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A clown today is one of various types of comedic performers, on stage, television, in the circus and rodeo. Though not every clown is readily identifiable by appearance alone, clowns frequently appear in makeup, and costume as well as typically large footwear, oversized or otherwise outlandish clothing, bright colors and patterns or patchwork, a funny or unusual hat or wig or wildly unusual hairstyle and/or color, often with bulbous or otherwise unusual nose, and enacting humorous sketches, usually in the interludes between major presentations. The clown's humor today is often visual and includes many elements of physical comedy or slapstick humor but not exclusively. For instance, Wavy Gravy's comedy is often cerebral, spiritual, or even political in nature.



Clowning is an ancient art form, which appears in some manner in virtually every culture. An early form of clowns was the court jester, a role that can be traced back to ancient Egypt. Though most jesters suffered from some physical deformity and were often the butt of jokes, they were often the only courtiers who enjoyed free speech, and could usually freely speak their minds to the monarch.

Word origin

The word clown comes from words meaning "clot" or "clod" which came also to mean "clumsy fellow", according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Clown is both a noun and a verb, and can also be an adjective (clown bike, clown shoes, clown white, clown gag and so on). Clown is also used to refer to anyone who provides entertainment in a clownish manner. Within the 'clown world', and among professional clowns, "clown" often refers to the character portrayed, rather than the performer. This usage is somewhat rare outside of the professional clown and/or theatrical community.

Clown skills

It has been said "clowns can do anything", this is mostly because clowns have such wildly varying performances. 'Everyone knows' that a clown can do magic, juggle, balance things on his nose, do backflips, ride a unicycle, etc, but clowns might be called on to do just about anything.

In the circus, a clown might be convinced to perform another circus role:

  • Walk a tightrope or highwire. Or a slack rope. Or a piece of rope on the ground, though in the latter case, the predictably unpredictable clown might be just as likely to wrestle around on the gound with it, as if it were a boa constrictor.
  • Ride a horse or zebra or donkey or elephant... or even an ostrich.
  • Substitute himself in the role of "lion tamer"
  • Act as "emcee", from M.C. or Master of Ceremonies, the preferred term for a clown taking on the role of "Ringmaster"
  • 'Sit in' with the orchestra perhaps in a 'pin spot' in the center ring, or from a seat next to YOU, in the audience... he might even don 'tux and tails' and 'sneak' into the orchestra pit - a guarantee of hilarious cacaphony
  • Anything any other circus performer might do, as, in this case it would not be uncommon for an acrobat, horse-back rider, lion tamer, etc. to secretly stand-in for the clown, the "switch" taking place in a brief moment offstage.


There are several different types of clowns, including:

  • the whiteface clown, the most well-known of modern clown types - Joey Grimaldi was a whiteface clown. The whiteface clown uses makeup to exxagerate their facial features and expressions rather than modify or conceal them.
  • the grotesque clown: who uses exaggerated make-up and costumes, such as large noses, skullcaps/baldcaps or headgear appliances simulating a tall, pointy, or otherwise unusually shaped head, tiny tiny hat, etc... Lou Jacobs is a famous grotesque clown.
  • the character clown: who adopts the character of some common type, such as a butcher, a policeman, housewife or hobo. Prime examples of this type of clown are Emmett Kelly and Charlie Chaplin. Lucy Ricardo, the most famous character played by Lucille Ball is considered by clowns to be a character clown. Lucille Ball's clown character itself often dressed up as other characters, an instance of a character clown in turn playing a clown as part of the role.
  • The rodeo clown has one of the most dangerous jobs in all of show business. A rodeo clown is a courageous and hard-working cowboy or animal wrangler, dressed in wild costumes - almost always oversized and consisting of loose fitting layers of clothing to protect them from, and to distract, Rodeo bulls, etc. The looseness of the layers allows a rodeo clown to shed portions of their attire in the event of its being snagged. This professional -- whose highly dangerous job is to protect other performers from bucking horses and charging bulls while at the same time entertaining the audience with the antics of a clown -- might tell you: "Druther lose a shirt than lose my life".
  • The Pierrot, or "French clown", appears in whiteface, typically with very little other color on the face. This clown character prefers black and white or other a simple primary color in his or her costume. (le Pierrot is often female, and has also been called "Pirouette").
The tragic Robert Hunter song "Reuben and Cerise" mentions Pirouette twice, in symbolic colors:
...Cerise was dressing as Pirouette in white
when a fatal vision gripped her tight
Cerise beware tonight...
Cerise is Reuben's 'true love', but Ruby Claire was a temptress:
...Sweet Ruby Claire at Reuben stared
At Reuben stared
She was dressed as Pirouette in red
and her hair hung gently down...

