The Pickle Clowns: New American Circus Comedy

The Pickle Clowns: New American Circus Comedy

The Pickle Clowns: New American Circus Comedy

The Pickle Clowns: New American Circus Comedy


The clowns in the troupe, current artistic director Tandy Beal, & comic dance choreographer Kimi Okada discuss their acts, comic dances, & the current state of the circus.


In the circus ring, clowns display extraordinary invention and freedom. At their finest, they disrupt the ringmaster's expectations and ours with comic anarchy, exquisite physical movement, satiric dialogue, songs, eccentric dance, and nonsense. In circus books, including their own books, clowns tend to be more restrained. Memoirs by the great English clown Joseph Grimaldi and Albert Fratellini's recollections of clowning in Paris reveal almost nothing about their most outrageous and popular acts. Rather than write it all down, circus comedians are more likely to describe the details of their art in conversation with family members and close friends and privately teach their acts to a few performers.

Fortunately for the rest of us, clown conversations have been recorded and printed, some as early as 1850, when journalist Henry Mayhew transcribed interviews with a street clown, a penny-gaff clown, a canvas clown, and a penny-circus jester. The oral tradition through which clowns pass their art to one another became more widely accessible with the publication of Mayhew's oral histories in London Labour and the London Poor. His superb interviews with comic “street exhibitors” were part of a larger survey that gave new public voice and dignity, as well as written history, to artists whose work might otherwise have disappeared as soon as their performances ended.

I am indebted to Mayhew's exemplary interviews and to the achievements of the French circus historian Tristan Rémy, who transcribed and published scenarios for many of Europe's finest clown acts in his book Entrées clownesques. This collection of scenarios and Rémy's biographical essays in Les Clowns constitute landmarks in the field of clown history; they have yet to be matched by English language writers, although books by Ernest Albrecht, Ron Jenkins, Laurence Senelick, John Towsen, David Wiles, and Don Wilmeth have taken commendable steps in that direction.

I would not dare compare my collection of Pickle clown interviews to . . .

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