“Can’t sleep, clowns will eat me.” These fear-filled words were once uttered by our favorite cartoon troublemaker Bart Simpson. Bart’s fear of clowns, or coulrophobia, is a genuine problem for many people in the real world. But that hasn’t stopped clowns from continuing to cheer crowds at carnivals, circuses, and amusement parks. In fact clowning, although it has gone through many changes over the past hundreds of years, still remains a staple of the circus. In the following article we’ll explore the history of clowning, the evolution of clowning, and the place of the modern clown in society today.

There is evidence of clowning dating all the way back to Ancient Egypt in 2400 BC, in which clowning was usually performed by priests, filling a more socioreligious role than the purely entertainment portrayal we are more familiar with today. In Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, clowning was mainly done by pantomimes, who performed theatrical and comedic imitations of life through music, song, and narrative. It is from pantomiming that many other branches of comedic performance developed during the Middle Ages including the court jester, the bouffon, and the silent French mime (originally called a “mummer,” or a performer of “dumbshows”). Various comedic styles also developed during this time period including slapstick, farce, parody, satire, and gallows humor, also known as dark comedy. Meanwhile across the world, Japanese Kabuki, Indian Kathakali, Italian Commedia Dell’Arte, and Native American shaman developed their own versions of clowning.

The traditional Western circus clown that we are more familiar with did not develop until the 1800s, and can be divided into three categories: whiteface, auguste, and character. Whiteface clowns are the quintessential clowns, covering their entire face in white makeup and drawing on exaggerated features such as mouths and eyes in black or red. They also employ the typical oversized clown outfit with a ruffled collar and pointy hat. When performing as a group, whiteface clowns are usually considered the leaders and the ones pulling the pranks. On the contrary, auguste clowns are usually the ones being pranked on. They are identified by a reddish or pinkish makeup, with a white outlining of the features of the face, baggy plaids with polka dots or stripes, long neckties, oversized noses and shoes, wide-collared shirts, and wild wigs. Lastly, the character clown usually implements a specific persona such a butcher, policeman, or baker, with an outfit consisting of exaggerated costume elements of such a persona. In America, the most popular and common character clown was the hobo or tramp, usually distinguished with shabby clothing, a thick five-o-clock shadow, and less than average intelligence. Together these three characters performed skits (also known as “gags” or “sketches”) like underwear swaps, knockabout gags, and clowns-in-a-car tricks in traveling circuses across America and Europe, all in the hopes of getting a laugh.

Today the modern clown is still up to the same old tricks, but with a different twist. Clowns in contemporary productions such as those put on by Cirque du Soleil have taken a larger role as a substitute for a master of ceremonies, moving beyond simple breaks of comedic relief between acts. In fact the plight of the clown is typically the driving force behind the storylines of many Cirque shows, with clown performances helping to provide plot continuity. The modern clown also may no longer dress in the typical whiteface or auguste manners, but rather incorporate an entirely more everyday human ensemble. Themes such as the adult baby, the lost traveler, and the pickpocket thief are some examples of contemporary Cirque character clowning, that veers from the traditional red-nosed whiteface path. Modern clowns are also used as show fillers to entertain the audience, usually before a show begins or at scenery changes during a show. And just as traditional clowns have done, modern clowns may even go into the audience to poke fun at volunteers or unsuspecting patrons (a practice known in clowning as “carpet clowning”).

Indeed clowning is still a relevant and prevalent practice today, necessary for show cohesion, levity, and breaks between dramatic and suspenseful acrobatic feats. Fear them or not, clowns are here to stay. You can even book one for your next event.