On Clowns And Clowning

Dec 05 2018

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Patricia McNish leading the tour of the Eggs-hibition / photographer Joe Rosser

On my final weekend as Clown In Residence at the Bristol Museum, I asked my alter-ego, Professor Patricia McNish H.A. H.A. H.A, to lead four tours around Clowns: the Eggs-hibition. This blog will give you a flavour of some of the content of the tour; there's facts and stories and downright lies, as well as funny things to try.

Picture the Scene

As you enter Clowns: the Eggs-hibition, you'll hear circus music and be greeted by dozens upon dozens of eggs, painted with clowns faces, there are archive photos of clowns, clown costumes displayed on mannequins, clown paraphernalia under glass domes, interactive clown installations, a dressing up tent, a circus skills space and a clown cinema!

Introducing Patricia

Patrica McNish is my most recent clown character. She's a dusty, old brown-suited academic with vast amounts of knowledge on clowns and clowning, but absolutely no social skills whatsoever with which to deliver her knowledge. Patricia doesn't get out much, enjoying the company of books over people, she gets overexcited about facts and data and cracks numerous unfathomable abstract jokes, mostly with herself.

For the rest of this blog, I'd like to hand over to Patrica McNish, herself.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Introducing Professor Patricia McNish H.A H.A H.A / photographer Joe Rosser

Take it away, Patrica!

Why thank you, Holly. I must say what an honour it is to write this blog for you, I'm a big fan of your work!

Now then reader, just to let you know I've popped a little reading list at the bottom of this blog and the numbers in brackets throughout this blog refer to that.

So, first things first, do you feel like you have enough laughter in your life?

Optimum Laughter Levels

Did you know, there is an optimum amount of laughter that you should be experiencing. According to laughter researchers Hassan and Hassan (1), the optimum amount of laughter is 11-25 laughs per day! 

But wait, before you start topping up your daily laughter quota, there is an optimum level of laughter! On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being a bit of a smirk and 10 being rolling around on the floor, guffawing uncontrollably and weeing yourself a little bit, the optimum level of laughter is somewhere between 4-7. So, if you often find yourself merely grimacing, put in a bit more effort and if you often find yourself writhing around on the floor in hysterics, reign it in a bit!

We all need laughter. It's essential for our wellbeing. 

A few laughter facts

  • Laughter releases tension – if you're feeling a bit tense right now, you could try a little laugh and see how that effects you, even a false laugh may have an impact.

  • Laughter increases endorphins, the happy brain dolphins that swim around inside your head.

  • Laughter decreases cortisol, the stress hormone that makes the happy dolphins all heavy and miserable.

  • Laughter aids connection and community – sharing a mirthful laugh with a friend or stranger gives you an important bonding experience.

  • Laughter is a social defuser, signalling to others that all is safe. For instance, if someone were to fall over in the street, I would run to their aid. If they were to look up at me and laugh, I'll know they're OK. I might then laugh, which signals to the people all around us that all is well, all is safe. We don't tend to laugh when we're in mortal danger. Laughter is therefore the sound of freedom and safety.

Laughter can be dangerous, if we're not used to it. In fact, we'd better have a warm up. Ready?

Facial laughter muscles warm up

  • Place your hand near your chest, palm facing you

  • Slowly lift your hand until it's above your head

  • Then bring the hand back down to the chest

  • Now ask the face to join in – as the hand goes up, find a smile and as the hand goes down, find a frown.

  • Enjoy finding variations – maybe take your hand from side to side, experiment!

  • You can even try it with a friend – see what you can make their face do!

Laughter in the body warm up (try this out loud, wherever you are)

  • Laughter in the belly goes ho ho ho 

  • Laughter in the heart goes ha ha ha

  • Laughter in the shoulders goes hu hu hu

  • Laughter in the face goes he he he

  • Now change it up, choose a body part and find the laugh.

  • You can even do this with a partner – stand facing each other – hold eye contact and take it in turns to lead a body part laugh and the other copy.

Now that we're warmed up, we can get on with the show! 

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Tour attendees wearing nose protectors to prevent mishaps with the Eggs-hibits / photographer Joe Rosser

Send In The Clowns! A Brief History Of Clowning

The clown is the bastion of laughter – their main purpose is to release laughter and increase connection and they'll do whatever it takes to make that happen. Laughter and connection are vital for our well-being, so, as long as there have been humans, there have always been clowns. 

Even before there were humans, there were jokers. Terry the t-rex would wait until the dead of night when all the other dinosaurs were asleep before creeping off into the forest with his whoopie cushion, searching for the perfect rock to hide it underneath and then hide in a bush until the morning, when one of the other dinosaurs was bound to want to sit on a rock. Sometimes Terry would be waiting in that bush for days, poor old Terry. But the laugh was always was worth it.

