“Come on in folks, it’s a perfectly good waste of your money,” is a signature line of Tom Miller, whose “Drown the Clown” concession opens on the midway today at the Agricultural Fair.
Mr. Miller makes his living by enticing people to part with five dollars, for three chances to throw a baseball at a target, and to drop him into a four-foot deep tank of water.
“I’m being honest, it is a perfectly good waste of money,” he said in an interview at the fairgrounds earlier this week.
Mr. Miller has built a considerable following in the nine years he’s performed at the fair. It’s one of his favorite stops of the season. “I love playing the Vineyard because it’s a smart audience,” he said. “My jokes don’t go over their head. It’s tough to make a Mensa joke when no one knows what Mensa is. I’m only as good as my audience.”
Over his 30-year carnival career, Mr. Miller has performed at fairs from Maine to Florida. He spent his first 10 years operating a rope ladder concession. Then, in the mid-1990s, he made the jump to dunk tank clown. “I was friends with a lot of clowns, but I’d never done it,” he recalled. “My first time was at the Yarmouth Clam Festival. I was scared to death. But I loved it from day one. It was a lot easier on me than climbing a rope ladder all day. And I finally had an office with a desk. The chair’s a little tricky sometimes, but I have a great view.”
Mr. Miller’s improbable career path started in 1982, when he was scrambling to complete a portfolio for his undergraduate photography degree. “I was at the University of Delaware, procrastinating an independent study project, when I came across the James E. Strates shows, set up in a field next to the General Motors plant,” he said. “Strates Shows were legendary, old-school carnivals, with freak shows, burlesque shows, the whole bit.
“After I processed the film, I thought I had quite a few keepers, so I went back to see if I could sell some and before I knew it, I was in Mr. Strates’s office trailer. He offered me a berth on the train and all the film I needed. I spent the summer of 1982 as artist in residence of the last remaining train show in the U.S.
“Mr. Strates warned me, ‘This will get in your blood. The sawdust gets in your blood,’ and he was right,” Mr, Miller added, shaking his head as if he’s still bewildered by the kismet that led him to become a professional dunk tank clown.
Several years into his clowning, Mr. Miller met a mentor who played a crucial role in making him the star Bozo he is today. “At a carnival in West Virginia I worked with Ken Dickman, and he helped me hone my craft,” he said. “He taught me how to work on my laugh, how to draw people in. He’d stand behind the cage and tell me to get up quicker, and he’d critique my jokes. He also told me not to give anything away, you only insult the people who play. I owe Ken a lot. He’s one of the best Bozos I know.”
A Youtube search of dunking clowns didn’t show any video of Mr. Miller. Instead, it showed an assortment of profanity spewing, combative, profoundly unfunny men in clown make-up, none with much of an audience.
Mr. Miller takes a different tack. He’s more of a stealth “hydro-humiliation therapist,” as he puts it. If a bookish type manages to dunk him, he might say “Do that again and I’m taking your library card.” If a middle-aged man dunks him, he might ask how if feels to get lucky without a little blue pill, which is as blue as he works.
He also throws out the occasional trivia question for a free baseball. But the well-read clown doesn’t make them easy. “Only one person knew who Gerald Ford’s vice president was,” said Mr. Miller. “And he was a political correspondent for NPR.”
A burly, middle-aged man with clown-size 15 feet, Mr. Miller can somehow emote child-like innocence, sitting on his perch, swinging his legs, singing, “I need a ballplayer,” with a cheshire smile. Once he’s landed his prey, he can skewer with surgical precision, sometimes so subtly, they don’t realize it until they walk away. Sometimes he’s blunt. He pushes the limits of political correctness, which probably accounts for some of his popularity.
“Things have definitely become more politically correct over time. I did have to stop using the f-word…fat,” he said. “Fat people know they’re fat. I know I’m fat. But you can’t say that anymore. So you just have to get creative.”
Playing the Vineyard fair also makes for chance encounters with celebrities of all stripes. “I don’t discriminate, I insult everybody equally. Spike Lee came to my booth, I asked him where his brother Ug was.”
And what does a dunk tank clown do, as was the case two summers ago, when the daughter of the President of the United States approaches? “Sasha came up to play the game, and I thought, okay, not a good time to choke.” Mr. Miller said. “She put down her money and I said “I thought you were saving that…for postage stamps…for love letters…for Justin Bieber.’ Sasha made it clear she was not a Justin Bieber fan. Then the secret service guy dunked me. A perfectly good waste of government money — what’s new?”
Correction: The print version of this story should have credited the photos to chrisscottsnyder.com.