The glory of being a clown
When I was younger, there was a period in which I seriously considered becoming a clown. To understand why, you need to know two things. The first is that a clown lives out of a trunk. I was probably about six years old when I saw the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for the first time—it was the year that featured the notorious “living unicorn”—and I don’t remember much about the show itself. What I recall most vividly is the souvenir program, which I brought home and read to pieces. It was packed with information about the performers and their lives, but the tidbit that made the greatest impression on me was the fact that they’re always on the road: they travel by train, and if you want to be a clown, you need to fit all your possessions into that trunk. As a kid, I was always fantasizing about running off to live with nothing, relying on luck and my wits, and this seemed like the ultimate example. It fascinated me for the same reason that I’ve always been intrigued by buskers, except that a clown doesn’t work alone: he’s part of a community of circus folk with their own language and traditions who have managed to survive while moving from one gig to the next. I’ve written here before of how ephemeral the career of a dancer can seem, but clowning takes it to another level. It lacks even the superficial glamor of dance, leaving you with nothing but the life of which Homer Simpson once lamented: “When I started this clown thing, I thought it would be nothing but glory. You know, the glory of being a clown?”
The other important thing about clowns is that they have a college. (Or at least they did when I was growing up, although the original Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College closed its doors nearly twenty years ago.) I first read about clown college in that souvenir program, and I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over the discovery that it existed. Even now, I can recite the description of the curriculum almost from memory. Tuition was free, but students had to pay for their own room, board, and grease paint. Subjects included costume and makeup design, tumbling, acrobatics, pantomime, juggling, stilt walking, and the history of comedy. The one catch is that if the circus offered you a contract at the end of the term, you were obliged to accept it for a year. Its graduates, I later learned, included Penn Gillette, Bill Irwin, and David Strathairn. But what stuck me the most was that this was a place where instructors and students could come together to discuss something as peculiar as the theory and practice of clowning. When I look back at it, it seems possible that it was my first exposure to the idea of college of any kind, and the basic appeal of it never changed, even when I traded my fantasies of Venice, Florida for Cambridge, Massachusetts. You could argue that learning how to become a clown is more practical than majoring in creative writing or film studies. And in each case, it allows an unlikely community to form around people who are otherwise persistently odd.
It’s that sense of collective effort in the pursuit of strangeness, I think, that makes the circus so enticing. When we talk about running off to join the circus, what we’re actually saying is that we want to leave our responsibilities behind and join a troupe of likeminded individuals: free artists of themselves who require nothing but a vacant lot in order to put on a show. If I was saddened by the recent news that Ringling Bros. is closing after well over a century of operation, it’s because I feel a sense of loss at the end of the dream that it represented. There were aspects of the circus that deserved to be retired, and I wasn’t sorry when they finally put an end to their animal acts. But I never dreamed about being a lion tamer. I identified with the clowns, the trapeze artists, the acrobats, the contortionists, and all the others who symbolized the romance of devoting a life to a form of art that is inherently transient. To some extent, this is true of every artist, but what sets the circus apart is that its performers do it together, on the road, and for years on end. Directors like Fellini and Max Ophüls have been instinctively drawn to circus imagery, because it captures something fundamental about what they do for a living: they’re ringmasters with the ability to harness chaos for just long enough to make a movie. Yet this isn’t quite the same thing. A film, in theory, is something permanent, but a circus is over as soon as the show ends, and to make it last, you have to keep up the act forever.
And I’ve gradually come to realize that I did become a clown, at least in all the ways that count. (As Werner Herzog observes in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe: “As you see [filmmaking] makes me into a clown. And that happens to everyone—just look at Orson Welles or look at even people like Truffaut. They have become clowns.”) I spent four years at college studying two dead languages that I haven’t used since graduation, which is either a cosmic joke in itself or an acknowledgment that the knowledge you acquire is less important than the fact that you’ve pursued it in the company of others. Later, I left my job to become a writer, an activity that I’ve since begun to understand is as ephemeral, in some respects, as that of a clown or ballet dancer: few of its fruits last for any longer than the time it takes to write them down, and you’re left with nothing but the process. Along the way, I’ve successively joined and departed from various communities of people who share the same goals. We’ve never traveled on a real train together, but we’re all bound for a common destination, and we’ve developed the same set of strategies to get there. The promise of the circus is that you can get paid for being a clown, if you’re willing to sacrifice every practical consideration and assume every indignity along the way, and that you’re not alone. In the end, the joke might be on you. But the joke is ultimately on all of us. And maybe the clowns are the only ones sane enough to understand this.