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How Professional Clowns Work

It's a Clown's World
Emerging from the 19th century Commedia dell’Arte community, Joseph Grimaldi essentially invented the clown we think of today.
Emerging from the 19th century Commedia dell’Arte community, Joseph Grimaldi essentially invented the clown we think of today.
Heritage Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An ocean away from the sweaty stages of early modern Europe, Native North Americans had long since developed customs of ritual clowning. These customs were so inextricably bound up in their social traditions that practitioners were sometimes considered shamans and held high status in their communities.

During ritual Navajo chants, clowns would disrupt the performance by joining in and bumping into the dancers. Pueblo clowns ridiculed sacred offerings, openly mocked the gods and pantomimed lewd sex acts publicly. For Ojibway people suffering from demonic possession, clowns were called in to exorcise the evil spirits with song, dance and vigorous rattle-shaking [source: Durwin].

Across the Pacific, the taikomochi were jesters found in the red-light districts of urban Japan starting in the late 1600s. When bawdy house parties started to deflate in the wee hours, it was the job of the taikomochi to rev things back up with some wisecracks and general tomfoolery [source: Otto].

In some Indian courts, the official jester was a Brahmin, a member of the highest social order, which indicates the importance of his role [source: Khanna]. Jesters were prominent too in the courts of the Middle East, where pros like Karim Shir'ei were permitted to mock their rulers. When the Persian Shah Naseredin asked whether there was a shortage of food, Shir'ei replied, "Yes, I see that your Majesty is eating only five times a day" [source: Otto].

And it probably comes as no surprise that China, with its four millennia of recorded history, has one of the longest and richest traditions of clowning. Chinese jesters with names like Twisty Pole, Baldy Chunyu and Moving Bucket remain legends [source: Otto].

In Europe, court jesters have played vital cultural roles. Shakespeare certainly knew this. Falstaff and the Fool in "King Lear" had historical counterparts, perhaps most notably the famous Polish jester, Stanczyk. Stanczyk was considered as much a philosopher as a comedian. His legacy is so powerful in Poland that political parties have been named after him and he figures as a character in numerous works of Polish art and literature [source: Cole].

Over the centuries, the official court jester began to give way to the onstage buffoon. Grimaldi's invention of the clown didn't occur in a vacuum, of course. The child of Italian performers, he came out of the Commedia dell'Arte tradition. Commedia dell'Arte, which first emerged in Italy sometime in the 14th century, was a form of theater that some say featured the first professional actors in Europe. Built into each play was a series of interludes or interruptions for comic relief during which actors would perform acrobatics, gags and pantomime [source: Clubb].

From the ancient Greeks to the Kurds to the Maori, clowns and their ilk have pratfallen and poked fun at authority since the beginning of time.

But why?