people are drawn to that. What I have learnt over the years is that memories of laughter stay with people for life.
David: Humour is great for people. When people laugh they feel good, and that filters through into other areas of their lives. You might be having a bad day but when you laugh it seems to override anything else you might be feeling.
Christians are widely perceived as being too serious or even humourless at times. How do you think churches can use humour to engage with people?
Peter: We have performed our clown show in many church services over our years of clowning. We had a booking with one particular church to help with their Christmas carols each year. They mentioned to us their predicament of an aging church so we offered our services as clowns to help attract a younger audience to their morning service. Normally they got 40 to 50 people to the service but on the day we performed they had over 130 packed into this small church, mainly young folk with kids. They loved it.
David: Humour and laughter is usually associated with fun times and we all can remember those fun times in our lives. We have been invited on many occasions to appear at a church service and we have found it not only brings people along to the service, but the people seem to have lots of fun. It creates a family environment. Laughing and humour doesn’t discriminate, that’s the beauty of it: People of all ages, from infants through to the elderly, enjoy a good laugh.

Can you give us some trade secrets on how to crack a tough audience?
Peter: I think you have to know your audience before each gig, as this will generally determine how you approach your show. Performing at little Sally’s 5th birthday with all of her friends is very different to performing at an aged care facility where your audience has trouble hearing, seeing and sometimes understanding you.
David: We have experienced some tough audiences along the way. To crack a tough audience you have to quickly get a good feel for who they are. Once you do that, you can start build a rapport with them. You must find out what makes people laugh and what doesn’t and focus on the stuff that does. Not everyone has the same sense of humour. The other thing we have learnt is that you can’t please everyone.

You make plenty of others laugh, what makes you laugh?
Peter: People often ask me where we learnt how to clown and make others laugh and I tell them it was the “school of life.” Our training comes from reading countless Mad and Far Side comics growing up and laughing at movies such as Police Academy and anything with Leslie Nelson in it.
David: What makes a clown laugh? Good question. We tend to make each other laugh a lot, in costume and not in costume. I have my favourite comedy shows and comedians and I find them enjoyable to watch.

Trying to be funny can often go horribly wrong. What advice would you give when it comes to injecting humour?
Peter: My best advice is if you don’t know how to laugh yourself or find humour in things then don’t try and manufacture it. It has to come naturally and from within.
David: There are times when be funny is not appropriate for whatever reason. If you find yourself in that situation it’s best not to persist with it, but rather pull back a bit. Knowing your environment, the people and when to be funny are the keys. Opportunities to be funny present themselves all the time, so my best advice is simply to take them when they come.

“Finding humour in the little things”. Interview with Peter and David Bissell – Professional Clowns, by Stan Fetting. prac11.