BE MORE FUNNY, CLOWN!


Friend Grey has a great story about a teacher she had at Dell'Arte. The students there had to present an original, solo clown piece at least every week, and this teacher had a habit of viewing these pieces with a bucket of tennis balls by his side. If, in his opinion, the scene was not playing up to snuff, he would begin to peg these tennis balls at the performer, all the while shouting, "NOT...FUNNY...!" This became something of an inside joke as we worked on various Zuppa del Giorno shows. That, and our favorite, gentle way of telling someone their idea sucked: "Hm. That might be a great idea for next year's show...."

Friend Adam (if I haven't completely alienated him with my response [and if my atrocious XBox playing hasn't alienated him, how could a caustic response to his opinions?]) posted a comment on my last entry regarding clowning (see 1/28/08) that suggested that clowns are not funny, and that the reason for this is that they overwhelm, and turn a cathartic fear response into more of a Godzilla!-Run-for-your-meager-lives! response. I guess my entry didn't clear up any of Adam's feelings in this matter. Or, at least, I failed to extricate the word "clown" from the American stigma for it. To me, you see, "clown" is not a fair word to use to describe the circus or birthday clown. Hell: I don't even like "circus clown," because the word "circus" means a whole lot of different things, too, once you step outside the three rings of Barnum & Bailey.

