Category Archives: Clowns

American Clowns – Charlie Chaplin & Red Skelton

Charlie Chaplin

Clown charlie-chaplinCharlie 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

Clown - red skeltonOne 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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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 clown - paul-legrand--doublure-de-debureau---gaspard-felix-tournachonstraight 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-Clown fratellinistone 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 Clown  Charlie Chaplincharacter 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 Brief Clown History

Clown - roman - pointy hatThe 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 theClown - Italian 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 Clown - Frenchwhich 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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Clowning terminology



The Clown and the tightrope walker.

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.
  • 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.


Frameworks are the general outline of an act that clowns use to help them build out an act.[14] 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

A whiteface with extravagant clothes

“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 appearances 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.

Clown Outfits

  • Clown Hats
  • Wigs
  • Makeups
  • Clown Noses
  • Ruffle Collars
  • Color Suits
  • Baggy Pants
  • Big Shoes

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