Entertainment

What is ‘clowning’? An old art form gets a new paint job in the L.A. comedy scene

What exactly is clowning, especially in 2022?

For most, the word “clown” conjures up a hackneyed but unfortunately still common image of a tween’s poorly planned backyard birthday party littered with stick figure balloon animals. At some point, a comedian’s parents might intentionally belittle their career choices by telling others that they make a living as clowns.

LA comic Bailey Norton casually ponders her response, “It’s just taking off your top and screaming, right?”

Certainly there are quite a number of so-called clowning or idiot performances that literally turn into nudity and chaotically scream at each other or the audience. Many of Clown Zoo’s shows, a collective of clowns that have performed all over LA, including in the abandoned zoo pens in Griffith Park, got very physical, very blue and happily flopped during the lunchtime performances.

Clowns in a Park

Kira Nova warms up those who have gathered to take part in the evening of improv and clown comedy.

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

Clowns in a Park

Emily Maverick stretches for a lost shoe during a warm-up while members are encouraged to scream, moan and squirm together.

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

On the other hand, Jet Eveleth – leader of Clown Church and Highland Park Clowns, clown teacher and popular performer – gives her authoritative answer: “Put simply, clowning is a celebration of the physical and vulnerable side of the human experience. When the performer embraces this “diversity” of life, they serve as mirrors for the audience to see themselves from a safe distance and laugh at themselves,” she said.

“So yeah, it’s mostly just falling, falling in love, or farting, but from a broader perspective, Clown makes fun of the human condition.”
It’s worth noting that Clown Zoo was, and is, performed specifically with masks a la commedia dell’arte, though it’s done with a 21st-century postmodern flair and frequent disregard for any kind of fourth wall. In fact, the formats of Clown Zoo and so many of the current LA clown shows are presented as “rehearsals” or “exhibits” of a mind-blowing work of genius, staged live by another of the clowns, only to be disappointed in the joyful defiance of the remaining clowns against any instruction or request given to them.

Chad Damiani, a veritable ringleader in LA’s clowning community, takes on this overseer-directing role, which encourages audiences to join in the chaotic on-stage celebrations and rebel against their demanding demands. Damiani muses that clowning is an “intimate experience with an audience, but from a position of your most joyful, primal, childlike impulses”.

To hedge his bets on this type of experience, Damiani says one of the clown’s main goals is to “emphasise failure.” “The other day we did a clown zoo and the prompt for the show was to explore absence. So I said to the audience, ‘I want you to pay attention to anything that’s not happening on stage.’ The first scene was about a world where ‘Fresh Air’ with Terry Gross doesn’t exist.” Such an impossible prompt is often the ingredient the audience needs to cheer on the clown, who is earnestly trying to hit the mark , and possibly ends up somewhere else entirely.

You can even find this dynamic in Damiani’s own solo work, most notably in a detective who is “forced” to tell the most tasteless one-liners imaginable while being threatened by multiple blocks of C-4 (all props), which are detonated by a mysterious villain from the phone.

clown

Clown Zoo organizer Chad Damiani.

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

On the same wavelength, Bill O’Neill, a performer in the LA clown scene, has been developing a solo show for a good part of 2022 with the premise of slipping 1,000 different ways on a banana peel. O’Neill says, “Clowns are misfits and misfits who are usually up against insurmountable odds—the characters you want to root for. Because in their naivety there is danger and sweetness. Like a kid walking through sprinklers or a dog accidentally picking up a kitchen knife.”

The absurdity clowns strive for often goes further than other disciplines of comedy, requiring a level of commitment that sacrifices any notion of being explicitly clever or cool. Dean Evans, one of LA’s most respected and established clowns and director of the insanely fast-paced clown collective The Nonsemble, describes clowning as “the poetry of being human.”

“It makes it difficult to teach,” says Evans. “You can’t teach a person to be a clown any more than you can teach them to be a human being. You can only help them see and feel like they’re already a clown.” Evans’ non-ensemble hosts a monthly showcase called Month Long Ham Festival, which dares to perform several clown plays, in an order that changes during of the entire show is completely audience driven. One of the parts jolts the audience and clowns into completely swapping places from the stage to the seat in seconds. The stakes are upped by parts that are experientially more humorous and adorable than the knee-jerk ones reaction you get from a classically delivered joke.

Such skills have proven invaluable to comedians like Christina Catherine Martinez from other corners of the art form. After getting started in the LA stand-up scene, Martinez found so much of herself using her pathetically silly, absurdist instincts through Clown to be nimble on stage,” she says. “Not that this process is ever complete, but it has brought a lot more joy to my parts… even if the parts are gross or sad.” It has helped bring increased awareness to my stand-up. Through the clown’s glasses, anything in the room can be a gift – even a drunk heckler, a broken microphone, or the worst bomb of your life.”

clown in a park

Emily Maverick hides from the seated crowd of clowns.

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

clown

Luke Dellorso poses before an evening of clowning.

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

The rising popularity of what could possibly be described as the fourth form of live comedy, sitting right next to stand-up, sketch and improv, worries clowns, especially when much of their work is rebelliously uncool-in the most fun-loving kind and Way. When asked if clowning would ever get too cool for itself (part of what’s happened to institutional long-form improvisation in recent years), Damiani doesn’t seem overly concerned.

“I don’t think we live in a time where empathy heals much, and I feel like a lot of this work comes from the general humanity of people,” he says. “At this point, it’s a very specific breed of comedy-goer who is looking for something existentially different in the live comedy they’re watching. That comedy void often leads them to the clown side for rich rewards.”

Branded into the DNA of this era is a crass resistance to definition, but also a devotion to the absurdity of human experience.

“There’s a lot of paradoxes in the clown, which can be annoying if you’re someone who just wants to figure it out or get ‘good’ at it,” says Martinez. “You can’t get good at it, because ‘it’ is different for everyone. Just before I went on stage, my first clown teacher said to me, ‘Remember, Christina, you have this…but you don’t have it.’ So now that I think about it, ignore all of the above.”

Clowns in a Park

A group of clowns scream, sing and dance around a ring light during one of the evening’s final performances.

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

Clowns in a Park

A member of the Clown Zoo community holds a puppet while watching the other groups’ performances.

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

Clowns in a Park

Clown teammates Reshma Meister (top left), Emily Maverick (top right), Brianna Ahlmark (center) and Caroline Cummings.

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

clown

Isabel Klein.

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

Blake Rosier performs during an evening of clowning.

Blake Rosier performs during an evening of clowning.

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-08-04/what-is-clowning-the-revival-of-an-old-art-form-in-la What is ‘clowning’? An old art form gets a new paint job in the L.A. comedy scene

Sarah Ridley

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