3.1 Some Basic Notions

In the introduction to her encyclopaedia of clowns and tricksters Christen highlights some of the problems of the use of these two terms. (The term ‘trickster’ was first used in Brinton’s 1868 work ‘Myths of the New World’ to describe the complex figure of Native American mythology and folklore (Christen 1998:ix, Pelton 1980:6).) She notes that Makarius distinguishes between the two terms by suggesting that tricksters are mythic figures and clowns their earthly counterparts. (in Christen p.ix), but Christen herself gives an example which uses ‘clown’ in both areas.

Although in western cultures the term clown may conjure up images of carnivals and foolish characters running around beeping horns…[i]n other cultures clowns hold privileged positions in religious ceremonies as well as important places in myths of origin. For example, the K’apyo Shure clowns of the Isleta Pueblo in the south-western US used their horns to lead people from the underworld out of darkness and into the upper world of lightness.
(p.xiii)

She also points out the changing attitudes of scholars to these characters over the years, with some earlier studies seeing cultures that possessed such figures as primitive, inferior, or childlike e.g. Radin (1956), Jung (1956), while others wish to get rid of these terms altogether as they mask and misrepresent the uniqueness of the original characters e.g. Beidelman (1960/70s) and Sabbotocci (all in Christen p.x). Babcock-Abrahams (1970/80s)), on the other hand, sees the terms as expansive categories and she believes they, along with ‘jester’ and ‘fool’, cover a wide variety of cultural types from around the world (in Christen p.xii). Williams, too, makes such connections: ‘the fool and the trickster, far from being utterly separate identities, resemble each other to a marked degree…[and] if not exactly the same animal…show signs of belonging to the same species’ (1979:1). Recent studies which use play and laughter as analytical categories through which tricksters and clowns can be examined and interpreted e.g. Hynes and Doty (1995) seek to counter the seriousness of western intellectualism which can lead to a mistreatment or dismissal of such figures (in Christen p.xii). Janik (1998) discusses a wider range of terms - fool, clown, jester, joker, buffoon, trickster – and notes that the most common present-day meanings see ‘jesters as verbally witty, buffoons as stupid, clowns as common circus figures providing visual foolery, and fools as dupes’ (p.2). That is, such terms can be used to describe a different set of characters. However, in line with the general tenor of this dissertation, all these terms – ‘clown’, ‘trickster’, ‘fool’, ‘jester’, and others – will be used inclusively as examples of ‘the comic figure’. This is not to indiscriminately conflate them but to point up their common thread of being performers who amuse.

It is clear that such figures are distributed throughout most if not all cultures (Christen’s encyclopaedia lists over 180 such figures from all parts of the world) and that one of their primary functions is to elicit amusement. Pelton has it that trickster figures ‘appear in all parts of the world in hunting and fishing, pastoral and agricultural societies at every stage of religious development’ (1980:5). With a broad stroke Radin sweeps across a huge expanse of time and space when discussing the trickster myth:

We encounter it among the ancient Greeks, the Chinese, the Japanese, and in the Semitic world. Many of the trickster’s traits were perpetuated in the figure of the medieval jester, and have survived right up to the present day in the Punch-and-Judy plays and in the clown.
(1956:ix)

Pelton is clear that in the attempts to create ‘a secular sacredness’ and to make the world human the trickster often fails and his failures inspire amusement. Ricketts would add, ‘in laughing at him men are set free for they are laughing at themselves…and in the end he saves them through their laughter’ (in Pelton 1980:9-10). Jung also comments that ‘the trickster has been a source of amusement right down to civilised times, where he can still be recognised in the carnival figures of Pulcinella and the clown’ (1956:204). And for Radin also, amusement has always been a primary function of the trickster:

Laughter, humour, and irony permeate everything Trickster does. The reaction of the audience in aboriginal societies to both him and his exploits is prevailingly one of laughter tempered with awe. There is no reason for believing this is secondary or a late development.
(1956:x)

Such figures invariably have a complex character. They often do things backwards, out of sequence or use illusion and deception to get their way (Christen p.xiii). The Native American trickster can also be so unconscious of his own self that his body is not a unity so that his two hands can fight with one another, he can use his anus as an eye to keep watch while he sleeps, become a woman and bear children, and use his penis to make all kinds of useful plants. ‘This is a reference to his original nature as Creator, for the world is made from the body of god’ (Jung 1956:203). As well as being the slayer of monsters, the thief of daylight, fire, water, and the teacher of cultural skills and customs, the trickster

is also a prankster who is grossly erotic, insatiably hungry, inordinately vain, deceitful and cunning towards friends as well as foes; a restless wanderer upon the face of the earth; and a blunderer who is often the victim of his own tricks and follies.
(Ricketts in Pelton p.7)

In Europe such figures also have an ancient tradition. Brown cites Hephaestus, Hermes, and Prometheus from Greek mythology and notes that they ‘have different characters as well as different roles in myth, they all revel in trickery and cunning. They are all creative, bringing forth marvellous inventions, including language, music, mathematics, agriculture, and many other boons to humans’ (1998:244).

