Circus Joker Essays

Last week, Fox teased "Gotham" fans with the possible arrival of the Joker: a preview for the new episode announced that Gotham's latest villain was "no joke," then cut to a shot of Cameron Monaghan's red-haired Jerome.

We finally met Jerome in Monday's episode, "The Blind Fortune Teller," which kicked off at a circus for the origin of the Joker and the beginning of Dick Grayson/Robin's storyline. In the episode we learn (spoiler alert) that Jerome, who was playing nice all along, killed his own mother (he breaks into maniacal laughter over it, in true Joker style).


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But still, is it safe to assume Jerome is the Joker as a boy? "Gotham" executive producer Bruno Heller told E! News the most vague, tease-y answer: "It's the beginning of the story of how the Joker came to be, how the Joker was created, where he came from, who he is. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that Cameron Monaghan is the Joker," he said. "He might be."

While that answer will frustrate "Gotham" fans for days, who are already theorizing the Joker's appearance on Reddit, we do at least know Jerome isn't a red herring. The great thing about "Gotham" taking on the Joker is that no one knows where it's headed, since the comic book villain famously had no clear origin story. In the comics, the Joker's background varies from a gangster identity Red Hood to a failed comedian who becomes disfigured by chemicals to Jack, a criminal obsessed with Batman.

Heller has said that present-day "Gotham" is seven or eight years away from when the fully-formed Joker will arrive in the city. Perhaps Jerome is the Joker, or maybe he will lead us to him eventually. Either way, Heller wants everyone to know, "This is not a trick."


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I Went to School to Become a Clown

By Ashley Harrell

I was recently at a bar with a friend when I told him something I hoped would impress him.

“I’m going to become a clown,” I said.

“What?” he asked.

“A clown. I’m going to a weekend clowning workshop.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve always wanted to be a clown.”

My friend looked at me like I had molested his children. When the bartender came over to refill our drinks, he reported me.

“She’s going to be a clown,” he said. “What do you think of clowns?”

The bartender made a lemon-suck face. “Scary,” she said.

When I brought up my plan with another friend, she told me about a clown who works in a hospital where she gets regular treatment. “He’s horrible,” she said. “I’m trying to get him fired.”

This was the beginning of a criticism shit-storm over my clowning ambition, and I have to admit, all the negativity almost got to me. But I’m going to do it, kids. I will become a clown — and I’ll do it in a way that feels very San Francisco.

Two weeks after my bar chat, I’m in a Mission studio, surrounded by a dozen adults, all of us pretending to blow enormous bubbles with make-believe gum. Then we bend over, letting out gigantic, imaginary farts. Next we bob around the studio, clucking and jerking our necks like chickens. At this point, all any of us know is that this workshop is aimed to help us develop “a personal clown.” We each want to gain this skill for various reasons.

One man grew up being told by his father that he should avoid drawing attention to himself because “if you act like a nail, you’re going to get hammered.” He wanted to break free of that advice. The man’s wife, a very serious woman, believed she was dragged to this class by a silly, alternative personality living inside her. Another gal wanted to create a clown character for an upcoming stint with a traveling circus in Burma.

As for me, I’ve always been a clown-y person. I taught myself to juggle and walk on stilts at a young age, and would do just about anything for a laugh.

In middle school, I was the panther mascot at pep rallies, and I loved disappearing into that costume. In college, I went through a phase where I would purposely fall down in dramatic ways. Although I had thoughts of joining a circus as an acrobat-clown, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be good enough. I had never really tried — until now.

There are a bunch of clowning groups in San Francisco, including the Porn Clown Posse, led by Ouchy the BSDM clown. But I didn’t feel ready to join those crews. Instead I found Christina Lewis’ clowning workshop on Google. It was relatively inexpensive ($150 for eight hours), close to my house, and fine for beginners.

To prepare for my training, I called some successful local clowns to ask their advice. It wasn’t always encouraging. “Clowns are born, not made,” explained Brian Wishnefsky, aka Sparky the Clown. “You are never going to make any money unless you sell your soul to the devil and you are ruthless.”

It seems that a clown’s worst enemies are other clowns, and lately there’s a pretty good reason for that. The economy sucks, and when people aren’t making money, these jokers can seem pretty expendable.

