Published on February 12th, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson


Kicked by kids, bit by dogs, and admired by the elderly

The layman’s definition of a “clown” is typically not a positive one. Garish makeup, overbearing demeanor, and lame tricks. Throw in a few references to Ronald McDonald and Stephen King’s It and you’ve covered what seems to be the standard cultural representation.

But is your opinion, as a comedy-savvy individual, any different?

Until well into adulthood, the majority of my exposure to clowns was at the Shrine Circus. My recollection? Zero. I can’t remember a single thing they did. But I’ve recently sought out circus vids on YouTube (Ringling and otherwise), and love what some of these guys are doing. At its best, it has the same dual-level appeal as the Muppet Show.

I’ve spoken with many hobby / volunteer / weekend clowns – the kind who do facepainting and balloon animals at local events – and I see a lot of them on a clown messageboard I read. A segment of those folks are a definite “type”: accountants or homemakers, itching for a creative hobby after their kids have left the nest. They’re well-intentioned, sweet people, but they’re purely for kids. They aren’t comedians. Not by a long shot. Many of their jokes come directly from the internet, and the skits straight out of a book. (One woman on that messageboard recently admitted she’d never heard of Harold Lloyd. Dagger, meet my heart.)

As it turns out, that ain’t all there is.

Thanks to my city having one of the biggest Fringe Festivals in the world, a decade ago I became aware of theatrical clowning. It’s for adults, it’s character-based, and it’s original work. Some of it dark, some of it fun. When I moved to Toronto a year ago, I was thrilled to discover the existence of semi-regular clown shows. There’s a small scene and annual festival in New York, too.

I love watching it, but I don’t feel educated about it. Those who perform it typically have extensive theatre backgrounds, which I most definitely do not. Theatrical clown itself is a set of genres, and I honestly can’t tell you the difference between dell’arte and bouffon. You can’t be book-smart about theatrical clown. It’s a much different learning process than standup, where (like me) you can get through your first set with zero training or stage experience. And it’s definitely more complicated than slapping on some cheap Wal-Mart halloween makeup and making balloon dogs at a church bake sale.

All said, my personal definition of “clown” has become very loose: I think it simply means fully embodying a flawed character, and having a fearlessness when it comes to appearing vulnerable or ridiculous. So it can mean Buster Keaton or Bozo, Wavy Gravy or Kurt Browning, Amy Sedaris or David Larible, a thoughtful monologue or a pie in the face.

But these conclusions are the result of very actively seeking this stuff out. 99% of the population has a perception based on what’s been presented to them, which is a relatively simplistic (and unappealing) image. I’m genuinely curious whether this is any different for comedy fans.

For everyone reading this: What immediately comes to mind when you hear the word “clown”? As an adult, what have you been exposed to? Do you like, dislike, feel indifferent towards clowns? And if you’re a performer, have you explored training in this area?

Talk to me. Or clowns will eat you.

About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

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  • The Colbert Report A-Z

    Third Beat editor Sharilyn Johnson presents the ultimate fan guide to The Colbert Report, available from all major booksellers including amazon.com