12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Professional Clowns
They made Egyptian pharaohs laugh as early as 2500 BCE. In ancient Rome, they were known as the stupidus, or fool. In the 20th century, they became synonymous with the red-nosed archetypes pushed by Bozo and the omnipresent Ronald McDonald. They’re professional clowns, full-time jesters who forgo subtlety in pursuit of making the audiences at birthday parties, parades, and hospitals forget their troubles.
Lately clowns have been frowning more than usual, thanks to the negative press around the creepy clown scare of 2016. For thousands of painted faces, however, clowning is an art. Mental Floss spoke with several professional fools—and we mean that in the most affectionate way possible—about their trade language, finding the right pair of giant shoes, and why some of them opt for insurance.
1. CLOWN SHOES ARE EXPENSIVE.
Don’t be fooled by the cheap, flimsy clown shoes you find in Halloween costume shops. A proper pair of oversized shoes needs to withstand hours of walking, jumping, and performing, all while maintaining a snug fit around the entertainer’s human-sized feet. “A pair of clown shoes costs anywhere from $200 to $500,” says Bebop the Clown, a performer based in San Antonio, Texas and former education director of the World Clown Association (WCA). “In order for you to clown properly in them, they need to fit. If not, they can really hurt your back.”
2. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN TRADE LANGUAGE.
Like the carnival workers they sometimes collaborate with, clowns have developed their own industry shorthand. “It’s all hidden terminology you can’t really find in books,” says Benjamin Domask, a clown based in New York City. “A ‘Joey’ is a term for a clown named after Joseph Grimaldi, one of the first clowns to dress up in face paint.” There’s also the blow-off (punchline), the clown stop (a short performance), and “bump a nose” (a.k.a. “break a leg”). A cluster of clowns is known as a “giggle.”
3. THEY HAVE CLOWN CONVENTIONS.
As with any trade, clowns like to congregate to exchange tips and look at the newest in clown industry advancements. “We have conferences with exhibitors and vendor rooms,” Bebop says. “There are often a lot of magicians there offering tricks [for sale].” Conventions are also home to courses in clowning, from balloon-tying to training as a “caring clown” for hospital visits. At night, clown parties feature clown socializing, complete with a red (nose) carpet.
4. YOU CAN THANK THE CIRCUS FOR CLOWN PHOBIAS.
As a student and teacher of clown history, Domask has an idea of what initially brought on bouts of coulrophobia, or fear of clowns, in the general public. “In the 1800s, as circuses got bigger and bigger, clowns needed to up their game,” he says. “They needed bigger movements, and thicker face paint, so audiences in seats further up could see them. But it’s like when a stage actor appears and is still wearing all that make-up. Up close, it’s really creepy-looking to have all of that caked on.” Clowns playing private engagements use fewer layers of paint, but the apprehension over unsettling circus clowns remains.
5. THERE ARE SEVERAL SUB-CATEGORIES OF CLOWN.
One of the first things students attending classes hosted by the WCA find out is that there is no one required clown uniform. According to Bebop, there are a few different ways for a person's "clown character" to manifest: “The Harlequin, or white-faced clown, is the classic and the highest,” she says. “There’s also the Auguste, or the buffoon type. Then there’s the hobo or tramp, and then a character-type clown.” The Auguste might wear pink as a face paint base instead of white and is more bumbling than the Harlequin; the character-type clown might be an existing persona, such as a baseball player or referee, but inside a clown suit. The differences become apparent, Bebop says, when clown duos work together. “One might be the whiteface and one might be the buffoon, taking the pie in the face.”
6. THEY KNOW HOW TO READ EACH OTHER.
According to Domask, veteran clowns can develop a certain expression in their eyes that becomes immediately recognizable to other clowns. “It’s a kind of look we develop,” he says of the non-verbal cue. “You can read a clown’s comfort or emotional state." In addition to expressing mood, Domask says, the look can reveal whether the clown is up for some dual clown-performance. "If two clowns meet, you can tell if the other wants to play around.”
7. THEY HARDLY EVER BREAK CHARACTER.
Once a clown is suited up for a performance, it can be difficult to relate to people as a “regular” person. As a result, Bebop says that clowns tend to turn even the most mundane daily activities into a mini-performance. “Once you put the nose on, you lose the luxury of being a person,” she says. “You can’t walk up to a group of people waiting for an elevator and go, ‘Gosh, travel sure was awful.’” Instead, Bebop will do something like passing out “tickets” for the elevator, then “collecting” them as people board.
8. THEY DO WEDDINGS.
It’s true: Some couples enjoy the presence of a clown during their nuptials. “I’ve done a couple of weddings, including one same-sex couple that had a Mardi Gras wedding theme,” Domask says. “They hired me to perform during the reception.”
9. PARADE CLOWNS NEED SPECIAL SKILLS.
While clowns can engage in mischief pretty much anywhere, performers who elect to join street parades need to put a little more thought into their act. “We call it ‘paradability,’” Bebop says of clowns best suited for that kind of engagement. “Someone might have the idea to carry a steering wheel around. How heavy is the steering wheel? Is it going to be hot out? Is the gag feasible when the parade is three miles long?”
10. THERE’S CLOWN INSURANCE.
Although he’s never had to make use of it, Domask does have variety performers' insurance in the event that he has a clowning mishap. “A lot of companies offer it,” he says. The World Clown Association provides it as a perk for members, offering up to a million dollars in coverage in the event a child has an allergic reaction to face paint or property damage occurs, among other potential misadventures.
11. THERE’S AN AUDIENCE AGE CAP.
Clowns can be found just about anywhere, from children’s hospitals to nursing homes. But for your average birthday booking, Bebop says that particularly juvenile clowns can spare themselves a lot of grief by limiting their audiences to ages seven and under. “Bebop as a character is five years old and my market is seven and under,” she says. “When I get calls that ask me to go perform for a bunch of 12-year-old Boy Scouts, I say, ‘Okay, here’s another number to call.’ A 12-year-old will eat Bebop alive.”
12. THERE’S A WAY TO GET A GUARANTEED LAUGH.
Sometimes, audiences will resist the charms of a clown, and no amount of balloon-tying, face-painting, or pratfalls will cut it. In that instance, Domask says he keeps one go-to move in his arsenal. “I just stick my finger up my nose and pretend to pick it,” he says.
All images courtesy of Getty Images.