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The Big Red Shoe Diaries
By Paul Feig

I was a teenage Ronald McDonald.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I was recruited by Tom Shaker, the director of my local repertory theater, to be a Ronald McDonald. Tom was the Ronald McDonald for the Detroit area and had become famous in the Ronald ranks when the helicopter he was riding in for an appearance hit some power lines as it was landing and crashed upside down in front of a parking lot full of horrified children. Tom crawled out of the wreckage, straightened his red wig, waved hello to the kids, and then proceeded to do his magic show as if nothing had happened. Because of this, he was given the Big Gold Shoe Award by the McDonald's Corporation, an honor that had only been given out once before. I don't know who else got it, but I have to assume that particular Ronald must have saved his platoon in Vietnam to have topped Tom's accomplishment.

Tom was a big shot in the Ronald world after that and so, when he discovered that nearby Toledo, Ohio, had no Ronald of their own, he persuaded his bosses to give him this territory. They agreed, as long as he could find someone to don the red wig for the times he wasn't available. Knowing I was an amateur magician, he immediately recruited me.

He told the McDonald's people that I had been a professional clown for years and would be perfect for the job. The only problem was that I hadn't been a professional clown for years.

I hadn't been a clown ever.

True, I had taught myself to juggle three balls in a simple pattern, but that was the extent of my experience with professional buffoonery. However, Tom was convinced I could do it and so he put me into full Ronald costume and makeup and drove me down to the corporate offices in Toledo to show them what an amazing Ronald I would make.

As I sat nervously and put on my clown shoes outside of the boardroom, Tom handed me three colorful balls and told me to walk in, juggle, be funny with the board members, and then get out. He went inside and, just as I finished tying my big red shoes, the boardroom doors flew open and Tom presented me grandly to the room.

I headed in with my mind racing and quickly discovered that I had never walked in large clown shoes in my life. I immediately started tripping and catching the fronts of the shoes on the conference room carpeting. I stumbled like a drunk over to the board of directors as my wig slid forward, giving me an Elephant Man-shaped head. Seeing my trouble, Tom quickly started laughing uproariously, as if the inability to walk was part of my clown act. I tripped up to the table and immediately started to juggle. Unfortunately, Tom had given me hollow plastic balls that were too light. I might have been able to do it with my bare hands, but Ronald McDonald wears gloves, and so the balls went everywhere, one hitting the conference table and bouncing all the way down to the CEO. Once again, Tom howled with laughter to indicate that another part of my clown act was incompetent juggling. I then tried to be funny but quickly realized I didn't know what was funny about Ronald McDonald. I'd seen him in commercials for years but had never found him the least bit amusing. He was usually enthusiastic about pushing hamburgers, but I'd never seen him actually make anybody laugh. So, at a loss, I just walked around the table and for some reason turned into a grease-painted Don Rickles. I hurled barbs around the room, making fun of the men's ties and the women's earrings, and I even pinched the fleshy cheeks of the CEO as if he were a fat baby. I then turned and tripped back out of the room, falling out the door and belly flopping onto the carpet. And once again I heard Tom screaming with laughter, conning the board of directors into believing that their new prospective Ronald was a comic genius.

And, believe it or not, I actually got the job. I guess finding guys who were willing to be Ronald McDonald was more difficult than I had imagined.

And I was about to find out why.

My first appearance as Ronald was at an elementary school on their last day before summer vacation. I was terrified because not only was it my first gig as Ronald, but a gang of McDonald's representatives had come down to watch my act. I came out in front of a gym full of rowdy children, for whom the only thing separating them from three months of vacation was me. I quickly started my magic show with a funny trick I had made up the night before. I told the kids I was going to make Chicken McNuggets. I pulled out a pan and slapped on the lid, then said a few magic words. I pulled off the lid and out popped a skinny rubber chicken. The kids all laughed uproariously, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

That was, until I heard a loud voice from the back of the room yell, "Ha ha ha, that's very funny, Ronald, but that's not a Chicken McNugget! Chicken McNuggets are tender and delicious."

I looked up to see one of the McDonald's reps standing at the back of the gym glaring at me as he waved to the kids, trying to cover his anger. I immediately started to sweat, realizing that every trick in my act had been based around some form of making fun of McDonald's food.

As I continued with my show, which I was now desperately editing on the fly, the kids became restless. The McDonald's reps scribbled notes on their legal pads, and I continued to sweat profusely from under my wig, turning my clown makeup into a Francis Bacon painting.

By the time I finished, I looked like Alice Cooper, and I knew I had to get out of there.

As I started to head for the door, the principal announced that I, Ronald, was going to give out coupons for free hamburgers, which I had completely forgotten about. In an instant, 200 kids screamed and rushed me, pushing me into a corner. I desperately tried to hand out the pocketful of coupons as the frenzy grew and the kids ignored the pleas of their teachers to stop crushing me. Fearing for my life, I threw the coupons up into the air. The kids all screamed again and ran to catch the free hamburger vouchers that fluttered down on them like propaganda leaflets dropped over an enemy battlefield. I pushed my way out of the corner, grabbed my magic gear, and ran for the door. Having snatched up all the coupons, the kids turned and saw me fleeing. "Free hamburgers!" they all yelled as they ran after me like the girls chasing the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night. I fled through a fire exit, sprinted through the parking lot, and jumped in my Dodge Coronet. Kids were pouring out of the school, screaming and celebrating their release. They saw me and surged toward my car. As I put the Coronet in gear, I saw the head corporate rep for McDonald's push through the kids and bound toward me with a big insane smile on his face.

"Ronald!" he yelled as he ran up, "Ronald, I just wanted to shake your hand!"

He reached in the window and grabbed my hand, squeezing it as hard as he could, like he was trying to break my fingers, then leaned in and hissed angrily in my face, "Ronald - doesn't - drive!"

Believe it or not, they didn't fire me. I wanted them to but they wouldn't. And so my summer turned into a nightmare of parades in which I was mercilessly heckled by the crowd, and in-store appearances that saw kids either punching me, pulling off my wig, or bursting into tears when I came near. I even got booed when I threw out the opening pitch at a Toledo Mudhens game. Who knew Ronald McDonald commanded so little respect in the real world?

When my Ronald summer ended, I gave Tom back the bright yellow suit, striped socks, big red shoes, and bright red wig and told him I was finished. Like a soldier completing his tour of duty in a war zone, I was retiring back to civilian life in the hopes of putting my battlefield trauma behind me. I had attempted to make children laugh, and I had paid dearly.

To this day, whenever I see a clown, any clown -- be it a corporate shill or a birthday clown, dunking tank fodder or simply one of those clowns you incongruously see driving a dirty old van on the way to some low-paying gig -- I always feel sorry for him or her, knowing that the world of kid comedy is a seamy, grease-painted Babylon.

And whenever I see a Ronald McDonald in a TV commercial, surrounded by kids who are paid to pretend that they actually like him and find him funny, I always think, "You poor sucker. They've got you living in a dream world."

Oh, well. At least he's not driving around in a dirty old van.


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