AskDefine | Define clown

Dictionary Definition



1 a rude or vulgar fool [syn: buffoon]
2 a person who amuses others by ridiculous behavior [syn: buffoon, merry andrew] v : act as or like a clown [syn: clown around, antic]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Clown



  • , /klaʊn/, /klaUn/
  • Rhymes: -aʊn


  1. A performance artist often associated with a circus and typically characterised by bright, oversized clothing, a red nose, face paint, and a brightly colored wig and who performs slapstick.
  2. A person who acts in a silly fashion.
  3. uncommon modern mythology A monster resembling a circus clown.
    In Stephen King's book It, and in the movie "Killer Klowns from Outer Space", clowns terrorize small towns.



performance artist working in a circus
person acting in a silly fashion
monster resembling a circus clown


  1. (also clown about (British) or clown around) To act in a silly fashion.

Derived terms




clown (plural: clowns)
  1. clown



  1. clown (artist)





Derived terms

Extensive Definition

distinguish Clowne Clowning is a form of entertainment that has appeared in some manner in virtually every culture, including the bushmen in Africa. In most cultures the clown is a ritual character associated with festival or rites of passage and is often very different from the most popular western form. In Europe, up until as late as the 19th century the clown was a typical everyday character, and often appeared in carnivals. The performance is symbolic of liminality - being outside the rules of regular society the clown is able to subvert the normal order, and this basic premise is contemporarily used by many activists to point out social absurdity.
During the 16th century the Commedia dell'arte also became a huge influence on perceptions of the clown in Europe, an influence which passed through pantomime, into vaudeville and on to the touring circuses of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Commedia took influences from the grotesque masked clowns of carnivals and mystery plays, and began in market places as a way to sell vegetables. It became incredibly popular throughout Europe amongst both the general public and the courts. The stock characters of the commedia originally included the Zanni - peasant clowns, Pantalone, the old Miser, Il Dottore - The Banal Doctor, and then grew from there to incorporate the Lovers, Arlecchino, Pedrolino, and Brighella, who have survived into the twentieth century in one form or another.

Clown types


It is important to note that a whiteface character does not always wear the classic whiteface makeup. Additionally, a character can wear traditional whiteface makeup and be an auguste.

Classic appearance

Traditionally, the whiteface clown uses "clown white" makeup to cover his or her entire face and neck with none of the underlying flesh color showing. In the European whiteface makeup, the ears are painted red. Features, in red and black, are delicate. He or she is traditionally costumed far more extravagantly than the other two clown types, sometimes wearing the ruffled collar and pointed hat which typify the stereotypical "clown suit".


The whiteface character-type is often serious, all-knowing (even if not particularly smart), bossy, and cocky. He is the ultimate authority figure. He serves the role of "straight-man" and sets up situations that can be turned funny.
Some circus examples include Pipo Sossman, François Fratellini (the Fratellini family), Felix Adler, Paul Jung, Harry Dann, Chuck Burnes, Albert White, Ernie Burch, Bobby Kaye, Jack and Jackie LeClaire, Joe and Chester Sherman, Keith Crary, Charlie Bell, Tim Tegge, Kenny Dodd, Frankie Saluto, Tammy Parrish, Pennywise, David Konyot (Circus Barum and The Toni Alexis trio) and Prince Paul Albert.



The auguste character-type is often an anarchist, a joker, or a fool. He is clever and has much lower status than the whiteface. Classically the whiteface character instructs the auguste character to perform his bidding. The auguste has a hard time performing the task given which leads to funny situations. Sometimes the auguste plays the role of an anarchist and purposefully has trouble following the whiteface's directions. Sometimes the auguste is confused or is foolish and is screwing up less deliberately.

The contra-auguste

The contra-auguste plays the role of the mediator between the whiteface character and the auguste character. He has a lower status than the whiteface but a higher status than the auguste. He aspires to be more like the whiteface and often mimics everything the whiteface does to try to gain approval. If there is a contra-auguste character, he often is instructed by the whiteface to correct the auguste when he is doing something wrong.