In an attempt to bring order to such complexity, Janik, in her discussion of ‘fools’, offers a taxonomy. She recognises the dangers in this – oversimplification, inflexibility etc.– and so insists that these categories will overlap in some cases.

1. The wise fool.

A. perceives and acknowledges his own weaknesses and desires
B. perceives and acknowledges the weaknesses and desires of others

2. The dupe or victim.

A. perceives and acknowledges his own desires
B. does not perceive the weaknesses and desires of others

3. The trickster or evil-doer

A. does not perceive his own weaknesses
B. perceives and acknowledges the weaknesses and desires of others

4. The innocent or holy fool.

A. does not perceive his own weaknesses and desires
B. does not perceive the weaknesses and desires of others.

This is a comprehensive formulation and one which at a stroke can be used to make significant comic connections across cultures and times. For example, this categorisation is almost the same as that of the four stock characters from the Atellan farce which preceded and inspired Plautus in ancient Rome. (Godfrey 1998:344) These were: Maccus, the natural fool or innocent (Janik’s 4), Bucco, the glutton and Dossennus, the cunning hunchback who tricks others (both Janik’s 3), and Pappus, the naïve old man (Janik’s 2). Janik’s own example of her four categories in action, however, comes not from a time BCE but from 20th century America – a Marx Brothers film. In such you have, in order, 1. The wise fool, Groucho, ‘who knows his own acquisitiveness as well as the fanciful desires of others’. 2. The dupe or victim, Margaret Dumont, ‘who understands only her own romantic feelings and not the world of avarice and trickery surrounding her’. 3. The trickster or evil-doer, Chico, ‘the trickster breaking the rules in order to gain a prize, perhaps a pretty girl, money, or huge piles of food’. 4. The innocent or holy fool, Harpo, ‘who does not know how to manipulate the world, but when he acts the world offers him success anyway’ (p.3).

Despite the complexity and contrariness of such figures (in some Native American tribes they are referred to as ‘contraries’ rather than ‘clowns’) they remain recognisable, says Jung, because they are a collective personification and not an individual outgrowth and so are ‘welcomed by the individual as something known to him’ (1956:201).

However, it would be misleading to believe that it is possible to simply extract the humorous aspect from these figures’ behaviours and imagine we still had the measure of them. The emphasis of this study is humour but the tricksters’ and clowns’ complexity is such that it is not always apparent to the outside observer precisely which aspects of their characters can be interpreted as humorous. For this reason we need to look in more detail at some specific examples. All of these come from the Native American cultures of the Sothwest United States (see Illustration 1).

Among the Zuni there are various clown societies, the Mudheads and the Neweekwe to name but two. The latter are more ill-tempered and fearless than the former yet are considered the wisest people in the pueblo. They are a curative society and membership is gained when someone (in fact, a male) with a stomach ailment seeks help from the Neweekwe Medicine Society. (There is a curative connection here with Kirby’s (1974) ideas about the shamanistic origins of popular entertainment.) ‘Neweekwe knowledge not only cures stomach aches but also enables clowns to eat any kind or amount of food or garbage, including excrement, and to engage in outrageous public behaviour’ (Tedlock 1992:13). Kirby also notes that in shamanistic performances, where there is an attempt to make the real ‘more real’ or ‘surreal’ in order to demonstrate ‘supernatural’ physical abilities, elements of either illusionary or real danger will be introduced. ‘It is for this reason that Zuni clowns will kill and dismember a dog or drink urine in the course of their activities’ (1974:14). Stevenson, making an ethnological report in 1904, provides even greater detail, observing that the Neweekwe ‘bite off the heads of living mice and chew them, tear dogs limb from limb, eat the intestines and fight over the liver like hungry wolves’ (in Jacobson 1997:73). (Tedlock, who lived with the Zuni for twenty years, calls her study of them ‘The Beautiful and The Dangerous’.)

clowns, San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico c.1935

Illus. 1. Clowns, San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico c. 1935. (Jacobson 1997).

While these may seem to be extreme and exceptional examples, it is not difficult to cite related scenes in comedies from our own culture. For example, the old staple of the inevitable consequences of the appearance of the specimen glass in the doctor’s surgery: according to John Lahr, the biggest single laugh in the history of the American stage – sixty-two seconds - came when his father, Bert Lahr, in a scene at the doctor’s, filled the glass with whiskey and handed it back to the doctor (in Jacobson p.75). We can also note the preferred breakfast drink of Harvey in BBC TV’s comedy ‘League of Gentleman’: ‘Full of nitrates and enzymes. A natural antibiotic’ (Dyson et al 1999). There are also numerous examples of cruelty to animals, for example, in such comedies as Monty Python’s ‘Holy Grail’ (farm animals used as missiles), ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ (squashed dogs), ‘There’s Something About Mary’ (electrocuted dog), or the catalogue of inadvertent atrocities perpetrated by the grossly incompetent vet, Dr. Chinnery, in (again) ‘League of Gentlemen’.

