Prague in the 1980s lay behind the iron curtain, dominated by the industrial landscape of Stalinism. After the squelching of the Prague Spring of the 60s, it seemed to the outside world that the Czech art scene lay dying. Most public media propagated the notion that the entire country was thriving—when in reality, anyone who said otherwise was jailed. But underneath the surface, subversive art was indeed thriving, it was just spoken in a completely different language than the secret police could understand: the language of clowns, absurdism and buffoonery. At one point or another, every society has had its own version of this language. And now, with the greater connected society on the internet, perhaps it is time to do it again.
The subversive nature of jesters, clowns and buffoons are allowed to thrive because the natures of oppression do not know the language in which the artists speak and that the language in which they speak, speaks against power. This has been a theme throughout history – from the medieval court to the White House Correspondents Dinner.
So, what exactly am I talking about when it comes to “clowns”. People throw around the words clowns, buffoons and jesters. They apply them to modern day fools who [try to impress, don’t know what they’re doing, and fumble through their lives in ways that we can laugh at]—Read: Katy Perry, Donald Trump, and college age skateboarders who fall trying to jump over a staircase. They apply them to the political comedians who dare say things that can’t be said by journalists and amuse us with their shock —Read: John Oliver, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher. These terms also apply to all types of performers from circuses and renaissance festivals. We imagine a wide range of personas associated with these terms but, none of those applications do the words justice. The clowns, jesters and buffoons I’ll be discussing are not simply outdated forms of comedy, nor are they something you would see at Cirque du Soleil, they are transcendent and appear in every society. Nearly every. But have they shown up in ours? With a vibrant free speech and comedy loving culture—amplified by the connectivity of the internet—there must be clowns and buffoons here.
First, one must understand what is a clown, buffoon and a jester, where their similarities lie and where their similarities end. Clowns, buffoons and jesters are three similar personas with overlapping characteristics, but they are not the same creature. As I define these, not every comedian or troupe will fall under the categories I’ll use, but these groupings can help us understand tendencies and tropes within these types of performances. I’ve resisted the susceptibility to lump all comic performers into these categories, no matter how much it may seem like they would fit.
A clown is not necessarily limited to a circus clown. Clowns are laughed at, they are amusing, they are physical and make fun of themselves. Circus clowns, however, are generally not making avid social commentary. Circus clowns are funny for the sake of being funny as people who attend the Circus don’t buy tickets so their families can be inundated with societal commentary. Charlie Chaplin was a good example of a political clown. He was endearing, laughed at, seemingly existing in a parallel of our world, absurd, made fun of himself and pretended to be unknowing in his own absurdity – all things in common with circus clowns. His films, however, have withstood the test of time because of the underlying social commentary that becomes ever more apparent with every watch. He beckons us to laugh at 20th century “gentlemen”, police officers and to sympathize with the poor and broken. He also was an outspoken communist and anti-fascist—a fact that would later get him all but blacklisted.
A clown is not a buffoon and buffoon is not a clown. Though the concept of the buffoon has existed since theatre’s inception, the concrete idea was first defined by Jacques Lecoq. Lecoq was a master of physical and exaggerated theatre, and founder of the most prominent physical theatre academy, the Lecoq school.The buffoon—or the bouffon in French—was not a lowly character, but one of immense importance.
The difference between the clown and the bouffon is that while the clown is alone, the bouffon is part of a gang; while we make fun of the clown, the bouffon makes fun of us. At the heart of the bouffon is mockery pushed to the point of parody. Bouffons amuse themselves by reproducing the life of man in their own way, through games and pranks. — Lecoq
Buffoons live in an alternate reality where their strange, almost utopian society thrives. Together, they use what Brecht called “the alienation effect” (Verfremdungseffekt). They have exaggerated physical appearances, they mock, they are grotesque, they unsettle. Buffoons take to the stage to tell their story and somewhere along the line, they end up in the audience, they steal your playbill, poke fun at the way in which you laugh and then turn your friends against you, egging them to laugh at your expense. (Yes, this did happen in a performance I saw.) They are aware of themselves within the performance and the audience and they let us know that they are aware. Yet, they are sacred, as works of art and because they are such reflections of ourselves. They leverage all the affect of performance to allow us to look back at ourselves.
A prime more antiquated example of buffoons is commedia dell’arte. Here, the stock characters don hideous masks, perform crassly, will direct their disregard for respectability at the audience by breaking the fourth wall and reflect the fool back into the audience member. All with the grace brought to ballet but an entirely different stock of movements. At the same time, the lazzis of commedia dell’arte are utopian in their politics. Love always wins out over money. No one is truly punished or maimed in their performances. People who die come back to life. he audience goes home, entertained, yes, but still challenged and unsettled.
