This is another philosophical departure from my usual subject matter of psychology, psychotherapy, and human growth – though it’s related to the latter topic. I mostly write about serious topics, but I try to never take myself too seriously. I’m just another flawed human being, and I provide myself with ample opportunities to laugh at myself. It’s part of my personal philosophy, learned to some degree by my history as a clown. Seriously.
I see clowning as one of the sacred arts in the family of mankind. I learned what I know about this art from my onetime friend Greg Smith, master (though amateur) clown, who was a classmate in my psychology graduate program. His clown name was “Cloudly the Clown,” and he taught an informal class with five or six students, as I recall. He made it clear that he took clowning seriously: “This is not just clowning around.” As with most performing arts, it takes discipline and practice to become a good physical clown; but it also takes an understanding of the traditions and vocabularies of clowning – if you’re serious about it.
Like a good martial arts teacher, Greg taught the philosophy of clowning as well as teaching us classic clown moves, funny walks, exaggerated gestures, and the vocabulary of pantomime communication. We started our classes with loosening-up exercises, and practice drills in clown movement and pantomime techniques. Then Cloudly instructed us about the mindset of clowning: how to create your character, and the importance of taking time to get into character before performing. He talked about the symbolic meaning of putting on a new face. Making yourself up was a symbolic death of your ordinary self, and the re-birth of your clown personality.
Greg helped each of us to find the unique clown behind the masks we drew on our faces. Was it a talking clown or a silent clown? Cheerful or sad? Shy, or bold? Clumsy, or physically confident? Victim or trickster? And choosing your clown name was as important as your clown face and clown costume.
The clown I found inside me is named Tyl, after Tyl Eulenspiegel, the trickster from German folklore, the original Merry Prankster. Eulenspiegel translates as “owl mirror” (a reverse reflection of wisdom?), fixing Tyl in the tradition of the wise fool that is found in many cultural mythologies. Tyl is a silent clown, with a childlike delight in small things, and a penchant for mischief. He can be both shy and bold, depending on circumstance. He wears the high white pants of a mime, held up by rainbow suspenders, over a red, white, and blue tee shirt.
While professional clowns often have to stick to choreographed scripts and proven schtick, amateur clowns often get to improvise and play off one another. That’s what I loved about clowning. The role of a clown in a public space is ancient and mythic, and every serious clown has his or her unique persona (ancient Greek for mask) and vocabulary of expression.
By the seventies the stereotype of Bozo the Clown (an early TV personality) had been transcended by “We’re All Bozos on This Bus,” a surreal comedy album by a satirical troupe called the Firesign Theater. We students of Cloudly the Clown identified as bozos, and made silly attempts to organize. We imagined a religion called Bozo Consciousness, with a political arm known as the Bozo Liberation Front. (There were a lot of liberation fronts back then.) Our rallying cry was, “Let your bozo go!” Years later I learned that Robin Williams had made silly attempts to mobilize a Bozo Liberation Front in California; so now I realize that we were just the east coast branch of a tiny movement whose time seemed to have come.
The West Georgia College chapter of the Bozo Liberation Front put up posters around the campus in the week before April Fools’ Day, inviting all self-aware bozos to show up en costume on this holy day and commit acts of irreverence and jollity. Few students responded, but we happy few showed up as clowns and role-modeled bozo behavior. I ambushed one of my favorite professors with a whipped cream pie in the face. His response was philosophical: “You know, I was just talking to a colleague who has a lot going on in his life right now, and I just said to him, ‘You never know what’s going to happen next.’ And now this.”
It was holy work (or play), and I recommend The Way of the Clown to all who are in touch with their essential bozo nature. It can be cultivated in your own philosophical garden, but thrives when you’re part of a bozo community that realizes life is too serious to always be taken seriously. I think that some truths can only be arrived at by paradox or parody. I’ve written about one of my favorite twentieth century philosophers, Robert Anton Wilson (RAW). He has an episode in the Illuminatus! trilogy where a young woman is instructed by two brilliant philosophers who take opposing views on a wide variety of philosophical propositions – while dressed as clowns. Now, that’s what I call an eclectic education! RAW’s prescription to his fans for what to do after his passing was, “Keep the lasagna flying!” I submit this post in that spirit.