Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime


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It's In The Mail


Reading something on stage can be an effective entertainment tool. It is one way to incorporate humor that doesn't fit your character. If you like a joke, but it isn't something your character would say, you can read it as if written by somebody else. It can sometimes be substituted for a character in a skit when you don't have enough performers to cast it completely.

Reading letters has long been part of the repertoire of clowns and comedians.

Joseph Grimaldi, the father of modern clowning, read letters in the 1806 production of Harlequin and Mother Goose; or, The Golden Egg. Grimaldi's larcenous character stole the letters out of a mail box. Opening the envelopes, Grimaldi stuffed any money he found in his pockets, and paused to read some of the letters to the audience. Finally he found a noose in one envelope along with a note saying, "I'll just trouble you with a line."

Sometimes a solo clown will read a letter to the audience. At other times, one character will read a letter to a second character who comments on its contents. For example, a TV episode of the Burns And Allen Show (10/23/52) began with George and Gracie entering the living room. Gracie is laughing as she looks at a letter she has just taken from an envelope. George asks her, "Who is the letter from, Gracie?"

Gracie replies, "My mother."


"What's the joke?


"Well, my mother said my sister Hazel said something funny today." (laughs some more)


"What did Hazel say?"

"I haven't read that far yet."

"Then what are you laughing about?"

"My mother, Hazel never says anything funny."

George concludes, "Well maybe she should get some writers."

Sometimes the letter or its envelope is used to reveal something about a character. In another Burns & Allen episode (12/4/52), Gracie is sitting on the patio reading a letter when Blanch joins her. Blanch picks up an envelope from the table, and says, "a letter from San Francisco with a six cent stamp and a ten cent stamp. It must be from your mother."

"Yes." Gracie replies, "She always adds a ten cent stamp as a tip for the postman."

Another program that used letters from an absent character a lot was the Jack Benny Show. Frequently Mary would read a letter from her mother while Jack commented on what was said. The greetings and salutations were always topical references using the name of a current movie, radio program, hit play, etc. For example, when Mary announced she had received a letter, Jack would say, "How nice. And what does 'The Midnight Cowboy' of Plainfield have to say?" The letter would close with something like, "That’s about all the news so I'll close with fondest regards from your mother, 'Cactus Flower' Livingstone."

Vaudeville headliner and tramp clown Nat Wills introduced topical humor into his act by reading out loud telegrams he found in a trash can. For example, in the early 1900's when arctic exploration was very much in the news Wills read, "To the Geographic Society from arctic expedition. We bumped into a clothesline last night. Expect to discover the pole shortly."

Here is another example of how letters can be used to introduce topical material. There were problems with the sound system during the Staff Bits show at the U-W Clown Camp ® in June 1998. Everyone who tried to use music with their act had difficulty. Lee Mullally held up an envelope, announced he had E-Mail, opened the envelope, and pulled out a piece of paper cut in the shape of a capital E. Reading from the piece of paper, he said, "Oh, it's from my mother. She says, 'son, don't try to use music in your act. '" The timely comment got a big laugh. Since the audience can't see what you are "reading" you can say anything you want as if it is written down.

In a letter you can tell a joke as if it happened to somebody else and they are telling you about it in a letter. For example, "Dearest daughter, The doctor told me I should be getting more exercise so I've been going for walks. Yesterday I was listening to the Titanic sound track on my walkman and not really paying attention to where I was going. I began to get tired so I decided I had better go back home, but I wasn't sure where I was. Fortunately I found a pizza parlor pretty soon. I went in, ordered a ham and pineapple pizza to be delivered, and rode home with the man. Your loving, Mother."

If you don't have enough people to perform a skit, see if you can substitute a letter for one of the characters. For example, Chocolat and Footit performed this routine with the Ringmaster in circuses in the late 1800's.

Footit: Chocolat, come here, I have a riddle for you. My parents had a child. It wasn't my brother and it wasn't my sister. Who was it?

Chocolat: I don't know.

Footit: It was me.

Chocolat: Mr. Ringmaster. Come here I have a riddle for you. My parents had a child. It wasn't my brother and it wasn't my sister. Who was it?

Ringmaster: It was you.

Chocolat: No it was Footit.

That could be performed by a duo if it was changed like this.

Lou: (entering reading a letter) Dear Lou, Your Uncle Grock told us a wonderful riddle. He said, "My parents had a child. It wasn't my brother and it wasn't my sister. Who was it?" The answer is it was your Uncle Grock. Your loving Father. (Starts laughing) Oh, that is a funny riddle. I have to tell Mark. Hey, Mark, come out here!

(Mark enters)


Lou: Listen, my father told me about a riddle he heard from my Uncle Grock. "My parents had a child. It wasn't my brother and it wasn't my sister. Who was it?"

Mark: Oh, that's easy. It was you.

Lou: No, it wasn't. It was my Uncle Grock.

Letters can be used to introduce a scene or setting. For example, on The Big Comfy Couch, a TV program shown on PBS, Loonette receives a letter from her Auntie Macassar. Then sometimes while Loonette reads the letter, the action cuts away to Auntie Macassar performing a comedy sketch.

This device was used to frame entire episodes of the M*A*S*H TV series. The program would open with one of the characters writing home. They would start talking about something that happened as a way of introducing a scene. Then the show would cut to that scene. When that scene was over they would cut back to the letter writer who then set up the premise for the next scene. It was an effective device that could be used by the emcee of a clown skit show•

Excerpted From The Clown In Times Volume 5 Issue One

Copyright Bruce "Charlie" Johnson 1998

For information on other articles in volume five of The Clown In Times go to

Times Contents 5

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