Still, the world can never get enough good clowns, says Michael Davis, who performs with San Francisco’s Teatro ZinZanni — a breed of theater more of the European persuasion. ZinZanni’s don’t necessarily have white faces or funny noses, and they’re character-based. This is also the style that my instructor Christina favors, and over the past 25 years, she’s helped people develop their inner clown.

For Christina, the best performances come out of exploring psychological material — in most cases the darker stuff — for entertainment value. Call it clown therapy.

After the warm-up, some clowning discussions, and a few improvisational exercises, it’s time to begin developing one of the first things a clown needs — a walk. Christina instructs us to pace around the studio, and points out some of the subtler aspects: our posture, our arm swings, the direction our feet point.

Christina’s stride is frenetic with a healthy arm swing and a slightly raised right foot. That’s because she’s getting arthritis in her front toe, she says. As part of her walk, she exaggerates this abnormality. “The clown has to embrace its brokenness,” she says, “because the clown lives in the broken spaces.”

Christina then presents each member of the class with “the world’s smallest mask” — a plastic red nose. It’s time for each of us to walk — in clown — in front of the class.

I feel nervous about putting my movements under a microscope. Christina can tell. “Your walk is tall and graceful,” she says, “but your posture is saying, ‘Don’t look at me.’”

With that short assessment, she had uncovered something about me that most people don’t recognize. It’s something I dislike about myself, and most people don’t guess it in meeting me. Beneath my extroverted facade, I am terrified of being judged. Although I often want to be the center of attention, when I land there, I get scared. I wonder if people can sense how desperate I am to put on a show.

When I tell Christina about this after class, she smiles and says,

“this is a clown problem.”

She suggests I explore the issue — in clown — by acting nervous or shy, for instance, then trying to be funny but getting it wrong, over and over again. This brand of entertainer is, after all, beloved for its ability to create a spectacle of failure.

The next day, we continue exploring our budding clown personas, I’m aiming to be insecure and desperate to please. But the ways I might express this aren’t coming naturally, perhaps because I have previously gone out of my way to hide those feelings.

My clown walk also feels wrong. It’s an exaggeration of my normal stride, but I’ve also inexplicably added a swishy shoulder motion. It’s unnecessarily dramatic, and makes me feel like an imposter.

So I try out some other traits. I pretend to be paranoid, then jealous, then highly concerned about my image. It’s not working. I feel like a human pretending to be a clown with an identity disorder. Just when I’m getting frustrated that a cohesive clown doesn’t live inside me, Christina asks us to find a partner.

We will present imaginary gifts to each other, she explains. The partner must accept the gift, morph it into something else, and then pass that new gift back.

I pair up with a shy clown being developed by the woman who will be joining the traveling circus. She’s acting clueless and smiling a lot, as if she’s my grandmother. For whatever reason, my first instinct is to abuse her. I reach into my pocket and take out a wiggly creature that she can interpret to be nothing else except a worm. I throw it in her hair. She looks at me with big, confused eyes. Why would I do that to her? She takes the worm out of her hair and folds it into a bouncy ball, then presents it to me gently. I throw it across the room. Then I give her something scaling hot.

When she hands me a pretend leash with an imaginary dog on the end, I don’t even have to think about what to do. I punt the puppy.

We are then asked to find a new partner, and I move on, satisfied with my cruelty. I decide to keep it up with my next buddy, the man trying to overcome his fear of becoming a nail. I wind up burying him in imaginary dirty tissues, with which I have just blown my nose.

It is settled. I am a clown who overcomes insecurity by being a complete jerk. Although I did choose a clown name, it’s too inappropriate to be repeated here. Let’s just say it rhymes with “Punty.”

In reflecting on my experience, it isn’t that surprising that a mean clown emerged from my psyche. I spend a lot of time trying to be friendly and accommodating, apologizing for no reason. But I also have a judgmental side that often feels trapped by societal expectations. Apparently one of my most natural but repressed desires is to be a meanie.

As of yet, “Punty” has not secured any birthday parties. She has, however, committed to a 20-week workshop that Christina is holding in January. I can’t say for sure how my clown will emerge from that instruction, but I can say that my life is more fun and more interesting with her under development.

To those who made me feel insecure about my clown dream: I have somebody I’d like to introduce you to.

If you suspect you may be harboring a clown and you’d like to help him or her emerge, you can find Christina Lewis’s contact information and class schedule on her website: http://www.clownschoolsf.org/ . Her weekend workshop will set you and your clown back $150. The 20-week class costs $600.

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