Back in the days of the cavemen, Shirley the cavewoman would always get the laughter flowing. She'd creep out in the middle of the night and club a mammoth to death, splitting it open and scooping out its guts and bones, before climbing inside its skin and creeping back to her tribe. How they'd all laugh, after they'd finished screaming! Funny old Shirl!

In the American-Indian tribes, they had sacred clowns, known as Heyokas (2). These were valued members of the tribe who lived their entire lives as clowns, 24 hours a day! Their job was to provoke laughter in times of misery and provide chaos in times of complacency.

The sacred clown holds up the mirror to the tribe and says “LOOK AT YOURSELVES!” They do this by copying what they see and turning it up until it becomes utterly ridiculous. This stops the tribe from taking themselves too seriously and believing their own self-importance, keeping everyone close to their animal nature and close to the earth. 

If you were a sacred clown and your family / workmates / friends were your tribe, what would you like to show them about themselves? What can you see about them that they can't see about themselves? Imagine doing that, but amped up to a ridiculous scale.

The dictionary tells us, the the term 'clown' derives from “clod, clot or lump,” (3) like a clod of earth, inferring that clowns are below human status. Yet the clown has penetrated every echelon of practically every society since the dawn of time. From ancient Egypt, to Rome to the Aztec empire, there have been records of clowns employed to entertain noblemen and royalty. It was often the clown's job to break bad news to the King. It was of vital importance that the bad news was sweetened with a laugh, or the clown would get their head chopped off! Talk about performance pressure!

Imagine having to break the worst possible news to your boss / partner / friend. What would be the most absurd way to break the news? How could you break the news and get a laugh at the same time? 

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Tour Participants putting on safety hats / photographer Joe Rosser

The Birth of Circus

We often associate clowns with the circus, but did you know, circus as we know it, only started 250 years ago and originally, circus was just horses. In 1768, in Waterloo, London, horseman Philip Astley opened an entertainment venue that housed a ring of the perfect dimensions for horses to gallop around and around, so that the riders could do all manner of tricks on their backs without falling off. This ring, or circle, became known as the circus. 

(4) The story goes that there were two stable boys, who's job it was to collect up the horse manure in-between acts. One was tall and thin, the other was short and fat. One day, they'd got carried away, drinking in the pub before the show, they'd lost track of the time. The church bells chimed and they immediately jumped up and ran all the way to the circus, red nosed and weaving from having had a few too many. 

Backstage, they went to grab their uniforms, not realising they'd picked up each other's outfits. The tall, thin one's shirt ended at his nipples and he had to clutch his enormously wide, short legged trousers, to stop them from falling from his skinny waist. The short, fat one could only get his head and one arm into the skinny one's shirt and one leg into the trousers. They ran into the ring, partially clothed and rosey-nosed, trying to get on with their jobs. Of course, someone in the front row spotted their plight and started laughing, the laughter rippled through the audience and lo, the circus clown was born.

Circus 250

This was 250 years ago – hence the reason why Bristol Museum is hosting an exhibition about clowns. (5) Bristol is one of 6 cities throughout the UK celebrating circus 250, along with London, Blackpool, Belfast, Norwich/Great Yarmouth and Newcastle under Lyme. Bristol Museum decided to focus their attention on clowns and clowning, well done Bristol Museum.

I'd like to walk you through the Eggs-hibition. Where better to start than with the grandaddy of modern clowning, Joey Grimaldi

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Replica of Grimaldi's costume / photographer Simon Abel

Joey Grimaldi

(6) Joseph Grimaldi was born in 1778. He was an English actor, comedian and dancer, from a long line of dancers and comic performers. He apparently made his stage debut at the age of 2 and by the age of six, he was a prominent stage performer, shlepping across London, playing in all the theatres that would have him.

With white-face make up and colourful costumes, he performed acrobatics, led sing-a-longs and got the audience involved with his famous catchphrase, "Shall I???"

You could try this, next time you feel like doing something naughty. Catch someone's eye and ask “shall I?” multiple times. This does tend to make acts of naughtiness even more fun.

Grimaldi's success had it's drawbacks, all the acrobatics took it's toll on his joints and the punishing performance schedule led to a respiratory condition. In his final performances, he simply sat in a chair and sang to his delighted audiences. He retired in 1823 at the age of 45.