Both women have names which translate as "red", but reuben's true love is dressed in pure white, the other, to whom he played his fateful song, is the 'lady in red' this symbolism might imply that Reuben was Pierrot's companion, Arlecchino:

  • Harlequin, or Arlecchino, a character originally from Commedia dell'Arte, is a 'motley' clown - in 'commedia', Arlecchino used a cane to 'whack' the other performers, this is believed to be the origin of 'slapstick' a form of physical comedy. A slapstick (battacio in Italian) is a prop with two flat flexible wooden pieces mounted in parallel, the two sticks slap together when the implement is struck, causing a slapping sound, exaggerating the effect of a comedic blow. Harlequin's other names: Traccagnino, Bagattino, Tabarrino, Tortellino, Naccherino, Gradelino, Mezzettino, Polpettino, Nespolino, Bertoldino, Fagiuolino, Trappolino, Zaccagnino, Trivellino, Passerino, Bagolino, Temellino, Fagottino, Pedrolino, Fritellino, Tabacchino could all be considered funny-sounding names, even to an Italian.
  • the Auguste : accompanying a circus clown, as part of a troupe, or as one of a clown duo, there is often another clown character known as an auguste, but the auguste's role is different from the other clowns, he is the 'straight man' in most gags. The Auguste is so self-important that the audience inevitably takes the other clown to heart as their protagonist. Bongo, of the duo Bongo and Clownzo , is an Auguste clown, which moniker he might assure you means "dignified and respectable".

The Auguste is the zaniest and most foolish of the clown's group, yet attempts to look dignified, and thinks of himself as smart and superior and wise, which only lends to the comedic effect when he receives his inevitable come-uppance. The cleverer clown (the sidekick) always gets the better of the auguste. The auguste gets the pie in the face, is squirted with water, is knocked down on his backside, sits in the wet paint, etc.

Customs and traditions

As with any ancient artform, fools, clowns and other related artists have developed customs, traditions and even superstitions regarding their chosen avocation. Many of these customs are widely held, and considered fundamental to the Art of Clowning.

A knock is a plug

Professional clowns typically do not make disparaging remarks about other clowns, not only because this is considered petty, but because of the tradition that "a knock is a plug", in other words, to mention a poor performer by name is to provide that performer with undue advertisement.

The Code

Each individual clown has the informal right to a costume, makeup and other unique performance attributes that must not be infringed by other clowns. Despite no enforcement through intellectual property laws, this code of non-infringement is always respected by the professional clown, and its protection is even extended to individual clown routines and acts. This practice is of such a great importance to clowns, that it is often referred to by clowns as simply "The Code."

"Clown Eggs"

In Britain, as recognition of The Code, each clown has their own clown face painted onto an eggshell and no two eggs can be alike.

Clown superstition

It is not uncommon for clowns to avoid the use of blue face paint, as this is considered bad luck.

Clowns do not wish each other good luck, an old show business custom, however, among clowns the expression "knock 'em dead" seems more prevalent than the customary show-biz expression, "break a leg". Wishing a fellow performer "good luck" is considered a jinx.

Clown gags

Among the more well-known clown "gags" are: squirting flower; the too-many-clowns-coming-out-of-a-tiny-car stunt; doing just about anything with a rubber chicken or tripping over his own feet (or an air pocket or imaginary blemish in the floor) or riding a unicycle or any number of ridiculous vehicles or "clown bikes".

Clown 'bits'

A clown duo might employ a number of cooperative 'bits' to help them create an improvisational performance. Using this technique allows both clowns to participate in what looks like a well-rehearsed sketch, but might well be a mere placeholder/spacefiller for a missing act, or used to cover "prop failure" etc. Particularly in a Circus or Variety show, clowns are often relied on to perform "at the drop of a hat" and a well-prepared clown will not only have a large repertoire of bits, but will remain alert when off-stage. In accordance with the well-known "show biz" tradition that "The Show Must Go On", the best clowns will always be ready to save the day, even in the midst of a tragedy -- such as an injured performer.

Pete and re-Pete

In 'Pete and re-Pete', the first clown narrates the gag, the second repeats the main elements of the first clown's exposition:

"I see you bought yourself a new hat"

--"Yeah, a New Hat (big happy smile of contentment with his battered stovepipe hat)

"Get it uptown?"

--"Yup, Got it Up Town, oh Yeah, you're not gonna get a Fine New Hat like this one DOWN town (taking the hat off again for another satisfied look at the hat, and rocking up on to the balls of his feet and back on his heels, proudly)

"You can say that again"

--"OK: Got it Up Town, yeah, not gonna get one of these downtown" (another proud look at the hat, picking an imagined piece of lint from the torn brim of the bedraggled Fine New Hat), yep, nothing like an Up Town Hat"

"Uhuh... they pay you much?"

