Saturday, November 22, 2014


The story goes like this: in the Middle Ages, the freaks were exiles. The deformed, the mentally handicapped, the insane, the different. They were not welcome in the village. They lived in the swamp. But they watched and learned. They studied the “normals” who hated them. And once a year, for the Feast of Fools, the freaks were invited into the village to perform a special show for all the regular folks. And what a show they put on! It was a dazzling song, full of songs and skills and spectacle. But it was also tinged with the hate of being spit on and treated as less-than. A good freak had to toe the line: how you trick the audience into paying attention to you, and still manage to make fun of them.

Like clowns, bouffons have to be taking the temperature of the audience at all times. But unlike clowns, a bouffon does not consider the audience his best friend. The bouffon has an agenda. The bouffon wants the audience to know: you are not as smart as you think you are, you are not quite as cool as you want to be, there is someone more clever in this room, and that someone is MOI

A good bouffon is a good clown, with an axe to grind. 

Hopefully you’ve seen a great drag queen at some point in your life. She had stubble and her wrists were too thick, but goddammit there she was, in glitter and wig and eyelashes out to eternity. And she had a comeback for every drunk heckler she met, and she sang like a dark angel, like some beautiful genderless voice of truth that is undeniable, that tugs at everyone’s heart equally. You knew she didn’t give a shit about you, but she liked your adoration. She let you stay and listen, if you behaved yourself. She might have been a target of mockery somewhere offstage, but in this dingy cabaret, she was queen and king and god and goddess. 

Bouffon is a beautiful inversion. The bouffon laughs at you. You may think you’re laughing at the bouffon, but you’re actually laughing at the bouffon laughing at you.

So which one are you, clown or bouffon? How can you tell? Wait for it; there’s a quiz coming! 


  1. Thank you Debbie!! Thank you so much for reading.

  2. Thanks, Deanna. Think I get the sense of this, and would like to learn more. Are there other manifestations of this tension between clown and bouffon, or ways the bouffon lineage/tradition works its way into other contemporary theatre or performance forms? This is very interesting to me!

    1. Excellent questions, Mike. My immediate thought is that you see a lot of bouffon (although the practitioners might not call it that) in the standup comedy world. Don Rickles (and any insult comic worth his/her salt): classic bouffon. Joan Rivers of course. Somebody like Sarah Silverman uses a very approachable, clown-like persona to drop some serious bouffon material on us. Sascha Baron Cohen is generally seen as a major player in modern bouffon (Borat, etc).

      I just saw a friend of mine, Phil Burgers, do his Dr. Brown character-- he won the top comedy prize at Edinburgh Fringe, and just generally kills it there-- and he totally fucks with the audience in what I think of as a very bouffon way: takes womens' purses, throws water on the audience...

      It is a fun exercise to watch any performer who works without a 4th wall, and reflect on what his/her relationship is to the audience. I notice that successful interactive performers seems to project strong feelings about the audience: one way or the other.

      More thoughts? They are welcome here!

    2. Well, I have my homework. You've given some names I know, some I don't, and I've to admit to never having been to standup of any kind. Off to google...


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