Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime


Home Up Assistant BibleIllusion Clown Tools Creativity Critique Critique2 Focus Libraries Letters Napkin Rose Plagiarism SilkPainting Special Audiences SwanStory Thank You Thought ValueOfPractice Young Kids

The Value of Practice

By 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 artists.

First, 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 practice.”

            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 important.”

            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 your heart.”

            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 of Juggler’s 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 /napkin_rose.htm.  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?



Originally Published in the July/August 2004 Issue of New Calliope






 Home Index