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City Lights: Clowning around, with purpose

If you're old enough to have watched "Saturday Night Live" in the early 1990s, you may remember "Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey," a series of pseudo-philosophical musings set to soft music over pastoral backgrounds.

One classic read: "To me, clowns aren't funny. In fact, they're kinda scary. I've wondered where this started, and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad."

Perhaps since I haven't lost a parent to a homicidal Chuckles, I've never felt much one way or another about clowns. (Well, OK, the stuffed one in the movie "Poltergeist" freaked me out as a kid. But I've gotten over that.)

My wife has a favorite magazine cartoon in which a clown hands a little girl a balloon, then bends down and says, "But remember, you're responsible for your own happiness." Clowns, you see, are regular folks too.

Still, in all my years of clown-related indifference, I had never stopped to wonder what it was like to be actually one. So when UC Irvine's Claire Trevor School of the Arts hosted a clowning workshop at its first-ever Coup de Comedy Festival, I signed up for it on a whim. And truth be told, the experience was a little scary. It was to me, anyway — the audience did nothing but laugh, though whether it was with me or at me, I couldn't always tell.

Oh, I can't resist quoting Handey one more time: "I remember how, in college, I got that part-time job as a circus clown, and how the children would laugh and laugh at me. I vowed, then and there, that I would get revenge." Come on, how often do you hear such gems?

Anyway, earlier this month, the student comedy ensemble Improv Revolution lined up a weekend of workshops and seminars and enlisted professional comedians to run them. Eli Simon, who teaches at UC Irvine and has written a book titled "The Art of Clowning," hosted a workshop of the same name in Studio 4 on campus.

The cover of the second edition of Simon's book advertises "More Paths to Your Inner Clown." I didn't know I had an inner clown, but evidently, we all do — and the point of the two-hour workshop was to coax it out. As two dozen or so people, many of them sporting Improv Revolution T-shirts, gathered in the folding chairs at the back of the studio, Simon began by laying out the four basic rules of clowning. In order, they are:

1. When you put the red nose on, don't look at yourself in the mirror. Before each of us donned the sacred headwear, Simon led us behind a screen at the front of the studio and had us transform, so to speak, out of everyone's sight — including our own. It's a way of leaving your true self behind. More on that later.

2. No talking. Clowns must be silent (though not "mute," a word Simon declines to use because it evokes mimes instead).

3. Stay connected to the audience.

4. Stay in "yes" mode. Be eager to please and ready to follow orders.

Once the Clown Commandments were decreed, Simon called for volunteers to try their luck. I was among the last to go, so I had ample time to prepare. Each hopeful who stepped out from behind the screen, newly red-nosed, had a persona of some kind: flirtatious, giddy, sour, nervous, etc. At least each one was supposed to adopt a persona. When a clown's routine was done, Simon asked audience members to describe the act in one word. This exercise served as a test of how well the person had embodied the role.

Simon explained that there are two kinds of clowns — "in" clowns and "out" clowns, the former being confident and happy and the latter shy and awkward. Being an "out" clown, though, isn't a commentary on the performer. It merely describes a character portrayal, as when a confident, Oscar-winning actor plays a meek or reclusive person. In other words, my "out" clown can trump your "in" clown if I stay better connected. I told you levels of reality would pile up here.

Finally, it came time for my inner clown. Behind the screen, after I had slipped on the nose, Simon asked me to give a gesture indicating how I felt. Deprived of speech, I gave two thumbs up — and my clown persona was set. When I sauntered back around the screen, I entered "yes" mode and obeyed Simon's commands: smile, widen my eyes, peer in at the audience.

At one point, he told me to beckon the crowd to applaud. I made the "more" gesture with my fingers, then, just for fun, signaled abruptly for the cheers to stop. Asked to perform a magic trick, I pretended to pluck my reporter's notepad out of an audience member's ear. Clearly, I was an "in" clown, proud and relishing the spotlight.

Toward the end of the routine, though, my non-clown mind interfered. Simon ordered me to do an amazing trick, and since I couldn't think of one, I shrugged, rubbed my face and gave every non-verbal sign that I was stuck. And clearly, I was.

But as Simon explained in his critique a few minutes later, I was playing a brash, confident clown — which meant that my character, unable to do an amazing trick, would be inclined to execute a lame one and pretend that it was brilliant.

In other words, I came up short in my first clowning attempt because I wasn't good at pretending that I had more to offer than I really did. And aside from Hollywood, politics and journalism, I can't think of any other career path where that would be a problem.

MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at michael.miller@latimes.com or (714) 966-4617.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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