He died in 1837, aged 59 and was buried in Joseph Grimaldi Park in Islington, London. I think they renamed it after Joey died, otherwise that would have been too much of a coincidence. Until this day, every first Sunday in February, Holy Trinity Church in London holds a memorial service for Grimaldi. Clowns from all over the world gather to listen to the service in full clown attire and makeup.

To honour Joey Grimaldi's spirit, clowns in England are often referred to as “Joeys”.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Patricia and the clown eggs / photographer Simon Abel

The Clown Egg Register

(7 and 8) The earliest clown egg registry dates back to 1946, when Stan Bult, a chemist by trade and a big fan of clowns, began painting the faces of prominent circus clowns onto blown hens eggs as a hobby. Eventually, the collection grew into a reference library for clowns so that each could protect their own look. By the time he died, in 1966, Bult had created about 200 eggs.

In 1987 Clowns International, a gang of international clowns and the current owners of the clown egg collection, revived the tradition of the clown egg register. Since then, there have been three different clown egg artists; Janet Webb, Kate Stone, and Debbie Smith. The original hens eggs have been replaced with sturdier ceramic eggs.

If you want your clown face to be painted on an egg, you'll need to become a member of Clowns International, then you'll need to send in picture of yourself dressed as a clown, along with cuttings of your costume and / or wig. Your make-up must be unique, your clown name needs to be a one-off and you need to be an actual working professional clown. Each egg can take up to three days to create.

Most of the clown egg collection is usually on display in the caves at Wookey Hole in Somerset, which are now owned by ex-circus proprietor, Gerry Cottle. The other part of the collection is housed at Trinity Church, where the Grimaldi Clown service takes place.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Tour participants putting on protective clothing / photographer Joe Rosser

How Do People Become Clowns?

On the tour, I introduced many of clown eggs, sharing facts and stories. Exclusively for this blog, I've penned a poem about a selection of the clowns, focussing on how they chose their vocation, as the audience seemed to find this part fascinating. Some of the information comes from The Clown Egg Register book, by Stephenson and Champion (7). Other parts of the poem are fictionalised for dramatic effect. I do hope you enjoy it.

Clown Ivo was a dairy man,
Who spent his life with cows
Until the Christmas party,
They forgot to book a clown.

In a costume made of milk cartons
Brave Ivo volunteered
To entertain the children
and stave off all their tears!

Clown Ludo was a pious man,
In church, aged 39,
He knelt right down to eat his bread
And drink his holy wine.

There next to him, there knelt a clown,
who winked at him and said;
“You wanna know god, you've gotta get daft”
So that is what he did.

Ludo led his wife to clowning,
Lullubelle, her name
Clowning helped her heal the wounds
from childhood, still ingrained.

Her father died when she was small,
And as the eldest daughter,
She took responsibility,
Stopped playing like she oughta.

Clowning re-ignited back
Her spirit, wild and free,
She finally got to be the child
That she could never be.

Lulubelle and Ludo
Had two great strapping lads,
Both donned their clowns red noses
and joined in with the gags.

Clown Bluey was a Kiwi
With a mop of ginger hair
He came over to England
To act in the theatre.

In an actors meeting,
He came across a clown,
Who said “clowning's better.”
Blue put the Shakespeare down!

Tom Fun was a bachelor
No children did he spawn
He started doing clowning
To alleviate boredawm.

Fluorescent Flo looked after kids,
Playing all day long,
Clowning was a natural path,
it's where she best belonged.

Clown Beato worked in a brewery
His wife worked there as well.
Another Christmas party,
An Ivo parallel.

Clown Beato was quite anxious,
He shook as he got dressed.
His wife said “'ere I'll help you out”
and donned his Sunday best.

She changed her name to Uncle Fred,
And helped him with his tricks.
The audience applauded them,
Their clown careers were fixed.

Clown Vercoe was just six years old
When he first clapped eyes on a clown
He said “That's it! That's the life for me!”
And began to pin it down.

He stayed up through the night for weeks,
Making ships in bottles,
'Til his fingers throbbed and his eyes grew dim
and his hands were raw and mottled.

He sold his ships and with the cash,
He bought a unicycle.
“A clowns life it will be for me!”
His energy was vital!

Bippo was another clown
Who found his thing, aged six.
He walked into the circus,
and found himself transfixed.

When he was 10, dad lost his job
and said “hey kid, let's do it,
My dream is dead, lets follow yours”
And so they did pursue it.

Fizzie Lizzie studied drama
Then 'Variety'
It was just a hop, a skip and a jump
Before her clown was free.

I say hop, skip and jump,
but what I really mean,
Is Fizzie Lizzie did the first
UK clown degree!

