Many teachers of clown work with noses. Virtually all my clown teachers expected us to wear noses. But I suspect that this will change, as clown work finds its way into more mainstream comedy and theatre training.
Why a nose to begin with? Clown work is about transformation and liberation. The point is to free yourself up to let something visceral come out of you, something that your “normal” self keeps buttoned up. Any kind of mask work can be transformational, and the clown nose is the smallest mask you can wear.
And, to be fair, there are two kinds of clown noses. There are the clown noses that are cherry-red, store-bought, made-in-China situations. And there are handmade leather or latex noses that have shape, artistry. Of course, the former should be abolished immediately. A symmetrical, factory-made thing on a naturally-asymmetrical face is just weird. Handmade noses can have an appeal, but I still think they have to go.
I had a great nose, for a while. It was handmade, latex, dark red. I designed the shape and had it built for my face by a clown-enthusiast in NY named Dan. It was a stumpy, Karl Malden nose, as opposed to the sexy Jewess nose I sport in my daily life. I thought the nose made me look uglier, funnier, less feminine, more child-like. Plus, that was earlier in my clown life, and I felt like I needed the nose to transform into the character. Jeff Seal, my clown brother in New York, calls noses “training wheels.” There was certainly something to that, for me.
Here’s what I ultimately realized though. When I used to perform in cabarets as Butt Kapinski, in nose, people afterward would say, “Hey, you’re that clown! Great job, clown.” When I stopped wearing the nose, people afterward would say, “Hey, you’re that detective! Oh my god, what was that?”
The best thing you can do in a 10-minute cabaret slot is stoke curiosity. Plus, the less you outwardly ally yourself with any specific theatrical or comedic tradition, the more dangerous you are. And by dangerous, I mean awesome.
I know I’ve said this already, but I cannot stress enough what a good idea it is to keep your clown identity ON THE DL. Here on this blog we can talk all we want to about clown and bouffon, and then we will go out into the world with our sneaky lapels up and pretend we have never heard of clowns or bouffons at all.
At times I feel like a self-hating clown. The nose issue definitely brings this feeling up. Whattup, clown—why you in such a hurry to distance yourself from the art form that gave you wings? I knowwwww! It feels fucked up.
And of course there is a beautiful tradition that I am totally side-stepping in this blog—of handmade masks and noses, of clowns being clowns with makeup, looking like clowns—and if that is how you want to work, go for it. It can be lovely.
But I’m not sure it can be really funny, in this day and age. I haven’t seen it be funny, anyway. Or, rather, to be fair—I’ve seen people be super funny in clown workshops, in noses, but when it's showtime and a performer steps onto a stage in nose— it just feels like the audience energy takes a crap on itself. I for one am interested in clown/bouffon work that crosses over, that can be called comedy. I’m specifically interested in us getting laughs, not just from kids or clowning nerds, but from normal people who think they hate clowns.
The truth is, I always kind of thought Booker T. Washington had some valid points. Infiltrate society quietly; that could be a way to bring about real change.
Take the training wheels off your face, and see where you go.