Dave Carlyon’s memoir, The Education of a Circus Clown, only minimally touches on the world of physical comedy, but it is a book that many of my blog readers should find interesting, especially those who have spent time with Ringling Brothers... thus this review.
Dave is quite the Renaissance man: writer, teacher, historian, actor, lawyer (!) and, last but not least, clown. His narrative of attending Clown College (1976) and touring with the Blue Unit (1977) stands above most circus memoirs not just because he’s a better writer —it’s a good read— but because he actually focuses on the performer’s struggles to stay vibrant and funny from day to day, audience to audience. He doesn’t try to pass himself off as a super clown, just as a reasonably skilled and talented individual learning his craft one mistake at a time.
First, clowning is hard because clowning is easy. Throw on makeup, and some laughs are automatic. I-get-it laughs. I'm-a-free-spirit laughs. Ironic it's-not-funny-which-makes-it-funny laughs.... The various laughs convince rookies they're comic geniuses.
The limited time, focus, and choice of material accorded to the Ringling clown is a challenge to creativity, both in terms of establishing a strong character and devising innovative physical comedy. The traditional routines Dave and hundreds before him performed in the ring and on the track —whipcracker; clown car; charivari; the walkarounds— all have potential for a more imaginative physicality, but rarely live up to that promise. It is while playing with the audience up in the seats that this First-of-May clown and future author learned his craft. How to relate, how to be real, how making a connection is more important than desperately seeking the big laugh. As he struggles with the divide between the popular image of the clown and the actual need to be funny, he comes to the conclusion that “clown” is not a noun but a verb. "I never imagined that grammar would improve my clowning." Actions are what define the clown, not the “look,” not all the preconceived notions. Amen.
"Don't be clowny, be yourself," that's what Cuz had told me in Atlanta. But "be yourself" is a performance paradox, a gumbo of instinct, habit, and self-conscious awareness as you try to act, as a clown, in an exaggerated way that is simultaneously who you are. Watching Emmett Kelly at the Sarasota benefit in January, I hadn't been impressed. He seemed to be doing nothing except nodding and greeting the crowd as he shuffled along. Now, more experienced with crowds, I recognized that he had been masterfully weaving a web of connection... Good clowns create human connections."
______________________________________The book is published by Palgrave Macmillan, which I assume markets to libraries, because the list price for this modest volume (the narrative comes to 165pp) is a whopping $95 ($82.46 on Amazon). Hopefully, there will soon be a paperback and/or Kindle edition so it can reach its natural audience, which I think will include many of you reading this review.
Also by Dave Carlyon: Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard of
Click here to read Ernest Albrecht's review of Dave's book in Spectacle magazine.