A guy goes to the doctor, says he’s depressed. He says that he finds life cruel and cold, that nothing has meaning to him anymore and that he doesn’t know what to do. The doctor tells him that the treatment is simple. There’s a magnificent clown by the name of Pagliacci in town. Go and see him, he says, that’ll lift your spirits.
So the guy goes to see the clown. On the way he reflects that this wasn’t really what he was after from the doctor, that he was sort of angling for a prescription or maybe a referral to a specialist, but he’s been with the doctor for years and he’s always seemed to know what he’s talking about, so whatever. At least it’s not more mindfulness.
He gets to the theatre and pretty much immediately regrets his decision. It’s a tiny little place with a box office that doubles as a snack bar where they sell warm cans of soda and pretty much nothing else. There are lots of posters up on the walls for improv shows, which bodes about as badly as it’s possible for something to bode. The ticket also costs $30 which to the guy seems completely insane, but he pays it, buys a coke, and wanders around the foyer. He’s not feeling any less hopeless or sad but he decides to see this show with an open mind.
Unfortunately, the show is not great. Pagliacci comes out in baggy pants with the big red nose and a wig - real Pictionary-level clown aesthetic. There are maybe two dozen people in the audience and even though the theatre can only hold 50 or so, it feels very empty. It’s not a comfortable experience. If the guy is completely honest, it feels like Pagliacci might have done like a semester at Gaulier or whatever and then just leapt straight into an hour solo show without being ready. There’s quite a lot of audience interaction, which the guy hates, and he feels like the doctor should have warned him about that before sending him to the show. At one point Pagliacci is doing a mime bit where he goes up to members of the audience and motions for them to spit in his hat. If they don’t, he gets annoyed and if they do he also gets annoyed. The comedic rules of the bit aren’t clear. The guy is terrified that Pagliacci is going to come up to him with the hat and sure enough he does. By this stage the audience is pretty sick of the hat gag and there’s some polite laugher but little else, and the guy sort of decides to hedge his bets and just mime spitting in the hat. Pagliacci does a kind of huffy hands-on-hips motion and waggles his finger at the guy before moving on and doing the hat thing to like three more people. The soundtrack to Amelie is playing throughout this, which the guy is pretty certain Pagliacci doesn’t have the rights to.
Up close, the guy can see that Pagliacci is sweating through his greasepaint, which could be a character thing but it feels like Pagliacci is nervous and that this isn’t going all that well. Maybe the night the doctor saw the show it was better - maybe Pagliacci is trying out new stuff tonight, but whatever the reason, none of this is lifting the guy’s spirits.
The show ends with a bit where Pagliacci is playing five different characters at some kind of dinner or birthday or something, but it’s all too unclear to land. It’s meant to have a kind of manic energy but it just ends up making the guy feel itchy. Pagliacci does two curtain calls, which is nuts given that there are like 20-odd people there and none of them are clapping that hard.
This is the absolute pits and he feels even worse than he did before he saw the doctor. He’s leaving the theatre and mentally preparing himself for the bus ride home, thinking that it’s going to be at least 45 minutes, when he recognises a woman waiting for a cab. It takes him a while to place her but suddenly it hits him; he saw her in the doctor’s waiting room this morning. She’s pretty and short and kind of reminds him of a girl he dated in college, and maybe for that reason he plucks up the courage to talk to her.
Thankfully, she also recognised him earlier from the doctor’s waiting room so it’s not too weird. They talk politely about the show in that awkward way that people who saw something that wasn’t great but don’t know each other well enough to really get into that talk, and so their conversation is mainly about the lighting and the theatre itself. After a while she asks how he heard about the show and the guy, a little embarrassed, explains his depression and how the doctor had told him to come tonight as a way of raising his spirits. The lady looks at him strangely for a while and for a second he regrets bringing up the whole depression thing, because some people are weird about that stuff, but she goes on to say that the doctor sent her to the show as well - turns out she’s suffering from chronic fatigue after a bout of mono and the doctor had suggested this show would give her the burst of energy she needed.
