'Clown Abuse', Reg Bolton - Edited Keynote Speech, Clowns International Symposium, England 2003

Federico Fellini is quoted as saying “I know all and nothing about Circus”.  I can say the same about clowns.  I’ve been a clown and I’ve been watching and studying clowns for over 30 years, and the more I know, the more I know I don’t know.


So here is what I think I know.  First of all, I believe that clowning is a relationship and that clown needs a partner.  It may be that that partner is an inanimate object as in George Karl’s legendary routine with the microphone stand.  It might be the clowns’ classic partnership of the white faced clown and the auguste.  Many clowns thrive on the ‘behind his back’ subversion with the ringmaster.  Most clowns however, have as their partner, the audience.  The audience has not rehearsed, yet the clown is somehow able to teach audience members their role and responses.  The magic of the clown lies in this telepathic ability.  My chosen partner is usually a mob of children.  As I give this talk at the Clowns International Festival in Weston-super-Mare, England, I address an audience of clowns.  This is the most daunting audience I have ever faced.  I am especially nervous because my talk is entitled “Clown Abuse”.


I shall address five kinds of abuse:

    Clowns being abused.

    Abuse of clown heritage.

    Abuse of the role of the clown.

    Abuse of the power of the clown.

    Abuse of the audience.

Please bear in mind that I’m not dwelling on the wonder, the mystery, the technique, the generosity and the humility of the clown, but the danger of clown abuse.  Any criticism implied in this talk could apply to me or to you, or to the clown sitting next to you, so let’s invent a hypothetical clown and let’s call him ‘Payninaso the Clown’, who will make all these mistakes on our behalf.


Clowns being Abused


I talked at length recently with an old friend, Pete Payninaso, a professional clown and circus teacher from the north of England who admitted to me that he had been physically assaulted at least five times over the last two years.  My friend is a big man, which may be half his problem, and he explains to me that he feels the aggression of young people towards him was always his fault.  “I was in the wrong place”.  Typically this would happen in a shopping centre situation with a group of teenagers.  The boys were affronted by the very fact of this large man dressed as a clown, being silly, in their territory.  A teenager with hostile intent has only two choices, either to accept this abomination (which would be a form of complicity) or to obliterate it.  With a well-aimed punch on this fellow’s red nose, the boy achieved two things, he got rid of the clown and he achieved some status with his mates.


My friend has learned from his encounters simply to avoid the wrong boys and venues, and he admits that a clown’s motley does not give him automatic popularity with everybody.


My personal experience of audience aggression is limited to those times when I work as a promotional stilt-walker.  Wandering outside a sports ground, meeting and greeting, I can at least see from a distance a group to watch out for.  I can usually identify the potential aggressor as the smaller youth hanging on the back of a gang.  He probably feels excluded and looks for any opportunity to impress the others.  Knocking over a stilt walker would be an excellent coup.  So what do I do?  I move close to a wall or lamp post, I establish eye contact with him, and I pretend to be scared.  In this way I’m giving him ‘respect’ and that boosts his ego sufficiently, and he walks past, content just to scowl at me.


I have a friend, Andy Payninaso, who is a wonderful clown in Perth, WA.  He is always losing his props, i.e. people steal things from him, and his most memorable exposure to clown abuse was when he was riding his unicycle past a group of youths on the board walk at Hillary’s Boat Harbour and one of them simply pushed him in the sea!!!

We ask for it.  Consider how we present ourselves.  All of our ‘signs’ are of low status.  Our dress sense is appalling, our hair is ludicrous…. or absent, our feet are too big, our actions are clumsy, our logic is hopeless, our faces are distorted with make-up, and we wear that nose!  That nose which Jacques Lecoq has called “the smallest mask in the world” is a mask of dishonour.  Consider the situations in which your nose would be red.  You have been hit, you have a nose-bleed, you are sunburnt, you are blushing, you have a cold, you are an alcoholic, you have jam on your face, or (more true in the 18th century than today) you are suffering from one of those sexually transmitted diseases which make your extremities rot and fall off.  In any conceivable case, you are better off not having a red nose!  So in wearing one we are saying to the audience, “at least you’re better off than I am”.


This ludicrous, senseless, tasteless creature enters the ring and we laugh.  Why do we laugh?  If a real cretin or subnormal person, or even a drunk, entered the ring, it would be acutely embarrassing.  The emotions of the audience would be so mixed that it would be an unforgettably bad experience.  And yet, as Payninaso enters the ring with all these signs, and with his stupid behaviour, by some amazing telepathy he is able to tell the audience that it’s going to be all right, that he is in control, and that the audience is protected from embarrassment.  Therein lies the power of a clown to avoid the abuse of the crowd.  It is a mystery.


