Clown and Improv - Cousins of comedy

by Jeromaia Detto on 5 September, 2022 in Reviews, Shows

French master clown Phlippe Gaulier often says, “when people laugh your clown is near to you”. The great provocator usually speaks with unusual poetry using many metaphors and analogies, but in this instance, he is very clear and concise. 

As an improviser I was always intrigued about how laughter worked and what it meant. Why did they laugh? Was it what I said, what I did? Perhaps. It could have just as easily been what I didn’t say or didn’t do? It was always a source of mystery and part of my intrigue in comedy; Why are things funny?

photo: Jeromaia looks quizzically at the audience, wearing a pink party hat

I always had a soft spot for comedy. As a child, I was the one putting on silly shows at family gatherings, making up games and presenting them to an audience, once as a ten year old, even re-enacting the entire soundtrack of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut to some visiting Canadians we were hosting. I liked to have fun, be playful and got a thrill being in the spotlight. Something about people being happy and joyous was so alluring and addictive. As a teenager my ipod shuffle was full of stand up sets and joke songs from the likes of Tenacious D, South Park and ICP. I took drama throughout highschool which morphed into enrolling in some stage and screen courses when I was about 20. I was hoping to forge a path in the world of acting, but it quite never hit the spot. I hadn’t yet found what it was that gave me the buzz that I searched for. A year or so later, in 2013 I had a chance encounter with a theatresports show during UNSW Oweek. It was exhilarating to watch and I was hooked. The immediacy, the danger and the rush of problem solving and entertaining people. Two things I thrive on.  

I proceeded to consume as much comedy as I could, going to every improv workshop, seeing every possible show, and understanding every theatresports game. As I started to mature as an Improviser, I noticed that I enjoyed being very physical on stage and found joy in playful chaos. 

I soon became acquainted with the world of clown, a life-changing discovery. This artform was difficult in a new way. I couldn’t get away with clever word play or cheeky object work. It needed sincerity and honesty. It needed vulnerability. Three elements of performing that you can often get away with not fully exploring as an improviser. I was so enamoured by this new challenge that in 2016 I ran away to Paris to do a summer course at Ecole Philippe Gaulier.

And so began a voyage of constant comparison. Clown vs improv. Improv vs clown. 

Photo: Jeromaia in a gold suit and red bow tie grins at the audience, leaning on a microphone standAs an improviser you escalate the offer, build on it and 3-7-10 where possible. As a clown, it’s best to do the same thing again and again. Repetition is key. You can’t be sure what the audience is laughing at so don’t change it too much or you will flop.

As a clown you listen to the audience and follow them, no plot, no narrative, no worries. Play the moment and that is all. Don’t know too much. The audience doesn’t like it when you already know where you’re going. As an improviser it’s all about who, what, when, where!  Build the story, name your scene partner, think of a call back, tie it all together.  

Clowns don’t do well with constantly having ideas, that is often too intellectual. Improv however, thrives on offers and ideas being thrown around and built on.

One year later I embarked on an adventure to the windy city to study at iO Chicago for a summer intensive. Again things were flipped on their head. I was taught to endow, play the relationships and make grounded emotional choices, however I found myself caught in playing the moments with reckless abandon for where the scene was headed. Some may say this is selfish improv, playing outside of the circle of expectation and playing for the audience more than for the scene itself. 

Both artforms swirled in my head as I tried to figure it all out. All the while having the question of what is funny always pop up. In 2018 I had found myself sitting somewhere between both forms; loving the silliness and play of clown and also finding satisfaction in the strong premises and character work that can make improv so engaging. My debut solo show took elements of clown and sprinkled them onto partly improvised sketches which was a really exciting fusion to play with. I then ran away to France again, in 2019. I had more to figure out about clown and the application of its principles across other forms of theatre. Philippe runs a range of units of study, among them Greek Tragedy, Vaudeville, Mask Play, Melodrama, Neutral Mask, Shakespeare and more. Underpinning everything though is pleasure, freedom and play. Elements which are often so difficult to access in the adrenaline of being on stage.

As I’ve been on this journey of mine, I am still trying to figure out what is funny and why. All of the aforementioned examples between clown and improv are true and can give success, I’ve seen it done and I’ve had moments doing it myself. I am so grateful that I have found both these artforms. Both allow me to express myself creatively and comedically, and can complement each other extremely well. My improv training allows me to Yes and at lightning speed when i’m in the clown zone. Similarly, the honesty and humanity in clown breathes life into the human moments of improv, to help develop strong relationships and characters. Being constantly challenged while flipping between the two has also made me re-examine my practice in each artform and helped me break it down and understand why things are funny just a little bit more. There is of course still a way to go as we are always growing and being confronted by new ways of thinking. 

The common thread of it all for me though is simplicity. I can allow myself to get carried away and want to overcomplicate things. Be simple and let your spirit and your fun make moments funny. That’s the key. Have fun and play. Find your pleasure. Even if that is word play or creating a beautiful intricate narrative, even if it’s handing out tiny pot plants to people in the audience, spraying them all with water and getting the audience to sing to the plants. The key is pleasure. If you have pleasure then the audience will laugh and then your clown will be near to you.

Fancy taking a Course with Jeromaia Detto find out more here.