"To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!"

Charlie Chaplin

A brief Clown History

Types of Clown

A few Famous Clowns

Hospital Clowning

Clown Training

Useful Links


A brief Clown History

The attributes of a clown are playfulness, irreverence, and the freedom of 'not knowing'. In ancient Greece comics were bald-headed and padded to appear larger than normal. They performed as secondary figures in farces and mime, parodying the actions of more serious characters. In Roman mime the clown wore a pointed hat and a patchwork colourful robe and was the target for the tricks and abuse.

The clown emerged as a professional comic actor in the late Middle Ages. Court jesters and fools were influences for travelling entertainers. Italian commedia dell'arte, improvised masked comedy with stock plots also developed many stock clown characters, including Arlecchino (Harlequin) in the 16th century. Harlequin began as a comic valet, or zanni, but soon developed into an acrobatic trickster, wearing a black domino mask and carrying a bat or noisy slapstick with which he frequently hit his victims. Pierrot was another Zanni, always the butt of jokes and pranks, he was the lowest of low in society. Commedia also had lazzi, or humorous interludes.

The 3 traditional types of clowns are the White-face, Auguste and Character.

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Types of Clown

White-face Clown

The White-face clown is the ‘classic’ clown, the oldest and most well-known of the clowns, and is typically the straight clown in skits.

Associated with the circus, the White-face is the most intelligent type of clown with the highest status - typically the ringleader. The make-up base of white grease paint meant distant audiences could see the clown.

This is the oldest style of clown, dating back to Greek theatre. Whiteface is the court jester of the Middle Ages. Commedia del arté popularised several stock clown characters, including Pierrot, Columbine, Harlequin and Clown. Pierrot is a White-face clown. His flour-whitened face is thought to be the introduction of the White-face.

The pantomimist Jean-Baptiste-Gaspard Deburau took on the character in the early 19th century and created a famous love-sick, sad clown, whose melancholy has remained part of the clown tradition.

The 'Comedy or 'Grotesque White-face' is more buffoonish in style. 

Grock (Adrien Wettach), a famous whiteface pantomimist, evoked laughter in his continual struggle with inanimate objects. Chairs collapsed beneath him. When a stool was too far from a piano, he shoved the piano to the stool.

Auguste Clown

The Auguste clown is the least intelligent, and zaniest of the clowns. The Auguste clown tends to be the silly clown in skits. Make-up is a flesh-tone base, with features outlined. The costume of the Auguste clown tends to be gaudy, mismatched, over-sized and very bright.

In the 1860s, or so the story goes, a low-comedy comic appeared under the name of Auguste, who had a big nose, baggy clothes, and large shoes. He worked with a White-face clown and always spoiled the tricks by appearing at the wrong time to mess things up.

The two clowns who had the most impact on the development of the Auguste in the 20th century were probably Albert Fratellini and Lou Jacobs. As one of the famous Fratellini Brothers, Albert Fratellini created a character who was an in-between from one brother's classic White-face and another brother's tramp character. He also introduced the red nose, which has since become synonymous with clowns. Ringling Brothers circus clown, Lou Jacobs, developed the 'character' of the Auguste. They created the foundation of the modern Auguste.


Character Clown

The Hobo or Tramp clown is the most popular character clown, although character clowns can be police officers, women, or babies - any character at all. 

The Hobo usually has tattered clothes, a tattered hat, make-up which suggests he is unshaven, exaggerated features and a red nose. The generic Tramp character is 'down-on-his-luck'. The Tramp clown is an American creation. Charlie Chaplin as the silent 'Little Tramp' clown, brought laughter to millions worldwide through film. The Hobo may look similar, but knows that everything will turn out all right so is not unhappy about his situation. Red Skelton’s Freddy the Freeloader and Carol Burnett’s washerwomen are classic Hobo characters.

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A few Famous Clowns

Joseph Grimaldi

Grimaldi was one of the greatest English pantomimes. He first appeared in England in 1805. His clown, called 'Joey', specialised in the classic physical tricks, tumbling, pratfalls, and slapstick. He was known for his expressive face and body, and unique sense of comic timing. He performed in full-length pantomimes and developed the pantomime character of Clown. Grimaldi was famous and influential in his time.


Grock became king of clowns in the early 1900s. Swiss-born Adrien Wettach was a talented musician, who could play 24 instruments and speak many languages.  As Grock he developed a routine as a simpleton among musical instruments. He made his debut in Fiame Wetzel's circus in 1894, and from 1906 to 1913 his partner was partner clown Antonet. He retired in 1954.