I have seen shows where an audience is told what will be funny and what won’t.  I cringe when an MC introduces me as a ‘truly funny man’.  Even worse was the occasion when in Hamburg at a children’s theatre festival, the delegate from East Germany, looking just like Rosa Klebb from the James Bond movie, stomped onto the stage and announced to the terrified children that “during this performance an actor will stand over there with a small bow and arrow.  This is not funny!  He represents the mythical character, Cupid.  Do not laugh at this point”!  You cannot tell the audience what is funny and what is not.  Clowns have to produce laughter as a conductor produces music, but without even the use of a musical score.


Here are two scary questions:  The first one I heard during the Clowns’ Parade in Weston.  Little girl to her father: “Daddy why are clowns funny?”  The other is the one that you dread to hear from anybody “Are you trying to be funny?”.  This reminds me of the advice that Gene Kelly gave to any entertainer “If it looks like you’re working hard up there, you’re not working hard enough”.


Here are a few more quotations to focus your minds on clown abuse:


“The clown…  he who gets slapped”.  Andreyev


“I never saw anything funny that wasn't terrible.  If it causes pain, it's funny; if it doesn't, it isn't.”  W.C.Fields


“Uneasy lies the head that plays the clown” Robert Blenchley


"The more one suffers, I believe, the more one has a sense for the comic.”  Soren Kierkegaard


So a clown may always be some sort of victim, a victim of circumstance, a victim of equipment, a victim of gravity, a victim of another clown, but never the victim of the audience.  They should be on your side.


To summarise this section, who abuses clowns?

The media, teenagers, sport commentators, drunks and academics.

Do we deserve it?


How do they abuse us?

By insulting, by demeaning, by assaulting and by robbing us – or sometimes just by telling the truth.


Abuse of Clown Heritage


If you look for clowns in the yellow pages you’ll find plenty with interesting names and lists of their abilities, usually including balloon modelling.  My own research tells me that in my city the yellow pages listing has grown exponentially over the last decade.  These clowns have not all been trained.  They have seen an opening and they have invented themselves.  There is a very poor understanding among contemporary clowns of the history and development of clowning.  I am not advocating an examination course, but I think clowns should have a sense of their heritage.


Many know Emmett Kelly as the creator of the first “sad clown”.  His character, “Weary Willie” was actually based on a cartoon he drew himself, of a down-and-out hobo, during America’s depression years.  When eventually Kelly, a former trapezist, appeared in the ring as this pathetic figure, the audience loved him.  Finally, they could let go those mixed emotions they felt as they walked past a row of unshaven, unemployed tramps outside the circus lot.  Here was just such a figure in the ring, his face so sad, his fate so tragic.  Finally, those emotions could be released – in laughter.  Here was a clown, and the audience had paid to laugh.  This cathartic release of emotion would enable them to face the tramps outside without the embarrassed mixture of feelings they had before.  Perhaps they could ignore them now, or perhaps they could be generous.  The response would depend on the individual.  But what Kelly had done was to present the unpresentable, to bring the outdoors indoors. The clown had faced the demons on behalf of the audience.


When Hollywood called Kelly, they contracted him to play the role of a homicidal clown.  They were totally confused when he turned up on set, painted as a white-faced clown.  He explained that the contract carried the name Emmett Kelly, not Weary Willie.  Willie would never harm anyone, so he was clearly unsuitable for the part.  Kelly was almost unrecognisable, as he ‘acted’ the part of a clown, instead of ‘being’ a clown. The movie, “The Fat Man” was not a success.


The studios, like most journalists, and many teachers, had not grasped the idea that a clown is a real person, not a role.  A clown is just like you and me, only more so.  A clown does not put on a clown costume, but his clown clothes.  The make-up should not hide his face, but show it.


When Payninaso is late, or insincere, or rough or rude, when he scares or depresses anyone, when even one child decides, “I don’t like clowns”, then Payninaso is abusing his clown heritage.  He is spoiling the present, fouling the past, and jeopardising the future for all other clowns.


Abuse of the Role of a Clown


Ronald McDonald, whose recognition factor among American children is said to be equalled only by Santa Claus, was developed by NBC Television and later, McDonald’s, specifically to invade the psyche of children.  His early spiel was “get Mom and Dad to take you to McDonalds”.  Later he was carefully designed to be every kids ‘pal’.  The TV ads showed him skating, swimming and playing with kids in their homes.


There are two points here, firstly, it is unethical psychology to advertise  to children and encourage them to tell their parents where to spend their money.  Secondly, for the first time, a clown was seen outside the circus ring and in a child’s home.  I believe it was this single advertising campaign that has given rise to the ‘party clown’ as we know it today.  Ronald and other advertising clowns are guilty of a gross misuse of a child’s trust in clowns, which has been built up over two centuries of circus performance and countless millennia of cultures.  Kenneth Grahame (of ‘Wind in the Willows’ fame) wrote a story about children’s awe of the circus.  Watching the clown, the little boy dreamed,


"Oh, to be a splendid fellow like this, self-contained, ready of speech, agile beyond conception, braving the forces of society, his hand against every one, yet always getting the best of it!…… Success was his keynote, adroitness his panoply, and the mellow music of laughter his instant reward."


