Laughter League: Making sick kids smile

Two of the clowns from the Laughter League pose in the hospital

Walking through a children’s hospital accompanied by clowns is a mind-blowing experience. You get to watch the transformation on a child’s face as they crack a smile from their hospital bed. And witness a hushed waiting room break into laughter over a prat fall. Then there’s the moment a baby smiles from behind a glass wall as his grateful mom sheds tears of happiness.

It’s all in a day’s work for Dr. Mal Adjusted and Dr. Bucket Buster, two members of the 11-clown Laughter League at Boston Children’s Hospital. After a recent shift, we sat down with Dr. Maladjusted to talk about the art of clowning at a children’s hospital.

How did you become a clown at Boston Children’s?

It was a total accident. I was in an improvisation group and someone in my group saw an advertisement for the job. I made it through the first round of interviews, which was lots of improvisation and a solo piece. For the second interview, I walked around the hospital with veteran performers. At that point, I wasn’t sure if I was emotionally prepared to work in a hospital. But when they offered me the job I couldn’t say no — I had to give it a try. That was 22 years ago, and it was the best decision I ever made.

Dr. Mal Adjusted and Dr. Bucket Buster meet up with an old friend in the hospital lobby
Dr. Mal Adjusted, left, and Dr. Bucket Buster meet up with an old friend in the hospital lobby

Do you always work in pairs?

Yes. When we work together, we can create an experience and play off of one another. It also allows people to acclimate to us and makes us more approachable, so people feel more comfortable interacting with us. We have a different chemistry with each partner, so that helps keep it fresh.

Do you have a planned route every day?

We have a set schedule to make sure we get to all the major floors and clinics. But we also try to adapt to whatever is needed on a particular day. We work closely with the Child Life Department to figure out if there are any special areas we need to visit. At the beginning of our shift, we start by walking through the main lobby area. Kids usually come running up to us, and it’s a good warm-up to start the day. We’re here for everybody — the kids, parents, nurses, doctors and other staff.

Dr. Bucket Buster, a clown at Boston Children's, makes a funny face.

How do you work with kids in a hospital setting?

The biggest dynamic of our work is that the kids are in charge. Kids in the hospital don’t have a lot of control over a lot of things, so we let them know by observing from afar that they’re in control. We’re not going to step into their space until they say its OK.

Lots of kids are skeptical at first, but because we respect their space and let them know that they’re running the show, over time they get the sense that they can trust us. Some kids say “no,” and we totally respect that. But the next time they see us, there might be a little wiggle room in there. There might be someone different in the room with them that changes the dynamic or they might just be feeling better. We’ve had kids who didn’t want anything to do with us for weeks and then changed their minds. We try to not take anything personally because we have no idea what’s going on for them. We’ll just try again.

What do you do when you’re not sure someone wants to engage?

We’ll try different things, like using physical humor, magic, jokes, music, or whatever it takes. I’d say about 98 percent of what we do is improv based on a quick assessment of the room. Because we’re clowns, our job is to reflect humanity in a humorous way. If we do a magic trick, one of us will screw it up and let the kid help us get it right. Our job is to make mistakes and let the kid help us succeed.

Do you ever get it wrong?

Yeah, we get it wrong sometimes, but we just try to be humble about it and move on. Working with different partners helps ensure we’re bringing our best face to the floor all of the time and not relying on the same old jokes.

Dr. Mal Adjusted and Dr. Bucket Buster blow bubbles in the hospital hallway.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

What really makes our day is to see a patient we know doing really well. Just today, we had a patient we’ve known for years come running up to us in the lobby. She was inpatient and very sick for a long time and now she’s here for an outpatient visit. We were so happy to see her and see how well she’s doing.

What role do clowns play at the hospital?

We’re part of the circle of care at Boston Children’s that helps children and families have a human experience while they’re here. For me, it’s about making a connection — just being there in that moment. They meet us where they’re at in that moment and if we can lift them up a little bit and maybe change their day a little bit, then we’re doing our job.

Learn more about the Laughter League.

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