Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I have a friend who describes the proliferation of the "New Vaudeville" approach to clowning as the "New Yama". His reason being that now it's just as generic, hackneyed, and uninspired an approach to clowning as the rainbow wigged, Simplicity-patterned, greasy, smeared makeup of the "yama yama" clown that hands out stickers at the car wash now simply repackaged to showcase how much money these performers have spent picking items out of the Dube catalog.

His assessment may not be true of everyone but it is essentially valid and is only gaining more ground with me as time goes on.

Dressing in gray, black or brown thrift store castoffs and topping it with a derby or porkpie to show how different you are from the typical convention, Shrine and Christian clowns that you are trying to distance yourself from makes sense only to other "New Vaudeville" clowns. The general public doesn't understand or care about the idea - or what you are doing with it. If anything, it only serves to distance you from your audience, for whom vaudeville (either old or new ) is a largely meaningless word.

It all boils down to character, without a strong character you have nothing. So if the costume only serves to make the character more accessible, more unique , more marketable... why look like everybody else?

When you think about it, it really makes about as much sense for a contemporary performer to wear a top hat as it would have for Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd to work in the 1920s dressed as Joseph Grimaldi.


Anonymous said...

I agree that clowns, performers, and movement artists should ALWAYS be thinking up new, fresh ideas, unique looks, and ways to entertain and connect with an audience.

But does your lack of love for 'new vaudeville-style entertainment' include Bill Irwin? David Shiner?
Should they nix wearing baggy pants and top hats because the general public doesn't find it 'hip'?


Matthew said...

While I agree that there are a lot of people adopting the New Vaudeville look without the skills, I am not as bothered by them as I am by the more traditional yama. These people are more exposed. They cannot rely on the makeup to do their work for them. Too many yamas use the makeup as a mask, when it should be a maginfier. Also, I find that the New vauvillian wannabes tend to be less frightening from a distance. If they can't be funny, at least they aren't upsetting.

But I heartily agree that it is in the best interest of the art to find new, relevant ways of expressing ourselves. The clown should be someone we recognize and satirize things we see every day. In the end, it comes down to someone who has something to say, not just skills with which to say it.

Pat Cashin said...

Irwin and Shiner do what they do and they are brilliant.

Seussical was the last time Shiner wore a top hat. I doubt you saw him in one before, I doubt you'll see him in one again.

Clowning isn't about "hip", "sexy" or "cool". In fact, it's the opposite. That's why it's so hard to sell to the mainstream anymore.

Anonymous said...

Quite right, sir. The top hat was in reference to Irwin. I've only seen Shiner in his pinched-top Chico Marx imp hat.
I agree that slapping on a recognizable costume (a Chaplinesque tramp outfit, or a red nose and some Mehron greasepaint) does not automatically make a person comical.

Jeff Darnell said...

would this be a good place to advertise the opportunity to make some money..... perform in a beautiful theatre...using the "schtick that brung ya" thus far.... and perhaps teach a couple of classes to some older kids and adults who are enthusiastic about learning about "clowning" and "performing" in general?
If so, you can contact me offblog at:
For those of you who really know me... you know that I'm an avid gardener and know that certain soils can produce certain plants better than others. We're in the process of creating a "Victory Garden" of sorts that could be a place to cultivate and revive some of the BEST that we hold dear to our hearts in the form of "clowning" and "theatrical performance."
I look forward to hearing from you.

tommy moore said...

Pat hit it on the nose...because Clowning isn't about being hip, sexy, or cool, it isn't an easy sell to mainstream... Just watched "American Idol" the set looks like the inside of an exploding video game, the singers look like hookers & derelicts... hip & cool...watched Dane Cook do "comedy" - no comment...hip & cool... and it just so happens that I saw 4 street fair clowns last weekend - 3 had names like "Bubbo" "Flippo" and "MOMO" and wigs right out of Haloween Adventure, plastic shoes & rubber chickens (really), and the people loved them just as much as the fourth "real clown" with minimal make up and baggy pants and dyed in the wool skill.
He used his real name, with pride.
But people kept asking "Why don't you have a clown name?" Sad.

Anonymous said...

I'm far from an expert on any of this (I suppose I represent the "general public" here), but why activate the hack radar just for New Vaudeville style clowns?

Skill is skill. You have the goods (or potential to have the goods) or you don't, regardless of what you're wearing.