"Character clown"

The character clown adopts an eccentric character of some type, such as a butcher, a baker, a policeman, a housewife or hobo. Prime examples of this type of clown are the circus tramps Otto Griebling and Emmett Kelly. Red Skelton, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin would all fit the definition of a character clown.
The character clown makeup is a comic slant on the standard human face. Their makeup starts with a flesh tone base and may make use of anything from glasses, mustaches and beards to freckles, warts, big ears or strange haircuts.

American character clown types

The most prevalent character clown in the American circus is the hobo, tramp, or bum clown. There are subtle differences in the American character clown types. According to American circus expert Hovey Burgess, they are (in order of class):
  • The Hobo Migratory and finds work where he travels to.
  • The Tramp Migratory and does not work where he travels to.
  • The Bum Non-migratory and non-working.
Some circus examples include Barry Lubin, Tom Dougherty, Bill Irwin, David Shiner, Geoff Hoyle, John Gilkey, Peter Shub, Poodles Hanneford, Bluch Landolf, Larry Pisoni, John Lepiarz, Bobo Barnett, Happy Kellams, Fumagalli, Charlie Cairoli, Bebe, Jojo Lewis, Abe Goldstein, Rhum, David Larible, Kenny Raskin, Oleg Popov, Rik Gern and Bello Nock.

Joey, the Auguste and the ringmaster

In clown duos, Clowns often rely on the Joey & Auguste framework, or Manipulator/Victim. The Joey & Auguste Framework is often used widely in such comic works as Looney Toons. Simply put, the two clowns, who for whatever reason are competing for survival, desperately rely on each other; without each other, they live a meaningless, and perhaps even more perilous adventure. For example, when Sylvester finally catches Tweety Bird (or thinks he does) he becomes so ridden with guilt that he nearly commits suicide.
The Ringmaster relationship is the addition of an ur-manipulator, or ur-victim to this chemistry. This often takes the form of a mutual enemy or nemesis. An example of this situation might be as follows:
A husband comes home late, he's drunk, and has a collar covered in lipstick. His wife wants to know where he's been, and a manipulator-victim relationship occurs. Suddenly their child enters the scene, and the dynamic changes in an attempt to avoid traumatizing him/her. The child wants to know why there's a strange man in their bedroom, and the manipulator-victim dymnamic shifts during the next argument. Then it turns out that the child has constructed this elaborate ruse in order to steal cookies and watch late-night TV without notice, giving him ur-manipulator status.
This is an example of a ringmaster situation. Clowns in the ringmaster position are often character clowns, where Joey and Auguste duos are typically made up of a Whiteface Clown and an Auguste.

Other types

Native American clowning

Many Native Tribes have a history of Clowning. The Canadian Clowning method developed by Richard Pochinko and furthered by his former apprentice, Sue Morrison, combines European and Native American clowning techniques.
In this tradition, masks are made of clay while the creator's eyes are closed. A mask is made for each direction of the medicine wheel. During this process, the clown creates a personal mythology which explores his or her personal Experiences and Innocenses.


A rodeo clown is a cowboy, or animal wrangler, dressed in wild costumes — almost always oversized and consisting of loose fitting layers of clothing to protect them from, and to distract, rodeo bulls, broncos, etc. The looseness of the layers allows a rodeo clown to shed portions of their attire in the event of its being snagged -- as on an enraged bull's horn.

Commedia dell'Arte

There are two distinct types of clown characters, which originated in Commedia dell'Arte but which still hold some favor today, Pierrot and Arlecchino''.


The Pierrot, or "French clown", derived from the commedia dell'arte character Pedrolino - the youngest actor of the troupe, deadpan and downtrodden. Although Pedrolino appeared without mask, Pierrot usually appears in whiteface, typically with very little other color on the face. Like Arlechinno, Pedrolino's character changed enormously with the rising popularity of pantomime in the late 19th century, becoming Pierrot. This clown character prefers black and white or other a simple primary color in his or her costume. (le Pierrot is often female, and has also been called "Pirouette" or "Pierrette". When Bernard Delfont was made a life peer, he chose "Pierrot and Pierrette" as the heraldic supporters of his coat of arms.).
The tragic Robert Hunter song "Reuben and Cerise" mentions Pirouette twice, in symbolic colors:
...Cerise was dressing as Pirouette in white
when a fatal vision gripped her tight
Cerise beware tonight...
Cerise is Reuben's "true love", but Ruby Claire was a temptress:
...Sweet Ruby Claire at Reuben stared
At Reuben stared
She was dressed as Pirouette in red
and her hair hung gently down...
Both women have names which translate as "red", but Reuben's true love is dressed in pure white. The other, to whom he played his fateful song, is the "lady in red." This symbolism might imply that Reuben was Pierrot's companion, Arlecchino:


