What Ronald McDonald Taught Me about Emotional Depth

Troy Johnson
Human Parts
Published in
4 min readApr 23, 2014


It was 1979. I was six. Mom said we were going somewhere special.

I settled into the passenger seat and pulled out my portable video game. On the screen were a series of red lights that, with significant imagination, represented football players. There were no “men.” No graphics. Video games were different back then. We didn’t have a 3-D vigilante with a five o’clock shadow whose mission was to steal cars, squire prostitutes and systematically urinate on the Ten Commandments. Kids these days have it good.

Three minutes later, Mom pulled into a parking lot of McDonald’s. No different from any other day. We would enter the line of sedans. We would shout our order into the metal box, as if talking to an elderly person whose ears were merely ornamental at this point. We would leave adequately McMuffinned.

Only that day McDonald’s was chaos. A majority of the parking lot was cordoned off with flags and cones. A massive red stage was equipped with 10-foot golden arches. A horde of children ran around like crazy people who’d been denied essential medications.

Half-eaten burgers were scattered on the asphalt — yet this occasion was such a joyous riot that not one kid was crying over the loss. A boy had a pickle in his hair. Every child had the orange mustache, a sign that McDonalds’ legendary party drink — an aperitif made of sugar, water, sugar and orange stuff — was somewhere nearby. That “orange drink” was black market McDonald’s gold, only brought out at soccer league kickoffs and papal coronations.

Then I spotted him. You couldn’t miss the Sasquatch. Ronald McDonald was what happened when an NBA power forward made an honest woman out of a circus clown. His crimson hairpiece was both Black Panther and Jackie O, male and female. He was part African American, Northern European and whatever ethnicity red-haired people are.

His face was painted white, and below each eye he sported a triangular, black droplet (killed someone in clown school?). His eyebrows had migrated to the far northern region of his forehead. As a result, he looked permanently, unequivocally amused.

After some hugs and hoots and hollers with mom, I started enumerating Ronald’s many character strengths. I went on and on. Mom just nodded and laughed.

Then, I said, “Plus… he’s ALWAYS happy! Can you imagine? How great would that be?”

“True,” she countered. “But we need to be sad sometimes.”

I looked at her stunned. What a downer. But, my god, I thought. The woman is right.

Let’s say Ronald’s buddy Grimace finally lost a limb to gout. He’s laid up in the hospital trying to come to terms with this new development in his life. On the one hand, he hadn’t seen his legs in years on account of being morbidly obese. On the other hand, it was a blow to his already middling TV career. Sure, Jabba the Hutt was getting great, legless work with this new Spielberg character. But Jabba had that supple Mediterranean skin tone.

“I’m purple, Ronnie!” Grimace would cry at his old friend in the hospital. “I’m purple and my main talent is eating burgers, man. A walking hematoma with one trick and… oh, criminy… now one leg to match.”

Ron would be dealing with his own demons, of course, since it was he who convinced Grimace to audition for the McDonalds’ gig years ago.

“I was born the shape of an inflamed nostril. I coped with that. When I grew into a six-foot nostril, I coped with that, too. But all of it together? It’s too much, man. Too much. If H.R. Pufnstuf was still around, maybe… maybe I’d have some options.

“What, exactly, does THIS say to the kids, RON?” he’d ask, pretending to knock on his phantom limb. “’Hey, have a burger, little buddy! But don’t go ape shit like your Uncle Grimace and eat so many that you lose a leg!’

“Speaking of. Where’s Hamburglar? Don’t tell me… rehab again. And where is that nurse with my pain candy?! Am I a nobody already???!”

Grimace would then try to wipe the tears from his terrycloth eyes, but his comically short arms would not be able to reach that far. Ron would have no other option than to sit bedside, listen to his old pal, and look highly amused.

So, yes, mom. I guess eternal happiness is not as cool as it sounds.

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Troy Johnson
Human Parts

TV person and writer for San Diego Magazine, Food Network, Big Ten Network, Cooking Channel. @_troyjohnson