(the first clown narrates the gag, the second repeats main elements of this exposition)

"Thats good/that's bad"

In "thats good/that's bad", the first clown narrates the gag, the second responds alternately with "that's good /that's bad":

"I found a dog"

--"that's good"(noncommittally)

"It wasn't a hot dog though" (showing the dog)

--"that's too bad" (looking at the dog,wistfully)

"He's really friendly"

--"Oh, that's good" (agreeably)

"with people's legs"

--"Well THAT's bad" (appalled)

"He doesn't eat much

--"that's good" (nodding agreeably)

"He sure poops a lot though"

--"that's bad"('that stinks' expression)

"he's housebroken"

--"THAT's good"(of course it is)

"No that's bad, he did some jail time for the last housebreak"

--"Ok, then that's bad..."(willing to be corrected)

"No that's good - it was his second offense. He's gone straight now"

--"that's... uhhh... good?"(confused now)

"No that's bad, he's gone straight for your pastrami sandwich!"

This bit is also seen with other "good/bad" interjections: perhaps "that's fortunate/unfortunate" or even (with a pair of two "Surfer Dude" clowns) as "Dude that rocks!/Man, that bites".

Note that a clown would likely choose the word 'pastrami' rather than 'corned beef', because pastrami is a funny word and corned beef is not. Clowns prefer: monkey wrenches to "spanners"; doohickeys to "gadgets"; kitchen gadgets to "small appliance"; monickers to "nicknames"; would much prefer to be fidgety than "restless".

Each clown has his own gags or bits, these techniques are used to share gags with other clowns that are unfamiliar with the material, by using "Yes, and..." techniques ("Yes and" has become a technique commonly taught in "improv" classes) such as "Pete and re-Pete", and "Thats good/that's bad", the clowns avoid conflicting gags, supporting each other in whatever they may say, and keeping the performance flowing.

It is considered bad improvisational form to "deny the proposition" as in:

"Hi Dewey, looks like you got yourself a new pair of shoes"

-- "No, Tiny, these are my regular shoes."

... as this tends to stop the show, "killing" the "comedic momentum" crucial to keeping the attention of the audience.

Some famous clowns

  • Bozo the Clown, a franchised clown, played by many local television performers. He was also the name of a character in the cartoon.
  • Bongo (clown) , Clownzo the Clown 's 'Auguste' partner, performed by the American multi-media and performance artist whose name is simply "Glenn"
  • J. P. Patches, local television clown who was the inspiration for the animated character, Krusty the Clown
  • Slim Pickens, rodeo clown and film actor
  • Emmett Kelly, "sad clown" with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus
  • The Fratellinis, a dynasty of French clowns
  • Frenchy the Clown
  • Jack, advertising icon for the fast food company, Jack in the Box
  • Joseph Grimaldi credited with being "the first whiteface clown" - in an homage to Grimaldi, circus clowns began referring to them selves and each other as "Joey"s, and the term 'joey' is now a synonym for clown
  • Red Skelton
  • Remi, "Puerto Rico's Greatest Clown"
  • Lou Jacobs , one the world's most well-known circus clowns, most often performing as a grotesque clown.
  • Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) television superstar/producer, certainly one of America's most famous clowns, and a fine example of a character clown.
  • Karandasch (Michail Nikolajewitsch Rumjanzew)
  • Koko the Clown from Max Fleischer's Out of the Inkwell series of cartoons.
  • Ronald McDonald, McDonald's fast-food restaurant chain's advertising clown character, performed by various performers, all of whom were trained to portray the character in an identical manner. Prior to this standardization of the character, Ronald McDonald was played by several performers. In the first television ad featuring Ronald McDonald, the clown was portrayed by Willard Scott.
  • Grock (Adrian Wettach)
  • Oleg Popow
  • Charlie Rivel
  • Francesco Caroli
  • Habakkuk (Arminio Rothstein )
  • Die Chicky's
  • Will Kemp (fl c 1589 - 1600) actor dancer and clown who worked with Shakespeare
  • Achille Zavatta (1915 - 1993)
  • Bill Irwin, a "baggy pants" clown known for his vaudeville-style performances
  • George Washington Lafayette Fox , perhaps the most famous American clown during the 19th century and one of the first known performers to become typecast in a role

Some other clowns

  • Jonny Mortensen , from Sweden, a really "nerdy" clown. He is without doubt Karlstad's (in Sweden) most famous "newsclown".
  • Three peace-seeking clowns were beaten up by police during the protests against the 1981 Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand. The protest movement thereafter added "Send in the Clowns" to its repertoire of songs.
  • Ernest Borgnine, the American film and television actor, enjoys performing as a clown in parades, particularly in New York City
  • Batatinha (literally Little Potato), from Portugal. A very well-known clown and a great vult of Portuguese communication.

Fictional clowns

Evil clowns

Clowns have frequently been portrayed in movies, television, and novels. While clowns are generally believed to delight children, many kids - as well as some adults - are frightened by their strange appearance and unpredictable behavior. See evil clown.

See also

External links

  • The International Clown Hall of Fame
  • Clown Ministry
  • Clown Resource Directory
  • Clown Shoes Infomation

Last updated: 02-08-2005 03:52:51
Last updated: 02-24-2005 14:23:03