History of Clowning 

                                                     By Jonathan Baker


Jesters and fools appear through out medieval history, folk law and legend. They are one of the most common and widely recognised archetypal character types found in culture and mythology throughout world history. Jesters and fools performed a variety of functions as entertainers, social and political critiques and perhaps most importantly as agents of change. They used an array of skills including wit and humor to reinforce cultural and religious fundamental values and principles.



 North American Indian tribes some of which date back five thousand years had their clowns who played a sacred function within their cultures. Often their clowns played a teaching role and could reveal the truth about a person or situation on a ridiculous way. Some tribes believed that laughter opened them up to the Gods and to the great spirit. Before their religious ceremonies began, clowns were sent in to poke fun and provoke laughter amongst the people. Often the clowns role within their community included an aspect of policing and maintaining order. Clowns of the Hopi nation were known as the tradition keepers and delight makers. Many tribes believed their clowns had the power to cure certain diseases. The Cheyenne tribe had contrary clowns that would behave in a contradictory way to the normal way of life to the tribe. They would walk around on their hands and ride horses backwards, shoot arrows backwards over their shoulders and deliberately do many things the wrong way around. When they came to a stream they would take off one moccasin and hold up their bear foot while hopping through the water on the other moccasin. In times of battle and conflict they would revert to doing things the normal way round. Other tribes feared the contraries the most in battle because they were the most skilled warriors.


 Jesting and clowning is a very ancient art that can be traced through medieval Europe. Certainly the jesters art was known of in 12 BC in Persia. There are Egyptian hieroglyphs dating back to Egypt’s 5th Dynasty about 2500 BC depicting jesters and jugglers. The fool and juggler often appear within various tarot cards that first surfaced and attracted attention in Europe at the time of the Renaissance in the 14th century. Research suggests that tarot cards descended from Egyptian Hieroglyph were pictures and symbols were used to retain knowledge. These cards would have then been introduced to Persia by roaming Gypsy’s that were of Egyptian origin. The Fool is always depicted within the cards of the tarot and carries special meanings. Ultimately it symbolizes an always ever new start. A chance to live in the present moment and transcend the unfortunate aspects of ones past that if re-lived would be sure to bring about the same results. The fool represents the infinite possibility within human development or the negation of those possibilities by the ego. It represents the spirit of adventure ever ready to leave safe places and conformity in order to discover new opportunity. 




In about 300 BC Chinese Emperor Shih Huang-Ti oversaw the building of the great wall of China.Thousands of laborers were killed during its construction period. The Emperors Jester, Yu Sze, was the only one who dared criticize his plan to paint the great wall. Yu Sze is remembered today in China as a national hero because he jokingly persuaded the Emperor not to paint the great wall which would have resulted in thousands more dying.




Clowns also played an important role in the religions and lives of Asian societies. In India sanskrit dramas based on the epic stories “Mahabharata” and “Ramayana” began about 100 AD Most of the dialogue was in the sanskrit language which was only spoken by gods, kings, ministers, generals and sages. Viduska, a clown who was the heros servant and confidant, also spoke Prakrit the language of the general population so it was the clowns function to serve as an interpreter. More early ancestors of the clown were present in ancient Greece. These comics were bald headed and padded to appear larger than normal. They performed as secondary figures in farces and mimes parodying the the actions of more serious characters and at times threw nuts at the spectators. A similar type of clown was also found to be present in the roman mime. This clown wore a pointed hat and a patchwork colourful robe and was the target of all the tricks and abuse of his fellow actors.




 When Cortez conquered the Aztec nation in 1520 AD he discovered Montezuma’s court engaged jesters similar to those in Europe. Aztec fools, dwarfs and clowns In the sixteenth century the Commedia del Arte began in Italy and soon dominated European theatre. Commedia del Arte which translates to the comedy of the artists was a highly improvised theatre based upon a stock of characters and scenarios. From these traveling theatre companies of the Italian Commedia dell’arte appeared one of the most famous and durable clowns of all time, the Arlecchino, also known as Harlequin. The Harlequin began as a comic valet, or “zany” but soon developed into an acrobatic trickster wearing a black domino mask and carrying a bat or noisy slapstick with which he frequently spanked his victims. From this comes the origin of the word slapstick comedy.

