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A Pygmy Walks Into A Bar

Everyone needs a laugh. The need, like religion and magic, seems to fulfill some deep-seated urge in the human psyche. The benefits may even be physiological: in a recent study at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, scientists discovered that because of its healthy effect on blood vessels, laughter may help prevent heart disease. It’s probably not wise to swap the gym for sitcoms, but you don’t need a doctor to tell you that laughter is the best medicine.

4,500 years ago, during Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty, Pharaoh Dadkeri-Assi seemed to think so. He bought a pygmy dancer by the name of Danga from a merchant, with the guarantee that the small fellow “would delight”. And delight he did, because Danga’s fame as history’s first court jester has outlived even many of the pyramids, and every story about fools and clowns begins with him.

Guests Are Just Parasites

A long line of fools can be drawn from little Danga straight to Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, even to rubber-faced jokers like Jim Carrey. The story picks up over five centuries later, in 300 B.C.E., when, to break the monotony of conquest, wealthy Hellenic potentate Alexander the Great was said to enjoy a steady diet of stand-ups reading aloud from joke books. While that kind of act wouldn’t fly today, the entertainers sharing the bill with these jokers may seem more familiar: wandering troubadours called parasites, which, tellingly, is Greek for “guests”.

Skilled in repartee, tumbling, tricks and mimicry, a parasite would sing for his supper (literally), enjoying a freedom of expression not available to other subjects.   Hiding behind a rude, offensive, and irreverent character, he would play the part of the “Wise Fool”—a thinly veiled version of his real self—speaking critically of the king, while never getting punished for the royal diss. The trick lay in wrapping the truth in a joke—wicked, ribald, and often improvised. Nice work if you can get it. Ask any stand-up comic, a modern version of the parasite, “feeding” off our flaws, and most often in language unfit for print.

Fools Rush In

Freedom of speech for the Wise Fool was near universal. Further east to China, court jesters had been thriving for over 1,000 years. And while Alexander was getting roasted in Macedon, some clown named Yu Tze started shooting his mouth off to Emperor Shih Huang-Ti, cajoling him to forgo painting the Great Wall. The massive construction project had already cost thousands of laborers their lives, and this new design enhancement promised to take many more. Yu Tze must have hit the royal funny bone, because the Emperor quickly changed his tune, and the Great Wall remains free of paint to this day. You can thank a clown for that, and that’s no joke.

Another of history’s famous fools was Nasreddin Hodja aka “The Turkish Jester”, whose 12th Century insults, aphorisms, and parables are legendary in the Islamic world. Once, when his king was crying in a mirror over his lost looks, Nasreddin started crying even bigger tears, complaining that his pain was even greater because he had to gaze upon the king “all the time”. The one about the unsightly woman with the veil—a medieval Turkish version of “Take my wife — please”—is probably what got him the gig.   The insult that comes veiled (pardon the pun) by a punchline is precisely how jokers like Nasreddin got to play the fool, because straight talk would most certainly have cost them their heads.

Please Pass the Toilet Paper

While Nasreddin was making his bones in the Bosporus, toplining Northern Europe was his Medieval German counterpart, Till Eulenspiegel, a notorious Trickster cum Merry Prankster who targeted hypocrisy, vice and greed. Till revolutionized the clown’s calling by being an equal opportunity offender—he went after everyone, not just royals.

In High German, Till Eulenspiegel means “owl mirror”, which could be taken as “wise reflection”, that is, one who holds the mirror up to human folly. But in Low German, the name reads T’ul Spegel, which translated, approximates the deed performed by toilet paper. Given this clown’s crass humor, the scatological version of his name seems far more apt.

Though some doubt Till and Nasreddin’s actual existence as people, whether they lived or not is immaterial. As people have the need to laugh, so Turks and Germans in the Middle Ages may have had the need to create characters like them: hovering on the cusp of decency, often crossing the line, taking what every Wise Fool needs—license—and lacerating laughing listeners, high or low, with the truth.

