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City Lights: Clowning around, with purpose

Learning to be a clown is more than just plastering on a red bulbous nose; it can be serious, intuitive, internal work.

May 20, 2013|By Michael Miller
  • Marcus Munguia and Haley Rubin improvise during Eli Simon's "Art of Clowning" workshop at UC Irvine.
Marcus Munguia and Haley Rubin improvise during Eli Simon's… (Photo by Tommy Pham )

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.

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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:

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