Nick Weber

Nick Weber
Milwaukee, Wisconsin,
September 18
Once: Jesuit Priest, Circus Producer, Clown, Actor, High School Performing Arts Teacher. Currently: Sometime connector of certain Dots...........(er, Gifts)


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APRIL 12, 2010 7:40AM


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Photo for Blog 28--IMG 

[I had a little dog, too.  Jingle Bells and I on a bad hair day.  Fall, 1987.]


If you were lucky as a kid, the first and only clowns you ever saw were in the circus.  I was lucky.  No slicko with unpowdered greasepaint tried to sell me burgers,  no over-pretty cutie came to twist balloons at my birthday party, and no filmmaker loosed any decorated psycho on me just for the scare of it.  The clowns I saw I loved, because they were whole.  They didn’t need me but if I laughed at them I could tell I was part of their integrity.  They were performers in the ceremony that was the circus itself and they could generate pathos just because they weren’t as glamorous as the acrobats, or just because they had no hope of winning a pretty aerialist.  Usually, they teamed up with their buddies from clown alley to jump, dance, fall and slap their way through a playlet.  As in all good theater, they engaged the presuppositions and prejudices of us in the audience.  They demanded my attention with surprise, inconsistency and risk as they turned a sliver of my own life inside out and made me give back part of what I’d taken for granted. 

The situations were mundane, like most of our lives: washday, firemen or housepainters at work, driving a car,  reading the paper,  finding a place to sit down,  fishing, hunting, pulling a fast one on a snob.  The very greatest clowns could evoke an entire drama all alone, silently.  Well, it helped if they had a well trained little dog.

There is arguably no greater demonstration of a performer’s use of audience psychology than the late Lou Jacobs’ rabbit hunting routine with a little dog wearing a pair of rabbit ears.  Striding into the ring with a florescent hunter’s cap and his shotgun over his shoulder, he couldn’t see the “rabbit”  following right behind him.  When he began looking out over the audience for rabbits, every kid in the audience would scream, “He’s right behind you!”  Lou would keep looking until every kid in the tent was screaming.  As soon as he turned around, the dog would sit up, like rabbits can do, and look right at him.  Lou still didn’t see it. More screaming.  Finally he saw it and took his time pantomiming how tasty that rabbit stew was going to be.  The enthusiasm of the kids lessened.  And by the time  the hunter they had helped find the rabbit took his aim, the tent rang with a mixed chorus of “No!” and “Boo!”    Finally the shot and the dog flopped over.  There was still a negative rumble from the kids, but there was confusion, the guilt of “What have we done?”  The hunter picked up the dog-rabbit’s hind legs, moved them back and forth and the rest of the body remained limp.  Dead.  So Lou hoisted the carcass into his gunny sack and began walking out of the ring.  Except the sack had no bottom, and the little animal jumped out to follow the hunter again.  The dog redeems the audience’s hope and the clown is none the wiser.

I last saw that tiny drama engage an entire Ringling audience spread throughout Madison Square Garden.

Of course there’s no such thing as a clown; there are actors who perfect the role of the clown.  As such they choose from a history of types and they embrace a physical and emotional discipline.  Such a centuries-old regimen allows them to believe so strongly in the wealth of human worth, that for awhile everyday, they believe they are clowns.  They know that we need them.    


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Wow! Love the post. Thanks.
Don't shoot the bunny/puppy! I can picture the scene and hear the laughter of children. Nothing there is mundane. Laughter lifts us all out of the mundane. Today is Monday and we are back from spring break. We need laughter or we will be mired in the mundane.
I'm taken with the image of the clown as the whole human. There's a lot for me to chew on there. Any intellectual/professional calling requires that we abstract some body of knowledge and take command of it. The great professions of law, theology, medicine are especially guilty of this. The academic disciplines are about the showing of expertise in some area even if it means ruining it for students. Oh, the poetry classes I've sat through in which great art and a great artist were tied to an invisible instrument of torture and "waterboarded" until there was no beauty left.

Clowning (too narrow a word now) is a way of seeing and believing and being. Clowning admits of an "aesthetic" dimension to all of life's moments It's not just about beauty. It's about a capacity that the human heart has as an organ of receptivity. It's easy to overlook the "other" in an overspecialized culture struggling for systemic survival. There's always a way to get to the wholeness in every moment. But the price is often high when professional "cred" is on the line.

In the end, everything we've worked for is useless. We know that in our soul and Jesus taught about it clearly. So let's get on with that part of the show and quit pretending like what we're doing with our degrees makes any real difference. We never know how the story will end.

If I'm watching Lou Jacob with Knucklehead sneaking out of the bag, I know that all captivity to an outcome is ridiculous. Kids really get this. That's why they loved Lou's presentation from a world in which they embrace the whole moment: the tiny car, the limber contortionist, the outrageous wardrobe, the dog in rabbit drag.

Adult ego is just a story about how it all ought to be. Lou told the truth: nothing is as it seems and you can't ever capture anything. Children get that. There is always room for play.

I was on the Ringling show this weekend. I saw an eager face made up and ready to go. He'd just arrived. His first day on the Greatest Show on Earth. Where had he trained for this, I queried? Oh, nowhere. I was a business major in college but I always wanted to do this. And they hired me.

I hope Lou's spirit still hovers somewhere near the show he gave his life to for so long. Next time I see the kid, I'll bring him a picture of Lou to hang in his roomette on the train.
What a wonderful story! I guess I wasn't lucky as a child: I never saw a circus clown, at least not in his role as such. Maybe someday I'll still have the chance to change that.
Brilliant. Just brilliant. And "Crustulum's" comments too! Wow! I love Jingle Bells. . .15 years old at least in that pic and she was still riding on the back of Dan the horse!
Clowning. Probably the most disrespected (thanks to the examples you gave) and least understood art in today's society. Thank you for clarifying.