Patch Adams: Lessons From A Lifelong Clown

I had the honor to attend a Patch Adams workshop this last weekend. Yes, Robin Williams’ Patch Adams. He showed a picture of himself and Robin on the set, they were both smiling down at a dog, unseen in the picture, defecating just in front of them. Robin asked to take the next one with the dog so they could call it three assholes.

Patch was doing a few workshops at the Performing The World Festival at the All Stars in NYC last weekend. He was one of over 100 workshops and performances in three days – all quite the demonstration of great play and ‘becoming’. Patch Adams is a clown. He’s a total clown. He’s also a medical doctor of some kind but mostly he’s a buffoon. He wore a bee costume. He threw on a bunch of rockabilly and made us dance. He told stories and read poetry. He’s held 2000 people as they died of starvation. He showed us pictures of that. He suggested that for those who lacked purpose, purpose was available.

It’s 5 days later now and I’m noticing how many takeaways I have left – and I have quite a few as it turns out.

  • He mentioned wisdom. He split the word into two: wise/dumb and had some fun with that.
  • He talked about how ‘becoming’ and ‘belonging’ were connected.
  • He read poems, long memorized sculptures of word by the masters.
  • We sang Don Quixote’s – Dream the Impossible Dream
  • We had to Bee – Cum. Yes. We did. Don’t judge me.

I’ve never been a clown fan. Even as a youngster I thought it was a strange way to get attention. But Patch Adams shocked me as he reintroduced the value of clowning to all of us.

He took a band of clowns to Easter Island where they encountered first hand the sober majesty of one of the ancient stone sculptures – and promptly put a big red nose on it. They posed for a picture – half a dozen morons and one big one in the back. It was hilarious.

I’ve long believed that the path to successful development in business, community and life is to consciously demystify and re-conceptualize our processes and our environment. That’s what Patch was doing right in front of us. He was demystifying our culture and re-conceptualizing it – so we could become what we chose, in real time.

The next pictures were of him posing with world leaders – all sharing enormous four-legged underwear with him. Political leaders from Central and South America from Asia – all laughing, standing with him in bright white underwear built for two. It will likely be in moments like those where we will find ourselves and become what we truly wish rather than resign ourselves to whatever we’ve inherited.

Patch reflected on the pursuit to build his hospital. He began the movement to build his teaching center in 1971, certain that it wouldn’t take more than four years. It’s taken ten times that long and the only thing he is, is deeply grateful for the journey. Ground broke on his complex in 2011 and should be finished soon. A crazy, free hospital in West Virginia, I wondered if it might be a tourist destination too.

The next pictures were of him and some religious leaders. He has some party snot he asks them to wear – a long skinny rope of fake snot that one can stick to the inside of the nostril. He promises them that it’s clean – and they hang it from their nose. Imagine some of the holiest people in the world, bent over from laughter with a great long snot dangling from their face. It’s vulgar, inappropriate and hysterical. In a brief moment, these great holy leaders are demystified and their very purpose is turned upside down. Snot.

Demystification and re-conceptualization are competencies that we can practice – like riding a bike or playing the piano. If my business is suffering, if my practice is stale – if the feedback I’m getting is that my industry is broken, the last thing I want to do is resign myself to whatever I’ve inherited. I want to demystify it and re conceptualizing it. If I don’t have an answer for what we will become, I need a practice that will help me find it. Clowning – is just such a practice.

Clowning also requires some considerable courage – as does demystifying something we care deeply for, even if it’s to help it become something better. Wearing a clown costume in a war zone takes some courage

So – a big thank you to the All Stars and Patch Adams – I’m going to put on my bear suit and go for a coffee.


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