Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Clowning Around

I n every group, there always seems to be someone with a knack for making other people laugh. Are you that type of person? Maybe you love attention—perhaps even crave it. Maybe other people think you are funny, too. If you like to think of yourself as entertaining, and others agree, then you may enjoy the feeling of having all eyes on you. In fact, if you haven’t played the role already, chances are you would be the ideal class clown. Different Strokes What sets class clowns apart from other people? The old phrase, "different strokes for different folks," certainly applies to these humorous types. They may use any number of approaches, but they find themselves compelled to do one thing—make them- selves the focus of attention. Those who once engaged in this behavior in the schoolroom might have incurred the teacher’s wrath at times, but they were usually liked by classmates. In fact, they were often admired by their peers. In the real world, the class-clown spirit can serve as a positive force in the choice of career for those individuals who thrive on being at the center of attention. For those who are successful in making this transition, what once resulted in a trip to the princi- pal’s office might now serve as the springboard to a career as a professional comedian or other entertainer. Bring in the Clowns! Laughter is a basic part of human nature. The spirit of clowning has existed for thousands and thousands of years in civilizations all over the world. Individuals who have chosen clowning and other entertainment careers have made important contributions to society. Entertainment provides outlets for all of us, allowing people relief from common stresses and giving them a chance to reenergize their efforts in their daily lives. Clowning Through History In some form, clowns have played a part in most cultures throughout recorded history. The Spanish explorer Cortez found them when he conquered the Aztec nation in A . D . 1520. To a great degree, they were similar to the clowns that existed in Europe at that time. Various clown characters were a part of most Native American tribes. They often played an important social and religious role in the society at the time. Some were believed to be capable of cur- ing diseases. Some of the earliest ancestors of the clown were a part of ancient Greek culture. These comics were bald and padded to appear larger than normal. They usually appeared in farces and mime acts, and they parodied the actions of the more serious characters. A similar character was also a part of Roman mime. This clown wore a pointed hat and colorful robe and was often the target for all the tricks and abuse of other characters in the production. Court Jesters Some of the earliest comedians played the role of court jester. Throughout the Middle Ages and in the early years of the Renais- sance, jesters (or fools, as they were also called) perpetuated the art of clowning in the palaces of kings and nobles. Jesters played a particularly important role in the social culture of Medieval Europe by serving as "safety valves" or a "social conscience." As they were the only ones allowed to speak out against the rulers’ ideas, jesters were often catalysts for social change; they were able to wield considerable power through their wit and humor. It was also during this time that colorful costumes associated with today’s clowns had their origins. Jesters adopted a standard uniform of bright green- and saffron-colored coats, hose, and a hooded cap topped by tiny bells designed to tinkle whenever the wearer moved. Early Clowns While many clowns entertained at court, they were far from the only performers of this type. Many, in fact, were street perform- ers. They were adept at a variety of skills, as is often the case with clowns today. These performers engaged in magic, contortion, juggling, acrobatics, storytelling, puppetry, tightrope walking, working with trained animals, ballad singing, clever dialogue, and other methods of entertaining. Clowns were originally called by other names. Zany, jester, fool, minstrel, and mime are just some of the historical synonyms for clown. The English equivalent used today did not appear until the sixteenth century. Clown originally meant "clod" and was often used to denote a clumsy country bumpkin. These rustics were considered very funny, and comedic actors imitated their ways. The first professional stage clowns included William Kemp and Robert Armin, both of whom were connected with Shakespeare’s company of actors. Through English traveling actors of the seven- teenth century, Germany was introduced to stage clowns. One popular character was Pickelherring. He and his friends wore clown costumes that remain familiar today—giant ruffs around their necks, hats, and oversized shoes. During the same time period, the spirit of improvisation reached new heights in Europe in the form of street theatre. This gave birth to a roster of comedic characters that may still be seen today. These include Harlequin, with his popular patchwork cos- tume, and Pierrot, one of the first clowns known to use whiteface. The first real circus clown may have been Joseph Grimaldi, who first appeared in England in 1805. Grimaldi’s clown, called Joey, specialized in the classic physical tricks, such as tumbling and slapstick beatings. (Since then, clowns have often been called Joeys.) In the 1860s a low-comedy comic with a big nose, baggy clothes, large shoes, and untidy manners appeared under the name of Auguste. He worked with a clown in whiteface and always spoiled the latter’s trick by appearing at the wrong time to mess things up. Another clown known as Grock (Adrien Wettach), a famous pantomimist in whiteface, evoked laughter in his continual strug- gle with inanimate objects. Chairs collapsed beneath him. When a stool was too far from a piano, he shoved the piano to the stool. His elaborate melancholy was not unlike that of Emmett Kelly, the American vagabond clown. The Big Top By about 1900, the smaller tents of the one-ring show had given way to the big top,and the circus enjoyed a golden age.As the large new three-ring format evolved, clowns were presented with their greatest challenge yet. Spectacular movement, bright costumes, oversized props, loud explosives, and flamboyant makeup became essential ingredients in the clown’s new formula for laughs. Clowning Today Today, the spirit of clowning involves much more than circus clowns or street performers. Stand-up comedians, actors in televi- sion comedies, movie actors, comedy writers, and many others take comedy in any number of directions. Similarly, other types of performers use their skills to entertain audiences large and small. Building on a heritage that is centuries old, they make life a little more enjoyable for everybody else.
The Class-Clown Quiz Are you a class clown? Take the following quiz, and you’ll find out.
1. Do you enjoy being the center of attention?
2. Do you purposely do things that draw attention to you?
3. Are you most comfortable when you stand out from others?
4. Is ordinary not good enough for you?
5. Do you avoid being one of many?
6. Do you like to do your own thing?
7. Do you prefer to lead rather than to follow?
8. Do you have a facility for entertaining others?
9. Are you gregarious?
10. Are you an extrovert?
11. Do you like to entertain?
12. Do you like to make others laugh?
13. Are you creative?
14. Can you memorize things easily?
15. Are you funny?
16. Are you unafraid of being in front of a group?
17. Do you enjoy performing?
18. Do you enjoy applause?
19. Do you like to travel?
20. Do you like the idea of working nights and weekends?
21. Are you comfortable having a career that is often unpredictable?
22. Do you have a pleasing personality?
23. Are you adept at selling yourself?
24. Do you like being your own boss?
25. Do you really enjoy being with people?
If you’ve answered yes to many of these questions, then read on. This book focuses on a number of careers that are perfect for those who possess these qualities or tendencies. What’s in a Name? If you are lucky enough to become famous—whether as a circus clown, nightclub comedian, or performing artist—you might want to change your name and take on a "stage name" as so many other entertainers have done before you. Interspersed throughout the book are the birth names of some well-known performers, both in comedy and in other areas of entertainment. Look for them as you read the book. (Their more well-known stage names can be found at the end of the book.) Perhaps, someday, your name will also be listed among these notable entertainers! Here’s your first birth-name challenge: David Adkins.

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