The Jazz Of Clowns [WAAMN Chapter 4.4]
It’s hard to understand how clowns are like musicians—until you interview a professional.
This is your weekly installment of my new book, We Are All Musicians Now. To make sure you don’t miss future serializations, subscribe here. Below you’ll find Chapter 4: The Accidental Musicians (Part 4). Enjoy!
Early in her career as a clown, Z Smith discovered her character’s name while driving to a performance at a Spanish-language cancer support center. The three other women in her troupe all spoke Spanish—Smith didn’t—and one of them turned to her with a declaration.
“‘We’re gonna call you Pepito, let’s just see what happens,’” Smith recalls the colleague informing her. “And then, the patients were just loving it, like everyone was just ordering Pepito around, giving Pepito all these instructions. Pepito had no idea was happening, and it was great. And the name just stuck, and it’s never been anything else.”
Though Smith didn’t necessarily realize it at the time, she’d just tumbled deeper down the rabbit hole of being an accidental musician. The parallels are plentiful: clowns train extensively at their craft before hitting the road and trying to work their way from small local venues to international tours.
In between, they perform a vast range of random gigs in an effort to solidify their careers. Above all, they do the work because they love it, and they’re only successful if they can truly make an audience feel something.
“Clowning is a lot about taking who you are, and the ridiculousness about you, and blowing it up to a great proportion,” says Smith. “And then trying to live in a vulnerable state and figure out what’s there.”
In the last chapter of We Are All Musicians Now, I compared magicians to DJs. Both constantly work to generate new revenue to reinvest in their business, with the goal of improving their live shows with better equipment and effects. That, in turn, hopefully helps them play ever bigger venues.
If magicians practice electronic dance music, clowns are more about jazz.
“Clowning is so in the moment—even more, I think, than any other live performance, because the clown doesn’t have a fourth wall,” says Smith. “Jazz is the closest [musical genre], with all the improvisation … if someone in the audience sneezes, it’s like, ‘That happened.’”
For Smith, deciding to become a clown was similarly something that just happened. She grew up in Maryland and attended the same performing arts high school as Tupac Shakur (albeit many years later). While at summer camp as a 17-year-old, Smith watched a European-trained clown perform and was so inspired she decided to become one herself.
Shortly thereafter, she moved to San Francisco to study at a local clown conservatory. She lived in a warehouse with a troupe of mimes, sleeping in cubbies built into the walls by night and earning her room and board by interning for them by day, doing everything from office work to set painting. Along the way, she met the colleagues who helped name Pepito.
Smith sees clown work as akin to performing in a band, and not only because of the touring schedule. Just as members of a musical group play different instruments, clowns divide themselves into degrees of status for comedic purposes. A high-status clown might make light of being overly prim and proper, while a low-status clown like Pepito revels in silliness. And it all works together.
“Sometimes the comedy is a little bit more difficult when you’re performing with someone that is around the same type as you, status-wise,” says Smith. “It’s like two musicians, when their voices are very similar, versus … having a high voice and a low voice together, having them sound really interesting or playing with that.”
Of course, gigging with a four-person group is more expensive than hitting the road by yourself, whether you’re a singer or a clown, as Smith learned from touring the world in the Before Times. Unlike other countries from France to New Zealand that aggressively subsidize the performing arts, though, the U.S. generally leaves clowns to their own devices.
So when Covid-19 hit, Smith was shocked to find herself eligible for pandemic-era benefits. She ended up with enough disposable income to do bucket-list things like buying her own home in Baltimore and starting a community garden nearby as she waited for the live world to return in full.
Doing clown work over Zoom guts the improvisational aspect of the performance, Smith says. So during the pandemic times, she’s been occupying herself with a new gig—as a productivity guru. She helps clients in Maryland organize their lives, both physically and emotionally, by using a method pioneered by consultant David Allen in his book Getting Things Done.
“The reason that I had to get trained in this productivity stuff is because I wanted to have time to do clowning,” says Smith. “I have to be so efficient because I need to live off of such a little amount of money.”
That seems to be the American Way, for better or worse. In Europe, performing artists receive universal healthcare ongoing support to ply their trade. In America, support often comes only in the midst of a crisis.
Sure, the necessity for self-reliance has spawned its share of invention among creators. On one end of the spectrum, it has forged entrepreneurial billionaires like Jay-Z and Kanye West; on the other, there’s a middle class of indie musicians from Delta Rae to Amanda Palmer now capable of counting on their fan bases for a sort of DIY universal basic income.
The system has also resulted in classically-trained clowns having to spend their days teaching the rest of us about time management. And until someone invents Spotify for clowns or—even less likely—the U.S. institutes UBI or universal healthcare, Smith’s current side-hustle philosophy seems like the most practical support system for chasing creative dreams.
“I would rather work jobs that can pay for me to do artistic collaborations that I’m interested in,” says Smith. “I’m a clown. Like, that’s what I’m interested in, that’s my artistic expression. But it’s not so much necessarily how I make my money.”
You just read Chapter 4: The Accidental Musicians (Part 4), a serialized segment of my new book, We Are All Musicians Now. Subscribe here. For more, check out my other books and follow me on Twitter and Instagram.
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