Harlequin, or Arlecchino, a character originally from the Commedia dell'Arte, is a "motley" clown. In the Commedia, Arlecchino always carries a cane with which to strike the other performers, although this cane is normally taken from him by the other performers and used against him. This is believed to be the origin of the slapstick form of comedy. A slapstick (battacio in Italian), is a prop with two flat flexible wooden pieces mounted in parallel so that the two sticks slap together when the implement is struck, causing a slapping sound, exaggerating the effect of a comedic blow. Despite the slapstick, Arlecchino is not malicious, but mischievous, the slapstick being a classic example of carnivalesque phallic imagery (see also the commedia masks' noses). Like a cross between the characters of Puck and Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Arlecchino is nimble and adept at the same time as being clumsy and dim, and is normally the 'messenger' character in a comedy — the catalyst for mayhem. Arlecchino has a female counterpart, Arlecchina, or Rosetta, but more often he is in love with the character of Columbina, a straightforward and intelligent maid, who is usually given the prologue and epilogue. Arlecchino has other derivatives with slightly different features: Traccagnino, Bagattino, Tabarrino, Tortellino, Naccherino, Gradelino, Mezzettino, Polpettino, Nespolino, Bertoldino, Fagiuolino, Trappolino, Zaccagnino, Trivellino, Passerino, Bagolino, Temellino, Fagottino, Fritellino, Tabacchino, whose names could all be considered funny-sounding names, even to an Italian. Arlecchino's name is probably derived from "hellech" plus the diminutive suffix "-ino", meaning little devil. In the same way, "Trufflino" is "Little Truffler", Trivellino is (Arlecchino's) "Little Brother", and so on. The Harlequin often loses much of Arlecchino's character in pantomime, as he becomes more of a ballet character, to a large extent stripped of dialogue and subversive content.


In the circus, a clown might perform another circus role:
  • Walk a tightrope, a highwire, a slack rope, or a piece of rope on the ground, though in the last case, the predictably unpredictable clown might be just as likely to wrestle around on the ground with it, as if it were a boa constrictor.
  • Ride a horse, a zebra, a donkey, an elephant, or even an ostrich.
  • Substitute himself in the role of "lion tamer".
  • Act as "emcee", from M.C. or Master of Ceremonies, the preferred term for a clown taking on the role of "Ringmaster".
  • "Sit in" with the orchestra, perhaps in a "pin spot" in the center ring, or from a seat in the audience.
  • Anything any other circus performer might do. It is not uncommon for an acrobat, a horse-back rider, or a lion tamer to secretly stand in for the clown, the "switch" taking place in a brief moment offstage.

Clowning frameworks

Frameworks are the general outline of an act that clowns use to help them build out an act. Frameworks can be loose, including only a general beginning and ending to the act, leaving it up to the clown's creativity to fill in the rest, or at the other extreme a fully developed script that allows very little room for creativity.
Shows are the overall production that a clown is a part of, it may or may not include elements other than clowning, such as in a circus show. In a circus context, clown shows are typically made up of some combination of Entrées, Side dishes, Clown Stops, Track Gags, Gags and bits.

Gags, bits and business

"Business" is the individual motions the clown uses, often used to express the clown's character. A "gag" is a very short piece of clown comedy which when repeated within a bit or routine may become a "running gag". Gags may be loosely defined as "the jokes clowns play on each other". Bits are the clown's sketches or routines made up of one or more gags either worked out and timed before going on stage or impromptu bits composed of familiar improvisational material. A gag may have a beginning, a middle and an end to them, or they may not. Gags can also refer to the prop stunts/tricks or the stunts that clowns use, such as a squirting flower.


