The comedian, Bill Hicks, told this story in his show, Sane Man:
I was in Nashville, Tennessee last week and after the show I went to a waffle house, right, and I’m sitting there eating and reading a book, I don’t know anybody and I’m eating and I’m reading a book, and this waitress comes over to me and ‘tut tut tut tut tut! What you reading for?’ I said, ‘Wow, I’ve never been asked that!’ Not, “what am I reading?”, but “what am I reading for?” well, goddammit, you stumped me!’ [...] then this trucker in the next booth gets up, stands over me and goes, ‘Well, looks like we got ourselves a reader!’ (Hicks 1989)
This book, another kind of reader, has all the makings for being turned into a joke. A book about clown, clowns and clowning, and a serious one at that. Olly Double, the stand-up comedian and academic, begins his second book, Getting the Joke (2005), with a section entitled ‘I’ve Got a Degree in Beckhamology’ where he tells of the media reaction to his obtaining a full-time academic post at the University of Kent:
The idea of teaching stand-up comedy at university had all the hallmarks of a silly-season classic, and the press went for the hey-you’ll-never-believe-what-these-crazy-academics-are-up-to-now angle. The Guardian’s piece started:
I say. I say. Did you hear that they’ve hired a clown at Kent University? No, really. He’s going to be teaching the students stand-up comedy. No. Seriously, laze ‘n’ gennermen, he’s got a Ph.D. in it. Actually, Dr Oliver Double is not a clown, but he is a practising stand-up comedian. And he will be teaching third-year drama students who want it — and ooh, we all want it, don’t we, missis! — the art of rambling into a pub microphone and making people choke on their pints with mirth. (Double 2005: 1-2)
Of course, the idea of being serious about something which isn’t serious, like comedy, or clowning, is funny. In fact, being serious about anything, in the clown’s world, is funny. But the idea that we don’t, or can’t, have ideas about clowns is just plain false. When I was researching this book, I wrote some short reviews of clown performances, books, films and other phenomena, as I wanted to find a vocabulary with which to talk about clown on its own terms and not by the criteria of other genres. One clown took offence, not because I had reviewed him negatively (I hadn’t), but because he believed that none of us had the knowledge or the licence to be able to criticise others in the profession. Clowns today may on the whole be mutually supportive, as is to be expected given our present low status, both culturally and economically (it was not always thus), but ideas and beliefs - positive and negative, insightful and banal - about clowns are all around us. It might be useful to draw some of them together so that we know what they are and can think about them.
Introduction: Clown Ideas
We would expect to begin with a clear definition of the field of enquiry. But defining what a clown is is not a straightforward matter. Just about everyone has ideas, preconceptions or opinions about clowns. Clowns themselves certainly do. There is a surprising variety of ideas around about clowns, especially when you start looking beyond your own time and place.
Some define clown in terms of the dynamics of both laughter: ‘A clown who doesn’t provoke laughter is a shameful mime’ (Gaulier 2007a: 289) and failure: ‘this big idiot who regrets not being funny’ (Gaulier 2007a: 301). Although others disagree: ‘It's okay not to be funny. Clowns do not have to make people laugh‘ (Simon 2009: 31), whilst others believe clowns to be sad or to exhibit ‘shabby melancholy‘ (Stott 2009: XVI).
Some define clown in relation to expected behavior or rules: clowns ‘contradict their context‘ (McManus 2003). ‘The key feature uniting all clowns, therefore, is their ability, skill or stupidity, to break the rules (McManus 2003: 12).
An etymological definition would take us back to the origins of the word clown in 16th England, referring to those who do not behave like gentlemen, but in ‘clownish or uncivil fashions‘ (French Academy, 1586). Some identify the clown with the red nose, which they consider to be ‘a tiny neutral mask for the clown’ (Wright 2002: 80), which is also ‘a quest for liberation from the “social masks” we all wear‘ (Murray 2003: 79, on Jacques Lecoq).
Some consider that clowning is a route to spirituality and self-knowledge, via ‘a great joy, a great confidence, a great acceptance of ourselves, and thus of others too‘ (Cenoz 2011); ‘the main similarity between clown and Zen is that if you are you are thinking, then you are not where you want to be‘ (Cohen 2005); ‘Clowning is about the freedom that comes from a state of total, unconditional acceptance of our most authentic selves‘ (Henderson 2008).
Some see clowning as a means to relieve suffering, ranging in status from ‘respected complementary care providers [and] members of the health care team‘ (Koller and Gryski 2008), to the more humble friend: ‘I would never agree laughter is the best medicine, I’ve never said it. Friendship is clearly the best medicine‘ (Adams 2007).
