[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.