A jester is different than either a buffoon or a clown. A jester is generally a solo artist like the clown, but not as grotesque as the buffoon. In medieval times,people would come to the king—a person whom they did not chose and had not say in his policies—for requests. They had to revere the king(at least in his presence). The jester was the only one who could speak ill of the king, or present an independent perspective—or, more like, the only one who could speak the truth about the king and the kingdom. Jesters were also unique because unlike the clowns and the buffoons, they were also the only ones whose comedy walked a line between life or death. If he crossed too much of a line, too often - off with his head. So he would have to learn to balance truth and comedy.
Perhaps, the most current example of a jester would the comedians who attend the White House Press Correspondents Dinner. They get free reign to poke fun of the president to his face, drumming up good laughs but revealing with humor the undercurrents of the administration. As with jesters, sometimes this sordid humor is not met kindly as with Michelle Wolf’s most recent appearance at the dinner in 2018. As a break from tradition, Donald Trump did not attend, this, however, did not put a crimp in Wolf’s jestering. Classically, she came for the republicans, an easy target. She also for the democrats, stating that they do literally nothing, so they are hard to come for. She came after Sarah Huckabee Sanders—who was hilariously sitting right next to her, and had no choice but to grimace through it. Wolf came after the journalists, and at that point her burst out laughing jokes became biting. With them as her captive audience, she accused them of creating the monster of Trump and continued to feed him. Then, perhaps, as the most political clowning move one can make, at the very end she yelled, “Flint still has no clean water.” It was similar to Chaplin’s break from pure comedy and plea to fight against the monstrosities of war at the end of his magnum opus, The Great Dictator. Going for the jokes, but not letting the message get lost at their expense.
Now that we understand what clowns/buffoons/jesters are, it’s important to understand what they are not. And they are not a lot of things.
What Clowning is Not
American sketch comedy, as humorous as it is to some and as much as the players can “act like clowns”, they are not partaking in the art of clowning or the art buffoonery. American sketch comedy and improv is smart, but it plays to be smart. Buffoonery is about the physical, grotesque nature of man, it is not subtle or overtly intelligent. Clowning is about masking one’s own self-awareness and willing to be a butt of a joke. The life of sketch comedy/improv is so short lived, it is often more about the performers identities themselves than it is about any clown-ish role they play. Even if it is political in nature, it is still not inherently clowning. Political comedy ≠ clowning. It is too smart and after the funniest punchlines. People go to see comedians not characters. Those are the fundamental differences.
What about non-performative media, like The Onion or Cracked.com? Where do they fall under this? Sites like The Onion are examples of satire. Satire can be similar to buffoonery because it also exposes and mocks a certain target. It tries to reveal flaws often in politics and the status quo. But satire can take the shape of anything. Being a jester, buffoonery and clowning can encompass satire, but it is not the core of those artforms. Satire can be performative, it can be written, drawn, etc. Satirical websites are not clowning or buffoonery simply because they are not performative. They do not fit into either category. They parody, but they do not intend to parody themselves. They only parody others. Buffoonery ropes us all into the same boat.
Where Clowning Stands Today'
There are plenty of examples of clowns and buffoons existing in modern and even contemporary society. Monty Python, Mr. Bean, Bertolt Brecht, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Wrestlemania, etc., but where do they exist on the internet? And how would they exist?
Miranda Sings could be a clown. She has sloppily applied makeup, exaggerated physicalities and pointed commentary on YouTube culture. She’s there to be laughed at, she pretends to not be self aware, she operates as an individual, but the physicality is missing. The Whitest Kids You Know and College Humor are other groups that share some characteristics with buffoons, but once again, the physicality, the movement, the grotesque are all sorely missing. Putting them back into the same boat as other sketch comedians.
Memes are grotesque, weird, parallel universes, sometimes utopian, sometimes dystopian, but they are also not performative. They contain no living being other than the anonymous creator or the picture in it. Memes are also so ambiguous that to lump all of them under one umbrella would be impossible. There are too many players at hand. They do not need to be categorized as that is sort of antithetical to their nature.
What about filmed shows that are put on the internet? Too Much Tuna by Nick Kroll and John Mulaney combines elements of endearing, physical alterations, being laughed at and pretending to not be self-aware. Even then, it is only a small segment on a larger sketch comedy show. The segment then inspired an entire Broadway production which was filmed for Netflix, containing all the larger absurdities of clowning. However, can it be counted if the original production was not on the internet? If the answer is no, has there really been a prime example of clowning or buffoonery in the internet age? Or is that something that will always stay with the physical performing arts?
Why Clowning Remains Important
So, why is it so important to even have a clown in the first place? Despite their connotations, clowns/jesters/buffoons have an important political history. In Ancient Rome, their theatre was crude and pointed and performed for Caesar himself, medieval jesters were the only ones to criticize the king, and french farcical buffoons sought to come after the upper class who, in less than 100 years, would eventually be brought down by the French revolution.
