The Last of the Dunk Tank Clowns

All David Simmons wants is a chuckle, a smile even, to set the hook and reel folks again to his sales space with extra stinging insults — the weight of a person’s date, or the low cost end of a girl’s faux gold hoop earrings.

Mr. Simmons, who’s 33 and referred to as Patches, is a dunk-tank clown. He makes a dwelling by shouting insults at passers-by at America’s small-town fairgrounds.

He is an anachronism in a moist go well with and waterproof make-up, a gravelly voice with a microphone roasting folks onerous whereas they’re in his sightlines. His is a task extra delicate and inclusive world is now sweeping into the dustbin, not lengthy after we did away with gawking at the bearded girl and two-headed boy.

Patti and Millie, his barkers, supply up revenge to the insulted: $2 for 3 baseballs and an opportunity to “drown the clown.” The recreation is straightforward, and as expertise primarily based because it will get for notoriously grifty carnival video games. If you hit a tea-plate-size goal with a ball, a lever beneath Mr. Simmons’s perch disengages, dropping his hulking body into 150 gallons of lukewarm water.

“That’s the sound of making money,” Mr. Simmons mentioned. “It’s like being laundry — you know what I’m saying — up and down, and by the end of the night, I’ll tell you, it feels like you done got the grater too.”

Dunk tank clowns, Mr. Simmons mentioned, are fading away in a world the place American are starting to consider that cracking jokes about folks’s pores and skin shade, dimension, poverty or intelligence is possibly not factor.

“They’re retiring left and right,” he mentioned. “They’re being run out of town.”

Our style for insults appears to be evaporating.

Tom Miller, a retired dunk tank clown referred to as Bozo, out of central Maine, mentioned there was at all times one particular person at each honest he labored who bought rankled by being insulted — and that these numbers rose in the final decade. Mr. Miller, now 65, mentioned he tried to adapt towards the finish of his 20-year profession, fighting each arthritis and new cultural norms.

“I miss the old days when I could weight-shame you,” he’d yell to somebody making an attempt to dunk him.

The invention of the dunk tank clown exhibits simply how far the line of what is taken into account acceptable for a society has moved over the a long time.

The African Dip was a preferred carnival attraction in the early 20th century. It featured a black man, usually dressed as an “African savage” with a jungle backdrop, perched above a tank that generally resembled a caldron.

This was already an amazing development ahead from the African Dodger, an much more racist, flat-out violent attraction that may’t even be known as a recreation. A 1924 assist needed advert, reprinted by the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, lays out the duties of the dodger matter-of-factly:

“He just puts his head through a hole in a big piece of canvass and permits the aforesaid head to be used as a target by young men who toss baseballs,” the ad read.

There was no cage blocking those balls. Sometimes people cheated and threw rocks. Board games were created for anyone who couldn’t get to the fair.

The somewhat tamer African Dip drifted away from fairs around the 1950s, after states banned them.

The clowns took up their perch. And at least a little of this dynamic lingers.

Mr. Simmons grew up in Syracuse, the son of Thomas Simmons, known as Doc, and Sally Simmons, known as Smiley, two carnival workers who met while working a game of chance.

David’s mother is white, and, in Syracuse, he said, kids accused him of not being black enough, calling him a “yellow bird.” When he moved south to Nedrow after a house fire, it was the opposite: He said he was called racial slurs daily. He ran away from home at 15.

Abrasive humor suited him as a defense, an age-old story shared by many people who use humor for a living. Take Jeff Ross, one of the comedy world’s pre-eminent roasters.

“For me it was self-defense, a survival mechanism growing up in Newark and working in my dad’s catering hall and being one of the only Jewish kids on the football team,” Mr. Ross, 53, said. “I always used comedy to break tension and defuse tense situations in real life.”

Mr. Ross, who will lead the Comedy Central Roast of Alec Baldwin on Sept. 15, said he salutes the dunk tank clowns eking out a living on the road, as long as they respect a line.

“People need to have thick skin. Life is hard,” Mr. Ross said. “People need to be able to take a joke, and I think the dunk tank sort of exemplifies that.”

Mr. Simmons is the ruder of the two clowns who spent 11 days working the “Drown the Clown” sideshow at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, N.Y., which is about 13 miles south of Buffalo. It’s one of the biggest fairs in the United States, but just a blip on the late-summer and early fall fair season in the more rural stretches of America. For Mr. Simmons, Vermont would be next; Virginia after that.