However, this is not to say that these performative events in the different societies mentioned have the same meaning for their respective audiences.. To understand them we need to be aware of what Douglas [1968] (1975) calls the ‘full pattern of relationships’ involved in each interaction. Without a full cultural contextualisation we cannot say that a Zuni clown biting the head off a mouse functions in Zuni culture the same way in which a cinematic or television dramatisation of, for example, a dog being squashed beneath a concrete block functions in our society. Similarly, Bakhtin notes the use of excrement and urine in European culture from ancient times – excrement throwing is described in Aeschylus’ ‘The Collector Of Bones’ – to such events as the medieval religious festival ‘The Feast Of Fools’, in which clergy used excrement instead of incense. He makes the point, however, that such uses were ambivalent and were intimately connected with the other lower bodily function of regeneration. If such an ‘essential link’ is not made, then the death-birth pairing loses its relation to the whole and excrement and urine ‘retain the merely negative aspect, and that which they represent (defecation, urination) acquires a trivial meaning, our own contemporary meaning of those words’ (1984:147-50). Nevertheless, we can note that all these events share the characteristics of having licensed transgressors involved in violent taboo-breaking in a form that is appropriate to the local context.

Fine, in his study of obscene joking across cultures, points to another function of such clowns, a point hinted at above by Tedlock in her discussion of Neweekwe performances. Fine notes that clowns express behaviours which many tribe members (at least unconsciously) would like to engage in: the Wakchumni clowns burlesque sexual intercourse, the Ponca clowns attempt to touch women’s genitals in broad daylight. All of this ‘relieves the pschodynamic pressure on the rest of the tribe’ (1976:138). It is not difficult to see that this concurs with the ideas of humour providing relief discussed in Section 1. But not all the clowns’ activities are comprehensible in terms of humour alone. Parsons and Beals studied the Mayo-Yaqui tribes and noted a wide variety of functions of their clowns.

In general the clowns have a punitive and policing function in ceremonial matters and through their licence in speech and song a somewhat similar function in domestic matters, ridicule being a strong weapon among the Pueblos…[Also] the clown groups have direct weather control and fertility functions. As scouts or war dance assistants the clowns have war dance functions. In short, through their police power, their magical power and their licence in conduct, all fear-inspiring characteristics, social regulation is an outstanding function of the clown groups.
(1934:449)

Nor need this hard edge of clowning be seen as exceptional. Jenkins reports the role of a clown figure at the head of a historic political march in Pretoria in 1992. Over 100,000 black demonstrators marched to the buildings housing the offices of President de Klerk where Nelson Mandela demanded majority rule. The clown wore the khaki uniform of the African National Congress’ military branch and carried a painted wooden toy machine gun. ‘The comic commando performed dazzling flips, rolls, and somersaults, but always managed to land in a combat-ready position with his machine gun ready to fire. His feistiness tickled the audience into laughter and applause’ (1998:420). Jenkins elsewhere notes the conscious use of political clowning by the San Francisco Mime Troupe in the 1960s and a continuation of that tradition into the 1980s and beyond by such groups as The Big Apple Circus, The Pickle Family Circus, and The Flying Karamazov Brothers, whose acts engage with ‘the tyranny of mass media, technological dehumanisation, political subterfuge, social alienation, [and] rampant consumerism’ (1988:xi). (The aim here is to highlight the socio-political functions of clowns within these respective societies and not to suggest that the meanings of these functions can be seen as being the same across these different cultures.)

Before moving on to look at the comic figure in history, it is worth lingering briefly to take note of an idea mentioned explicitly by Parsons and Beals above and implicitly by the other descriptions of comic figures, the idea of licence. It has been shown that the structural division of performance gives marked space and roles to both performer and audience. It is also now becoming clear that the performing comic figure’s role involves not simply the opportunity to appear before an audience but that this role also provides a licence to transgress, that is, to be publicly sexually explicit, eat excrement, kill dogs, be an idiot, cheat, lie and so on, activities which would normally induce social censure. We will have an opportunity to discuss in detail some of the problems of licence below in 5.1 and 5.2, a foretaste of which can be had from comedian Scott Capurro when he says, ‘it’s not my job to find anyone’s comfort zones. I don’t give a shit what people like, or think they like, or want to like’ (2000:138). It will seen that this issue will also have a role to play in the detailed discussion of the disputed utterance in Section 8.

The Comic Figure>

3.1 Some Basic Notions

3.2 The Comic Figure in History>

Contents>