Saturday, May 30, 2015

A Clown, For Christ's Sake: The curious career of Rev. Floyd T. Shaffer

A tabloid article about Floyd Shaffer, the religious clown.

Floyd Shaffer's first book.
The Reverend Floyd T. Shaffer was looking for a new way to reach his congregation in 1969. How could he possibly get through to his practical, sensible flock during that tumultuous age of Vietnam, Woodstock, and Manson? The unlikely answer was by donning a fright wig, floppy shoes, and a round, red, rubber nose.

Though he may not have invented the form, Floyd Shaffer became, for a time, perhaps the most prominent and beloved proponent and practitioner of religious clowning in America. Born circa 1930 in the Detroit area, the kindly and gentle Shaffer was a devout, deeply sincere Lutheran minister whose career trajectory took him from Michigan to Maryland to Ohio. In fact, Shaffer experienced his greatest period of productivity and prominence in the Buckeye State during the Reagan-Bush years. But to appreciate this man's story in full, we must travel back to the Age of Aquarius.

Destined to become a literal Holy Fool, Floyd Shaffer started upon his unusual path in the late 1960s in Columbia, Maryland, where he preached God's word at the still-existent Abiding Savior Lutheran Church. It was at Abiding Savior that Shaffer first introduced costumed clowning into his ministry and encouraged others to follow his example. According to fellow religious clown John Garrett, Floyd was aligning himself with a liturgical tradition stretching back to the Middle Ages, when so-called "holy interrupters" would lighten the mood of formal services with their comedic outbursts. Although a keen student of clowning history, Shaffer was more likely influenced by the counterculture of his own time. Clowning and mime were art forms beloved by hippies, who also had a penchant for face-painting and the donning of colorful, garish clothing. Back in 1969, a preacher dressed as a clown could almost be considered edgy or hip.

In those early years, Shaffer and his ilk were not always welcome among mainstream Christians. The soft-voiced pastor related to his followers the story of his disastrous appearance at a 1970s youth conference held at Houston's famed Astrodome. There, Shaffer and his fellow beneficent buffoons were regarded with extreme skepticism. Thinking the clowns were blasphemous, the other conference attendees derided and, in some cases, attacked Shaffer's troupe. Arlene Trapp, an original acolyte of Shaffer, recalled being "treated like Jesus, kicked at, hit, and mocked."

Still in all, Shaffer's tomfoolery-based evangelism must have yielded positive results in those early days, because he kept at it. In 1974, still based in Columbia, he founded Faith and Fantasy, a nondenominational clown ministry popular enough to have lasted into the 1990s, though its alumni remember it as a loosely-affiliated "non-organization" whose members were never keen on rules. During these years, determined to spread the message of Christ through the techniques of Emmett Kelly and Marcel Marceau, Shaffer and his followers performed their wordless, mime-based act at weekly Lutheran services and also visited numerous hospitals and nursing homes, where they found an appreciative, if captive, audience for their antics.

By 1981, having relocated to Ohio, Floyd Shaffer was well-known enough to attract the attention of the popular press. In August of that year, the black-and-white tabloid Weekly World News ran a profile of Shaffer with the headline "Preacher clowns for God to fill the pews." While essentially flattering to the clown minister, the article also described him as "wacky" and "bizarre."

The Christian Science Monitor followed suit in September with a slightly more dignified article by Stewart McBride headlined "Holy fools rush in." More wide-ranging than the Weekly World News piece, McBride's article looks at different examples of clown ministry from across the United States. In this context, rather than the isolated kook portrayed in the tabloid, Floyd Shaffer is part of a vital, burgeoning movement. The Monitor still recognized Shaffer as a pioneer, however, calling him "one of the first clergymen to perform a Sunday service in whiteface and clown costume" and declaring that "hundreds have followed in his suit of many colors."

The cover of the infamous video.
A few years after these articles introduced the Christian clown phenomenon to a national audience, Floyd Shaffer began writing a series of guidebooks about the topic dearest to his heart. If I Were a Clown and Clown Ministry appeared in 1984. Clown Ministry Skits for All Seasons followed in 1990. Of these, it is Clown Ministry that brought Shaffer a sort of strange, late-blooming, ironic notoriety in the Internet Age. The book was accompanied by a 92-minute instructional video that, decades later, was widely excerpted and mocked (shades of the unhappy Astrodome experience!) on video-sharing sites like eBaum's World, Daily Motion, and YouTube.

That was how I first became acquainted with Floyd Shaffer and Clown Ministry. In February 2011, comedians and avid thrift store scavengers Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher used clips from Shaffer's 1984 video in an episode of their web series, The Found Footage Show, which they produced for the A.V. Club website. They said they found the VHS tape at a church rummage sale. "This one was intended for budding Christian clowns who wanted to start their own clown ministry," explained Prueher. "I've never understood the connection between Christianity and clowning, and this video certainly didn't help." To which Pickett added: "Really, this video is the best argument against putting your grandparents into a nursing home."

For those whose curiosity has been piqued, the entire Clown Ministry video is now available for viewing on YouTube. In these 92 minutes, Floyd Shaffer walks us through the history and purpose of Christian clowning, demonstrates how to properly apply clown makeup, and even lets us tag along on a typical nursing home visit. It is this last aspect of the video which has attracted the most attention and ridicule over the years, as the elderly patients here seem bewildered and frightened, rather than delighted, by the antics of Shaffer and company.

Floyd Shaffer today
"The clown has no age," Shaffer optimistically told the Weekly World News in 1981. Mankind, however, is not immune from the ravages of time. Now 85 years old and comfortably retired since at least 2006, Floyd Shaffer has returned to his home state of Michigan, where he lives with his wife in Saginaw. The couple have two grown children. Though no longer clowning, Floyd Shaffer is still a loyal follower of the Lutheran faith. The man's longstanding influence on the world of Christian clowning remains undeniable. In a September 2013 article on the World Clown Association website, Janet "Jellybean" Tucker recalled how seeing Shaffer changed her life; "It was in 1979 or 1980 at a Clown, Mime, Puppet, Dance Ministry Workshop in Oberlin, Ohio, and I saw Floyd Shaffer do a bit on feeding the hungry where his clown ate gobs of popcorn but offered it to a hungry person one kernel at a time. I began reading the Bible through different eyes and began to see the Bible characters as real people."

Obviously, despite the snickering of the internet, Shaffer's message got through to some viewers. As recently as April 2015, Christine Fontaine, a religious-minded mime in Northfield, Massachusetts, contacted Floyd by phone to seek his advice and counsel on how to proceed with her work. The two talked for an hour. As always, Floyd Shaffer remained committed to clowning for Christ.

        Suggested further reading: