Charlie The Juggling Clown
Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime
The Value of
Bruce “Charlie” Johnson
Many clowns don’t
spend much time practicing their art.
However, practice is even more valuable to clowns than for other variety
excellence in clowning requires more skill than is required by a serious act.
In my plate spinning routine, I begin with a series of flourishes with
the plate. The last flourish ends
with my left arm extended straight up. I
am holding the plate about waist level with my right hand.
I look away making eye contact with somebody seated on my right.
When I look back at my right hand, I can’t find the plate because it is
gone. What I don’t realize is that
the plate has flipped up into the air by itself landing in my left hand.
I look around on the floor for it. Finally,
following directions from audience members, I discover where the plate is.
I try to grab it with my right hand, but I can’t reach it.
I pick up a cane, and put the tip of the cane against the bottom of the
plate. I start the plate spinning.
Suddenly, the cane transforms into a large scarf and the plate falls into
my right hand.
I had been doing the plate flip for about fifteen years in my
act as a straight bit. I felt it was
a more interesting way to lift the plate high enough to be able to spin it.
When I decided to turn it into a comedy bit, I had to be able to do it
without looking at the plate. If the
audience saw me looking at the plate they would not believe that I did not know
where it was. It is essential for
the audience to believe what is happening to be entertained.
Animation director Chuck Jones said, “Logic and believability are the
essence of humor.”
I was amazed by how much harder it was to flip and catch the plate
without looking at it. If I looked
at the plate, I could see how fast it was turning and compensate for a bad throw
by moving my left hand. If I am
going to catch it without looking the throw has to be perfect, turning at the
right speed and hitting the palm of my hand.
I had to practice the trick all over again in order to turn it from a
serious trick to a comedy bit. I
would close my eyes and practice flipping it 100 times a day.
Finally, I got to the point where I could catch it 90 times out of 100.
Then I was able to add the comedy routine to my act.
One of the myths about clowning is that it does not matter if you make a
mistake because clowns are supposed to do things wrong.
I have heard many people use that as an excuse for not practicing.
That idea is false. Things
are supposed to go wrong, but to be entertaining they have to go wrong in the
right way and at the right time. An
inept performer is not entertaining, they are just boring.
Timing can destroy a comedy bit or make it a gem.
Jackie LeClaire, an International Clown Hall of Fame inductee, does a
routine where audience volunteers are supposed to put individual scarves into a
change bag. Then Jackie is supposed
to pull them out tied together end to end. However,
after he pulls the tied scarves out, he discovers that he forgot to have the
volunteers put the separate scarves in first.
I have seen him do the routine many times, and he always discovers his
mistake at just the right moment to get the most response from the audience.
I’ve seen him stop the show with this routine.
The next act could not go on until the audience had finished responding
to Jackie’s act. He plays the role
very believably. The first time I
saw him do the routine I thought he had really made a mistake.
It was only after seeing the routine done again that I was able to begin
to appreciate his timing and the skill of his performance.
If something goes wrong in a clown act it is more of a problem than in a
serious act. When I do my plate
spinning seriously, if I miss that flip up to my left hand, I can try it a
second time and nobody thinks anything about it.
If I miss the flip in my clown act, I have to cut out the comedy bit.
For the comedy to work, the plate has to seem to flip on its own accord
as if it has its own mind and the ability to move.
If I miss, recover, and then try to flip it again, it is obvious that I
am just doing a trick.
A skilled magician can cover up mistakes, but if you blow the set up for
a comedy bit there is often nothing you can do.
At a recent performance, I was doing some silk magic.
Half way through a trick, I realized that I had forgotten to tie two
scarves together. I was able to
compensate for that and make the effect look magical.
However, I had to skip a short comedy routine that depended upon those
scarves being tied.
Second, I know that I can’t do a routine well until I can do it without
thinking about the mechanics. That
does not mean that I do it carelessly. During
the practice process I build up muscle memory for the correct way to do it.
(Muscle memory is a neurological path way formed by repetition.)
Randy Pryor was my juggling coach. Frequently
he said, “Practice does not make perfect it only makes permanent.
Only perfect practice makes perfect.
Practice the way you want to perform because you will perform the way you
There are several tricks that I can only do without thinking.
For example, I do a juggling trick called a Triangle.
In a normal cascade juggling pattern, the balls trace the shape of an
infinity sign in the air. In the
Triangle, one of the balls traces a triangle shape with the point down and the
base at the top. To perform it my
hands have to be doing different things simultaneously.
Pausing to think about what my right hand is doing interferes with the
left hand doing what it needs to do. Also,
the timing in this trick is critical. If
I try to think about when I need to do something it is already too late.
To accomplish the trick I have to get out of the way and let my hands do
what they need to.
Chuck Jones said, “The how is
the thing you have to learn until you can do it without thinking.
A baby learning to stand up and walk spends its time wondering where its
hands and feet go, and the same is true of learning to ski, how to drive a car,
or how to draw. Eventually it
becomes second nature.”
Third, I know that as long as I have to think about the mechanics of
doing something I can’t be thinking about making it entertaining.
Arthur Pedlar, an ICHOF inductee, said a clown has to know their act
better than other performers because instead of thinking about how to do it,
they have to be concentrating on how to put it over.
Since I do not have to think about the mechanics of doing the Triangle
juggling trick, I can concentrate on my character’s reaction to the ball
acting in such an eccentric way. Sometimes
audience response to the trick is applause and sometimes it is laughter.
I always do the same trick. The
difference is that when I just do the trick it is amazing, but when I am able to
add the proper facial expressions it is funny.
Because I do not have to think about the mechanics of performing, I can
concentrate on what my character thinks in that situation.
Arthur Pedlar said, “Clowning is different from every other circus act
in that it is the only one that is based on thought.
It is not the mechanics, it is the thought behind them that is
It has been said that clowns don’t do funny things, they do things for
funny reasons. Your clown character
is not your appearance, it is the unique way you have of thinking about things.
I try to have a reason for everything that I do in my performance, and
that reason is based on Charlie’s personality.
In one of my routines, I pick up a single stem rose and smell it.
Suddenly the blossom turns into a scarf.
At the end of the routine, I turn the scarf back into the rose.
However, to make it work I have to set the scarf down and pick it up
again later to obtain the gimmick for doing the final transformation.
I needed a reason for setting the scarf down.
I decided that Charlie would first try to replace the rose with something
else. I already knew how to make a
napkin rose so I added that to the routine.
Now Charlie sees a rose, and picks it up to smell it.
To his surprise the blossom comes off the stem and turns into a scarf.
Charlie tries to replace the scarf on the stem but it does not turn back
to a flower. Charlie sets the scarf
aside. He tries to find a
replacement for the rose. He finds a
napkin and twists it into the shape of a rose.
That does not work. He picks up the scarf again to inspect it.
He begins to fidget with it, and pokes it into his hand to hide it.
He touches the stem to his hand and the scarf transforms into a blossom
back in place on the end of the stem. There
is a reason for everything Charlie does. There
is a thought process behind what happens. I
have scripted what Charlie thinks during the act, and that is what I concentrate
on while I am performing.
Fourth, practice allows you to be more spontaneous.
Some people claim practice interferes with spontaneity, but that is a
myth. The opposite is true.
Steve Smith, another ICHOF inductee, said, “You have to practice your
routines until you know them well, and then practice them some more.
When you stop thinking about how to do the routine, you can be in the
moment. Then the routine comes from
Because I don’t have to think about what is going to happen next, I can
concentrate on what is happening at each specific moment during my performance.
That allows me to listen to the audience and respond to them.
That makes each performance different.
In my Tramp
Tradition Show, I perform my version of one of Emmett Kelly’s
routines. He would wander through
the audience with a head of cabbage. When
he saw a pretty woman, he would pause and gaze at her adoringly while absent
mindedly nibbling at the cabbage. Then
he would remember his manners, and offer her some of the cabbage.
Then he would wander off and repeat the bit with another woman.
At one of my Tramp Tradition Show
performances, the third woman I approached grabbed the entire head of cabbage.
I had never had that happen before. I
looked at her, sighed, and began to move off dejectedly.
I heard the entire audience sigh. I
knew that for that audience the perfect ending was just to continue away.
I had connected with them emotionally and nothing else that I could do
would be any better.
