Life has its challenges for an American clown in London.
And its dangers: "My biggest fear was that I would get pied to death," Payne said. "But I ducked."
Payne, who has reached her mid-30s without developing the ability to keep a straight face, became the focus of one of the year's more unusual labor disputes when a leading British circus operator chose her to be one of the stars of his annual Christmas show in London.
The impresario, a never-miss-a-trick former clown named Gerry Cottle, announced he had decided to import an American because British clowns just aren't funny.
Clowns International, the unofficial British clowns' union, failed to see the humor in Cottle's snub. "Feelings are running high among British clowns," Clowns International spokesman Leon Laurence told reporters. "At a time of recession, this sort of action is not fair to British clowns. Two-thirds of our members are not in work."
So when Payne arrived Nov. 25, Heathrow Airport security officers were waiting at the gate to whisk her through the crush of reporters and camera crews who had come to meet her. Meanwhile, a gaggle of placard-toting clowns, dressed in full regalia, lay in ambush outside her hotel. When Payne's car pulled up, the clowns shouted, "Yank, go home!" and let loose their volley of pies. Payne ducked, Cottle didn't, and the newscasts had some entertaining footage for that evening's shows.
It could have been just another publicity stunt, but it turned out that the clowns were serious. "Clowns are very serious people," Cottle said with a sigh.
So many clowns are boycotting Cottle's show that he had to abandon plans to have a whole troupe of clowns and instead has just three -- Payne, plus two others. Letters from angry clowns arrive regularly. "Nobody wants to work for us," Cottle said. "Well, I don't want half of them anyway -- and they'll be back, don't worry."
Cottle said he hired Payne because his show needed a fresh element. Female clowns are rare here, black female clowns unheard of. But he still contends that British clowns lack if not tradecraft then certainly public relations skills. Payne has spent her off-hours visiting schools and delighting children; Cottle said a British clown can't be troubled to crack a smile five minutes before his shift begins.
"We're getting along fine," Payne said of her two British colleagues. "I've just had to try to learn how to make these people laugh over here."
An Air Force brat as a kid, Danise Payne grew up at bases in Illinois and Texas before settling in the Sacramento area, where she went to a branch of California State University and then got a job at an amusement park called Fairy Tale Town. One day in 1977, after she had played the role of a ventriloquist's dummy in a skit at Fairy Tale Town, a woman in the audience came backstage and told her she had a wonderfully expressive face. Had she ever considered becoming a clown?
"After I finished feeling insulted, I thought, why not?" Payne said. She went to Oakland to audition for a coveted spot at Clown College, the Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey finishing school for clowns in Venice, Fla. Payne had to wait a year, but finally got to take the eight-week Clown College course in 1978 -- and ended up being one of 15 students, out of a class of 60, to be offered jobs with the circus after graduation.
Her father, Robert Wilson, was a member of the famed Tuskeegee group of black aviators. Payne describes him as a serious, sometimes stern man. "Nobody in my family has ever done anything like being a clown," she said. "But I like to laugh, plain and simple. My mother used to call me Silly Billy."
While with the Ringling Brothers circus she met her husband, Bill Payne, who was a musician with the circus band. She also developed her two trademark characters: "Baby D," who dresses like a giant baby, and "Aunt Helen," who wears a dress and carries a purse.
Having spent two years as a clown and part-time elephant rider, she left the circus in 1980 to work as a French-speaking tour guide at the United Nations in New York. Three years later, she and her husband moved to Los Angeles, where they eke out a living in the competitive showbiz worlds of music and clowning. A few months ago, an old friend at Ringling Brothers put her in touch with Cottle, who had cast a wide net for a yuletide novelty.
Now, although the British clowns are still on the warpath, the biggest issue in Payne's professional life is trying to discern just what it is that the British find funny. It's your classic uphill battle.
Early in her run with the Cottle circus, she decided to win them over with the Levitation Gag, in which a clown appears to be levitated until it is revealed that the trick is being done with the help of hidden poles. In the United States, she said, this never fails to get a big laugh. In London, it was greeted with "dead silence." Another reliable standby, the Invisible Chair Gag, also lost a lot in translation.
In an appearance at a horse show near here, Payne tried some of her standard tricks, such as picking out a woman in the crowd and imitating her walk, or playing jokes behind a man's back. Far from being amused, the victims were horrified -- and ticked off.
So what does work? "A lot of slaps. Physical humor -- falling down on the ground, things like that. If the joke is on somebody else, they'll laugh. If it's on them, forget it."
Payne admitted that she, like other clowns, often causes unsuspecting 2-year-olds to scream in terror at the sight of a large grotesque person with a painted face and a big red nose. But even if nobody else gets the joke, she said she is having the time of her life. Backstage at the Wembley Exhibition Hall, chatting in front of the tiger cages with the 10-foot-tall stilt walkers and the Hungarian strongman dressed like a Roman centurion and the contortionist with sad eyes, Payne is in her chosen world.
"Most of these circus people go back generations," she said. "It's a way of life more than a career. It's a myth that we're all depressed inside and that we put on this mask to hide our true feelings. The first time I went out on opening night, and the lights went up, and the people cheered, I knew instantly: This is what I wanted to do."