New York's best-known party clown talks about magic, psychology and life after Capturing the Friedmans
By Howard Halle|
By many a New York parent's reckoning, Silly Billy is the best-known party clown in town, entertaining the offspring of people like Madonna, George Soros and Bruce Springsteen. Until recently, he has also harbored a dark secret: His father, Arnold Friedman (now deceased), and brother Jesse were convicted pedophiles, accused of stalking their prey during private computer lessons given in their Long Island home.
That secret was famously exposed in Andrew Jarecki's remarkable documentary, 2003's Capturing the Friedmans. Silly Billy—who changed his name from David Friedman to David Kaye about ten years ago—provided the home movies and videotapes that are the centerpiece of Jarecki's film, which started out as a look at Kaye's clowning career.
Kaye's footage, which shows the family unraveling under the pressure of the case, stunned audiences and helped Jarecki to receive an Academy Award nomination for best documentary of 2003. Today, Kaye, 43, seems like a man freed of an enormous burden, happy that his brother Jesse is out of prison (and trying to overturn his conviction) and that he himself can get on with his life. Kaye spoke to TONY Kids about his craft, the film and his plans for the future.
When did you get into this business of being a party clown and magician? In the mid-'80s. I actually got into it by accident. I had been a magician, as a hobby, since I was six years old. After college, I got a job that I didn't like, in marketing. I worked for nine months and quit because I just couldn't take it anymore, and I started street-performing as a way to make money.
You had never done it before? No. But I made gobs and gobs of money. I doubled my salary from my regular job.
Were you doing magic? Magic and balloons. Then I started performing down at the South Street Seaport and people asked me if I did private parties. So that's how I got into it. But I never grew up wanting to be this. Good Jewish boys don't.
You've had a number of celebrity clients—do you remember who the first one was? [Actor and director] Bob Balaban had me perform at his daughter's party, and then he offered to help throw a party for Susan Sarandon's daughter. There were a lot of people there. Jonathan Demme, Richard Dreyfuss, and Tim Robbins and Susan. Then, Susan became a very good customer because she had two more children, and so I did several parties for each of her three kids.
Is it exhausting to work with little kids? They get some cake in them and that's it; it's like they're on crack. It is something I have to deal with, and I work very, very hard. I get very, very tired, and I take a nap when I get home. I don't have a choice in the matter: I get home and I fall asleep, whether I've given one show or four shows that day.
Where's the wildest place you've ever had a party? Well, I've been in a lot of great apartments in Manhattan. I did a party for Mort Zuckerman's daughter—he's got three floors overlooking Fifth Avenue, and it's just gorgeous. George Soros's apartment is decorated like a French castle, like Versailles. Lots of mirrors, lots of gold.
How many parties a year do you do? I do about 250. I take three months off in the summer: I leave town and I speak at magic conferences.
What do you talk about—tricks of the trade? I teach other magicians how to perform magic for children. In fact, I have a new book out, called Seriously Silly: How to Entertain Children with Magic and Comedy [Kaufman and Company, $50, at www.sillymagic.com], and it's going to be very important.
The most important psychological aspect of working with children is to give them power over you, the performer. If I bring the child up and we do a magic trick together, then the trick is designed so that he makes the magic happen. It's a very powerful experience for the child.
Does it ever become so exasperating that you think to yourself, Why am I doing this? [Laughs] You know what? Doing my show makes me very happy; I love watching the way the children react to me. That's very entertaining for me. Schlepping my stuff to the shows in the snow, that's exasperating. But actually performing the show is a joy.
I want to talk about the movie—has it affected your business at all? Well, I do a lot of repeat shows—nearly all of my shows are for people who've seen me or people who've had me before—and some of the repeat business has dropped off. But at the same time, I've gotten a lot of new business from people who found out about me from the movie.
When you first saw the movie, did a thought cross your mind, like, Oh, my God, there goes my business? It did cross my mind, but it crossed my mind at the very beginning of the process, not at seeing the movie. I decided to make the movie because my brother was in prison and he was being rejected by the parole board. He had been rejected by the parole board three times, and it looked like he was not getting out of prison at all. And so I wanted to tell his story—I wanted people to know his story so that it would get attention and press and maybe get him out. So that's why I decided to make the movie, but I did so knowing full well that it might affect my business.
At first, the director was just making the movie about you, and then it sort of became this other thing, largely because of the material that you had amassed, right? Well, no, the chronology is not exactly right. First, it was a movie about me because [Jarecki] wanted to make a movie about children's entertainers. So we spent two years making that movie. His questioning became deeper and deeper, and when he started asking me about my family, he found that I sort of clammed up—and as you can tell, I'm a verbose answerer. So he did a LexisNexis search on all my family members and found the original articles from the late '80s about the case. Then he decided to make the movie about my family instead of a movie about Silly Billy.