In addition to practicing things that are in your act, you should
practice things that are more difficult than what you perform. The
reason is that it raises your skill level so the things that you do perform are
well within your limitations. A
magician complimented me on some of the difficult sleights that I use in my
acts. At first I did not understand
what he meant because those sleights seem easy to me.
Then I realized that they are easy only in comparison to other things I
attempt in practice. In a 1949 issue
Bulletin, Jack Greene wrote, “A good juggler will never be satisfied
with an act that will ‘get by’ if he intends to go places in show business.
You have to devote many extra hours of practice to polish, finish and
sell your act to the audience. Try
difficult tricks as well as simpler ones even though you will never use them.
You may ask – why put in so much work on something you will never use?
The harder you work on those tricks the more finish you will show on
those you do use. There is nothing
sweeter than to watch a juggler who is finished, polished, and slick as a
whistle. In practicing many moves,
you will become expert.”
Passing clubs is more difficult than anything I do in my solo juggling
act. When I have the opportunity, I
like to practice passing clubs although I don’t pass clubs in performance.
Most of the people that I pass clubs with are not any better at it than I
am. That means some of their throws
to me are difficult to catch. I have
noticed that after I have practiced club passing I drop my juggling clubs less
often in my performances.
Doug Henning said, “Make the difficult look easy, and make the easy
beautiful.” When I began
performing my rose routine, I discovered that it consistently got applause.
That is what I hoped for. However,
I was amazed by when people applaud. The
majority of the applause comes when I finish making the napkin rose.
That is the easiest thing to do in my routine, but that is what people
respond to the most. I can’t
explain why people applaud then. It
might be because I do it so rapidly and smoothly.
It might be that I can twist the stem tight enough so the rose looks
beautiful. I have had people ask me
how I do the stem. I can’t explain
it except to say that in the process of doing at least a thousand roses I
figured out how to do it. Since
people do respond to it so well I want to maintain my ability to make a napkin
rose the way that I do it. So, even
though it is easy to do I make at least one napkin rose a week just to stay in
practice. Directions for making a
napkin rose and a paper pot for the rose are available on my web site at
That and additional information on the napkin rose will be in my new book
Creativity For Entertainers.
It is important to me that my act seems effortless.
I have invested a lot of hard work in making it seem simple.
My approach to magic is that it is not something that I do, but it is
something that I experience along with the audience.
Charlie does not have the ability to do the magic.
The power to make the magic happen is in the environment around me.
In reviewing one of my performances in his Happy
Magic newsletter, Duane Laflin wrote, “His character is unusual in
that, as a tramp type clown, he is extremely funny while he performs tricks,
including sleight of hand and manipulation type effects that are technically
especially strong. His clown
character is not at all compromised by his great magic… because he is just as
amazed by everyone else by his tricks. In
other words, along with fooling the audience, he fools himself!
Therein lies the humor.”
Knowing the things in my act are well within my skill level gives me
confidence on stage. That confidence
is important. In order to perform
the plate flip that I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I have to be
confident that I can do it. If I am
insecure about it, I either overcompensate throwing it too high or I hesitate
and it does not go high enough. I
had the privilege of performing in a high profile show last year.
I was nervous about the plate flip. So
just before the show I closed my eyes and practiced it fifty times in a row
without making a mistake. I know if
I could do it that many times I could manage to do it just once more.
I was relaxed about doing it during the performance, and the plate landed
in my hand perfectly.
Why is practice so important to clowns?
It helps you take your act up another step in quality.
It gives you the confidence you need to relax and do your best.
It makes your act polished and easy for you to do.
It allows you to think about how to make your act more entertaining and
enables you to be more spontaneous. It
enables you to add comedy to your act. It
changes your act from being intellectual to being emotional allowing you to
touch people more deeply. It
transforms the everyday into something magical and hilarious.
Look at the routines you are performing now.
What things do you have to think about while you perform them?
How can you turn them into something you can do without thinking?
What can you practice to increase your overall skill level?
What is a little more difficult than what you currently perform in your
act? What can you do to make
practice something you look forward to doing?
How can you make time in your schedule to practice your clown skills?
Published in the July/August 2004 Issue of New