How Professional Clowns Work


Clowns and jesters have always been around. But today, many of them can collect a real paycheck along with all those laughs.
Clowns and jesters have always been around. But today, many of them can collect a real paycheck along with all those laughs.
Lisa F. Young/iStock/Thinkstock

London, 1803. A young man sits before a mirror. By candlelight, he paints his face, first coating every square inch of exposed skin with white makeup. Next, he thickens his eyebrows into black arches before marking his cheeks with brilliant red triangles. Finally, he covers his mouth with a crimson grin. Wild blue hair rises like a flame from his luminous white scalp. The look is good, but not quite right. He wipes it all off and starts again.

Hour after hour, day after day, he repeats this ritual until at last a face both hilarious and demonic flickers into view, a face so outrageous that he's finally satisfied. Donning slippers, preposterously oversized pantaloons, a riotously patterned shirt and an extravagant ruff, he steps onstage. Joseph Grimaldi, star of the London stage, has invented the clown [source: Scott].

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Grimaldi was already a lead performer in the pantomimes that were then popular in Regency England. But the figure he created in the early years of the 19th century became so legendary that clowns are still known by the nickname "Joey," the name Grimaldi gave his character. The makeup, the hair, the costume — they were all copied as performer after performer tried to recapture the magic that Grimaldi brought to the stage.

But, of course, it was more than just face paint and pantaloons that made Joey famous. His performances were renowned. Doing battle with animated vegetable-men, parodying contemporary figures, and dancing and singing with charismatic energy, Grimaldi was adored by everyone from Lord Byron to Charles Dickens. Even today, clowns often use his famous catchphrase, "Here we are!" as they bound onstage [source: Scott].

And while Grimaldi is credited as the inventor of the classic clown figure, the truth is that clowns have been around since the beginning of recorded history and seem to be present in virtually every culture in one form or another. The word "clown" itself goes back at least as far as the 16th century. Etymologists speculate that it comes from a German word meaning "country bumpkin" [source: Oxford Dictionaries].

From ancient Egyptian tricksters to European jesters, from Bozo to killer clowns, the universal figure of the anarchic fool has always teetered on the tightrope between laughter and terror.

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].

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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?

Anarchy Rules

The classic clown makeup has an extensive history.
The classic clown makeup has an extensive history.
gregglmt/iStock/Thinkstock

Here, catch this pie with your face. Banana cream's not your thing? Smell this lovely flower!

Clowns achieve their effects through wild antics and ludicrous exaggeration. The white face, the red nose and cheeks, and the huge grin are all designed to magnify normal features. Likewise, the oversized clothes signal outrageous, slapstick behavior.

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Slapstick — the word goes back to Commedia dell'Arte. One of the tools of the trade was a gizmo that looked like a cudgel but was made of two wooden slats that banged together when struck – a slapstick. Whack a person over the head and it wouldn't hurt much, but the noise was tremendous [source: Clubb].

This goes to the heart of what it means to clown around. Clowns often pantomime violence to others and themselves — smacking one another around, falling on their faces. And when they're not pretending to hurt or be hurt, they're just plain rude: squirting you in the nose with fake flowers, lobbing cream pies — in short, doing everything to disrupt the norm.

But why do we find this funny? Why do clowns around the world and down through history break taboos and reverse expectations? Why do we need clowns to clown? The short answer: Somebody has to do it.

Think of Halloween or Mardi Gras, festivals that turn the rules on their head. In complex societies, we evolve elaborate rules of behavior to maintain social order, and for the most part, we obey those rules lest chaos rule. But frustrations build up, and we need a safety valve, a release for all those pent-up feelings we suppress just to get along with one another. That's where clowns come in, parodying authority, breaking the rules and challenging the tyranny of convention [source: Willeford].

So, yes, we need clowns, and that's why there are clown schools, clown societies — and even clown careers.

Career Clowning

Professional clowning is no joke. Performers with Cirque du Soleil can earn up to six figures.
Professional clowning is no joke. Performers with Cirque du Soleil can earn up to six figures.
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

When most of us think of clowns, we probably think of round, red, ball noses, white faces, red smiles, baggy overalls and size-20 shoes. This is the look of Bozo, the self-described "World's Most Famous Clown," who had a lock on mid-20th century TV. The Bozo style is still very much around.

And if you've ever dreamed of running away and joining the circus, it turns out that it might not be a bad career move! While membership in the World Clown Association has dropped by a third in recent years, jobs are still available [source: Picchi].

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If, for instance, you have a hankering to make as much as $92,000 a year wriggling out of a tiny car along with a dozen other lords of misrule in "The Greatest Show on Earth," you can apply to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College [source: Picchi]. Along with your resume, you'll need an audition DVD that showcases your "ability to display exaggerated facial expressions ... athleticism or any unique physical skills, an understanding of your comedy, as well as a sense of your personality."