Commedia was the earliest form of situation comedy and is one of the core routes from which modern comedy evolved. It contained many zany comic characters divided into masters and servants. The English clown descended from the vice character of the medieval mystery plays, a buffoon and prankster who it was said could sometimes deceive even the devil. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Clowning was basically a theatrical art form. Shakespeare was the playwright for the Lord Chandlers men acting troupe and William Kemp was the first clown to appear with the troupe. He specialised in playing stupid country bumpkin type characters (a style that would later become known as the August. Robert Armin also became highly influential in the development of Shakespeare’s fool characters.



Joseph Grimaldi was considered one of the fathers of modern clowning because he is the entertainer who elevated the white face to a staring role replacing Harlequin. Grimaldi was born in London and was the son of an Italian Actor. By the time he was three years old he was performing on stage. Having grown up in a theatre, he excelled at designing elaborate trick special effects. He produced and stared in live action road runner cartoon type routines with chase scenes and comic slapstick violence with extreme but temporary results. Grimaldi was a master of pantomime. In homage to Grimaldi, circus clowns began referring to them selves as Joey’s, and the term Joey is now a synonym for clown. On the first Sunday in February there is an annual service held at Holy Trinity church in Dalston east London to honour Joseph Grimaldi the greatest British clown (1778-1837)




Although circus has its origins in Egypt and became popular in Rome, Philip Astley created what was considered the first circus in England in 1768. He also created the first circus clown act called Billy Buttons or the Tailors Ride to Brentford. The act was based on a popular tale of a tailor, an inept equestrian trying to ride a horse to Brentford to vote for an election. Astley impersonated the tailor attempting to ride the horse. First with tremendous difficulty mounting it correctly, then when he finally succeeded the horse bolted off so that he fell off. As the circus grew and Astley hired other clowns who were requested them to learn the Billy Buttons routine. It soon became a traditional part of every circus for the next 100 years.



Of all the nineteenth century American Circuses, best known was the Barnum and Bailey. It was the brain child of two men: Phineas T. Barnum and James A. Bailey. After Bailey died in1906, the Ringling Brothers Circus, which began as a tent show in 1884, purchased the Barnum & Bailey in 1919, the two circuses were combined into one immense enterprise. In the 1950s the show became an exclusively indoor presentation under the management and promotion of Irvin Feld and his brother Israel. The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus became the spawning ground for many of the great North American Circus clowns of the 20th century. Clowns like Lou Jacobs, Emmet kelly the Vagabond clown, Felix Adler billed in the vaudeville as the Gloom Dispeller. Otto Griebling, Mark Anthony, and so many others. Then In Russia appeared Yuri NIkulin, Popov, From Italy the Fratellini family, Grock from Germany, Charlie Rivel from Spain, the long list goes on of these modern Ambassadors of Laughter.


By 1910 the popular Vaudeville and variety theatre began to bloom and marked the beginning of a big business in the United States. This all depended on the growing number of white collar workers and the increase of leisure time, spending power, and changing tastes of a urban middle class audiences. American theatre goers could now enjoy a performance of Shakespeare, acrobats, singers, dance presentations and comedy all in the same evening. In the Vaudevillian music halls clowns continued the traditions and comic routines (lazzi) of the commedia dell’arte. This is were Charlie Chaplin got his first break at the age of 18 when he joined vaudeville impresario Fred Karno’s comedy troupe. When the Karno troupe came to America and performed to much acclaim a play called a night at an English Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin was a leading member of the troupe and Stan Laurel was Chaplin’s understudy. Working for Karno gave Chaplin and Stan Laurel the time to develop and perfect Burlesque, slapstick and pantomime techniques that would later translate so well onto the big screen.



so as you can see jesters, clowns and fools have appeared in many guises through out world history and have been given many different names over the centuries but they all share one thing in common, the comic perspective and have all developed the ability dispense humour and wit directly into the life of a royal court, or theatre or film or simply for friends and family or tribe. These masters of comedy contribute to the world by making it a more manageable brighter and joyful place. Clowns have always reminded us that we are human and vulnerable and they transform the frightening into the funny, anesthetizing pain and keeping our minds and hearts open.