I got tons of hate mail for my last blog post Does The World Need Your Bouffon Show?
Ha ha ha, no I didn't at all.
But I did get a few people saying things to me like, "Whoa! That took some guts!"
That took guts? Really?
Imagining putting on an unnecessary bouffon show!
Now that would take some guts.
I certainly wasn't saying that nobody should make bouffon shows.
I was just saying, let's take a deep breath and really consider if our audiences need our bouffon shows. I mean, it's a reasonable question.
But let's move on. No, wait, actually let's not.
What bothers me about much so-called bouffon work is that it wants to make a point about how racist/sexist/unenvironmental/queerphobic/etc. the world is, and so it casts the audience as the complicit asshole against which to make that point. But as I've said umpteen times, today's audience both isn't that asshole and doesn't feel like being cast as that asshole just to help you make your deep art.
But one thing I definitely am not saying is that we need to stop combining comedy with societal critique. Au contraire. We need a lot of societal critique comedy. More now than ever. But I do want us to look at the way we are using societal critique in our comedy, and where our standpoint is vis à vis the audience. Aimez-vous mon francais? Bah, oui! Donnez-nous les croissants!
My favorite comedy has a bouffon brain and a clown heart.
Evidently, back in the day, Clown and Bouffon were very separate things—actually, according to the Old Guard, they still are. So, for example, a lot of Clown is taught and practiced as if it exists in a completely different time and place in which nobody gets raped or racist-ed. I think that's one thing that rankles me about a lot of clown work I see: the omnipresent striped socks, the weird childishness (let's not even talk about the makeup and the noses). What world are these clowns living in? It's a world of nostalgia, I guess, and it's cute, in its way, but it's hard for me to find it funny because it doesn't feel like it's really going on right now. It's not on any particular precipice right now.
That's not to say that it isn't potentially risky for the performer; clown work is always vulnerable and thus risky (if it's any good at all). If the performer is present with the audience and offering something of herself that she doesn't usually show the world, then, sure, she's on a personal precipice, and we have to give her props for that.
But the thing that separates cute-clown-work-that-doesn't-ruin-anyone's-day, from really-hot-feisty-work-that-the-world-needs-to-see, is the bouffon brain.
The bouffon brain is miserable and furious and howling. It sees the state of things and it shakes its fist. But it reads my blog so it knows that no one wants to meet it head-on. It calculates, it schemes, it makes a plan. It picks up a clown in a dive bar and proceeds to fuck that clown in a dirty bathroom stall. It inseminates the soft brain of the clown with its hot jet of bouffon pain. And thus, a clown is born unto the world that is lovable and relevant at the same time. And lo, the world laughs and soils itself with pleasure.
Sasha Baron Cohen is a nice example. I actually had a fight with Gaulier about this, if we're defining fight as He talked and I listened and disagreed with him silently in my heart, which pretty much defines my Gaulier experience. Gaulier said Sasha Baron Cohen, his most famous protégé, was pure bouffon, and I disagree. Cohen's characters are clowns: they're idiots, they fuck up all the time and do the wrong thing but it's always from a place of not-knowing and meaning-well. But Sasha Baron Cohen clearly has a bouffon brain, and he engineers his clown characters to get into scrapes that are provocative and challenging in very specific, targeted ways.
Now you might be saying, "Bitch, Sasha Baron Cohen is no clown because he doesn't love his audience/targets. He is tricking them." Sure, sure. But,clearly, he entraps his audience/targets somehow, right? They end up trusting him enough to give him what he wants. Sometimes he goes too far and loses their trust. But he wouldn't have any success at all if he just came at those audience/targets with his bouffon brain out in front for all to see. He must be lovable and vulnerable to them, first.
So love first, like a clown always does. Audiences are the clown's best friends, their heroes.
Be on their side.
Confirm their generally-enlightened world view; keep it firmly in your mind when you create work.
Love them first, and love them long time.
Way before you tell them how fucked they are.
The best advice I ever got, probably ever, was from my English teaching mentor back at the prep school I used teach at. He used to be a lawyer before he became a teacher, and he was a shrimpy little impeccably-dressed man with an air of total magnetic approachability and intimidating-ness all at once. I loved him deeply. He used to say to me, about my students, If they know you care, you can say anything to them.
It's a principle that I use both in my teaching and in my performing. My students and my audiences have to know, right away, that I see them and that I love them. You have to see them first, or else they won't believe your love. But if you see them, and then you love them, you can take them through all kinds of hell or harsh critique or whatever. You can tell them the truth, if you see them and love them first.
Remember, too, that in order to teach anyone anything, or challenge them in any way, they have to really love you too. Do you see a sea of delighted faces eating up your character's every gesture? Great, you're in a very good place from which to start fucking with them a lil' bit. Don't see that yet? Get there.
You need to be a great clown before you can be a great bouffon.
And if you're already a great clown, then for Satan's sake don't stay locked in the land of striped-socks and whimsical umbrellas!
Get out there and make a point!
The world needs your hot, angry, loving love!
Stat! Stat! Immédiatement!