We explore the “Clown’s Eye view” of classic comedy movie, “The Blues Brothers,” (1980) and look at some of the ways that this modern era movie touches on timeless clown archetypes and situations going back hundreds, if not thousands of years.
When I first started this blog, I had the intent to talk about creativity. I got sidetracked by all this boring “productivity” stuff. Granted, it’s very important to be productive if you want to be creative, but I’m going to shift gears a bit here. As stated elsewhere, I am a comedian. A variety artist. A juggler. A clown.
It’s a loaded word. It is generally considered an insult. “You clown,” “those clowns in Congress,” “quit clowning around…” and the relative neologism, “ass-clown.” However, in theater (and circus, which is an extension of theater), the “Clown” is generally a welcome relief from tensions (Hamlet’s gravediggers, for instance), or between death-defying acts in the circus. This has of course changed with motion pictures putting Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Stan and Ollie, Abbott and Costello, Dick Van Dyke, Red Skelton, Steve Martin and Jim Carrey on the screen, where the clowns become the protagonists. The everyman. Even the hero.
What is a clown? The term is believed to possibly come from Icelandic klunni meaning clod, or Low German (a great source of our basic English vocabulary). The theatrical tradition can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where a dwarf was known to perform tricks for the court. Of course, that’s only recorded history; who knows before that? Certainly as long as humans laughed as a release of tension, and manipulated objects and bodies to create music, art and dance, the intentional inducement of laughter must have been included in there somewhere. That’s what clowns do. And more.
Just as early civilizations saw art, dance and music as a way to connect to the spirits, laughter, often a Sacred Clown has been part of the ceremony. That idea has popped up in many civilizations, and one could argue that the beloved Trickster character of many a folk tale is an extension of that. Whether it’s the Wise Fool of King Lear, the completely laughable idiot Curly of the Three Stooges, or the trickster Till Eulenspiegel with a wry penchant for defecation, these characters have touched culture after culture in generation after generation.
So again, I try to answer: What is a clown? There are many different definitions, even within a theatrical context, from “a comic character in a play” to “the people in those costumes in the circus” to “M. Night Shyamalan, after his first two movies.” In simple terms, it is a type of actor who specializes in physical or verbal comedy who plays the role of him (or her) self with comical adjustments to certain personal affectations. But still, I find that/those definitions unsatisfying.
After nearly 30 years being a clown on stage and in the ring, I still haven’t fully answered the question myself and I don’t think I ever will; every time I have thought I knew, I’ve learned more to expand my definition. If you held a pie to my head and demanded I give an answer, I would hem and haw and deliberate. In the end however, I would eventually say something like this:
We are all idiots sometimes. We all see the world slightly differently in our private moments when other people can’t see. Many of us are embarrassed by these differences. We are all different from each other and that is beautiful. We are all highly competent at some things and horribly incompetent at others. We try to hide our incompetence and highlight our competence, but when we relax too much, it leaks out. And that is normal. That is funny. That is beautiful. That is the Clown.
The Clown is you.