Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

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What Is A Clown?

A Comic Character That Performs

by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson

What is a clown?

Is it somebody in a bright pair of overalls with an ear to ear smile painted on his face?

Is it somebody in a circus who distracts the audience while props are set?

Is it somebody who makes balloon animals, and performs a few magic tricks?

Is it somebody promoting a product on TV? 

These are all definitions that I have heard, and they are all inaccurate.

As a working professional clown I will try to explain what is a clown. I define a clown as a comic character performed for the benefit of others.

Of course a clown is funny. Everybody knows that, or do they?

Frequently people employing a clown are really looking for somebody to make balloon animals. I know of one clown whose sole criterion for judging other clowns is the number of balloon animals they can make.

Balloon animals are nice. I fondly recall one I received as a child from a man dressed as a barker, but they are not funny. There is a difference between a balloon sculptor and a clown. It is possible to do both, but doing balloon animals does not make you a clown.

Yet many people do equate balloon sculpture and clowning. Why? Because they do not understand what clowning is. The majority of people in our country have never been exposed to good clowning. Many people have never seen a clown, not even a poor one, with the exception of Ronald McDonald commercials. They do not know what is possible with clowning.

The criteria of comedy is one that many clowns fail. To be truly funny is not easy. Comedy is not a science with formulas to follow. It is an art. It is an interaction between a performer and an audience. It is a matter of taste.

The only way to test a gag is to try it before and audience to see how they react. To make things more difficult a gag that works extremely well for one performer will fall flat for another.

The reason for this is character. The humor of any situation is dependent upon the character to whom it happens. A fall that deflates a pompous society matron can be funny, but if it happens to a frail elderly lady it is tragic.

Each individual clown should be a distinct character. There is no such thing as being simply a clown. A clown can be flirtatious, shy, arrogant, stupid, clever, or any number of attributes, but they have to be something. The great clowns are those with depth of character involving many aspects. Their clown characters are carefully delineated personalities.

For example, I have often heard Otto Griebling's clown character described as being less sympathetic and more aggressive than Emmett Kelly's. For such a comparison to be possible it means that people have a clear idea of the qualities of their characters.

When clown instructors speak about creating a character they often refer to finding the clown within you. In a real sense this is what happens. For some people a clown character provides a facade they can hide behind, thus freeing inhibitions. This freedom is one of the lures of clowning
often cited. The character can contain exaggerated traits in the performers personality, ones he wishes he had, and ones he has observed in others.

There must be an honesty to the traits chosen. It will not work for a quiet person to try to force themselves to be a boisterous clown, although it is possible they will feel free to become boisterous. It will not work for one person to tell another what traits their character should have. The specific traits chosen for the character will be determined by the performers personal sense of humor and by audience interaction.

As the performer interacts with audiences, discovers what they respond to, and as their skills develop, their character will evolve and change.

This is one of the big differences between an actor and a clown. While they use many of the same techniques, an actor portrays many characters during their career, and a clown concentrates on perfecting one character.

This is true of the movie clowns like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, and Bob Hope. There is a consistency of characterization from movie to movie.

Also an actor is part of a team. Under the guidance of a director he uses make-up, costumes, and props designed and built by others to interpret a character created by a writer.  A clown is their own writer, director, costumer, make-up artist, and prop man.

The clown must pull all these elements together, and they must each contribute to the expression of their character.

This is the main draw back to the one-piece costume with ruffles. It's meaning has been so diffused into a general clown that it says nothing about a specific character. Also, many people equate it with a rented Halloween costume, and therefore with amateurism.

Another "every clown" aspect of the amateur is the enormous painted-on grin. While the big smile symbolizes a clown to many people, it masks the performer's expressions. A good make-up design enhances the expressive qualities of the performer's face. A good clown should be able to portray a variety of emotions including desire, joy, sadness, and pain.

Actually it is possible to be a clown and use little or no make-up. Generally the quality of clowning in the American Ice Shows was higher than in the American Circus, yet traditionally the Ice Clowns use little make-up. 

Since the clown is responsible for all aspects of their performance they have tremendous creative freedom. This creativity is an important aspect of clowning, one shared by all the great clowns.

The clown must keep in mind that what they are creating is designed for performance. Everything must be focused towards eliciting the desired response from the audience. Clowning is a form of entertainment, and does not exist in a vacuum.

Perhaps the easiest way to explain what this means is to use juggling as an example. There are some juggling tricks that takes years to learn, and are understood and appreciated only by other jugglers. For example, jugglers know what an amazing accomplishment it is to juggle seven balls, but to lay people it is not much different from doing five balls.

Jugglers are divided into two types, hobbyists and entertainers.  Hobbyists are those who juggle for the sake of juggling. Their goal is to increase their technical skill, and to impress other jugglers. They very seldom wear any kind of wardrobe, or give any thought to how they present their tricks. It is enough that they can accomplish them. Entertainers are those who use juggling as a method to delight others. They concentrate less on technical skill, since it is not understood by audiences, and work on developing tricks that will be appreciated by the audience.  They are concerned with how to routine the tricks, what to do if they drop, how to move, and all aspects of showmanship.
Actually juggling is a boring skill that is difficult to make entertaining.

A clown, too, must be concerned with showmanship. They must understand and use movement, blocking, focus, timing, and pacing. They must give careful consideration not only to the idea behind the gags, but also to how they are framed and presented. A good clown uses every possible tool to entertain the audience.

Although it is fun to clown, a clown performs for the enjoyment of others. This is a point many people fail to understand. It is the difference between a clown and a practical joker or party-goof-off who perform for their own enjoyment. Frequently I receive requests from people who think they would make a good clown because they like to goof around. Rarely do they make even passable clowns because they lack the necessary self-discipline and interest in others.

A clown must love people in order to be successful. In interviews and biographies of the great clowns and comedians this point is made over and over. In order to establish rapport with the audience, the performer must like them, and this is an attitude that can not be faked. Collectively an audience is very sensitive to this.

Clowning serves as a channel for the performer's love. They try to make others happy, and feel good about themselves. Because of this love there is a tradition of clowns visiting hospitals and convalescent homes. Today there is a growing understanding and use of the benefits of clowning. A clown can often reach a patient who has withdrawn into themselves when all others have failed.

This love is something that can not be taught in a class. In addition there seems to be an instinctive element to clowning that can not be taught. Some people show a flair for clowning, and are good clowns right form the start, while others never make good clowns no matter how long and hard they try. Every clown can learn to be a better clown, but not everybody can learn to be a clown.

The next time you see a performer in make-up and costume do not automatically assume they are a clown. Ask yourself, are they funny? Are they portraying a definite character? Are they involved in others, or are they on an ego trip? Are they really a clown?

Copyright 1982 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson, all rights reserved.
Originally published in the White Tops by the Circus Fans of America.
Used by permission.


To read more about how clowns are defined and the importance of a definition go to Exclusive and Inclusive Definitions

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