Be A Clown (The Sixties and since)
The 1960s brought a significant change to clowning. It became participatory; it seemed as if anyone could do it. Previously clowns had been the ultimate cultural outsiders, unconnected to normal life. That was a key part of the fascination with circus, its status as a separate world. It was also part of the allure for those who “joined on”: Circus accepted those who didn’t fit normal life. As one of the most well-known phrases about the business put it, you had to “run away and join the circus.” Not surprisingly, many clowns were old circus hands who stayed “with it and for it” even after quitting their original specialty. Otto Griebling rode horses, Swede Johnson was a lion trainer, and Lou Jacobs began as a contortionist and acrobat. (Though Jacobs was German, European clowns tend to be better known for playing instruments, as musical clowns.) Meanwhile the training had been a craft apprenticeship, with mentors and lessons learned through the mistakes of experience.
Now anyone could make a costume, throw on makeup, and go in public as a clown. An announcement was sufficient. The “Clown College” of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus had more rigor, with genuine training, but the principle was the same: Easy access to being a clown. Meanwhile Shrine clowns, originally amateurs with a minor role next to the professionals at circuses sponsored by local Shrine organizations, sometimes became a show’s only clowns. While the craft of circus clowning remained as difficult to master as it ever had been, and “clown” remained a symbol of the outsider, the working clown no longer stood outside society. Unusual, yes; outsider, no. This major change in clowning corresponded to major changes in the Sixties. The free-spirit hippie, with long hair, outlandish clothes and rainbow suspenders, looked a lot like the clown. But it wasn’t simply the counter-culture: Many forces were breaking down old notions of settling down in one job in one place for a lifetime. While joining the circus could be depicted as a bold rejection of “The Establishment,” millions of other Americans could depict themselves as similarly bold, setting off on their own adventures, paths, and changes.
That included changes in women’s roles. Historically women clowns were rare, for a vast range of reasons beyond the scope of this survey. Commedia dell’arte did use women performers, including Isabella Adreini, also a writer and an intellectual. But commedia was an exception. Because of expectations about the woman’s role in the world, few women became clowns for the first two centuries of circus. Even as late as the 1970s, when women were moving into traditional male fields generally, some questioned whether a woman could really be a clown. The benign interpretation is that a clown’s loss of dignity is beneath women; the more restrictive view insisted that, despite sterling examples such as Lucille Ball, women didn’t have what it takes to do boisterous comedy. Many women clowns have since made such questioners look silly.
Clown College helped propel these changes. Started in 1968 by Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, it was held annually in the fall, originally at Ringling’s Winter Quarters in Venice, Florida. The wide array of courses ranged from performance-oriented classes like gags, mime, dancing, juggling, gymnastics, and stilt-walking, to clown-helpful crafts such as sewing, wig-making, and nose-making. Clown history class and sessions on Ringling broadened the perspective. The staff combined specialists in particular fields and Ringling clowns who came off the road to teach. While few students became expert at anything, the schedule introduced whatever might be of use to a clown, with individual improvement depending on aptitude and practice. It all lead to a graduation performance that was also an audition for a job with Ringling. After moving to Baraboo, Wisconsin, and then Sarasota, Florida, the school closed following the 1997 session.
Critics have said that Clown College didn’t teach clowning but only created those who had clean makeups and costumes, to fit into the giant Ringling spectacles. And it was certainly true that not every graduate became a good clown. That reaches a larger question, whether any school can teach clowning. Of course this one produced many clowns for Ringling and other circuses, some of whom are still clowning and teaching lessons they learned. But the evidence of four decades suggests that the lessons of clowning are still learned best as they have been historically, from mentors, from audiences, and from mistakes. George Burns said “The circus is the only place left to fail.” While every new clown seems determined to prove him right, a few through the years got better by tapping into his implied message, that a clown learns through mistakes.
The free-spirit impulse that created hippies and propelled Clown College combined in the counter-culture clown. It is no accident that new approaches to clowning emerged significantly in New York City and the San Francisco area, strongly identified with the counter-culture movement. Just as hippies scorned “The Establishment,” so did these new clowns scorn established circuses and their clowns. Closer to the talking clowns of the mid-1800s, these new clowns made words an important part of their comedy. A key element of that talk was irony, poking fun at traditional notions and calling attention to their own performance. (Irony and self-reference were standard comedy techniques out of the 60s, employed by stand-up comedians, late-night comics, sit-coms, and — irony layered on irony — by many “traditional” 3-ring clowns as well.) The talking also led to a renewed partnership with the audience. The late nineteenth century had decided that “art” should ignore audiences, and “entertainment” should amuse an essentially passive and monolithic body, but Sixties clowns revived the close performer-audience connection that had been fundamental through centuries of performance history.
Shunning traditional paths, these performers took to the streets as clowns, mimes, and comic jugglers. Some stayed in street performing, or joined it to solo careers in theaters. Others created their own circuses. Two of the most notable were the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco and the Big Apple Circus in New York City. Bill Irwin and Geoff Hoyle went on to solo careers out of the Pickle, while the founders of Big Apple, Paul Binder and Michael Christensen, built their show into a Manhattan institution, providing a frame for the career of an ex-Ringling clown, Barry “Grandma” Lubin. Others emerged, including the juggling Flying Karamazov Brothers and Avner the Eccentric. These new-style clowns have also been called “neo-vaudevillians.” Usually college educated, they are savvy about their presentation to their mostly middle-class audiences, including finding upscale alternatives to the now questionable label of clown, including “eccentric,” “fool,” “buffoon,” and, with a French flair, “buffon.”
Perhaps the most significant development was a Canadian group that grew to a troupe, and then a circus, Cirque du Soleil. With touring shows and other shows in theaters in Las Vegas, it’s the largest circus organization in the world, and apparently still growing. Their shows have comedy, and clown-like figures, usually a shabby Everyman, vaguely like a tramp clown. Even as Cirque du Soleil seems determined to single-handedly revive circus as a popular, talked-about amusement, its comic figure remain more like characters in a play than traditional circus figures offering stand-alone gags and comic routines.
This hippie influence generated new clown symbols; like the older ones, they immediately seemed ancient and revered. The most obvious symbol claimed the clown as the ultimate free-spirit. As this new age celebrated being weird or having a childlike innocence, so did the clown become a hippie dream in baggy clothes and wild hair, a symbolic improvement on now-scorned normality. The other new clown symbol was the truth-telling trickster. That appealed to the political activism of the new age, framing any potentially contrary pose or statement as a challenge to powers-that-be. At the same time the academic world was digging up possible historical examples, in Native American “contraries” and court jesters, all increasingly seen as daring political figures. As discussed above, actual instances of trickster challenge are rare but, as with other clown symbols, the cultural urge to celebrate the symbol trumps mere facts.
This participatory urge had another huge effect, in the explosion of clowning outside the traditional venues and beyond wider public notice. It might be called amateur clowning, and the majority probably are amateurs in the traditional sense, seeking to make no money but doing it only because they enjoy it. That includes a new category, hospital clowns who visit sick children, which combines the human urge to comfort, the century-old sentimentality of clown-with-sick-child, and good publicity. Meanwhile, many of these clowns make money performing at birthday parties or other events, and a few even support themselves that way. These and other clowns outside the circus find comradeship and support in amateur clown organizations, such as the Clowns of America International and the World Clown Association.