Isn't it natural to emulate your creative influences? In 1994 I was wearing plaid and Doc Martens, but that didn't change the fact I was a middle-class Canadian girl with 2 parents, dorktastic glasses, and an A average.

New vaudeville is obviously a trend, just like grunge was a trend. The internet has made it so easy to access the Buster Keatons and Bill Irwins of the world (I personally know a few women in their 20s who've recently become Keaton addicts). I don't think it's such a horrible thing that performers set their sights on emulating that, instead of the guy standing outside the carwash. If they bring nothing to the table character-wise, they'll fizzle away pretty fast, and move on to something else. Same reason I stopped pretending to be angsty and now wear head to toe Banana Republic (and slightly updated dorktastic glasses).

No matter what industry you're in, there are going to be people who suck at what they do. Fluxuations in certain areas of that industry shouldn't draw criticism to that particular segment. I'm almost certain there are a lot more "generic, hackneyed, and uninspired" web designers in 2009 than there were in 1973.

Jeremy said...

I definitely agree that without a strong character you have nothing. I agree that a lot of New Vaudeville is hackneyed (and a lot of the people who label themselves as New Vaudevillians further this belief) but in my opinion it doesn't come from the costuming but from the performer.

Performers who's acts are unoriginal, unfunny or uninteresting are just plain dull performers. It doesn't matter how fantastic or original their costumes are. I'd watch Irwin or Shiner in jeans and t shirts. The baggy pants, bowler and vest look helps me recreate the feel of a silent film which is in the style of my acts.

Stripes and plaid and bow ties are unoriginal but some amazing performers wear them. I think it all boils down to whether the costume worked for the piece or not.

Jon Davison said...

backoftheroom, you say that:
"Skill is skill. You have the goods (or potential to have the goods) or you don't, regardless of what you're wearing."

This misses the point entirely. Costume is an integral part of all performing arts, aside from whether the performer is skillful or not. And in clowning it can often be the case that you discover your clown when you discover your costume. Chaplin certainly made just that claim for his tramp, although the impression he gives in his autobiography is that his discovery was somehow inspired and unique, whereas the truth is that he took a pretty much standard costume: slightly down at heels man in the street, a look commonly used by early 20th century "auguste" clowns.

In other words, costume in clown is both a very personal affair (be original, find you own way) and also bound up by tradition (you inevitably end up copying others). Too much fitting in with the latest fashion will lead you away from offering your personal vision, but too much distancing yourself from others will also lead you up a blind alley.

In general, I agree that contemporary clown (we don't ue the term "new vaudeville" here in Europe, but the issues are broadly the same) has become too much of a new orthodoxy, not just in terms of costume but also in its assumptions about what clown is, how you train in clown, etc.

Mike Naughton said...

Generally speaking, which is generally very dangerous, those who adopt themselves as "new vaudevillians" use it as code for limited skills and a water-downed presentation.
The real vaudevillians were very talented and multi-masters of various forms of entertainment.

You either have it or you ain't.

Mike Naughton said...

The term "new vaudeville" is not that new. Back in the 1960's there was a musical group with the name New Vaudeville ****, I forgot the exact moniker.
You either got it or you ain't. It really is that simple.

Anonymous said...

Would that be The New Vaudeville Band? I think "Winchester Cathedral" was their big hit.

Rik Gern

Anonymous said...

Your either good at what you do or your are not. Style of dress or the trends of what is fashionable for clowns really has nothing to do with it as much as some may want it to in an effort to exalt their own style preferences.

There are crappy ass clowns in 80's Ringling style get ups, crappy ass clowns in yamma yamma rainbow jump suits and smeared wide grins, and there are crappy ass clowns in grey dress slacks, theatrical roughe, and pork pies.

There are also steller clowns in traditional and more theatrical styles of dress.

I personally feel a clown like Dick Monday, David Shiner, or Tom Dougherty has more relevance today than the wide grinned overstated look of Lou Jacobs, who was perfect in his time and venue, bless him!

Jon Davison said...

Anonymous, I understand you saying that you can't judge the quality of the clown by the type of costume used, but then you lose me when you state: "I personally feel a clown like Dick Monday, David Shiner, or Tom Dougherty has more relevance today than the wide grinned overstated look of Lou Jacobs". It sounds like your preference is actually based on the "look".