Spanish French Inglés Inglês

Episode 103: Le clown « undercover » (The Undercover Clown) - Revisited

By Duolingo on Tue 16 Jan 2024

To celebrate France’s love of culture, we’re revisiting some of our favorite episodes featuring francophone artists and performers. This episode, the story of David, an engineer by day and French clown by night. Stick around until the end for an update on what David has up to since the first episode aired!

How to Listen

Listen free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.


Ngofeen: Bonjour, dear listeners!

For this special season of the Duolingo French Podcast, we’re celebrating the arts. We’re revisiting some of our favorite episodes featuring singers, dancers, actors, and other performers in the Francophone world.

Today’s episode is from February 2020. And it features a type of performance that has deep roots in France: the art of clowning. Our storyteller today loves to dress up and make people laugh… but for a long time, he had to do it undercover. Listen to his story to find out why, and stay tuned until the end for an update!

Ngofeen: In 2002, David S. was late for a meeting. He hurried back to the headquarters of a French energy company, where he worked as an engineer. Before going in, he stepped into the bathroom to make sure he looked presentable. In the mirror, he saw he had marks on his face.

David: Il y avait une marque sur mon nez et sur mes joues. C’était la trace de mon nez rouge de clown ! On voyait aussi la trace de l’élastique du nez rouge. C’est difficile d’enlever la marque d’un élastique sur la peau.

Ngofeen: Earlier that day, David had turned into his alter ego: Spootnik the clown. He had put on golden shorts, white make-up, and of course, a red nose. And now he had to step into his meeting with the mark of the elastic on his skin.

David: Je voulais cacher la marque de l’élastique du nez rouge. J’avais peur des questions de mes collègues.

Ngofeen: David wanted to make sure his clown world and his world as an engineer never overlapped. He worried that if they did, he could face embarrassing questions at work. But clowning was his passion. So he was living a double life.

David: Je suis capable de sauter d’un monde à un autre. Je peux passer de 100 % clown à 100 % ingénieur en deux secondes. Et pour moi, la vie en double, c’est normal.

Ngofeen: Bienvenue and welcome to the Duolingo French Podcast—I’m your host Ngofeen Mputubwele. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories to help you improve your French listening and gain new perspectives on the world. The storyteller will be using intermediate French and I’ll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again—we also offer full transcripts at

Ngofeen: David was always drawn to math and science. He loved solving problems. He was also interested in the arts—literature, cinema, theater… But at school, he had been told he had to choose just one thing, and stick with it.

David: J’ai vite compris une chose. Les jeunes autour de moi n’aimaient pas les personnes qui faisaient plusieurs choses. Mais moi, je ne voulais pas séparer les choses. J’adorais travailler sur des problèmes scientifiques très complexes. C'était comme un grand jeu. Mais j’aimais aussi prendre des cours de théâtre.

Ngofeen: David graduated with a degree in engineering and got a job with an energy company. He started out working in a power plant. He loved it, but he didn’t want to be just an engineer. One day, a group of theater friends told him about a workshop, un stage, where he could study the art of clowning.

David: Moi, je ne connaissais pas du tout le travail de clown. Mais quand j’étais plus jeune, je faisais des blagues et je me moquais souvent de moi-même. Avec ça, je faisais rire les autres autour de moi. J'aimais faire rire. Alors, j’ai voulu faire ce stage.

Ngofeen: It was a two-week immersive experience, so David took two weeks off of work and he joined the workshop. They had set up in a barn, une grange, in central France.

David: Il y avait dix élèves dans ce stage. Pendant deux semaines, on a dormi ensemble dans une grange, on a mangé ensemble. C’était une immersion totale. Pour la première fois, je vivais avec des comédiens jour et nuit. Et j’étais fier d’être comédien, moi aussi.

Ngofeen: The teacher used a method of movement and mime inspired by Jacques Lecoq, the godfather of French physical comedy. David soaked it all in. In one exercise, a student had to improvise a dance routine, and everyone else had to copy him. Giving the illusion of a perfect ensemble.

David: On essaie au maximum de faire comme le premier danseur. Mais on fait toujours un peu différemment des autres. Et alors, ça devient drôle. On veut encore plus imiter la personne devant nous. Et ça devient encore plus drôle !