A relatively more recent example was during the Czech velvet revolution of 1989. The revolution was led by Václav Havel, who was first a performer and playwright. He wrote his plays during the soviet communist dictatorship of Czechoslovakia. His plays were abstracted to the point where the government agency would have a hard time discerning what was radical and what was acceptable. During this time, blacklight theatre and clowning rose in prominence. They were often wordless, and the more wordless the better because there was less that the secret police could hold against you. With this buffoonery, Havel led Czechoslovakia to revolution.
In a certain way, clowning transcends the boundaries of the definition of art. There cannot be clowning without the presence of both art and politics.
The Transmedia Clown
What we are beginning to see now is the transmedia clown. A person who not only performs onstage or on camera, but also someone who carries their persona to social media and other avenues. An excellent example of a transmedia clown would be Deven Green. Deven Green has many clowns that she plays, but the most notable would be Betty Bowers: “America’s Best Christian”. Betty is most prominent for videos and performers on YouTube, but she also is avid on social media, even being verified on Facebook. She’s prolific on twitter and has even been mistaken for actually portraying a republican, Christian woman. She’s also a part of the “Landover Baptist Church”, a satirical website taking the parody of the Baptist church to the extreme. Including ads for “MenstraShacks” and articles on “Suffering for Jesus in Luxury” and connects to a bunch of other people portraying characters in this supposed church.
Another great example of internet based clowns would be Tim and Eric. In fact a lot of their performances, such as their bizarre faux ads, can even begin to bleed into buffoonery. They often exaggerate physical characteristics of their characters to the point of absurdity. Their work is quite prolific in its sheer amount of performances. Such as Tim and Eric Bedtime Stories, which seems to callback to The Twilight Zone—but in a self-aware and humorous way.
Their use of cringe comedy and anti-jokes aligns them with the surreal-like qualities of the buffoon, where it becomes a dance between pointed remarks, entertainment, and making people uncomfortable. Many critics claim that the show was “never political because it was detached” however, the buffoon is quite detached. And the buffoon is also quite political. Back in 2012 they had a sketch devoted to their run for presidency. Just because they push their point to seemingly create an alternate universe does not mean that it was also not political. The point of buffoonery is to create a strange, nearly utopian world that runs alternate our own. In turn, they then laugh at us almost like the well-developed aliens of early sci-fi. They do not belong to our world and therefore the buffoon feels they have authority to laugh at us and make us feel uncomfortable. Political comedy is not exclusively explicit.
But political comedy and clowning cannot just go for the jokes.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History: The Satire Paradox, he addresses this very issues. He specifically brings up people like Tina Fey and SNL. Tina Fey characterized Sarah Palin and claimed to be calling her out and pointing out her flaws, but Gladwell says that, in fact, it did quite the opposite. SNL even brought Tina Fey onto the show and let her in on the joke. Buffoons do not let their subjects in on the joke, it doesn’t just completely undermine the political power, it bolsters them, it makes them sympathetic, relatable and even likable without doing anything to knock them back a peg.
Clowns, buffoons and jesters come for the throat not for the laughs, they seek to take down tyrants, not make their tyranny tolerable under a thin guise of laughter. They seek to make us sit in the uncomfortable, they seek to provoke anger and action. Upon first glance they seem to do just what lukewarm comedies do, they make us laugh, but upon second watch we are no longer laughing.
The President’s Show Christmas Special accomplishes this. It lays out all the Trump presidency tropes we’ve seen before. Jabs at the bystander press, echoing the terrible nature of their policies, bemoaning Trump’s idiocy and it makes us laugh, it makes us feel as if we are the ones who are smart because we’re in on the joke. Then things shift. We find that we are laughing nervously. As they sing their last number, “It’s never going to stop, until we wise up” images of neo-Nazi rallies appear on the screen. Then the buffoon Trump addresses us and lets us know that not only is he in on the joke, but that he is not the butt of the joke. We are. We are laughing at Trump until we realize that he is the one who is laughing at us.
That tension is what political clowning accomplishes and must accomplish. We do not live in a totalitarian dictatorship, but we are oppressed, we have rights to lose. We need to stop laughing at it to tolerate it but instead laugh at it to disarm it. What made Václav Havel branded—and jailed—as a dissident was not polite satire, it was biting, it was unrelenting and it was rallying. The laughter he created brought people together in the way that laughter is supposed to, it did so because it gave the power back to the people, not simply remind the people of the power that they did not possess.
Clowning gives us a common language, one that is understood by those it is meant to lift up. Buffoonery calls us out when we become the butt of the jokes we are telling about others. We need more clowns, we need more buffoons. We need them where the people are. The internet—social media, Facebook, YouTube. They can spread like wildfire as things do online. They can make a difference. They must.