The Pope Walks into a Cantina

In 1520 C.E., when Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez graced the Aztec nation with his benevolence, he was surprised to find that Montezuma’s court included jesters similar to those in the courts of Europe. Though it’s safe to assume (based on his body count) that the Spaniard lacked a good sense of humor, Aztec fools, dwarf clowns, and hunchbacked buffoons were among the treasures he brought back to Pope Clement VII. These well-traveled clowns probably had a thing or two to say about what they saw on their journey. If the Pope spoke Aztec (a funny thought), you can be sure that their European tour (let alone their lives) would have been cut short. Your Holiness, did you hear the one about smallpox? Never mind.

Indeed, as seems to be the case everywhere in the world, and throughout history, most Native American tribes had some kind of clown character, who along with their shamans, played an important part in religious and social life, and were believed to be healers. These tribes didn’t need medical studies to know the therapeutic power of a joke.

Slap That Shtick

While the brave Cortez was busy moonlighting as a New World talent agent, dominating European theater in the 16th Century were clowns in the tradition of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, an improvisational art based on stock characters, most often roguish, clever servants plotting against the masters. Cirque du Soleil created a billion-dollar industry resurrecting the same subversive characters, lambasting pomposity, selfishness and greed.

One of the Commedia’s stock rogues, the Harlequin or Arlecchino (the name deriving from “little devil”), went on to become a featured character in Italian and English theater. Simultaneously adept and dim, mischievous but not malicious, this fellow is identified by his whiteface, pixie hat (ass ears), and “slapstick”, a twin-headed stick that made an exaggerated “slap” when hitting another character. Three Stooges, anyone? Harlequin traded in carnivalesque phallic imagery, and was a catalyst for anarchy and mayhem, and like the racy R-rated romps of our day, audiences could not get enough.

Without the Little Devil, there would not have been the first circus clown, Billy Buttons, created by Englishman Philip Astley, for his circus in 1768, the very first.   An inept equestrian, a tailor of all things, Billy’s pratfall-bound attempt to ride a horse to a nearby election has been performed in circuses for hundreds of years.   Most of us have seen some version of it. Prat falling to mount a horse makes brilliant sense. But risking life and limb to go vote for some clown? Maybe the joke’s on us.

Funny (Mutton) Bones

Modern clowns owe their greatest due to Englishman Joseph Grimaldi, who elevated the mop-haired whiteface clown (originally, one of Harlequin’s victims) to a leading character in its own right. Premiering in “Mother Goose at Christmas 1805”, Grimaldi’s character, Joey, was a one-man Roadrunner cartoon, with chase scenes, comic violence, and feats of bizarre gluttony and thievery, in which pies, legs of mutton and dozens of clams would vanish into his bottomless gullet and pockets, recalling the immortal pranks of Harpo Marx. Out of Grimaldi’s hapless, loveable Joey eventually grew the Tramp or Hobo character, most famously embodied by all-time champion of the Little Guy, Charlie Chaplin, whose ubiquitous cane can be traced straight back to Harlequin’s slap stick, also known as a “tickle stick”. Chaplin’s sly, subversive routines tickle our funny bones to this day, suggesting that stuffed shirts and bullies getting their due never gets old.

Most cultures over the centuries have produced their own clown characters, performing almost identical functions as anarchic fools skilled in the art of pantomime, mimicry, and chaos. There’s Bobo in Spain; Kartala in Bali; Nibharkin in Burma; Pierrot in France; and Pickle Herring in Holland, to name a few. The need for a punch line, often at our own expense, is in our blood, and if the scientists are right, our blood is healthier for it.

Fear of Clowns

And while the clown archetype has transformed over the centuries, from dancing pygmy to bumbling horse rider, to tramp, vaudevillian, and arch put-down artist, one aspect remains constant: the Fool is no fool, and he (most often a he) takes license to tell anyone, particularly people of power, the truth. The Jester will make fun, but in that fun, will expose lies, injustice, greed and cruelty, always to the delight of kids.

Perhaps therein lies a fix. Send in the clowns to Washington, and in the spirit of German trickster, T’ul Spegel (whose ambiguous name carries two distinct meanings), have them use their arsenals to wipe the slate clean. Then, guaranteed, we’ll see a sudden rash of Coulrophobia—more commonly called Fear of Clowns.