Watching Mr. Simmons in action in the tank, it’s natural to flinch in 2019 — to scan the crowd to see if anyone is truly angry, to see which fairgoer is stomping off to the office or firing up a tweet to amplify their outrage.

But here on the ground his victims are mostly laughing, the white cheerleaders, the women he calls out to in Spanish — “Abuela! Abuela!” He goads black men about bad fades or for walking at the fair without any women by their side.

“It’s not black people that complain about black comics, it’s white people,” Mr. Simmons said. “It’s like, ‘You’re not even in the joke, go away.’”

Manuel Ortiz, a 37-year-old semiretired dunk tank clown from South Florida who goes by the name Baby Bozo in the cage, said the color of a clown’s skin, the sound of his voice, and which state he is parked in that night all determine what a clown can get away with.

Mr. Simmons and Mr. Ortiz agree: the farther north you get, the more sensitive the crowd is. And California? Forget it.

Mr. Simmons said his favorite fair is in Augusta, Ga., because he is basically uncensored. He doesn’t work the big, national motorcycle rallies, though.

“Most of those are open carry,” he said. “I’m not dumb.”

White clowns can get in the most trouble, Mr. Simmons and Mr. Ortiz both said.

“I still feel the same way I did then. It’s something that needs to go away,” said Ms. Jones, who lives in Atoka, Tenn. “I know you have to rile people and get them mad, but I think it crosses the line when you’re offensive, when you’re offending someone. So, yeah, I think it should go away.” She said the clown that insulted her in front of her children in Memphis was white.

That’s why, at the fair in Hamburg, Chris Angle, known as Jackels, from Fort Wayne, Ind., does the day shift. It’s when children and parents are more likely to be wandering about.

“I mean you’ve seen him, right? He’s Indiana white,” Mr. Simmons said. “I’m not like him. I’m a nighttime clown, and I’m a lot more vulgar. I’m the reason those signs were made — and that was to stop us from getting sued.” That plastic sign warns passers-by that they’re about to enter the “Insult Zone,” that something “funny, rude, obnoxious, hilarious, or dumb” may get slung their way, at their own expense.

Mr. Angle, 46, worked the funnel cake, cotton candy and chicken dinner booths at the fair long before he started clowning several years ago. He’s gotten in a “little trouble” but not as much as Mr. Simmons.

By Mr. Simmons’s estimate, there are now 10, at most, working tanks across the country today. No one else seems to be keeping hard, historical numbers on this small slice of weird America.

The last few soldier on. Mr. Ortiz broke a foot in the dunk tank, a hand too, but may put on the makeup once more for Santa’s Enchanted Forest, a holiday-themed fair that runs for several months each year in Miami. The Cuban-Americans who attend the event love him, he said, so he likes to stick to Florida.

“It’s a dying art, making people laugh at themselves,” he said.

At the Erie County Fair, as a tie-dyed sunset swirled out over the midway, past the wine slushie stands and deep fried whatever-you-wants, Mr. Simmons’s grating voice cackled out from his cage.

People sat on the metal benches, trying to guess which person Mr. Simmons would pick on next, an open-air comedy show in the vein of Don Rickles or Richard Pryor.

“We just came to sit and listen,” said Zenaida Piotrowicz, 62, who was laughing along with her husband, Bob. “He mostly says the things you’re thinking in your head.”

“Ha, you know you’re trailer park trash if you wear a T-shirt with your cigarette brand on the chest,” Mr. Simmons, 33, yelled to one man, who kept on walking.

“I’m probably paying child support for you, kid,” he barked to a teen jawing back at him.

At last, around 10:30 p.m., Millie the barker called out for “ballplayers” a few last times. But the crowd had thinned. Mr. Simmons rested on his bench, mostly quiet, the occasional vape cloud escaping between the bars.

He’d been dunked well over 100 times over the last five hours. Each dunking required him to do a pull-up out of the water to get back to his seat. He was sore, and his voice all the more gravelly from cackling so much.

The next stop for the dunk tank would be the Champlain Valley Fair in Essex Junction, Vt. Mr. Simmons thought that would be a good place to wear the red Make America Great Again hat he keeps in his cage. From there, he’d keep on going, on and on across America, at least until winter comes.

“I basically get paid to call people stupid,” Mr. Simmons said. “They lied in school when they said you can’t make a living being a smartass.”

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