Entrées are feature clowning acts lasting 5-10 minutes. They are typically made up of various gags and bits, and usually use a clowning framework. Entrées almost always end with a blow-off. (The blow-off is the comedic ending of a show segment, bit, gag, stunt or routine.)
Side dishes are shorter feature acts. Side dishes are essentially shorter versions of the Entrée, typically lasting 1 - 3 minutes. Side dishes are typically made up of various gags and bits, and usually use a clowning framework. Side dishes almost always end with a blow-off.


Clown Stops or interludes are the brief appearance of clowns while the props and rigging are changed. These are typically made up of a few gags or several bits. Clown Stops almost always end with a blow-off. Clown stops will always have a beginning, a middle and an end to them.These are also called reprises or run-ins by many and in today's circus they are an art form in themselves, originally they were bits of "business" usually parodying the act that had preceded it, If for instance there had been a wire walker the reprise would involve two chairs with a piece of rope between and the clown trying to imitate the artiste by trying to walk between them with the resulting falls and cascades bringing laughter from the audience. Today they are far more complex and in many modern shows the clowning is a thread that links the whole show together .

Prop stunts

Among the more well-known clown stunts are: squirting flower; the "too-many-clowns-coming-out-of-a-tiny-car" stunt; doing just about anything with a rubber chicken, tripping over ones own feet (or an air pocket or imaginary blemish in the floor), or riding any number of ridiculous vehicles or "clown bikes". Individual prop stunts are generally considered to be individual bits.

Amateur clowning

There are lots of amateurs practicing clowning skills and appearance. Improvisation and imitations of famous clowns are common for amateur clowns. While it is usually poor (and could be considered even blasphemy), a piece of artistic sense can sometimes be found even in children animators. It is not too expensive for amateur clown to lease costume, and even home makeup (except for the white color) will do an attractive effect for the spectators.
Private costume parties usually have at least one amateur clown present at the event and, even with a few cheap clown tricks, there are always plenty of joyful receptions for the character.

Fear of clowns

Some people find clowns disturbing rather than amusing. It is not uncommon for children to be afraid of disguised, exaggerated, or costumed figures — even Santa Claus. Ute myths feature a cannibalistic clown monster called the Siats.
Clown costumes tend to exaggerate the facial features and some body parts, such as hands and feet. This can be read as monstrous or deformed as easily as it can be read as comical.
The irrational fear of clowns is known as coulrophobia. Some have suggested that a fear of clowns may stem from early childhood experience, when infants begin to process and make sense of facial features. The significant aberrations in a clown's face may frighten a child so much that they carry this phobia throughout their adult life.
It can also be said one's response to a clown might depend on where it is seen. At a circus or a party, a clown is normal and may easily be funny. The same clown knocking on one's front door at sunset is more likely to generate fear or distress than laughter or amusement. This effect is summed up in a quote often attributed to actor Lon Chaney, Sr.: "There is nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight." In the Space To Care study aimed at improving hospital design for children, researchers from the University of Sheffield polled 250 children regarding their opinions on clowns; all 250 children in the study, whose ages ranged between four and sixteen, reported that they found clowns frightening and disliked clowns as part of hospital decor.
The British arts and music festival Bestival discarded its 2006 clown theme because many adult ticketholders were afraid of clowns.

