Come-In (clowning before circus began)
Since the first caveman bumped into a mastodon and got a laugh, comic figures have been integral parts of human society. Their status has varied from culture to culture and individual to individual. Most remained random figures, as funny as that guy back in high school but now known only to his tribe and time. Others developed into cultural icons, like the nineteenth-century German clown Pickelherring or the clown-spirit figures of Native American tribes, like the “contraries” and the koshare.
Meanwhile, the word “clown” originally referred to the country rube. This clown, in life and in performance, is a mockable hayseed, whose big shoes and ill-fitting clothes make him stumble, and whose dull wit or lack of sophistication cause him to say stupid things. While no one has been able to track down the origin of the word with certainty, this rural influence suggests that “clown” derived from a dirt “clod.”
Sometimes the clown role became more formalized, especially in the stage clown. Theater clowns have an ancient lineage. Comedies in ancient Greece featured bawdy comic figures. Ancient Rome applauded its “mimes,” rowdy physical performers in farces, with little connection to the current sense of mime. Other comic figures pop up over the next fifteen centuries and into the Middle Ages, in local festivals and holidays. Medieval religious plays sometimes had a comic figure beating the devil offstage. A few performance-like events included a “Lord of Misrule,” upending traditional rituals in the “Feast of Fools,” a new-year festival possibly derived from early Roman rites.
Court jesters pop up in histories, not necessarily because there were so many of them but because much has been written about kings and their courts. Some jesters were like royal mascots, their silliness helping pass the time. Others were physically or mentally disabled people kept at court to be mocked themselves. The court jester has been celebrated as a daring political figure, speaking truth to power. But actual instances of comic subversion are rare. Ancient tyrants were no more likely than modern ones to tolerate defiance. The fantasy remains a fond favorite of fiction however. Shakespeare crafted the perfect literary example in the Fool in King Lear, who said to Lear what no one else would. Historically however, court jesters got laughs the way comedians traditionally do, by making jokes the audience approved.
Around 1600 Shakespeare placed the jester and rube side by side in As You Like It. Touchstone is identified as a court fool and listed as “Clowne,” while he greets a rustic shepherd by calling him “clown.” Shakespeare’s clown-actors, William Kemp and Robert Armin, neatly symbolize the physical/verbal range of clowning, with Kemp more physical and buffoonish, like Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, and Armin more verbal, like Touchstone.
A century earlier saw another development that would influence clowning, when commedia dell’arte developed in Italy. “Dell’arte” meant “of the profession,” referring to the craft of professionals improvising, in contrast to commedia erudita. Commedia dell’arte used rough outlines for their vulgar improvisations on makeshift stages, often outdoors, sprinkled with “lazzi” or comics bits, while commedia erudita’s educated amateurs used written scripts and saw themselves as refined. Influence on clowning can be particularly seen in commedia dell’arte’s spontaneity and in its servant characters, called “zanni.” Arlecchino, originally a minor character with patched clothes like a tramp clown’s, became more prominent as his costume settled into the bright diamond-shaped pattern associated with the Harlequin’s costume; that elegant look would resemble some twentieth-century whiteface circus clowns. Arlecchino also had a prop with its own influence on comedy: This character carried a “slapstick,” a narrow board with a hinged piece that both made a loud noise and softened the blow when used to strike someone. Other character were what later would be called “second bananas,” like Brighella, Scaramuccia (or Scaramouche), and Scapino, variously cynical, witty or braggarts.