After 16 years as a professional clown, Rick Davis is a man of many skills—most of them perfectly useless. Even so, “Just because skills are said to be useless does not mean they are worthless,” says Davis, 40, whose talents include balloon sculpting, juggling, pencil tricks and more. To prove it, Davis has created the Institute of Totally Useless Skills, a mock college of lower learning where a practitioner in uselessness degree (P.U. for short) can be had for the asking.
As the institute’s master of uselessness, the 4’10¼” Davis tours the U.S., demonstrating his nonusefulness at colleges, conventions and anyplace else he can find an audience willing to watch him cross his eyes or create strange sounds with his mouth. “What I do appeals to almost everyone,” he says. “It allows you to take that never-ending search for the meaning of life and give it a rest.”
Which is something Davis did right after collecting a degree in philosophy (“my first useless skill”) from Pennsylvania’s Allegheny College in 1974. He enrolled in clown college and spent four years with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Then in 1979, he went solo, performing internationally and eventually landing a job as a comedy-troupe member at Disney World.
It is in uselessness, however, that he believes he has found his true calling. Sales of a $19.95 videotape of his curriculum have supplemented his clowning income and allowed him to support his daughter, Erin, 4, and to put his wife, Jacqueline, 28, through the University of New Hampshire, where she is studying theater. “I’m having such fun with this, I can’t believe I’m getting away with it,” says Davis, who operates the institute out of his Dover, N.H., home. Not that there isn’t some cultural value in what he does. “I actually regard many of these things as folk art, passed from person to person,” he says. So then, why the institute’s pejorative name? “If I said it was the Institute of Useful Skills,” he shrugs, “no one would pay attention.”