Ngofeen: The culmination of the training for the art of clowning was an exercise about recovering from failure. David went on stage. He presented an act—he’d invented a flea circus, and was training his imaginary fleas, les puces, to jump. Then, as David knew he would, the teacher called him out.

David: Je commence à travailler avec ma puce imaginaire. Je l’encourage pour qu’elle saute. Mais le professeur m’arrête, et me dit : « Vous n’avez pas de puces. Vous pensez que nous sommes des idiots ? ».

Ngofeen: David had to find a way to recover. That was the point of the exercise. Because that’s what clowns do. They face failure, they flop, and then they bounce back from the flop, le bide.

David: On parle beaucoup du « bide » dans la théorie du clown. Le clown est en difficulté, il tombe, et il essaie de se rattraper. Et il réussit toujours. Dans la chute, il trouve quelque chose d’encore plus fort : quelque chose de touchant, ou quelque chose de drôle. Quand il tombe puis se rattrape, le clown prend vie.

Ngofeen: David doubled down on his imaginary fleas, and it worked. He… and his fleas, bounced back. The teacher and the other students applauded, and as David took his bow, something shifted.

David: À ce moment, j'ai compris que le métier de clown était fait pour moi.

Ngofeen: David began to lead a double life. He worked at his company during the day, and evenings and weekends he went to clown classes. The worlds were separate. No one in his office knew David’s passion.

David: Je voulais que ça reste personnel. Mes collègues ne savaient pas du tout ce que je faisais après le travail. À l’époque, nous n’avions pas Internet. Personne ne pouvait découvrir mon « petit secret ».

Ngofeen: David wanted to keep his clowning hidden because he was very serious about his job, and his job was very serious. As an engineer working in nuclear security, la sûreté nucléaire, David worried about what coworkers would think if they knew about his clowning. What would his boss say?

David: J’avais peur que les gens se disent : « Cet homme est responsable de la sûreté nucléaire de la France, mais le week-end, il est clown. » Les gens ont une caricature dans leur tête. Le clown, c’est pour le cirque. Ce n’est pas sérieux. La sûreté nucléaire, ce n’est pas du tout un travail pour un clown.

Ngofeen: For David, clowning was a necessity. It added balance to his life. He spent all his free time perfecting his clowning, going to shows, hanging out with other performers. But, when he told his fellow performers he was an engineer, they looked down on his work.

David: Dans le monde du théâtre, parfois, les gens ne comprennent pas le monde des ingénieurs. Alors, parfois, je cachais mon travail. Je n’aimais pas vivre comme ça… J’avais envie de changer. Je voulais seulement faire une chose. Je voulais devenir clown à plein temps. Rester dans un seul monde.

Ngofeen: David wasn’t sure if he could support himself with his clowning alone. But then, a friend encouraged him to audition for an NGO, une association, that sends clowns into hospitals to perform for sick kids.

David: C’était l’occasion de changer ma vie et de devenir clown à plein temps. Pour un clown, travailler pour cette association, c’est vraiment un honneur. On travaille, on progresse et on est comédien. Il faut être excellent pour travailler avec l’association. Je voulais essayer.

Ngofeen: This was David’s first audition and it lasted all day. In one exercise, the candidates walked around and la directrice, the director of the NGO, would clap. The clowns would stop and the director would point to a clown, who then had to improvise something physical.

David: Au signal, on s’arrêtait. La directrice choisissait quelqu’un et disait : « Toi, fais la feuille qui vole dans le vent. » Ou bien : « Fais la pierre qui tombe dans l’eau. » C’était des exercices corporels, de petites improvisations.

Ngofeen: Many of the clowns auditioning were good. David thought he didn’t stand a chance.

David: J’étais fasciné par le talent des autres. Artistiquement, les gens étaient vraiment très, très forts. Plus forts que moi.

Ngofeen: After the audition, David got a call from the director of the NGO. She said she wanted to talk to him about his day job. Something in his profile interested her.

David: Elle m’a posé beaucoup de questions sur mon métier d’ingénieur nucléaire. Elle voulait savoir comment je travaillais sur des opérations complexes, comment je vivais le stress. Elle pensait que j’étais différent. Elle m’a dit : « Tu n’es peut-être pas le meilleur clown, mais tu as autre chose. »

Ngofeen: David was stunned.