At this point, a guy who’d been loitering near them leans in and says he’s sorry to eavesdrop but he couldn’t help but overhear their conversation and he was also sent by the same doctor, as a way of curing his asthma. There’s a lady in a sling who confirms, when the guy asks her, that the same doctor had sent her to Pagliacci, telling her it would mend her shattered clavicle. Pretty soon the guy works out that over half the audience was sent there by the doctor.
No one knows what to make of this, but everyone agrees that none of their ailments have been cured by seeing Pagliacci’s shitty clown show. The guy says that he’s going to confront the doctor about it tomorrow and get some answers, and everyone seems impressed with this idea. Even the guy is surprised with himself. The pretty lady with the chronic fatigue, whose name turns out to be Jess, gives him her number and tells him to keep her posted. That feels a bit meaningful, and while he tries not to read anything into it, she definitely didn’t need to give her number, right? Like, she could have given an email or whatever, which would be a lot less personal. Anyway.
That night the guy can’t sleep; he’s trying to make sense of it all. The doctor seems like a pretty switched on guy, he’s been seeing him for years - maybe he’s just snapped. Or maybe he’s just given up and this Pagliacci thing is an easy way to get through patients quickly. Or maybe, and this is a troubling possibility, he has some kind of financial stake in these Pagliacci shows, and he’s getting a percentage of every audience member that he sends the clown’s way. That’s got to be illegal, or at the very least against that oath that doctors have to swear.
The next morning the guy goes to the doctor’s office early. There’s no one in the waiting room just yet, just the receptionist, who he barges past to get to the doctor’s rooms. The doctor is sitting at his desk doing some paperwork and is clearly surprised to see the guy but smiles and tells him to take a seat nonetheless. This takes a bit of the wind out of his sails, to be honest, as he’d imagined this encounter all night as one where he was standing and yelling, but he sits down.
The doctor starts by asking him if he went to see Pagliacci last night and the guy is about to let rip on his planned tirade about medical ethics when something gives him pause. He couldn’t say quite what, but there’s something in the doctor’s voice, the way he asked about the show that makes him stumble. Was it hope? Fear? There’s something there that suggests that the doctor really does care about what the guy thinks. And then he notices something else. Just below the doctor’s ear, right along the blade of his jaw, is a white smear of greasepaint. He thinks back to the show. Pagliacci was wearing that big red nose and wig, and the paint was so thick...but it’s him. It’s definitely him. The doctor is Pagliacci.
The guy just stares while the doctor’s expression turns. He’s suddenly afraid. No, ashamed. He starts fidgeting with his papers, clearing his throat and it’s at this moment that the guy suddenly feels a wave of emotion so strong he thinks he might collapse. He imagines the doctor leaving his surgery every night, driving to that little theatre and sitting backstage, all alone, meticulously applying his greasepaint and nose and wig, listening to the sound of his small audience shuffling in and knowing that most of them aren’t there to see Pagliacci, but there because their doctor ordered them to come. Did he believe the lie, at least in part? Did he somehow convince himself that he was helping these people? Maybe. Or maybe he knew that he was being derelict in his duties as a doctor to pursue his dream as a clown. The guy wonders how he reconciles that. He thinks about Jess, and what he’s going to tell her, before deciding that the whole thing is just too infused with sadness and loneliness and that he’d rather just leave it alone. He doesn’t think he’ll ever call her now.
He’s angry at that, and he wants more than anything to tear into the doctor, but the image of Pagliacci – this old man - returning backstage after every performance and sitting in the dark while the audience shuffle out, just knowing in his bones that the whole thing was a disaster but unable to give up, is almost too sad for the guy to bear.
After a moment he realises he hasn’t answered the doctor’s question.
‘I did see it, yes.’
The doctor leans forward, no longer even trying to hide his tension.
‘It was a complete triumph. You were right. I feel incredible.’