So before I continue, let me break some things down. I see the stereotypical western clown as a kind of collage of comic traditions. (Note: THIS IS NOT A SCHOLARLY TEXT. For heaven's sakes, don't cite me as any kind of authority. It's been a decade since I took any kind of history class, and I didn't start taking an interest in clowning until about five years ago.) As I stated so elegantly, and ineffectively, on the 28th, the "birthday clown" has become a kind of grotesque take on some time-worn and valid comic traditions:
  • The clothing. We know the score (scare?). Baggy pants. Enormous shoes. Funny hat. Usually layered clothing (vests, jackets, skirts, etc.), and usually brightly colored. Obnoxious, some would say, but put the same shapes--perhaps slightly muted--into tweeds and patches, and you're looking at "charming." At least, that's how most people described the likes of Keaton, Chaplin and Arbuckle. You've also got a low-status character, someone who's poor, who carries all he or she owns around with him or her. Take it back to 16th century Italy, and you're looking at one of the most beloved characters in comedy: Arlecchino (see shamelessly uncredited photo above). He was famous for being one of the funniest clever-servant characters, easily identified by his costume made almost completely of patches. That costume, once the character caught on in England, became represented by a body suit decorated in numerous diamond-shaped, multi-colored patches.
  • The props. For our sworn enemy, the arsenal is awfully typical: horn, bludgeon, balloons, magic paraphenalia, etc. Prop comedy, too, has been much maligned of late, mostly owing to its not translating into a stand-up-comedy milieu very well. (Damn you, Gallagher! Damn you straight to hell!) I could write a whole entry on prop comedy alone -- and wouldn't my readership just spike over that? -- but for now suffice it to say that props, too, have suffered from senseless exaggeration. The term "slapstick" actually refers to a special bludgeon used in commedia (and probably dating back to the Romans) made of two flatish sticks banded together that, when properly struck, made an amped-up whacking noise. Such a device required a sense of musical timing for proper use, and had a transformative effect. Comedy's great for transformations, and not just of a balloon into a poodle.
  • The violence. In our birthday clown, this is harmless stuff, mostly. Cream pies and inflated clubs. In this case, I witness mistake in toning down the consequences. It may seem odd to say, but birthday clowns glorify violence more than more traditional clowns do, in that the violence more often than not has virtually no effect. Therefore, they are free to gleefully enact it, and with complete disregard to the effects. It's not a great leap to imagine such a clown, then, accidentally committing horrible violence on one of us and doing it smilingly. Whereas, in most other forms, violence is regarded -- if also occasionally valued -- as something consequential. Cut Shylock, and not only will he bleed, he'll probably try to harvest your organs in revenge.
  • The not-speaking. Boy, this one bugs people. It seems to make them feel -- now-a-days, anyway -- that the performer is an even more alien, pretentious thing. I can relate to this feeling, especially when the silence is being peddled to me by some well-intentioned, poorly (or not-at-all) trained moron. It's fun to mock a mime. They can't argue back. (I myself am guilty of making a mime joke part of a recent show, Prohibitive Standards, but it was a sure-fire punchline and under such circumstances I have no scruples.) But I have a theory about obnoxious silence. Silent performance irritates us when the performer is still shouting throughout, "Look at me! Look at me!" It's a fine distinction, but someone performing in silence with a more inviting subtext, regardless of how much they may want you to look at them, is really complimentary to an audience. It's fascinating, and feels special. You're included in the silence, and it's nice there.
  • The mask. What mask? Oh, there's a mask, dudes. Isn't that the most terrifying aspect of a birthday clown? The grotesquely exaggerated features, done in colorful contours on a death-white face? I admit: I get shivers at the thought. People these days don'ta like-a the mask. What are they hiding? Who are they, really? WHY CAN'T THEY JUST LOOK NORMAL? Well, as Friend Patrick will attest, the traditions of masks are too numerous, wide-spread and intricate to address . . . in any one place, really. As to the horrid birthday-clown make-up, it is derived a great deal from commedia dell'arte, as well as other places. Time was, when anyone was going to tell a story with power, they'd use some kind of disguise. Masks were common-place in parties and festivals and ceremonies. Theatre just used that, and it has changed throughout the years. The birthday clown adopted Pierrot's white face, Dottore or a zanni's bulbous nose (originally red from drink) and merged it with the color scheme of an American circus of the 1800s. The effect is admittedly garish and disturbing. The mask, be it a commedia one, face paint or just a strap-on red nose, used to serve to free the performer to go to greater lengths to entertain his or her audience. The red nose is often referred to as "the mask that reveals," serving as it does to let it all hang out and expose a person in the most entertaining fashion. Birthday clowns, once again, seem to use it simply to advertise.
  • The murders. In traditional clowning, the . . .. Wait. WHAT?! Murders? What kind of performance philosophy is this? I write "The murders" because, in researching this topic, I got sucked into a little reading about John Wayne Gacy, Jr., and that man was a scary S.O.B. He was, in addition to being a serial killer, a birthday clown: Pogo the Clown. This is not the fault of clowndom in general of course, any more than George W. Bush is the fault of Texans, or diseased howler monkeys. Still and all, the concept of a criminal clown predates Gacy. This summer, The Dark Knight will relaunch the iconic figure of the Joker, Batman's nemesis, and I suspect that this time his aberrant behavior will not be quite as disarming as Nicholson portrayed it. Terrifying, most likely it will be, even without the unthinkable recent demise of Mr. Ledger. I wish I could say that the figure of a murderous clown doesn't go back very far, but I'm afraid it does. The Punch & Judy puppetry of England has its roots in Italian commedia dell'arte, and the stories of P&J consist mainly of Punch offing a variety of other puppets. This is clearly a subject under its own heading. What more can I say than: Not all clowns are killers, just as not all killers are clowns.

The past week has for me been very clowny. I continue to read my Buster book. I've had two auditions (auditions themselves being very similar to the torment a clown experiences moment-to-moment [at least, my clown does]), and one of them required an original movement piece. To top it all off, I had a conference with the Exploding Yurts -- my little creative-encouragement group with a strange name -- regarding the draft of a screenplay for a clown film I'm writing. (Because struggling to become a renowned theatre actor just isn't frustrating enough.) I don't know why I'm turning to the clown in me so much these days. I suppose it could have something to do with working on that whole "what kind of work is MY kind of work" question I began asking some months back.

And it seems I'm getting an answer. Or three.

 
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