Types Of Clowns

There is some dispute about the definitive clown categories, but the information in The Clown Egg Register book (7) and in the Eggs-hibition itself, separates clowns into the following three categories:

The Whiteface – straight guy, immaculately dressed, white make-up base with simple details picked out, higher status clown

The Auguste – bumbling idiot, brightly clothed, flesh make-up base with bright colours over-layed, lower status clown

The Character Clown - doing a bad job of whatever profession their costume suggests they should be doing, either white face or colourful make up.

Some people have likened me to a character clown, but that's utterly ridiculous as it's clear I am an academic and not a clown at all!

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Joe Rosser

Where might you find a clown these days?

Clowns are everywhere! You'll find them in the circus, in the theatre, in the cinema, on the telly, in the streets, at family events and at children's parties. You might even find them in a hospital. Clown doctors are specially trained clowns, who's job it is to bring joy, laughter and connection to poorly children and their families. There are other clowns that play with Elders with dementia and then there are christian clowns that deliver sermons through clowning. There are clown activists who use clowning as a form of protest and there are clowns who travel to areas that are recovering from war and natural disaster; these clowns play in refugee camps, extending the hand of friendship through clowning and play. There are secret clowns masquerading as supermarket checkout staff and royal mail parcel deliverers and there are tiny clowns masquerading as toddlers. Clowns are everywhere!

Coulrophobia (Fear of clowns)

So many people wanted to talk about this during my time at the museum, that I feel I must include it. There is a theory floating about in the clown academic circles (9), that coulrophobia is caused by the discrepancy between the clown's make-up and the performer's genuine feelings. I would agree, as I believe we are naturally empathetic beings, constantly striving to understand each other; so meeting a fixed facial expression can be confusing – we see one thing and sense another. This incongruence can cause discomfort which could be mis-named “coulrophobia.” 

Stephen King, the creator of “IT” hasn't done clowning many favours. In my view, it's a cheap shot to take an innocent, playful archetype and flip it into horror. The clown archetype lives in the collective unconscious, which means it appears in everyone's imaginations in some shape or form– we know this because it appears in every storytelling tradition from all around the world. I believe this is why Stephen King's work is so effective.

Embodying The Archetype Of The Clown

If you're drawn to clowns and clowning, there are clown workshops all over the world, where you can learn to see the world through your clown's eyes. I'd recommend joining a class above reading a book, as clowning is experiential learning and better done in a group.

I'd especially recommend the clowning courses of Holly Stoppit (10), who offers gentle, yet deep immersion into the state of clown.

If you fancy dropping into the state of clown right now, here's a little exercise you can try. 


Think about the point at the back of your head. This should pull you back into the state of bafflement. Slow down your breathing and relax and open your brow, so that you're not triggering stress. Bafflement slows everything down and makes everything appear brand new and interesting. Try quietly saying the word “Wow.”

Now pick up a nearby object and turn it over in your hands. See it, feel it, smell it, taste it, listen to it in the spirit of bafflement / wow.

This is the basic clown state. Now you can adopt it any time, any place, any where.

Stay silly and keep clowning,

Professor Patricia McNish, 2018

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Patricia and the tour participants saying "wow" in the gift shop


1.) Hasan and Hasan (2009) Laugh Yourself into a Healthier person: A Cross Cultural Analysis of the Effects of Varying Levels of laughter on health. International Journal of Medical Sciences, 6 (4) 200-2011

2.) Andreas, Peggy (1995), The Path of the Sacred Clown. Dreamflesh Journal [online] https://dreamflesh.com/essay/sacred-clown/

3.) Online Etymology Dictionary https://www.etymonline.com/word/clown

4.) Original story told by clown master John Wright in a clown workshop in Salford, circa 2011, embellished by Patricia McNish / Holly Stoppit 2018

5.) Circus250 website http://circus250.com/about

6.) Joseph Grimaldi biography and fact [online]http://www.historyofcircus.com/circus-origin/joseph-grimaldi/

7.) Stephenson and Champion, (2017) The Clown Egg Register, Penguin Random House, UK

8.) Fagundes and Perzanowski, The Fascinating Reason Why Clowns Paint Their Faces On Eggs, [online] BBC Future website http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20171206-the-fascinating-reason-why-clowns-paint-their-faces-on-eggs

9.) Fear of Clowns (Coulrophobia) – Facts, Origins, Scientific Explanation, author unknown, [online] PSYCHOLOGIA website https://psychologia.co/fear-of-clowns/

10.) Stoppit, Holly, Introduction to Clowning Weekends can be found on her website.  

Clowns: the Eggs-hibition continues at The Bristol Museum at the top of Park Street until January 6th.

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