Elected officials like to decry the political circus.
But Phillips Elementary School on the South Side couldn't have been happier to participate in one.
A whoopee cushion tooted, a wig went flying and a unicycle careened out of control Monday as two Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey clowns participated in one of four national debates in the election for the coveted office of Boss Clown.
All in the name, of course, of a serious civics lesson.
"It's a really great opportunity for the students to engage in the voting process in a unique way," said Martin Boonstra, principal of Pittsburgh Phillips K-5. "It gets the kids really excited about voting."
They squealed, giggled and positively wriggled with laughter -- wearing their plastic red clown noses they had received for the occasion.
What did they learn about the political process?
"That it could be funny," said Emmett Harris, a Phillips third-grader.
The debate was orchestrated by Ringling Bros. as a vehicle to teach about elections and to promote circus appearances, such as the upcoming shows Nov. 1-4 at Consol Energy Center.
Boss Clown, the leader of Clown Alley, is a real job in the circus usually chosen by management.
This year, however, students nationwide will cast their votes -- either for Todd Voting, the wizened candidate of the Yesterjester Party, or the fresh-faced Mike Matters of the Noveaubuffo Party.
The Pittsburgh debate Monday followed debates that were live-streamed online in Denver and Massachusetts to students voting across the country, featuring discussions on issues such as whipped cream pies versus shaving cream pies and rubber chickens versus rubber fish.
Antics abounded during Monday's debate, including the hiding of Mr. Voting's podium, the throat clearing and drum beating to drown out opposition speeches and the repeatedly overturned moderator's chair, which was blamed on the slick gymnasium floor. Their views on improvisation, for example, were put to the test in an impromptu dance-off, where moves such as the cabbage patch and the Macarena made appearances.
The students then had to check one -- just one -- choice on the secret ballot, after carefully weighing their options.
For 8-year-old Maggie Tracht of the South Side, Mr. Matters' dexterity on the unicycle won her over.
"He's funny," she said of Mr. Voting, "but Mike was a little bit funnier."
Students at Phillips prepared in advance with lessons on debates and the electoral process -- lessons that sparked curiosity about the election process as a whole.
"They were very interested in how you got to the two candidates," said fourth-grade teacher Jennifer Reubi, who was used as a model in the debate as clowns demonstrated comedy classics such as "the doubletake" and "the nap" for the audience. "They asked, 'What if you had five people that wanted to do it?' "
Students also drafted questions for the candidates that included "How do you balance the serious and the funny?" "Do you like Justin Bieber?" and "Will you throw a pie at me? I'd love it."
One student whose question wasn't used during the debate took advantage of a post-event handshake to grill Mr. Voting on her issue of interest.
"Would you rather marry a cow or a pig?" she asked.
As politicians are so often wont to do, Mr. Voting equivocated.
"I like hamburgers and I like bacon," he said. "So I would want to marry both and have a bacon cheeseburger."
Anya Sostek: email@example.com or 412-263-1308. First Published October 16, 2012 4:00 AM