"The genius of clowning is transforming the little, everyday annoyances, not only overcoming, but actually transforming them into something strange and terriffic… it is the power to extract mirth for millions out of nothing and less than nothing." - Grock

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin brought laughter to millions around the world as the silent 'Little Tramp' clown. From England originally, Charlie joined the Karno troupe working alongside his brother Sidney and Stan Laurel touring the United States' vaudeville circuit. He left the stage to join Mack Sennet's Keystone Films Studio. With Keystone films, he made eight films in two months. He developed his tramp character and became a world-wide star.

In 1915, Chaplin joined Essanay, with greater control over his short films. The Tramp, A Night in the Show, and The Immigrant were a few of them.  With Mutual he made The Floorwalker, The Vagabond, The Pawnshop, Behind the Screen, and The Rink.

The Kid was his first full-length movie and an incredible success in 1921. It was followed by one of the classics of the silent era - The Gold Rush.  Modern Times was his last ‘tramp’ film in 1932. City Lights and The Great Dictator followed later.

"A day without laughter is a day wasted.” – Charlie Chaplin

Red Skelton

One of America's greatest clowns, Red Skelton, starred in at least 23 movies, and had his own radio and television shows. During his television career, every week millions of people saw his tramp clown character Freddy the Freeloader, as well as his other clown characters Clem Kadiddlehopper and Sheriff Deadeye.

His father, a clown with the Hagenbeck & Wallace Circus died before his birth. By the time he was sixteen, Red had also clowned in the same circus, and acted, sang, or did stand up comedy in medicine shows, minstrel shows, and on board a river showboat. He entered Vaudeville, and by 1936 he had made it to Broadway. 

"If some day you're not feeling well, you should remember some little thing I have said or done and if it brings a smile to your face or a chuckle to your heart then my purpose as a clown has been fulfilled." - Red Skelton

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Hospital Clowning

Patch Adams, as a young doctor in the 70s, began clowning for hospital patients.

Robin Williams portrayed him in the Hollywood film 'Patch Adams'. Today Patch is in demand as a speaker around the world and is still raising money for his dream of a free hospital. Patch regularly accompanies groups of clowns to Russia and world trouble-spots.

Big Apple Circus established the Clown Care Unit in New York in 1987. This was the first structured hospital clown program. Today, while the focus is still New York hospitals, programmes have been set up in other US hospitals.

Theodora Foundation is based in Switzerland and has established hospital clown programs in many countries including South Africa, Hong Kong and Belorussia.

There are many hospital clowning program around the world, including Clini-Clowns in Austria, le Rire Medicine in France, Doctors of Joy in Brazil and Fools for Health in Canada.

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Clown Training

Annie Stainer's Total Theatre School of Physical Theatre, Perth

Total Theatre is an exciting and innovative school at the forefront of Physical Theatre Training, offering professional one and two-year intensive performance-based courses, with an emphasis on physical theatre and the creation of original work.

The diversity and flexibility of the training allows students to explore a wide range of physical theatre performance skills whilst creating a safe and nurturing environment, in which each individual can develop their creative vision at their own pace. Students have the opportunity to create a repertoire of individual and ensemble work, participate in community events, and perform in new original works. Training includes: Creative Movement, Theatre, Mime, Feldenkrais, Mask, Improvisation, Dance, Circus Arts, Voice, Singing, Text, Scriptwriting, Stage Combat, Martial Arts, Clowning, Percussion, Commedia dell'Arte and Aerial Skills.

The Director, international performer Annie Stainer, has performed in ensembles with Steven Berkoff, Lindsay Kemp and David Bowie. For six years Annie was Head of Movement at the Western Australian Academy Of Performing Arts, School of Theatre.

Go to http://www.totaltheatre.com.au/totaltheatre/   for more details.

Therapeutic Clowning Workshops

Introduction to Therapeutic Clown Practice in a Health Care Setting workshops are held regularly in Canada.

Go to www.sickkids.ca/ProgramsandServices/Therapeutic-Clown-Program for more detail.

The International School of Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris

Teaches control of gesture and movement through melodrama, human comedy, tragedy, buffoon and clown. “The red nose is the neutral mask of comedy.”

Go to www.ecole-jacqueslecoq.com for more detail.

Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre in California USA

Intense physical training to develop the expressive capabilities of the actor, the study of mask, clown, melodrama and commedia.

Go to www.dellarte.com for more detail.

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Useful Links




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