I saw that I had an opportunity to really help my brother if I participated in this movie. I decided I wanted this movie to be as good as it could be. And that meant handing over the videotapes that I had shot all those years ago, which I'd never looked at—I never saw them. I just shot them and put them on this shelf and didn't touch them for 15 years.
So then, at that point, it occurred to you that maybe you'd be affecting your livelihood but it was worth— But it was worth it to sacrifice for my brother. But it hasn't—did you interpret my answer as meaning that it has affected my business? You know, when I do these parties now, parents often come up to me and say, "I saw the movie. I just want you to know I think you did a wonderful thing. You're so courageous, you're so strong, you're such a loving brother." So they want to share that with me.
Actually, that was the question I was going to ask you next: Do you find that people are supportive? Yeah, it's very nice. It's very sweet. They don't know how to bring it up and they're uneasy about it, but it's very nice.
I want to ask you about this other character that you do, Dr. Blood. When I was a kid, you'd see these guys on TV who would host horror movies—he reminds me a little of them. He is, except he's...well, he's scarier, actually, because he's in the room; he's in their home. I'm not a jovial host. I'm a deliberately nasty guy. Dr. Blood started because my customers hire me year after year, and by the time the kids are seven, a lot of them decide that Silly Billy is for babies. So I decided to come up with a show that I could sell to clients as their kids got older.
The original inspiration came when I had this idea that I would take a Barney doll and put two squeeze bottles inside it. Then, I'd saw through it, and crack it open, and squirt the squeeze bottles like blood was coming out of Barney. I've never made that trick, but that inspiration ended up as Dr. Blood. You show up at the party as a doctor wearing surgical scrubs. Exactly. I have bloody scrubs, crazy hair; I'm like a cross between a witch doctor and a medical doctor. I set up this elaborate back story: I tell the kids that I was in the jungle, and a man captured me and said that he was going to keep me prisoner and show me scary experiments, and if I was not afraid of the experiments, then he would let me go home. But if I was afraid, then he would keep me there. And I say to the kids, "Well, you see, I'm here, which means I wasn't afraid." Then, I say that the man told me to go to New York and show people the scary experiments, and the kids buy it.
Basically, I challenge them to not be scared. All the parents think it's hilarious because, during the show, the kids are scared. I mean, they're not scared so much. I like to get them to the place where they run out of the room when they get scared, but then they come right back. Then, at the end of it, they go, "We weren't scared!"
And how old are these kids? Seven to eleven. I change the show depending on their ages and on the level of the room. Because this place I want to get them to, this run-away-but-come-back—I don't go beyond that level. That would be terrible.
Do you think you could take them beyond that level? Oh, I did at the beginning. When I first started, I really didn't know what I was doing, I must admit. No one in New York is doing this, no one in the whole country is doing this, so I'm the only guy who's ever ventured into this area. It's like a horror movie for kids. But it gets back to the empowering thing, because the first half is the scary stuff, then in the second half, I teach them how to scare their friends. They learn that it's all fake and that they can do it, too. And then, they become the scarer instead of the scaree.
And they like that part? They love that part. I give them a rubber cockroach, and I tell them, "Go home, open the refrigerator and put the cockroach inside. And then, when your mom opens the refrigerator, she'll get really scared." Then, they see me at another show and they tell me that they did it—I have kids stand up and give testimonials about how they scared their mother, their sister. Oh, my God, what could be more rewarding than that? The kids face their fears and overcome them, and that's a rewarding experience.
Do you enjoy doing that character more than the original one—is Dr. Blood maybe more cathartic on some level? No, I wouldn't say that. I'm exhausted after both shows. There's a chance I may like Dr. Blood more because it's so funny—I still can't believe that the kids get into it so much.
How much longer do you see yourself doing this? Is there something else you'd rather be doing? I'll tell you: I would like to do a kids' TV show.
I was going to ask you if anybody ever approached you— Some people have. I've had lots—not lots—I've had some bites. But the truth is, for all those years that my brother was incarcerated, I was distracted by taking care of him. I was essentially his father and I was looking after him, so a lot of my time was taken up by that.
Taking care of him—like going to visit him? Visiting him, running errands for him, making phone calls for him, writing letters, working with private investigators for all those years, trying to reopen the case, clear his name. I mean, it was thousands of hours. He was incarcerated for 13 years. So anyway, now that that's not a problem, I'm actually planning to start working seriously toward TV.
Like, Nickelodeon, something like that? Nickelodeon...or Fox...because Silly Billy is crazy; he's really nutty. He's not sweet and gentle and lovely; he's very edgy and aggressive. There is a Dr. Blood show that I'm working on as well, because some people I've talked to in the business say that Dr. Blood is a really fresh character. There have been other wacky, nutty guys on TV, but Dr. Blood has never been on TV. So Dr. Blood may be the show that gets on the air.