Class Clown

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Juggling at graduation

I graduated from high school a few months ago as valedictorian with a class of about 1,000 students. I delivered a 12 minute speech from memory in which I used juggling as a metaphor for overnight success being fake, and closed by juggling an egg, a bowling ball, and a set rat trap on a stick. I had a unique high school experience. Not only was there the unlikely juxtaposition of intellect and complete comic stupidity, but also the fact that my clown character, Phineas, was accepted.

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The author performing at a school function

I had the wonderful opportunity of participating as a member of a panel at the First Annual Worldwide Circus Summit, in which we discussed how youth involved in circus can become professionals as they grow up. Panel members included Amy Cohen, Marci Diamond, Jessica Hentoff, Shana Kennedy, and other youth involved in different circus disciplines. During the Q&A section, Barry Lubin, better known as his clown character, Grandma, asked why there is a lack of clowning in a majority of youth circus schools. Several panel members said that they have offered clown classes, but don’t offer them as “permanent” classes because they don’t have staff qualified to do so. As a clown I was intrigued by the question, and quickly realized that lack of staff is not the only contributing factor to the small amount of kids and teens involved in clowning; from my observations, there is also a severe lack of interest in the art form. The lack of interest stems from a few main trains of thought. Let’s take a look at each one of these ideas and gain a better understanding of why the idea of the young clown is dwindling…or changing.

Clowns are scary!

This is one of my favorites. Coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, is extremely common. In fact, it is more common than the fear of falling. Now there are many people who are legitimately scared of clowns. These are people who usually had a bad experience as a child with a clown that scarred them for life. The problem, however, is that there are a majority of people who think that it is cool to be afraid of clowns. I have found this to be the case mostly with tween and teenage girls. Wearing more makeup than I am, they will walk right up to me and say, “I’m afraid of clowns.” This weird concept that being afraid of something is cool has almost a mob mentality, meaning that many people who claim to have coulrophobia really don’t. This widespread “fear” instilled in youth is one of the contributing factors to a lack of young clowns.

You can’t really practice it.

Clowning is not tangible (which is one of the reasons it is so hard to teach). You can’t teach someone how to be funny. You can teach someone the skills to improvise, but you can’t tell them how to be funny. There is no set formula for how to be funny. Therefore, as a clown, you don’t know what is funny until you put it in front of an audience. I can spend hours working on a gag in my living room that I think is funny, but I don’t know if it is truly funny until I put it in front of an audience, and even then different audiences find different things funny. This, in a word, is annoying. You can practice juggling by yourself and know that you are making progress. You learn a new trick on the lyra and don’t need an audience to know whether or not you are doing it right. Clowning is the opposite. For a generation that lives requires immediate gratification, learning a new juggling trick or a new type of flip and moving on has a much greater immediate feeling of accomplishment than performing a gag several times to determine whether or not is funny.

Clowns are just for little kids.

So Uncle Jimmy went to Party City when you were three, bought a bad rainbow wig and some Halloween face paint, and took pictures with everyone at your birthday party. Great. One way clowns create comedy is by approaching everyday situations with skewed logic that to the clown, seems completely normal. Just because when you were little you just saw a clown making balloon animals doesn’t mean that the clown can’t deal with more adult and mature themes. Clowns David Shiner and Bill Irwin, for example, dealt with topics including technology, loneliness, jealously, and politics in their show Old Hats.

What is considered “funny” has changed.

I’m gonna close with this one, because I feel it is the most important contributing factor to a lack of young clowns. I grew up watching old Marx Brothers movies (Harpo was my favorite) and The Muppet Show. As a result of being exposed to such media at such an early age, I developed a sense of humor that relied heavily on slapstick and sight gags. I still find those things extremely funny, but I have also developed a taste for other types of comedy that is more on par with that of my peers. Things like stand-up comedy, sketch comedy, political satire, and situation comedies. This change in the type of comedy people are exposed to on a daily basis, from pure slapstick with little intellect to more intellectual and smart comedy with less slapstick has resulted in an evolution of what people find funny. Back in the 50’s and 60’s, kids wanted to be like Red Skelton. The clowns that youth are exposed to nowadays include characters like Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory), Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report), and Liz Lemon (30 Rock), and they aspire to be like Jimmy Fallon, Adam Sandler, and Amy Poehler.

The clown that youth is exposed to has changed, which is not a bad thing-it’s just different. The clown has evolved throughout the centuries from Commedia dell’arte, to Shakespearean comedies, to film, to what is viewed as the classic American circus clown. The youth clown will never go away, it will just change and we will see a different emphasis on what is funny.

Until next time…CIRCUS!

Matthew “Phineas” Lish, 17, is an award-winning clown and juggler. Notable performances include off-Broadway, the Ronald McDonald House, the Century Club with Dick Cavett, and guest ringmaster at the Big Apple Circus. He was offered a spot with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, and currently holds the world record for juggling clubs while bouncing on a pogo stick.

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