Thursday, July 30, 2009


No, of course they're not, though there are exceptions. In circuses they're a necessary change of pace. In fact, it's hard to imagine a circus without them. But the circus is their domain. Why do they seem so out of place in the real world?

The history of clowning is an odd one. Apparently part of the appeal of clowning was that they got away with social satire that would have landed ordinary people in jail. They paid dearly for that freedom by confining themselves to strident, way-over-the-top slapstick. Maybe by imitating crazy people they were asking to be regarded with the deference that society grants the mad.

Clown humor is so different than modern humor, so different even from modern slapstick like the kind The Three Stooges did, that I sometimes wonder if modern humor came from entirely different roots.

Here's a painting about two different types of clowns who meet on the street and fight by proxy through their dim-witted footman.

It seems that people have had the urge to do violence to clowns for a very long time.

Here (above) a woman appears ready to deliver an eye-gouge to an already wounded clown. That's a really terrible thing to do, but it shows you how clowns were regarded. Or maybe she's just gouged the poor man. If so, she doesn't appear very sorry about it.

Early clowns wore a specific costume, denoting the exact type of comic character they were portraying. Woe unto the clown who wore the cuckold's uniform when he was instead portraying a dullard.

Clown costumes were sometimes exaggerated versions of the fashion of the day, but it's hard to resist the notion that they also gave birth to some of those fashions.

Were the people who used clothing to make funny alterations in their body shape in the 17th to 19th centuries actually trying to dress like clowns? After all, people envied clowns for their ability to say things nobody else could. When a lot of people dress that way, maybe a desire for freedom of expression and a new social order is indicated.

P.S.: None of this applies to mimes, who I have new respect for, after having tried to walk like they do.


Craig said...

Hi Eddie. You said "Until a hundred years ago clowns were all about butt jokes and silly, mean-spirited humor. You really have to get liquored up to appreciate that sort of thing, but maybe early audiences were suitably smashed." Doesn't that explain the success of Shrek, Ice age and the like?
And remember what Lon Chaney said "There's nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight."

Anonymous said...

I like Clowns when they dress like Hobos.

Anonymous said...

Do jesters count as clowns?

Sean Wiig said...

This brings the Joker to mind... and that movie "the man who smiles"

Anonymous said...

Circus clowns were auditioned on film but their comedy somehow didn't fully engage the new medium. It took the rise of unique talents like Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle to really come across on celluloid.

Charles H. said...

I was once friends with a clown. She didn't make me laugh once, outside of a rare conversational chuckle.

And clowns can be pretty... shall I say unfunny in their domain too. I once saw home movies of the Hartford circus fire (in colour) an all I remember is two seconds with this sinister looking clown, juggling and leering at the camera. Gave me the willies for a couple of days.

Kali Fontecchio said...

I do not like clowns.

pappy d said...

This is a really thought-provoking piece. In my own experience, tragedy is universal but best experienced in solitude. Comedy is social (exclusive to a particular group) & yet, is best experienced among a crowd of people. You just laugh more in a full theater. It's catching. Interestingly, hurt gags rarely fail with the crowd.

I once read somewhere that clowns come from an earlier form of popular entertainment involving a captured enemy soldier. The villagers would form a ring & pelt him with abuse & whatever else came to hand. The whiteface represents his fear. The bulbous red nose & red toothless mouth represent the beating he has taken & his strange, outlandish costume marks him as an outlander.

For the audience of that day, this figure represents their recent fear of death or ravishment. For the kids in the crowd, imagine the sudden glory of having this supremely scary grownup delivered up to their childish "mercy".

A primitive laugh is a good laugh, but clowns never seemed that funny to me except for the Banana Man on Capt. Kangaroo.

Hans Flagon said...

Was Emmett Kelly ever funny?

That is, there seems to be a long tradition of the Pathos inducing clown. Was this tradition merely to evoke sympathy?

Were people laughing AT the Hobos sad situation, or laughing WITH it? Were they laughing at all? Was there an "It's funny because its TRUE" aspect involved? Or was it merely a pure pantomime of sadness? To lift the audience's spirits? Or to calm them down to set up pacing for comic release from Funny Clowns coming up in a show? Or to switch mood for another sort of entertainment on a variety bill?

Mr Richard Vader, you sure ask a lot of questions!

Mattieshoe said...

something is just so eerie and fruity about the idea of clowns.

It's not humor that people can relate to and enjoy , it's this eerie self-denoting mutation, that sort of reminds me of the idea of trying to make live actors seem like cartoons, like Gazoo from the terrible Flintstones movie.

joel n. said...

In the circus, clowns appear often as a couple: The white clown with a pointed hat, who embodies authority, and the other one with the red nose and the painted mouth, who never succeeds in doing what the white clown wants. Fellini, who loved clowns and the circus, had a theory about these two embodying the conflict between the superego and the id. Thank you for this post, Uncle Eddie.

callie! said...

I was awestruck by that first clown posted. Wow! I really like that picture.

I have dressed up as a clown before (there was a free art prize!) and now I have a new love for them. I hope the idea that they influenced fashion is valid. I really like the looks of the older clowns.

I think the funniest part of clowns is their exaggerated sadness or pain. Is that wrong? The only time the suffering of clowns isn't funny is in stuff like Pagliacci or La Strada, probably because the clown character is also shown to have a non-clown persona.

John Young said...

Hey Eddie, do you think Sasha Baron Cohen qualifies as a clown? He does in my mind. I truly love clowns.

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