Bert and 'Bin,' making me laugh again

My nonstop United flight left JFK Airport for Seattle at 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 11. I had just spent the weekend in meetings and workshops for my unusual vocation: I'm a professional clown.

Thirty of us tumbled, flipped, and explored the art of clowning on the 29th floor of the Empire State Building. I spent three wonderful evenings looking out at the Hudson River from my New York hotel room. Monday night before my departure, I walked the streets of Greenwich Village, soaked but somehow comforted by the hard rain.

Early Tuesday morning was clear and beautiful. An older Puerto Rican cabby drove me to the airport, passionately talking about the day's elections and how great New York City had become since Rudy Giuliani became mayor. "See that corner right there?" he said. "You would not have been able to sleep there eight years ago. Now, you can sleep there peacefully."

A few hours later on the plane, flight attendants politely but vaguely explained our unscheduled landing. I ended up stranded in Minneapolis for the next four days, watching on TV the horrible events in the city I had just left behind.

There's so much to share and tell about this experience and how the dark days since Sept. 11 have influenced my clowning. But nothing has been as powerful and cathartic as the now-famous Bert and bin Laden Poster Affair.

Last week was the hardest time I've had yet since the terrorist attacks. Fear surrounded me like a dark cloud. It started Monday, when I decided for the first time in my life to stock up on food and water, an action that may have just fed my fear. On Tuesday and Wednesday, we received several hang-up calls. On Thursday, the FBI warned of the 100 percent likelihood of more terrorist acts. All week, I went to my evening job in the shadow of Seattle's Space Needle, a potential terrorist target.

Then, on Saturday morning, things changed. The world learned about how a Pakistani printer ended up printing thousands of posters for protesters using photos of Osama bin Laden with Sesame Street's frowning Bert (of Bert and Ernie fame) peering over his shoulder. I laughed and howled and laughed again until the good tears flowed. My 7-year-old daughter said: "Mommy, let me see your face." A beautiful, poignant, sad moment. She hadn't seen me laugh hard in a while. Throughout the day, I laughed whenever I thought of it. And that night, I realized that the black cloud of fear had lifted. I curled up under my covers and cried, and reflected.

Why had this absurd event hit me so deeply? Then it occurred to me: The universal trickster was among us again.

Historically, the role of both trickster and clown makes us look at our human foolishness. A good clown reflects honestly both the darkness and light of human affairs. It's a difficult balance: One must enter into that dark shadow of our motives and actions, and reveal them for all to see, understand, and learn from, while - one hopes - laughing. For me, the free-spirited Ernie and the scowling, rule-bound Bert always represented common opposites in human impulses. That's why kids love them so much.

Trickster, through Bert, pulled off the nearly impossible. He allowed us to look at the most terrifying image we have now - Osama bin Laden - and made us laugh. Imagine if everyone in the world knew who Bert was. Clearly, the Pakistani printer didn't.

I laugh more, imagining the moment when Mr. bin Laden says to his men, "Who is that next to me?!" and his men reply, "Well, sir, we looked into it, and it's Bert, the puppet from the infidels' kids- television show."

For us, in that moment of seeing Bert next to "Bin," we laugh, all at once. We stop. For just a few precious moments, all the fear and sadness and anger fall away. This is what happened for me last Saturday.

In the meantime, Bert's little head bobs up and down on posters in Pakistan. I see with him not only the trickster's deed but also the spirit of all the children who have laughed at the Bert inside of all humanity. As a clown, I believe nothing is more powerful than the combination of truth and laughter.

Kate Smith is a professional clown with the Big Apple Circus clown-care unit, which performs in children's hospitals.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.