This is a very useful interview with a Scottish clown who goes by the name TWEEDY. We can learn something about character creation from listening to him.
If you have read my post on The Red Bastard, here is further information the clown type known as bouffon.
I had the book “Why is That So Funny” by John Wright, sitting on my shelf for a quite a while, and I picked it up again. Rather than guess where I left off, I just jumped to the last chapter, which happened to be the last of his profiles of clown types. I found it appropriate that the buffoon was the last of the types to be included. The buffoon seems to be the least known and least understood character of the comic archetypes. A google image search for buffoon/bouffon will largely deliver pictures of jesters and clowns. The author writes:
The Shorter Oxford Dictionary define buffoon as a “low jester – implying ridicule, contempt or disgust” We’re dealing with the lowest denominator of physical comedy here that, on the face of it, is socially unacceptable today because we pride ourselves on knowing better, and because we aspire to a diverse society.
On another site I found this description:
In the world of Bouffon, the audience is the joke. Bouffons show no vulnerability. Their great joy is to parody the audience, its values and flaws. This pack of grotesque outsiders engage the audience with great joy, intelligence & charm. They are disgusting, yet beautiful. They hate you, yet they flatter you. The Bouffons are the ultimate manipulators, a ferocious social satire about to explode, liberating the energy in the room with an immense pleasure to parody and to play.
Jacques Lecoq said:
The audience laughs at the clown and the bouffon laughs at the audience.
Historically speaking, buffoons are the descendant of the famous Punchinello of the Commedia Dell ‘arte. There is a story of a hunch back who attempts to trick some magical women into removing his hump. Instead, they curse him with a second hump on his belly. He becomes Punchinello, the very symbol of grotesque realism. Back in the middle ages, the misshapen and hideous could occasionally find as entertainers. Once a year, there would be the “Feast of Fools” when the city would turn the rules topsy-turvy and the village idiot could be crowned King of Fools. This happened with Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The above quote should now makes sense. We aren’t supposed to laugh at people like that anymore. It’s cruel. Which is why we can now create fake grotesquery, and achieve the same effect. However, it still makes audiences uncomfortable to be around someone who has an appearance like this…
The grotesque appearance puts you so far below “normal” people that they will tolerate behavior they wouldn’t from a peer. If they are uncomfortable just looking at you, they are likely to let you get away with unusual behavior.
There is an old saying: “Shit rolls downhill” meaning the people at the top will pass the abuse to those below them in the hierarchy. Once I heard someone else follow that up with “When it hits the bottom, it flies in all directions.” This is what the buffoon represents. They are at the bottom of society, and they have nothing to lose. It they have the spirit, they can take advantage of peoples fear of them, and get away with mockery that others can’t.
Some time ago I went to see Circus Finelli perform in a tiny theater in San Francisco. One of their skits involved dressing up in fake muscle suits and performing silly “feats of strength” all the while yelling “Mykonos!!!”
I know now this was a sort of Bouffon performance. The costumes severely distort the body, and they behave in an aggressive manner.
There is a clown tradition of having coats with vast pockets capable of holding incredible amounts. You may remember Harpo Marx pulling ridiculous objects from his coat, or having hundreds of table knives falling from his sleeves. I remember the old Felix the cat who carried his “bag of tricks”. And it’s not too far from Inspector Gadget having exactly the tool he needs embedded in his body. It’s a form of magic. And magic is fun.
Here is a great example. Adolf Proper, the original Banana Man from vaudeville. He worked under the stage name A. Robins, and could draw an entire music shop from his coat.
Of course pulling rabbits out of hats is wonderful when it’s live. For animated characters the magic is clearly fake, so it needs to be clever or funny in some other way as well.
From the book Fools, Clowns & Jesters:
The first clown was a “clod”, a clodhopper, a witless oaf who in time learned cunning… but who at first was pitiful and in a sense miraculous, for the derangement of his mind was a visitation from God. His antics, like those of the Fool in the Morris Dance, had a lunatic logic of their own that could not be shared by a more rational – allegedly more rational – people, who were awestruck by the uncomfortable thought that perhaps the pitiful clod was the only one in step with life.”
Alan Wykes, Circus!
I am currently reading Soupy Sez the autobiography of Soupy Sales. Soupy was another television pioneer who had a local “kids” show. I put “kids” in quotations because it also became popular with adults. I’m sure he was at least a partial inspiration for Pee-Wee Herman.
The book is light reading, entertaining and informative about early TV production. He described sharing a dressing room with performer from another show, who happened to be a clown. The similarities with the Simpson’s clown character is unmistakable.
I had my own dressing room, but I shared the bathroom and shower with a guy who did a clown show there in the morning… He had just finished taping when I would come in. I’d talk with him while he took a shower, and it was fascinating to watch. It was like seeing a Sherman Williams paint sign come to life. Clowns wear something like eight different colors of makeup, and while he took a shower the colors would just stream down his body. I found that fascinating, and one day he asked me what the big attraction was. “Well” I said, “it’s the idea that you spend all that time putting on the make up and then you get in the shower and the colors all run down your drain. Your character runs down the drain.”
“Yeah” he said, “but the difference is the people know me as the clown. When I take off this makeup I can go to a bar, pick up a girl, and I can get drunk and nobody knows it’s me! But if you do it, they know it’s you.”
“Yeah” I replied “but when you go in for a raise, they say ‘nuts to you. We’ll pick somebody else up.’ Do you think Ronald McDonald gets a raise? They say ‘nuts to you. Bring in another guy.’
Well the guy hadn’t ever thought about that and it blew him away. He was never the same because he was always afraid that if he asked for something they were going to get rid of him. And you know what, eventually they did.”
I like that story all by itself, but I have some follow up thoughts. Tomorrow I’ll explain how Soupy missed an important concept. For that click HERE