David: Ce jour-là, pour la première fois, je me suis senti différent. Avant, je voulais garder mon métier secret. Mais maintenant, ce métier devenait un avantage.

Ngofeen: David got the job. It was his chance to become a fully professional clown—to live his dream. So he considered the idea of quitting his job for real. But something held him back. David realized he couldn’t imagine doing only one thing for the rest of his life. He needed both.

David: J’étais passionné par les concepts physiques, les raisonnements, les problèmes complexes et leurs solutions. J’ai réalisé que je ne pouvais pas abandonner toutes ces choses. Je les adorais. Mais j'adorais aussi être clown. Dans ma vie, j’avais besoin de rigueur et de précision. Mais j’avais aussi besoin d’une forme de créativité différente.

Ngofeen: So he made a decision, surprising even himself. He decided to continue doing both. He committed fully to his job as an engineer, and performing regularly as a clown.

David: À ce moment-là, j’ai commencé une double vie encore plus intense. Je commençais ma journée de travail comme ingénieur. Puis, en fin d’après-midi, j’allais à l’hôpital pour faire mon travail de clown. Et parfois, je reprenais aussi mon travail d'ingénieur dans la soirée. Je ne dormais pas beaucoup.

Ngofeen: David committed to perform 40 days a year as a hospital clown, on top of his full-time job in his company. Nearly once a week he would show up at a hospital in the Paris area and meet another clown—his partner for the day. Together, they would go meet the nurses.

David: Les infirmières nous parlent des patients. Elles nous disent le prénom, l’âge, la maladie. Et surtout, elles nous disent comment va chaque patient : s’il est fatigué, s’il est excité, s’il est stressé. Après, nous allons mettre nos costumes.

Ngofeen: Then, David would turn into Spootnik the clown.

David: La transformation est physique : je me maquille, je m’habille, je mets mon nez rouge. Avec ça, je deviens quelqu’un d’autre. J’adore ce moment où je passe de l’homme au clown.

Ngofeen: Spootnik came from the planet Krypton X. He wore a costume that accentuated his long, thin frame. Lengthening, l’allongement, was his trademark look.

David: J’avais un legging violet et un mini-short doré. J’avais aussi une très grande cravate, plus longue que mon short. Tous ces éléments donnaient une impression d’allongement. Et sur ma tête, j’avais un signe particulier : deux petites antennes. Au bout des antennes, il y avait des lumières brillantes.

Ngofeen: Once transformed, Spootnik and the other clown would parade in the hospital hallway, then go into rooms. They’d visit about 30 children in a day. For each one, the clowns came up with something special. David remembers improvising—and miming—a picnic for a girl who had been in the hospital for several weeks.

David: De façon totalement imaginaire, on a sorti une grande couverture, des sacs, des sandwichs. Puis, on a imaginé un orage. Il pleuvait, alors on a tout protégé.

Ngofeen: The little girl was delighted. And during the imaginary rainstorm, David felt he was offering her an opening to the outside world, even if it was make-believe.

David: Cette fille ne sortait jamais de l’hôpital. Cette improvisation lui a permis d’en sortir, métaphoriquement. Nous avons ouvert une fenêtre imaginaire. C’était très important pour elle.

Ngofeen: David was constantly juggling—no pun intended. Sometimes he would take breaks at the hospital, to look at important emails and respond to urgent issues. One day, he had an evening meeting and had to hurry back to work after the hospital. He showed up with traces of makeup on his face.

David: C’était une réunion sur un nouveau projet. J’ai fait une présentation devant 15 personnes. Mais, après la réunion, j’ai remarqué des traces de maquillage blanc sur mon visage. J’ai eu peur que les gens trouvent ça bizarre.

Ngofeen: David worried constantly about his two worlds colliding. And then one day, they did. He was at the hospital, preparing to perform for a little girl and her father. As Spootnik waddled into the room, the father stared at him in shock.

