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What Makes a Clown Funny?


Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre

Barry Lubin as Grandma

by Barry Lubin

Successful clowning is a combination of developing a tough skin so you can handle the inevitable failures inherent in live comedy, simple trial and error, opportunity and perseverance. I often tell people — and their immediate reaction is incredulous — that your own sense of humor has little or nothing to do with an audience's sense of humor. When you are in the laugh business, your job is not to make yourself laugh but to make others laugh.

My job, as I personally approach it, is that anything short of a laugh is failure. There is no formula for succeeding at this art form. There are lots of books, videos, camps, schools, and tons of so-called master classes devoted to teaching the art of clowning. If you are lucky enough to find one that helps you find the character within you, you have a chance at success. And if that teacher or book or class is honest about failure being integral to successful career, you have an even better chance. If a teacher tries to help you figure out how to avoid failure, run! I can not succeed without failure. I've tried to teach timing, and I'm still at a loss on that one. All I can do is explain pauses; talk about taking a "beat," which is a moment of indeterminate length before moving a clown piece forward; and discuss some ideas of how to create tension by waiting the correct amount of time before delivering the joke. Timing comes in many forms. Can people learn timing? I think there's some trial and error to learning timing — figuring it out by doing it and noting the successes and failures — but I am still experimenting with timing, and I've been at this for 35 years. What makes one clown funny and another not funny is a matter of many factors. If you don't understand the basic concept of trial and error, you'll never understand how to hone material until it's funny or discard material you might love but that audiences simply never do. If you hold onto mediocre material, you'll never achieve the big laugh: You are probably playing it safe. If you have thin skin, when you fail — as we all inevitably do — this will cause loss of sleep and hair, self doubt and pain. You will probably quit. The clowns who succeed are the ones who have sacrificed, gone for the big laugh, failed, and come back out like a boxer might — beaten and bloodied but never quitting.

I often hear clowns complain about legitimate problems and obstacles. They list great reasons why their clowning is nearly impossible. Clowns are tired; they lack respect from their bosses and peers; they're paid poorly and mistreated. In the end, these clowns will fail because those destined to succeed won't, for a second, let any outside problems keep them from their destiny. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Need I say more?

Through the years, people ask me how I can go out in front of an audience and clown when I am in a bad mood. Here's what I tell them: If you are a plumber, your job is to fix the sink. The customer doesn't care if the plumber's had a bad day, his cat died, or he just broke up with his girlfriend. The plumber's job is to fix the sink, and if he is successful, he will get paid; the client will be happy and others will want to hire him. In clowning, a professional goes to work each day to fix the sink, to make the audience laugh, regardless of any outside distractions, pain, or difficulties in his life. That is professionalism in a nutshell.

Finally, a clown career is not something which follows a formula. It's a path of baby steps, of people giving you opportunities, leaning forward, learning daily, staying in touch with the audience on a daily basis, and love. If you have love in your heart — true love — the audience will sense it, and they will love you back tenfold. And if you pay attention to the audience, they will be happy you paid attention to them. Don't we all crave attention, require love, and need affection? A clown provides all of that on a daily basis; and if he does this successfully, he will wake up 35 years later and say, "Wow, I have been blessed with a great life as a clown." And one day, when a dad brings his 3 year-old to the circus — the theater, the show in which you are appearing — he will say to his son or daughter, "I wanted you to see a clown who I have loved all my life, since I was a kid your age." That is a career.

Clown Rehearsal

Clowns are never sure what's funny until the moment of truth in front of an audience.