Meanwhile, that other behemoth of the Big Top, Cirque du Soleil, goes in for a wide range of clowning, from pure slapstick to specialists in physical theater. Salaries for all of Cirque's performers range from $45,000 to $200,000 per year and come with impressive benefits including health, dental and life insurance [sources: DeSimone and Cirque du Soleil].

If this sounds tempting and you want to get training in physical theater, there are few better places than the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Jacques Lecoq was a celebrated innovator in the world of clowning. Emphasizing the use of masks and improvisation, his training style is designed to teach students how to create their own unique approach.

The Parisian art clown is a world away from another mainstay of modern culture — the rodeo clown. While some rodeo clowns entertain the crowds during interludes, their main job is to distract the bull after a rider is thrown. It's a little more hazardous to your health than juggling, but the average rodeo clown can make somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 a year. That's not all that much if you consider the risk to life and limb, but it's a lot better than getting $15 an hour to clown at kids' birthday parties [source: Picchi].

But perhaps the most promising career in modern day buffoonery is that of medical clown. Medical clowns work in hospitals, using humor to alleviate the stress that often accompanies diagnosis and treatment. Believe it or not, you can actually get a bachelor's degree in medical clowning from the University of Haifa in Israel [source: Dream Doctors Project]! The training you get can lead to a job on a medical staff [source: Spitznagel]. Study after study has shown that having a clown or two bounce around a hospital is excellent for kids' health [source: Vagnoli].

And that's a good thing because, lately, clowns have been suffering from an image problem.

Wobbly Stilts

Characters like the Joker from “Batman” certainly don’t help people’s fear of clowns.
Characters like the Joker from “Batman” certainly don’t help people’s fear of clowns.
nicescene/iStock Editorial/Thinkstock

The thing about clowns is, they misbehave. In the right context that gets laughs. The problem is that somewhere in the back of our minds we worry that clowns can't be trusted. If they're licensed to break rules, what rules won't they break? It could be this suspicion that's behind coulrophobia, an unofficial term that refers to the fear of clowns. Of course, it doesn't help that clowns have been getting some really bad press for the past 40 years or so.

Things started to go downhill with the 1980 conviction of John Wayne Gacy, the notorious serial killer found guilty of murdering 33 people, mostly teenage boys [source: Kifner]. The fact that Gacy had a side gig performing as Pogo the Clown only seemed to add to the horror of his crimes. Ever since, the image of a killer clown appears to have been permanently branded on the cultural consciousness.

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Inspired (or maybe haunted) by Gacy, author Stephen King created the terrifying Pennywise for his 1986 novel "It." Batman's nemesis the Joker had been around for decades before Gacy, but with Jack Nicholson's portrayal in the 1989 film "Batman," followed by Heath Ledger's unforgettable 2008 performance in "The Dark Knight," that perennial baddy has become increasingly malevolent. The latest incarnation of the evil clown is Twisty in the TV drama "American Horror Story."

Meanwhile, in a bad case of life imitating art imitating life, some French teenagers have taken to dressing up as clowns and randomly attacking innocent pedestrians, sometimes causing injury and nearly always scaring the daylights out of their victims [source: Goldhammer].

As more and more people report a reflexive fear of clowns, the reputation of the fun but harmless fool is ailing, so it's no wonder clowns are heading to the hospital [source: Gilbert]. But medical clowns don't go to work to heal the image of their profession. They're there to do what clowns do best: Make people laugh and forget their cares.

Those with an itch to travel and a desire to help people on a larger scale can volunteer for the remarkable organization Clowns Without Borders, which sends jesters into conflict regions around the world. Stress is one of the most serious issues facing kids in war zones, and if there's one thing clowns do well, it's lighten things up [source: Holmes].

Author's Note: How Professional Clowns Work

Last spring, a clown terrified my 3-year old son. The odd thing was that he knew her. She was his dance teacher, and she'd costumed herself as a clown to MC an end-of-year recital. In any case, my son flipped and refused to go onstage, never mind perform. He doesn't know anything about Gacy or the Joker (call me overprotective), so his fear didn't have to do with cultural associations. It was her stark white makeup that got him. The masklike paint rendered her both familiar and strange, a petrifying combination as far as he was concerned. It could be that clowns who don that look, the classic face pioneered by Joseph Grimaldi, risk straying into the infamous "uncanny valley," meaning they have the creepy appearance of being nearly human, but not quite. Maybe that's why many modern clowns are opting for a minimalist get-up that includes nothing more than an old bowler hat and red ball nose — just a few touches to let you know they're real people with a very odd job.

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