David: Je le connaissais. Il m’a reconnu. Il a dit mon nom. Ça a été un choc. Au début, j’ai cru que c’était un collègue. Il m’a dit : « Qu’est-ce que tu fais là ? ». J’étais pétrifié. Je ne savais pas quoi répondre, je n’ai pas bougé. C’était difficile pour moi de rester dans mon personnage de clown. Mais j’ai essayé. Le plus important, c’était la rencontre entre Spootnik et la petite fille.

Ngofeen: David left the room shaken. He’d been recognized. Maybe this was a flop he couldn’t recover from. But afterwards, the father sought him out. He was a fellow engineer, an acquaintance from David’s school days.

David: Après, j’ai pu parler avec lui. Il était très surpris, mais aussi très content, parce que sa fille et lui avaient bien aimé la visite des clowns.

Ngofeen: This was a wake-up call for David—that he could run into anyone at the hospital, even a colleague. But he also realized it might not be so bad.

David: Après cette rencontre, j’avais moins peur. Je me suis dit : « Ça sera toujours comme ça. » Les gens seront surpris, puis ils comprendront. Après ça, j’ai eu moins peur de rencontrer quelqu’un que je connaissais.

Ngofeen: The incident helped David come to terms with his double life. He’s since begun telling colleagues that he performs as a clown on his time off. But he’s still using a pseudonym for this story. Just in case.

David: Aujourd’hui, quelques personnes savent que je suis clown. Ils disent que c’est génial. Pour moi, c’est surprenant. Mais avec la maturité, je commence à comprendre les choses différemment. On peut être entre deux mondes. Ce n’est pas grave. Au contraire, c’est plus riche.

Ngofeen: David now fully accepts his dual life as both a clown and a nuclear engineer. He is a better engineer for being a clown, and a better clown for being an engineer.

David: J’ai vraiment besoin des deux métiers. L’ingénieur regarde les problèmes. Il essaie de trouver une solution. Il pense à l’avenir, aux conséquences. Le clown voit la vie différemment. Dans toutes les situations, il voit toujours quelque chose de drôle, d’absurde et de poétique. Avec mes yeux de clown, je vois le monde comme un grand espace de liberté et d’émotion.

Ngofeen: David still embraces his double life as a nuclear engineer and a clown—though he prefers to stay “undercover”. Since his story first aired in 2020, we reached out to him, and he was happy to share some personal updates. Here’s the voicemail he left us.

David: Bonjour, c’est David.

Ngofeen: He may sound a little different from his original interview:

David: Je n’ai pas abandonné le spectacle et le clown.

Ngofeen: David told us that he continues to perform in hospitals. And what’s more, he helped organize a nonprofit called Le Rire Médecin, which aims to bring joy to long-term hospital patients through clown performances. And in 2021, he took his art to the stage! He co-wrote and starred in a comedy show in Paris that mixed clown acts, mind-reading, and stand-up comedy.

David: Rester « undercover » n’empêche pas d’avancer loin. À bientôt !

Ngofeen: And David, you’ve certainly shown listeners how to move forward, avancer!

This story was produced by Sarah Elzas, a Radio Producer in Paris, and adapted by Lorena Galliot.

We'd love to know what you thought of this episode! You can write us an email at or call and leave us a voice message on WhatsApp, at +1-703-953-93-69. Don’t forget to say your name and where you’re from!

If you’re liking the series so far, please share it! You can find the audio and a transcript of each episode at You can also follow us on Apple Podcasts or on your favorite listening app, so you never miss an episode.

With over 500 million users, Duolingo is the world's leading language learning platform, and the most downloaded education app in the world. Duolingo believes in making education free, fun and available to everyone. To join, download the app today, or find out more at The Duolingo French Podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I’m your host, Ngofeen Mputubwele, à la prochaine !


This episode includes recordings from 16H_Panska_Skerl_Jan under the Creative Commons Attribution License.

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Protagonist & Narrator: David S.
Producer: Sarah Elzas
Managing Editor: Natacha Ruck
Sound Designer: Martine Chaussard
Mixing & Mastering Engineer: Luis Gil
Executive Producer: Martina Castro

Adaptation Credits:

Producer: Lorena Galliot
Senior Editor: Laura Isensee
Managing Editor: David Alandete
Mixing and mastering engineer: David De Luca
Production Coordinator: Nicolás Sosa
Production Manager: Román Frontini
Executive Producer: Martina Castro