How Professional Clowns Work

Anarchy Rules

The classic clown makeup has an extensive history.
The classic clown makeup has an extensive history.

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.

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.