But faced with ‘the red and yellow fellow’, for a short period in a child’s life he/she will identify the friendly clown with hamburgers, and love them both equally, but later will realise that this was a trick, and may well come to hate clowns.  I refer you to


Let us now consider the ‘caring clown’.  There are two associated varieties – hospital clowns and missionary clowns.  Both need careful attention.  I would like to ask a question - What is the difference in hospital between a caring clown and a caring person?  On the negative side a clown can be more intrusive, more inappropriate, more disruptive, more ignorant and offensive.  Conversely, as it is argued by the Humour Foundation and others, a clown in hospital has more licence and more power to spread happiness, laughter and optimism.  What I would ask you to consider is whether a caring clown is less or more than a caring person.  Could it be that as a clown you are ignoring the reality of the sickness and injury and its consequences for the patient and family?  Is it too easy just to be mindlessly optimistic?


My own belief is that hospital clowning, when done well, can be wonderfully effective. But there are dangers.  I have heard at first hand of a group of self-made Payninasos who raise public money and seek out the most vulnerable children in distant hospitals.  They drive thousands of miles to clown at these children, and then leave, firm in the belief that what they have done will echo throughout eternity.  It probably will.  What could be more traumatic for, say, a young Russian orphan than to be visited by a group of large, overdressed, rich westerners who laugh a lot at each other’s capers, present you with a stuffed toy, then disappear?


It seems that people who dress as clowns assume that they are clowns.  If you were sick would you go to someone who dresses up as a doctor?  If your pipes burst, would you call someone who dresses up as a plumber?  Apparently it is against the law to impersonate a police officer, and the great buffoon Salvador Dali once wrote, “It is forbidden to do a representation of a clown”.


Abuse of the Power of the Clown


From my experience of busking, I know that, in the street, no one has more power than a clown, except perhaps a drunk.  Even the police respect the fact that you are unpredictable and that you have the public on your side.  How many times have we seen buskers abuse their power by picking a volunteer and humiliating him, to the immense relief of the others who weren’t picked?


I was told of a Christian clown in the USA who was performing or “ministering” as a silent mime in a shopping centre.  He had no permit and was asked to move on.  He stayed there and the police were called.  They asked him to explain himself and he wouldn’t speak.  So they arrested him.  He still wouldn’t speak to the sergeant at the desk and was put in a cell.  After half an hour he was given a toilet break and took this first opportunity to wash off his white face paint.  He then spoke, and explained to the sergeant that he was in fact a church minister doing God’s work and that his “clown was a silent clown” and would never speak while in make-up.  What a Payninaso!  What an abuse of the power of a clown.


We have heard from an Asian clown that Chinese audiences particularly detest the western clowns’ habit of spitting water, and if any water from a clown’s mouth touched an audience member, that would be deeply offensive.  But how many clowns know that?  How many clowns care about others’ cultural sensitivities?  It is very easy to get carried away with the power of the clown, and abuse it.


Abuse of the Audience (especially of children)


The wonder of being a clown is that you are a big kid.  You have the height, the equipment, and the permission to do all the things that kids wish they could do.  But never forget you are BIG.  You are like Gulliver in Lilliput.  You are enormous.  Children’s sensitivities are so much sharper than ours.  They see more, they hear more, they smell more.  When you are close to them they will see all your pimples, your warts, your whiskers, they will flinch at your loud voice and they will smell your breath.  Children are used to adults being a little bit disgusting and they forgive us, but when you are working close to children it is possible to push that forgiveness to the limit, and maybe cross the line.  Don’t forget that you are a giant Payninaso.


I would like to quote a verse by Paul Hyland from his Anthology, ‘Kicking Sawdust’:



“I am an artist playing to the mass,

the melancholy master on his arse.

To buckets, planks, each simple particle

I am the grand uncertain principal.

I grow refined, my props stay on the shelf,

against the world I pit merely myself

though one night, overweened with booze and pride,

I left the greasepaint off and children cried”.




Have I been downbeat?  Have I been too critical… perhaps too grumpy?  If so, isn’t it about time somebody was?  We can’t laugh at clowns all the time.  Sometimes we should stop and look at them and hope they’ll take a good look at themselves.  As I said earlier, I have left out any consideration of the wonder, the mystery, the glorious history, the technique, the hard work, the generosity, and the humility of clowns.  Plenty has been written about those features.


If I have got you thinking, then you are in good company.  Miguel de Cervantes was the author of ‘Don Quixote’.  He invented the archetypal clown pair – the lugubrious, dreaming Don and the irrepressible auguste, Sancho Panza.


He knew something about the responsibilities of clowning when he wrote,


“Let he who plays the fool be no simpleton”.