The Unwritten Rule
When we watch a stand up comedy routine, comedic play or anything on tv or the big screen that’s comedic in nature, what do we normally experience? Obviously we experience joy and laughter, but from what do we experience that? It’s through the use of verbal language. Most comedians thrive off of being able to use speech as a means to deliver punchlines to their audience. It’s the primary form of speech used, while mixed with body language as well.
Why, then, is the unwritten rule of “no talking” given to clowns? This is because, in my opinion, speech is strong, but physicality is powerful. Speech has barriers worldwide, but every human understands basic physicality cues and what they mean in certain situations.
A clown routine where the clown talks their way out of the problem. Boring right? What if instead, they internalized those thoughts and just simply made them into actions? Better! Clowns are performers who embody the very essence of the philosophy, “actions speak louder than words.”
Silent physicality shows the true nature of the clown.
What is that nature? Human!
Think about it, every other performer in a circus are superhuman. The contortionist, the strongman, the sword swallower and even the ringmaster. All are performers with superhuman-like essences. However, the one performer in a circus that the audience relates to the most, is the clown. This is because the clown is the average human, albeit a cartoonish version, in the circus. What makes the clown so relatable? It’s a combination of the problems they run into and how they solve them through physical movements.
Ok...So What Do I Mean?
This is not to say that clowns should forever be confined to silence. Many brilliant clowns through the ages including three of the Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball, Red Skelton, and the Three Stooges used words, gibberish, grunts, groans, shrieks, and songs to perform their comedy.
Vocalization is a great tool for any clown and physical comedian. I’ve once done a show as a clown and all I used for my speech was a mosquito whistle. However, I strongly believe that using verbal cues as a clown should come after you have been able to master being silent and studying how your body moves.
Become an expert in physical movement to express your thoughts and then you can add speech. Only then will you truly grasp the power of communicating with your audience.
(One great example would be Penn and Teller. Both are absolutely hilarious, and yet both men present a different style of comedy.)
With this being said, you don’t need to be a highly skilled mime or juggler to be considered a master of physical comedy as a clown. In fact, I’ve met some of the clumsiest clowns ever and they were more hilarious to me than the expert mimes of the world. Although, learning these other talents will most definitely boost your understanding of physicality. Thus I highly recommend doing so.
How To Begin This Journey
There are so many exercises one can do to start the journey of learning how to use your body to communicate rather than verbal speech. One of my favorites have always been to run errands, wearing a button that says “Mime in Training”, and try to figure out how to get everything done without talking.
You’ll find moments in the day, perhaps needing to find a certain item at a store, where you are forced to resort in an impromptu game of charades with the employee. This has brought many laughs when I’ve done this, and it shows what works with potential audiences as well. But most importantly, it hones your skill in learning how to communicate even the most mundane topic to the audience.
If you’re a teacher and you want to do an exercise with your clown students, try this:
Have your students sit as audience members. One student at a time will enter from the backstage, silently cross the stage to a chair, sit quietly and then stare at the audience. Trying to look in everyone’s eyes. Just try to connect with the audience through staring. No sighing. No talking. No coughing. You can make small facial expressions, but don’t open your mouth. Keep the lips tightly closed.
Accept any and all responses by the audience. Quietly and without reacting to their response. Sometime they’ll laugh, sometimes they’ll giggle, sometimes they’ll sigh and other times they’ll just be as silent as you. Just accept anything that happens and feel the moment. Notice how you feel. How the room feels. Do this for a minute or two and then leave the stage quietly. After every student has done this, have a discussion on what they felt.
Long story short, all I’m trying to say is: Less is more! Speak less, move more, and listen, listen, listen! Isn’t it interesting that the words “listen” and “silent” are spelled with the same letters just rearranged?