33-year-old Peter Straus '91 knows more about menopause than he ever wanted to. He knows more about it than most women, as a matter of fact. The former Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus clown is also the designer/illustrator of MenOpop, heralded as the world's first pop-up activity book about menopause.
And he is the sole man in the entertainment company Fill'er Up Productions, Inc., along with three women (including his wife, writer/performer Kenwyn Dapo). Michelle Cohen '90 brought Straus on board to work on a comedy television pilot, but one member of the company, Kathy Kelly, was going through a difficult menopause. So, as Straus recalls, "We were all going through menopause! Kathy kept saying she had to write about it, but it had to be funny. So one day, I suggested, ‘how about a pop-up book?' Everyone loved it."
Straus made some rough humorous sketches, but he had no previous experience with either illustration or design. "We knew we wanted to be totally irreverent, and then one day the three ladies turned to me and said, ‘you're going to do it.' And that's how I learned that I can do anything."
The book includes a 3-D uterus with, as Straus puts it, "handy peekaboo windows," and features characters like the Menopause Fairy and games like Dial-A-Mood. There is a MenOpop website where you can order the book, play games, find helpful (and serious) links and read stories from other menopausal women. MenOpop has already received a great deal of attention from the media, and orders for the book are pouring in.
Straus is that rare comedian who has always made a living from humor. "My thermostat is set to laughter," he claims, seeing himself as primarily a physical comic. After Sarah Lawrence, he went on to the now-defunct Clown College in Florida.
Straus then spent a year on the road with the circus, living in a mile-long train, doing 530 shows across America. "It's certainly not glamorous, but it's a great experience for a performer."
Straus also worked for the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, performing in pediatric hospital wards. "That's being in the trenches," he says. He recalls meeting a teenage girl whose head was entirely bandaged, "like a giant baseball," with her eyes and mouth sewn shut. Deeply chilled, Straus proceeded to go into his act. "I tried everything to connect with her, but I was scared to make her laugh." Yet laugh she did. "I could tell this was so important to her—it was probably the first time she had laughed since whatever had happened to her. She started to glow. It was one of the most profound moments of my comedy career."
He met his wife on the New York sketch comedy circuit, and they now perform as Dapo and Straus. What's it like to create comedy with women? "Challenging—they are more discerning than I am. They keep me honest, but once in a while they still let me get in some cheap humor."