Further reading

  • It by Stephen King
  • I'm In Love With A Clown Named Joe By Adam Clark
  • My Poor Clown Friend By Scottie Pinker
  • Poor Clown by Charlie Rivel
  • Don't Be Clowin' Around By Kayla Alberstett
  • Clowning... or Cloning? By Garrett Thomas
  • Behind My Greasepaint by Coco
  • Bert Williams - A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian by Eric Ledell Smith
  • The Book Of Clown by George Speaight
  • Bring On The Clowns by Beryl Hugil
  • Clown, My Life In Tatters and Smiles by Emmett Kelly and F. Beverly Kelly
  • The Clown In Times (Volumes 1-6) by Bruce Johnson
  • Clowns by Douglas Newton
  • Clowns by John Towsen
  • Clowns Of The Hope - Tradition Keepers and Delight Makers by Barton Wright
  • Felix Adler by Anne Aull Bowber
  • The Fool and His Scepter by William Willeford
  • Fools and Jesters At The English Court by John Southworth
  • Greasepaint Matadors - The Unsung Heroes of Rodeo by Jeanne Joy Hartnagle-Taylor
  • Grimaldi - King of Clowns by Richard Findlater
  • Grock - King of Clowns by Grock
  • Here Come The Clowns by Lowell Swortzell
  • Jest In Time: A Clown Chronology by Bruce Johnson
  • Life's A Lark by Grock
  • A Ring, A Horse And A Clown by John H. McConnell
  • Russian Clown by Oleg Popov
  • The Tramp Tradition by Bruce Johnson
  • Clown Girl by Monica Drake
  • sociological work on the fool: Anton Zijderveld Reality in a looking-glass
  • Barbara Swain Fools and Folly (New York, Columbia University Press, 1932)
  • Enid Welsford The fool: his social and literary history [1935] (1966)
  • William Willeford The fool and his scepter 1969
  • Ron Jenkins Subversive laughter *Maxwell Henrie the pantless cowboy/clown
  • In A Dark Place By Steven Shiverdecker. A book about a grotesque clown that terrorizes a small town.
clown in Bulgarian: Клоун
clown in Catalan: Pallasso
clown in Czech: Klaun
clown in Welsh: Clown
clown in German: Clown
clown in Spanish: Payaso
clown in Esperanto: Klaŭno
clown in Persian: دلقک
clown in French: Clown
clown in Indonesian: Badut
clown in Italian: Clown
clown in Hebrew: ליצן
clown in Hungarian: Bohóc
clown in Dutch: Clown
clown in Japanese: 道化師
clown in Occitan (post 1500): Pantre
clown in Polish: Klaun
clown in Portuguese: Palhaço
clown in Russian: Клоун
clown in Simple English: Clown
clown in Finnish: Klovni
clown in Swedish: Clown
clown in Chinese: 小丑

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Babbitt, Columbine, Hanswurst, Harlequin, Pantalone, Pantaloon, Philistine, Polichinelle, Pulcinella, Punch, Punchinello, Scaramouch, acrobat, aerialist, apple knocker, arriviste, ass, banana, bareback rider, be foolish, be stupid, blockhead, blunderer, blunderhead, boor, born fool, botcher, bounder, bourgeois, bucolic, buffo, buffoon, bumbler, bumpkin, bungler, burlesquer, cad, caper, caricaturist, churl, circus artist, clod, clodhopper, clodknocker, clot, clown around, comedian, comic, country bumpkin, cut up, cutup, dolt, doodle, egregious ass, epicier, epigrammatist, equestrian director, equilibrist, farceur, farmer, figure of fun, flier, fool, fool around, frivol, fumbler, funnyman, gag writer, gagman, gagster, galoot, gawk, get funny, go haywire, gowk, groundling, guttersnipe, harlequin, hayseed, hick, high-wire artist, hillbilly, hooligan, horse around, humorist, ignoramus, ill-bred fellow, invite ridicule, ironist, jack-pudding, jackass, jerk, jester, joker, jokesmith, jokester, juggler, klutz, lampooner, lion tamer, looby, lout, low fellow, lubber, lummox, lunatic, madcap, merry-andrew, milksop, mime, mooncalf, motley, motley fool, mountebank, mucker, mummer, nouveau riche, oaf, ox, parodist, parvenu, peasant, perfect fool, pickle-herring, play the buffoon, play the fool, prankster, provincial, punner, punster, quipster, reparteeist, ribald, ringmaster, rough, roughneck, rowdy, rube, ruffian, rustic, satirist, schmuck, slack-rope artist, slouch, slubberer, snake charmer, softhead, sop, stupid ass, sword swallower, tightrope walker, tomfool, trapeze artist, trifle, tumbler, upstart, vulgarian, vulgarist, wag, wagwit, wisecracker, wit, witling, yahoo, yokel, zany
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