Some believe clowns are responsible for bringing rain to the crops: ‘they also fast, mortify themselves, and pray to Those Above that every kind of fruit may ripen in its time, even the fruit in woman’s womb‘ (Bandolier 1890: 34). Some ascribe such powers to their taboo-breaking: ‘This “wisdom” magically acquired shows well that this is a question of the breaking of a taboo’ (Makarius 1974: 63).
Some think that clowns are a socially useful way to control traffic, since they ’can achieve what traffic police cannot achieve using warning and sanctions [...] by employing artistic and peaceful actions’ (Toothaker 2011), but others believe that to be a clown is to sink below human dignity: ’I'm going to earn something, even if it’s as a clown’ (Partido del Trabajo de México 2009).
At times, some have believed clowns could stop wars: ’The laughter of Bim and Bom almost stopped the Russian Revolution’ (Schechter 1998: 33). Alternatively, they might find themselves on the side of governments: ’Nikulin replied: “Who will be the subject of our parody? The government is marvellous”’ (Schechter 1998: 15-16). Some think that clowns can teach politicians: ’The World Parliament of Clowns will give scientists, politicians, managers and entrepreneurs, artists and religious leaders [...] immunity to say all their thoughts and ideas and to give all their wisdom to the world without the fear of blame and humiliation. One of the rights of clowns is to fail’ (Moshaeva 2006). Others see politicians as clowns: ‘In order for the balance to be harmonious, the President must be a whiteface clown and the Prime Minister an auguste, in their nature as much as in their function’ (Fallois in Rémy 1945: XIX).
Some see clowns in the street: ’skills that are necessary for clowning, such as [...] street theatre’ (Haifa 2006) whilst others do not: ’Dreams of grandeur save the idiot. His ambition isn’t to play in the street (not a very comfortable place) but at the Paris Opera’ (Gaulier 2007a: 291).
The list is much longer. Clowns have been seen as revolutionary, reactionary, avant-garde, universal, marginal, irrelevant, fundamental, dangerous, harmless, immoral, exemplary, skilled, chaotic, wealthy, poor, innocent, cruel, joyous, melancholic, or as fulfilling any number of social, artistic, cultural or political functions as can be imagined.
Today for some, the clown is a figure that has survived from the past, pre-technological, pre-modern, pre-literate even. For others, clown has undergone a renewal and branched out into new and highly contemporary fields: the post-Stanislavskian training of performers; therapy and a means to spiritual self-discovery; or a tool to change politics and decision-making in a world racing towards disaster.
All of these views could be shown to be at least partly true, at least at a particular moment in a particular place. The opposites could also be shown to be true, perhaps in other places and at other times. The point is that clowns, though they may be ubiquitous, are just as varied as any other phenomenon. They have a history, indeed many histories. They occur in different cultural contexts. There are often very precise reasons for why they are the way they are. We can usually trace particular characteristics to particular dates, or specific people and places. By looking at a wide range of material on clowns, we can see just how historically and culturally determined they are. If we can see what is specific to times, places and individuals, perhaps we can also see more clearly what clowns have in common, and if there is anything which always holds true for clowns.
Containing such an array of perspectives, this book is also bound, at some point or another, to go against the grain of what you think you know about clowns. Whatever one’s grain is, it will probably go against it. My own included. And in a way that’s what clowns are, they go against the grain. Whenever I see two people in agreement, my instinct is to disagree with them. Maybe that’s what led me to be a clown. In any case, it’s a useful research tool. A kind of naive scepticism, no malice intended. When two people agree on what clowns are, my ears prick up even more, ready to provide the contrary view if called upon. Or even if not.
So hopefully you will find something in this book that will make you think you might be wrong about clown. Which would be no bad thing, since clowns inevitably end up being wrong. I say to clown students that 93% of our lives and actions are failures and only 7% of it turns out right. That isn’t because I or anyone else has done such a scientific experiment; I took to the idea some years ago after reading that 93% of communication is apparently non-verbal. I liked the idea, though for the life of me I couldn’t see how you could measure such a thing. So given that the scientist in question was, in my opinion, making it up, I thought I might as well do the same. It feels about right to me, as a clown. When I say 93% of our lives, I mean all human beings, not just clowns. One thing one might say about clowns, though, is that they could be happy with such a statistic. Perhaps that is what marks you out as a clown from the rest. This admission of failure is the bedrock upon which most clown training of the last half century has been founded (Gaulier, Cenoz, Clay, etc.). The World Parliament of Clowns promotes the use of failure as a form of intelligence, hoping to influence world policy-makers (Antoschka).
I trust, then, that we will all be happy to give up some of our assumptions about clown throughout the course of this book, and that it will fail to live up to our own prejudices and expectations.
© Jon Davison 2013 Palgrave Macmillan
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