In 1989, a friend of mine, Wally the Clown, was riding his unicycle on the jetty of a waterside cafe as part of a party entertainment, when a young man simply pushed him into the sea.
I've had nearly twenty years in this 'wide brown land' - long enough to form some opinions about the place of the clown in Australia.
The Yellow Pages suggest that party clowns are in increasing demand. I have seen the Entertainers section go from one column to over five pages here in Perth, Western Australia. I rarely do parties, but those who do, (increasingly lady clowns), tend to look nice, make balloon animals and give away candies. There is no 'quality control', no licensing, and not many have public liability insurance or police clearance. However, I have heard of no serious complaints. Here as elsewhere (and I know the scenes in the USA and UK) professional party clowns are beset by a host of cheaper, more transient 'clowns' who have bought the boots and business cards, seeing children's parties as an easy wage.
I wonder why we never see a 'consumers' guide to party clowns, as with cars, fridges etc.., awarding stars for looks, punctuality, variety and other professional qualities, as well as the intangibles like warmth, empathy and fun.
In comparison with American clowns (sorry for this wide generalisation), Aussie clowns are more humble, more low-key and often eccentric. This goes across the board, as I'll suggest by looking at circus clowns, street or 'new' clowns, and public (TV) clowns.
In the sixteen or so Australian touring circuses, no single clown has emerged as a household name. Indeed, my impression of clowns in traditional shows is that no-one really wants to do it, or the management doesn't have a separate clown budget. The entrees are often performed, energetically and with many laughs, by young acrobats in motley who look as if they would rather be surfing! The usual routines turn up - honeybee, the telescope etc. They persist because they still work.
To see a new form of clowning, you need to visit the new circuses e.g. Circus Oz, Rock 'n Roll Circus (now Circa), or Circus Monoxide. Wonderful buffoonery has emerged from these groups, nurtured in an environment, where occasional failure is acceptable, as clowns push the limits. I remember Derek Ives' tragi-comic suicide attempts in Rock 'n Roll's "Dark". Leeroy Hart, as Spanna the ever-hopeful, ever-helpful, ever-hopeless, huge handed, vastly grinning bloke in overalls. He would hang around all the acts, and his physical abilities of juggling and balance achieve that great clown paradox - as easy tasks become impossible, while impossible acts become simple.
Sue Broadway, an original Circus Oz aerialist in the 1970's is now a treasured funny lady and director. She organised much of the mayhem at the Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony, and runs clown trainings such as one for women called "A Nose of Her Own".
Alan Clay, a Sydney-based New Zealander teaches 'Clown', and has ongoing debate with our National Institute of Circus Arts about the quality of clown training available there.
At a recent Circus Festival on Rottnest Island (off Perth) a visiting friend made me aware of one of the most significant elements of Australian circus and entertainment. Willie Ramsay is one of Britain's best-known circus performers and directors. I have known him since he was a nine-year old in the Pilton Community Circus in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was visiting us down here not long after coaching Angelina Jolie in bungee technique for "Tomb Raider" in Hollywood. He watched act after act of juggling, acrobatics, adagio, wire-walking, etc and pointed out to me, "They're all funny!" This is the dilemma for the Australian clown. The traditional role of getting a laugh in the circus ring is not easy. They're all doing it!
As in the USA most street entertainers exist by getting laughs - often at the expense of the public. There are exceptions, but they don't make so much money. One such is the amazing Rumplestiltskin - a young Sydney-sider who has been a full-time jester as long as he or we can remember. And I mean full-time. His 'character' speaks in a high-pitched quavering voice, with wide-eyed incredulous innocence - "Oh crikey, my unicycle's on fire - again!" But off-stage he's the same, a true naive, everyone's village idiot.
Radio and TV comedians (the public clowns) tend to be self-effacing and deferential to their public, far from the worldy-wise savoir-faire of many American comics. You'll remember Eric Bana - the bearded Hector to Brad Pitt's Achilles. Eric served his time in Melbourne's comedy company, and I still find him funny in anything he does. Those Greeks must still be laughing about that Wooden Horse routine!
In this brief overview of clowning downunder I've hinted at what I first noticed when I arrived in 1985. Namely, that here the clown has retained his true role of the butt, the target, "he who gets slapped." There's something in the Aussie psyche that needs an underdog.
The early settlers, mostly convicts, were delighted to find people below them in the pecking order - the indigenous peoples. Since then, much of our population, once settled, have happily looked down on a succession of victims - the Chinese gold-diggers, the 'New Chums' (European immigrants), the boat-people, now the demonized 'illegals.' This seems to be part of our collective unconscious, surfacing only at election time. We need to feel, to allay our insecurity in this odd continent, that we are superior to someone. Today, when our inhibitions and basic decency pull us away from racial and social vilification, we can always fall back on that bloke who chooses to look stupid, dress badly, and act like an idiot. Blame the clown.
Australia, like all societies, needs clowns, and, as always, the clown, with a combination of pride and humility, dexterity and clumsiness, magic and buffoonery, will survive and thrive, or, like my friend Wally, sink or swim. (He swum, his unicycle sank).