Entertainment

A Graduate of a Prestigious French Clown Academy Explains What People Don't Know About Clowning

"When the clown fails, the wonderful paradox is it's not about the agony of failure, it's about the joy in revealing one's own personal specific kind of failure. No one fails in the same way."

by Harry Cheadle
Oct 11 2016, 7:30pm

Hangin' out with some clowns at French clown school. Photo courtesy of Robert Silverman

Almost two months ago, people down in the Carolinas began reporting sightings of creepy clowns in the woods. This made-for-the-viral-internet story went viral, of course, and it also spawned more IRL clown sightings—the vast majority of them appear to be fake or pranks, but if there was ever a year with a shakier grasp on reality than 2016, I haven't lived through it. On Monday alone, reports trickled in from all over the country of people in clown masks getting arrested for threatening behavior and trespassing, and of yet more (probably fake) threats of clown attacks.

All of this is stressing out regular, non-killer clowns, but it also highlights how little most people think about clowns and the art of clowning. The killer clown trope is overused to the point where it's turned generic, but what the general public doesn't know about actual, flesh-and-blood-and-rubber-nose clowns could fill one of those secretly massive tiny cars. Why do people like clowns in the first place? Why do clowns clown?

To get these questions answered, I called up Robert Silverman, a writer at Vocativ and a VICE Sports contributor. In a former life, he was trained at Ecole internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, a Parisian "school for physical theater and theater creation," as Silverman describes it, that includes a dose of clowning in its second year. That sort of artsy European clowning is different from what most American clowns do—think Baskets, not Bozo—but who better to ask what people don't know about clowning than someone with a degree in it?

VICE: So tell me about clowning.
Robert Silverman:
Avner Eisenberg, who is a very well-known clown, is known in clowning as Avner the Eccentric. The only time I ever think he got famous beyond that specific world is he was the Jewel in the movie The Jewel of the Nile, the sequel to Romancing the Stone. He tells this story that the history of clowning is this: There's a bit where the ringmaster says, "We are going to have someone walk a tightrope," and they set up a tightrope—but the tightrope-walker isn't there. And suddenly a drunk stumbles out from the audience and sloshily says, "I can do it, I can walk the tightrope," and he's clearly soused and is falling all over himself and practically killing himself walking up the ladder, and then he tries to walk across the tightrope. There are a number of ways that you can make this funny: He can fall repeatedly and in funny ways, or he can get up on the ladder and just do a perfect tightrope walk—there's a whole range of options. According to Avner, that's the origin of the red nose: It's the drunk's red nose.

It's not just, Ha, look at this funny stumble-bum drunk, it's about failure. The red nose is a mask that becomes revelatory—you hide behind this thing where you're like, "I am going to fail for you, audience." The thing that distinguishes clowning from any other comedy is that it's a direct engagement with the audience—everything that's being done onstage is for the audience. When you fail, you fail for the audience, and when you succeed, it's like, look you succeeded, and you give it back to the audience. When the clown fails, the wonderful paradox is it's not about the agony of failure, it's about the joy in revealing one's own personal specific kind of failure. No one fails in the same way.

That's what you learned at French clown school?
Here's an exercise that I think breaks it down kind of nicely, it's one of the first ones you do: All the students sit in a room, and you leave the room, then enter the room, walk to the center of the stage, then you have to make the entire room burst out in gut-busting, tear-soaked laughter. The trick is, you are not allowed to do anything: You can't talk, you can't tell a joke, you can't do a pratfall. If you try and you start to do something, the teacher says "STOP" and sends you out and makes you start again.

So what happens is everyone comes in and you stand there and you're staring at 30 people with these stone-cold not-laughing faces and it's awful because you're failing and you want to make them laugh and you can't do anything and in that moment of paralysis—feeling awful and wishing the earth would open up under your feet and you could be anywhere else in the world maybe even law school—if you actually suffer and fail, everybody laughs. And it's not cruel or sadistic in any way. Getting to the place of nothing, where you're not actually doing anything, you're just experiencing real actual failure—it's difficult and you screw up time and time again and you keep coming back and back and back and back and trying again and again and again and you fail and you fail and you fail until you get to that real place and then everybody laughs. That's because nobody fails in the exact same way, or that feeling of desperately wanting to do something and being totally unable to do it and having no idea of what to do in order to get there is very human and recognizable. The moment where everyone laughs is so thrilling to the person onstage—and of course for the next two people to do the exercise, it's like, "Ahaha, I have the answer, I'll do what they did, I'll fail." But you can't, you can't fake failure, you can't imitate anyone else's failure.

This school sounds brutal.
At the end of the first year, you go meet Mr. LeCoq—he actually passed away a year before I got there, but you get to meet the head of the program. Everyone goes in one by one and has a 30-second meeting where he'd tell you one of three things. He will say either, "We would like to keep working with you, if you are interested please stay for another year," or, "What you need now is to actually go work and make theater, you don't need more training, you need to go work, thank you, we've enjoyed working with you," or three, "You need more training, but this is not the right training for you, find one that better suits your needs," or he'd say, "You are not an actor, go find another path in life."

And it was brutal to the people he said it to—there were about ten people in my year who got that. They were devastated, they were destroyed, but it was absolutely what they needed to hear. Those were ten people who really, really weren't actors, and that's a brutal gut punch.

Is this all separate from American clowning?
Whether you are doing a circus bit that would be recognizable at Ringling Bros. or something that's more refined, or snooty, like the kind of stuff that I am talking about—I think they are both the same. The Ringling program doesn't get as philosophical about the meaning behind it. I haven't gone through it myself, so I can't say for sure, but [my impression is] it's more about creating really funny bits and slapstick and that kind of thing. But at the core I definitely think they are both pointing at the same thing, in the kind of sharing-failing way.

Does anything you're talking about have to do with why people are afraid of clowns?
I could be totally talking out of my ass here, but I think that that kind of raw failure freaks some people out. That's not a criticism, that's just not their brand of entertainment.

What are the top misconceptions about clowns you think people have?
One: Not all clowns are secretly serial killers like John Wayne Gacy. Two: It's really easy to get the makeup off, you just use like a little makeup remover and a light moisturizer, and it's not going to cause skin trouble. Three: You have to be like a really good athlete to be a good clown—the truly brilliant clowns are physical geniuses. Falling down is hard, it hurts.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.