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What is a clown?

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a clown is "a familiar comic character of pantomime and circus, known by his (sic) distinctive makeup and costume, ludicrous antics, and buffoonery, whose purpose is to induce hearty laughter. The clown, unlike the traditional fool or court jester, usually performs a set routine characterized by broad, graphic humor, absurd situations, and vigorous physical action".

 A brief history of clowning

Some of the earliest ancestors of the clown were present in ancient Greece. These comics were bald-headed and padded to appear larger than normal. They performed as secondary figures in farces and mime parodying the actions of more serious characters and at times threw nuts at the spectators. A similar type of clown also was present in the Roman mime. This clown wore a pointed hat and a patchwork colorful robe and was the target for all the tricks and abuse of his fellow actors.

In the late Middle Ages, the clown emerged as a professional comic actor when traveling entertainers began to imitate the antics of the court jesters and the amateur fool societies. The traveling companies of the Italian commedia dell'arte developed one of the most famous and durable clowns of all time, the Arlecchino, or Harlequin some time in the latter half of the 16th century. The Harlequin began as a comic valet, or "zany," but soon developed into an acrobatic trickster, wearing a black domino mask and carrying a bat or noisy slapstick with which he frequently spanked his victims.

The English clown was descended from the Vice character of the medieval mystery plays, a buffoon and prankster who could sometimes deceive even the Devil. Among the first professional stage clowns were the famous William Kempe and Robert Armin, both whom were connected with Shakespeare's company. Traveling English actors of the 17th century were responsible for the introduction of stage clowns to Germany, among them such popular characters as Pickelherring, who remained a German favorite until the 19th century. Pickelherring and his confederates wore clown costumes that have hardly changed to this day: oversized shoes, waistcoats, and hats, with giant ruffs around their necks.

The traditional whiteface makeup of the clown is thought to be introduced by the character of Pierrot, the French clown with a bald head and flour-whitened face. He first appeared during the latter part of the 17th century. He was created as a fool for Harlequin, Pierrot was gradually softened and sentimentalized. The pantomimist Jean- Baptiste-Gaspard Deburau took on the character in the early 19th century and created a famous love-sick, pathetic clown, whose melancholy has since remained part of the clown tradition.

The earliest of the true circus clowns was Joseph Grimaldi, who first appeared in England in 1805. Grimaldi's clown, called "Joey," specialized in the classic physical tricks, tumbling, pratfalls, and slapstick beatings. In the 1860s a low-comedy comic appeared under the name of Auguste, who had a big nose, baggy clothes, large shoes, and untidy manners. He worked with a whiteface clown and always spoiled the latter's trick by appearing at the wrong time to mess things up.

Grock (Adrien Wettach), a famous whiteface panomimist, evoked laughter in his continual struggle 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 resembled that of Emmett Kelly, the American vagabond clown.