Think Out Loud

Oregon Clown Brings Laughter Where It's Needed

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Jan. 20, 2017 9:30 p.m.

The Northwest has its share of international aid organizations. Medical Teams International and Mercy Corps provide healthcare and disaster response all over the world. But it’s not just medicine and shelter that are needed after disasters.


Portlander Michael O’Neill is a part of a different kind of relief organization. It’s called Clowns Without Borders, and it’s just what it sounds like: an organization that aims to bring a little bit of laughter to places in need of just about everything.

Clown Michael O'Neill in the Philippines.

Clown Michael O'Neill in the Philippines.

courtesy of Michael O'Neill

“We’re not as important as food or medical care or water,” O’Neill says, “but we’re pretty high on the list. Laughter can relieve stress.”


The first trip O’Neill took with Clowns Without Borders was to Chiapas, Mexico. They performed in front of hundreds of people, most of whom did not speak any English.

“Physical comedy translates on every level in every culture, in my opinion," O'Neill says. "Also we do a lot of status struggles. So the high-status clown tries to keep the low-status clown in line. And that translates to all cultures.”

O’Neill says one benefit of performing for people who don’t understand what you’re saying is that the clowns could give each other improvised stage directions. If his fellow performer saw something that was really working, says O’Neill, “he’d walk over and say ‘Michael, kick me in the butt.’ And I’d walk over and kick him in the butt, and no one would know what we were saying.”

O’Neill has since performed it South Sudan, Columbia, Haiti and the Philippines. Often they are collaborating with other nonprofit organizations, like Doctors Without Borders. “It isn’t hard to convince people that this is a very important piece of the healing process,” O’Neill says.

Though O’Neill trained to be a traditional clown at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, he says clowns have a much better reputation outside of America.

Clowns come from the soul of the human being. When I put on my red nose I'm not putting on something else; I'm kind of extending myself out to be laughed at. I'm a big, round, robust human being. And that's one of my poverties in my body. I'm fat. But that's something I make fun of because people can relate to that ... And people laugh, and it relieves a little stress.

This weekend, (Jan. 20–22) O'Neill will be premiering his one-man show, "William Shakespeare's Fools," at the Fertile Ground Festival in Portand. It consists of the monologues of twelve different fools from eight different Shakespeare plays. The idea, he says, is to make Shakespeare more accessible and to make it clear that clowning is a viable art form.

“If I travel with this and make a living with this [show],” says O’Neill, “then I can volunteer more time with Clowns Without Borders.”