Beyond Bozo

A little levity can soothe tragic times, and San Francisco's Clown Conservatory has a new generation of entertainers eager to provide it

Bozo the Clown packed it in this summer, but for today's working and aspiring clowns, the response was relief rather than sadness. In the heyday of Bozoism decades ago, nearly 200 TV stations across the country broadcast local versions of the zany, big-footed, round-nosed icon. But after 50 years of waning popularity, that army of Bozos had dwindled to just one lonely clown, who still donned the frilly-buttoned suit at a TV studio in Chicago. When WGN pulled the plug on Bozo's Circus in July, a new generation of clowns celebrated the opportunity to reintroduce themselves to America. No longer would any clown have to live with the red wigs, white face, and "waga-waga" personality Bozo had exemplified.

Many people hate clowns or are made uncomfortable by them. But what they might not know is that Bozo is only one type of clown among many. Though clowning has a long, rich history around the world, a half-century of red-nosed goofballs has reduced the popular notion of a clown to its lowest, most vapid level. The result: What was once an art form has become hackneyed. Say the word "clown" and people wince.

So why should we care? Because unlike The Simpsons' animated Krusty -- perhaps the one clown we do like -- clowning can offer us more than a parody of all the bitter and cynical retired Bozos in the world. Clowning is a philosophy that can take many forms as it works its agenda. Its purpose is to explore the human condition and disarm the audience, through humor, in order to teach and enlighten. This topsy-turvy world needs some enlightenment right about now.

Now that Bozo is buried, students of the technique are ready to move the craft forward. "I'm not limited to painting a smile on my face and acting like an idiot," says Randall Wright, who decided recently to become a clown. This September, he enrolled in a unique school in San Francisco that's trying to generate a renaissance of sorts in the art. As the 33-year-old explains, "I'm learning that as a clown I can express myself and speak to the world."

Wright is a student at the Clown Conservatory at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, the only school in the United States that currently offers a specialized, yearlong clown curriculum. While the Ringling Bros.' famous Clown College in Sarasota, Fla., has shrunk to a mere shadow of itself (offering only limited training specific to its "Greatest Show on Earth" acts), San Francisco's Clown Conservatory is much more than the Ringling Bros. school ever was. Its solid collection of professors instructs in clown history, theory, character development, body movement, acrobatics, and core clowning skills from juggling to stilt-walking. But the classes don't focus entirely on physical skills: The school also teaches the philosophy that clowning is essential to our well-being.

"Clowns are more than commercial items," says Jeff Raz, a 25-year veteran of clowning who founded the conservatory and serves as its head teacher. "They have permission -- and a responsibility -- to look at society differently, to tweak it, all the while getting people to laugh along as they shake things up." Raz speaks wistfully of yesterday's "great American clowns," and his hope is that we'll see more of them -- maybe some from among his 16 hand-selected students, who started classes on Sept. 4. "Charlie Chaplin was a great American clown. He spoke to us about the evils of Hitler and the Industrial Revolution. And wow, was he funny. Abbie Hoffman was another one. He talked about things no one wanted to talk about, and he did so with such outrageous theatrics. Now we have Jim Carrey and Ronald McDonald. Clowns can do so much more in the world." Raz considers the events of Sept. 11 a call to action. "We should not leave the hardest, most volatile emotions in society to the "serious' folks. We have something very different, and very important, to offer the country."

In the post-Bozo world, Raz's conservatory must now figure out what a clown is. He starts by naming popular-culture characters who have exemplified the art's true essence. Jackie Chan fits the bill. His satiric action films, Raz says, are some of the best examples of traditional clowning applied with modern techniques. Among stand-up comedians, Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor are clowns (though Jay Leno is not). Of TV stars, he explains, Lucille Ball was a clown, and so was Pee-wee Herman. Though a cartoon, Bugs Bunny is the epitome of good clowning -- using humor, costume, and physical feats in a subversive way. In fact, students at the conservatory view and dissect Bugs Bunny videos -- as well as tapes of Mae West and Buster Keaton -- to learn from the masters.

While Raz recognizes the entire spectrum of the art, he does make a distinction between good and bad clowning. Whether mainstream or alternative, a bad clown can be painful to watch. The emphasis, he says, should be on quality. "I don't care if the clowns are in a slick production with expensive lights and effects or in a back room with cinder blocks hanging from their nipples," he says. "If there isn't artistic innovation, I'm not comfortable with either."

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.